8 Beauty Treatments That Are A Total Scam (And What To Buy Instead)

How can somebody tell which beauty treatments are legit and which are a waste of money at best—and potentially harmful at worst? Here are the need-to-knows about stretch mark creams, sheet masks, at-home derma rollers, and more.

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We constantly see new beauty products and treatments that promise amazing results, from picture-perfect skin to waist-length, shiny hair. But the unfortunate truth is that a number of products out there don’t have much, if any, scientific backing. They can be ineffective at best and downright harmful at worst. You should always do your research before spending your hard-earned money. Here’s what the experts say to be wary of.

1. At-Home Derma Rollers

Maybe you’ve heard of micro-needling—running a roller of tiny sterile needles over your skin to boost collagen production and help absorb skincare products. According to Jacqueline Schaffer, MD, micro-needling can be really effective—but you should always have this done at a doctor’s office, never at home. The needles of a derma roller range from 0.25 millimeters to 3.0 millimeters in length (though anything over 1.5 millimeters is not recommended for at-home use under any circumstances), meaning they can go quite deeply into your skin and potentially cause damage if used incorrectly. “It’s something that can actually worsen your skin,” Schaffer says. “It can cause more injury and disturb your skin’s texture. Your [desired] outcome is to have a more even skin texture, which is what the fine needles should do, because it should stimulate collagen and repair. But because it’s manual and not done by a machine, [at-home derma rollers are] actually causing damage and unevenness in you.” Ultimately, Schaffer says, your skin can end up looking irregular—and there are safety concerns, too. Without proper sterilization, your derma roller could put you at risk for serious infections or flare-ups of existing skin conditions. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is looking to regulate these devices to keep users safe. “With anything that is going to puncture your skin, you can really hurt yourself,” Schaffer adds. “It’s going to be a complete shock to your skin, and [at home] there’s no supervision.” So, leave the skin-puncturing to the professionals. In the meantime, what can you do instead? For starters, make sure that you’re protecting your skin from collagen-damaging UV rays. A University of Michigan Medical School study published in JAMA Dermatology found that daily, low-level exposure of lightly pigmented skin to a common component of sunlight, UVA1, promoted aging by breaking down collagen. (The dose mimicked the UVA levels of about two hours of strong sun exposure.) Damage started on a molecular level after only two exposures and got worse with each subsequent exposure. To protect against the full spectrum of rays, make sure your sunscreens include zinc oxide or avobenzone, like this EltaMD UV Daily Facial Sunscreen Broad-Spectrum SPF 40.

Keep in mind that a lot of clothing does not protect against the sun’s rays, so if you’re outside for even a couple of hours every day, this could amount to a lot of cumulative damage. You can offset this by slathering up your bod with some broad-spectrum sunscreen, such as EltaMD UV Sport Sunscreen Broad-Spectrum SPF 50. (Yes, sunscreen is pricey, but remember that you can use your flexible spending account [FSA] to cover it.) As for reversing damage that’s already been done, if you choose to go the DIY route (i.e., without a dermatologist’s guidance), you’re going to want to turn to active ingredients like acids (alpha-hydroxy [AHA], salicylic, et al) and retinol that can resurface your skin. This 14 percent glycolic alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) Intensive Renewal Serum from Alpha Skin is paraben- and fragrance-free, with a pH level of 3.7. The product is supposed to reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles, support collagen production, and even skin tone and texture.

2. Eye Cream in a Jar

The skin around your eyes is generally thinner and more delicate than the skin on the rest of your face, as Rachel Nazarian, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, told HuffPost. As such, you may well want a specific cream to help hydrate that area—but make sure it comes in the right type of container. “You need to be very, very careful with certain eye cream,” Schaffer says. “If it comes in a jar, after the cream is exposed to oxygen it’s going to oxidize. So that expensive eye cream is going to be goop.” “Oxygen, sunlight, and microbes, which cosmetic products are often exposed to during storage and use, can change their characteristics, [resulting] in strange odors, discoloration, or contamination,” researchers said in a review (link opens as a PDF) published in the Journal of Pharmaceutical and Scientific Innovation. “This reduces the shelf life of the product and degrades its quality and effectiveness once opened.” So, despite the luxurious look, eye cream from a jar may actually be less effective and full of germs after only one use. But don’t give up on all eye creams just yet. Schaffer suggests this alternative: “You want to make sure it comes in an airless tube.” The researchers agreed. “… The danger of contamination and degradation is almost non-existent for airless packaging,” they said. The three-in-one Voibella Beauty Under Eye Cream comes in an airtight container to protect its active ingredients—including hyaluronic acid, retinol, and peptides—to reduce under-eye bags, puffiness, dark circles, fine lines, and wrinkles.

