Educating the Consumer – Think Laterally

EURO COSMETICS Magazine • Educating the Consumer - Think Laterally • Theresa Callaghan • Theresa Callaghan
Skin Care Scientist and Cosmetic Product Claim Specialist

In this month’s column we take a look at the challenges faced with the growing need to effectively educate the consumer about our products and put an end to misinformation. We need to start thinking laterally…

Despite the summer insanity, our cosmetics industry has certainly been busy with trend forecasts, reinventions of the wheel, and one trend in particular – how do we educate the cosmetics consumer. It is a subject wrought with plenty of opinions (even from me), and if we get it wrong, despite our well-meaning eagerness as a collective industry, then we will be well and truly stuck. Recent media posts – Cosmetics & Toiletries, CosmeticsDesign, and even the UK’s SCS Annual Conference earlier this year, allude to the gravity of the problems we face. The ever increasing number of product/ingredients approval sites is adding to confusion and dilemma adding to the challenge of ‘informed decision making’.

So what does educating the consumer really mean and why is important, and especially why is it important to get it right?

According to the UK’s SCS Annual Conference 2023, using the brands to educate the consumer is (at least from my view) a terrifying prospect, and here’s why — educating the consumer is not the same as marketing!  We can’t and should not be using ‘marketing’ to ‘educate’. While there maybe certain cross-over aspects, marketing as with advertising, targets the emotions and dreams to persuade the consumer to buy and uses specific claims as to the attributes/benefits of a cosmetic. Education on the other hand, tries to give the consumer all the relevant facts and information regarding the product and shows the consumer ways to use the product and to solve a problem e.g. solve their dry skin problem. In educating the consumer effectively and factually, there has to be a role for the scientists, regulatory affairs and legal teams.

Effective consumer communication builds trust; reduces complaints and social media bashing; and of course, increases consumer loyalty. Sharing information is not a problem in itself in our industry, but sharing information is not the only tool at our disposal — workshops and “hands-on” experiences are key. Apple, for example, does this well.

Good consumer education is especially beneficial since cosmetic products:

  • Are complex
  • Require consumers to think about their skin, hair, nails and even change their behavior
  • Need extensive support (some of them)
  • Not all consumers are academic

Moreover, if we get it right, marketing will gain better and more honest insights into consumers, and will learn more not only about the product they are selling but also why consumers need the products and the best way to use them. This feedback loop will then further enhance education and grow customer loyalty and thus the brand(s).

What are we doing?

We are trying, albeit more slowly than we would like, with the drives (e.g., the UK’s society of cosmetic scientists and even the CTFA’s and CTPA’s), such as visiting schools to encourage more students into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) subjects, and give them hands-on experience at making basic shower gels and soaps. Moreover, it is true that a growing number of universities offer diplomas and Master programs in cosmetic science. Yet what about the so-called ‘average consumer’ who perhaps never studied anything more than general science at school, and does not understand what the skin’s barrier actually is and whether they care if it is important to know or not? Of course it is important, especially if these consumers are savvy social media addicts. We also struggle with a growing number of consumers who are poorly educated in general, and according to the UK’s government ,1 in 100 people struggles to read and write, and more than 12% of the people are uneducated. A similar percentage is reported for Germany. If it is this bad, what about other countries?

Despite these struggles, the key issue we face as an industry is that we need to get SMARTER and think laterally if we are to succeed — a great deal smarter than we are now! As an industry we seem today to be stuck in the ‘builds trust step’. It seems at times it’s more of a case of ‘builds distrust’. While we are, on the whole, good at sharing information with consumers, it seems to be causing a great deal of misinformation, disinformation and at times elitist language, and social media platforms are always one step ahead in the misinformation department.

Furthermore despite efforts made by various resources, the education platforms are fragmented, and in some cases consumers have switched-off from the industry and ‘gone it alone’ with their peers, presenting their own ‘truth’. I believe the key reason is the inconsistency of the same messages by different brands and platforms, which leads to a conclusion (hopefully not erroneously), that some key players in the development of products/brands don’t understand sufficiently either! Moreover there are too many non-expert toxicologists with platforms and logos confusing the consumer and brands.


As an industry we need to ditch the competition and give serious consideration to creating  not only the diplomas and postgraduate education of our future industry’s employees, but in the actual here and now, create an international and central ‘cosmetic consumer educational program’ sponsored by the entire industry with ‘real’ industry experts (those with at least 10-15 years+ in their field).

Thinking laterally:

  • We would to employ idea-generating tools intended to break current thinking patterns (status quo)—in order to break misunderstandings and spread of misinformation
  • Focus these tools intended to broaden consumer understanding without blinding them science or suffocating them with marketing ‘puff’.
  • Exploit these tools for industry gain – marketing insights, added value, new product ideas, etc.
  • The ‘education’ ideally should promote consideration of marketing and scientific constraints (regulations), limitations of what a cosmetic can achieve, available resources, and sustainability…

This means brand companies, ingredient suppliers, testing companies, toxicologists, regulatory companies, etc., need to be involved and committed. This ‘free educational program’ would teach consumers the basics about the skin, skin health, what cosmetics are, claims, ingredients, the whole how-why-what-and-when, etc. We should choose ‘teachers’ (industry experts) with a depth of understanding that goes beyond just the facts. There is no place for brand egos or one-upmanship. They will need to captivate the consumers, and they will need to debunk effectively and emphatically. It is essential the program be open to marketing managers, copywriters and beauty journalists as their training source. This is because they sadly tend to be an unwitting source themselves of misinformation in their attempts to simplify key attributes of a product (as they do not either understand themselves); wear ignorance as a badge of honor; or are desperate to make a sensational headline(s). The program should not be controlled by any brand, association, institution — it needs somehow to be managed neutrally, democratically, and be international in scope so that messaging is consistent. To grab attention it would need, for example, some creative advertising and TV support…

Wild idea? Of course it is, but worth it, since marketing and brands would gain (I hope) loyal customers, and social media would have more real truth and less ‘rubbish’. Is the industry worth it? I’ll leave that to you…

See you next month…

Theresa Callaghan
Theresa Callaghan
Skin Care Scientist and Cosmetic Product Claim Specialist

Theresa Callaghan, a PhD biochemist with over 35 years of experience in corporate skin care research, has held key R&D senior roles for companies including LVMH, Unilever, Marks & Spencer, J&J, Evonik, Hill-Top Research, and proDERM. In 2008, she created Callaghan Consulting International, focusing on cosmetic claims development with brands and ingredient suppliers. She is a widely published author, frequent speaker, and contributor to peer-reviewed journals. Her acclaimed book, 'Help! I'm Covered in Adjectives: Cosmetic Claims & The Consumer', has gained popularity. She is a member of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists and British Herbal Medicine Association, and has lectured at the University of Sunderland's School of Pharmacy and Cosmetic Sciences. Theresa serves on the editorial peer review board of the International Journal of Cosmetic Science. She also mentors; advises TKS Science Publisher; and writes monthly for BEAUTYSTREAMS Ingredient Pulse; and has her own Cosmetic Claims Insights Column with EuroCosmetics.

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