Another eye cream that comes in an airless pump construction is the InstaNatural Youth Express Eye Gel, which employs plant stem cells, hyaluronic acid, and amino acids to address puffiness and defend against the early signs of aging.

3. SPF Nail Polish

Obviously, proper sun care is very important. As dermatologist Fayne Frey, MD, recently explained to HealthyWay, you are exposed to the sun’s rays every day, even while walking to your mailbox or driving during the daytime. Because of this, you should definitely make sure a chemical sunscreen (which will absorb the potentially harmful UV rays) or a physical sunscreen (which will block the UV rays entirely by reflecting them off your skin) is part of your everyday regimen. Other safe sun tips include staying away from tanning beds, wearing baseball caps and long-sleeved shirts or UV-protective outfits, and wearing sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV rays. Coolibar is a sun-protective line offering clothing, UV-protection swimwear, sun hats, and sunscreen. While “sun-protective clothing” doesn’t sound very sexy, there are outfits designed to block out harmful rays, like this Oceanside Tunic Dress, that we wouldn’t sneeze at.

What you don’t need? SPF nail polish. While the sun can certainly burn the skin under your nails if the rays are strong enough, regular nail polish should act as a good enough barrier. Just make sure you pay attention to your hands and nails when applying sunscreen: If you’re already wearing nail polish, some chemical sunscreens can ruin your manicure, cosmetic chemist Joseph Cincotta told Allure.

4. Tanning Beds

Tanning beds are a scam (even though they technically do give you a tan) simply because they are dangerous to use. Tanning beds give off UVA and UVB radiation, which can cause adverse effects, including increased cancer risks. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), “Researchers estimate that indoor tanning may cause upwards of 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year.” What’s more, according to the AAD: One single session in a tanning bed can increase your risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by 67 percent, basal cell carcinoma by 29 percent, and melanoma by 20 percent. Despite these risks, the AAD estimates that 7.8 million adult women in the United States tan indoors. The safest way to get a sun-kissed glow is to get a spray tan, or use fake tanning lotion. And if you are low on vitamin D, the AAD recommends eating foods like fatty fish, cheese, and fortified cereals, drinking orange juice, or looking into vitamin D supplements. Some experts suggest that you should get the majority of your vitamin D from dietary sources, meaning you’ll need to chow down on the right things. Since wild-caught salmon can have as much as four times the amount of vitamin D as farmed salmon, you’ll want to stock up on something like Wild Planet’s boneless and skinless wild pink salmon, which is affordable and requires no preparation.

As for the tan part, you’ll have to turn to fake bake. One sunless tanner that has received glowing (haha) reviews is, well, Fake Bake, specifically the Flawless Self-Tan Liquid in medium. If you hate putting artificial stuff on your skin, your only other option is to chase the natural blush that you can achieve by getting your heart rate up or eating more produce rich in beta-carotene.

5. Split End Repair Serum

Split ends—when individual strands of hair separate at the ends into two or more pieces—are caused by hair damage from heat tools, over-brushing, or chemical dyes. You can prevent split ends by getting enough protein in your diet, avoiding heat tools and excessive hair handling whenever possible, and brushing your hair gently, among other healthy hair habits. But once you have them, forget about fixing them with expensive serums or oils. Sadly, products that claim to repair split ends really don’t work. They can temporarily glue the split ends back together until your next shampoo, or add moisture to conceal and prevent further split ends, but they can’t actually repair your hair. “Once your ends are split, the only solution is to go to the salon to get them trimmed,” WebMD explained. After you’ve scheduled your next haircut, the rest of the preventative care is up to you. To make sure you’re getting sufficient protein, aim to consume about 30 grams at each meal. Adding a daily protein shake can be a good way to meet your goals. This Integrated Supplements Whey Protein in chocolate blended up with a frozen banana (the frozen part is important), a cup of milk (two percent is good and whole is a darn treat), vanilla extract, and a dash of salt tastes like a milkshake and will get you a little over 29 grams of protein (for a total of only 345 to 375 calories, depending on the milk you use).

If you’re looking for more hair-strengthening options that come from within, you might consider a supplement that’s specifically suited to address your roots. While your nutrition should primarily come from diet, and the long-term use of supplements is highly suspect, several people (after 5,892 reviews, it’s received a 4.4-out-of-5 rating) have seen good results from these HairAnew vitamins from naturenetics. (Of course, check with your doctor before taking anything to make sure there won’t be any unexpected interactions.)

6. Stretch Mark Creams

Stretch marks are incredibly common. They are caused by tearing in a layer of the skin called the dermis and are especially likely to occur during puberty or pregnancy, when the body is growing. “Stretch marks are caused by the skin rapidly pulling to accommodate weight gain, growth, or stretching from other causes,” says Jennifer Caudle, DO, a board-certified family physician. “Genetics can play a role, and certain medications can as well. Stretch marks may fade somewhat over time, but they are generally considered to be permanent.”

“Many over-the-counter creams claim to remove stretch marks, but they usually provide moisture without a proven benefit of stretch mark removal. For treatment options that may help reduce the appearance of stretch marks, it’s best to talk with your doctor.” —Jennifer Caudle, DO

Though stretch marks can vary in appearance, some people don’t like the way they look and seek to get rid of them. Unfortunately, topical creams that claim to treat stretch marks usually don’t do much to help. Some clinical trials suggest that certain creams help decrease the appearance of stretch marks, but more than likely won’t eliminate them. The Mayo Clinic explains, “Products made of cocoa butter, vitamin E and glycolic acid, for example, aren’t harmful, but they probably won’t help much either.” Caudle agrees: “Many over-the-counter creams claim to remove stretch marks, but they usually provide moisture without a proven benefit of stretch mark removal. For treatment options that may help reduce the appearance of stretch marks, it’s best to talk with your doctor.” According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), using products with centella (an herb) or hyaluronic acid (which our skin naturally contains) may prevent stretch marks from forming. This COS Naturals Stretch Marks And Scars Cream made with vitamins C, E, and B, and hyaluronic acid looks like a good option. Mederma Stretch Marks Therapy, made with hyaluronic acid and Centella asiatica plant extract, is another. Your best bet is to treat stretch marks while they’re still red or purple—that is, when they’re fresh. As for those that have already been around for a while, you might work with a dermatologist to come up with the best treatment plan for lessening their appearance, which might include chemical peels, laser therapy, microdermabrasion, radiofrequency, or ultrasound. The AAD says that if you’re going to try and use a gel, cream, or lotion to fade stretch marks, for optimal effectiveness, you should try to use the product on marks as early as possible, take time to massage the product gently into your skin, and apply the product every day for weeks.

7. Sheet Masks

Sheet masks have become insanely popular over the past few years, to the point where it’s not unusual to see people using them on airplanes. But experts are divided on whether they actually work. The point of sheet masks is to hold the mask close to the wearer’s face and trap moisture, aiding in absorption. Effectiveness depends the active ingredients in a sheet mask. However, even when those ingredients are beneficial, does the paper mask itself actually make any difference in how well they work when applied to your face? Paula Begoun, the Cosmetics Cop, doesn’t think so. “Sheet masks don’t deliver ingredients to the skin any better than well-formulated skin-care products,” she said in a recent interview with The Cut. In fact, she considers them a waste of time. She explained that absorption depends on the molecular size of the ingredients, not on something holding those ingredients to the skin. So all those single-use sheets are fairly useless. You can get the same (or better) results by investing in a good leave-on face cream. It will last longer and, as Begoun emphasized, allow you to make better use of your time. Instead of dishing out dollars for the sheet masks, invest in an effective moisturizer. Sebamed Age Defense Q10 Protection Cream, formulated with panthenol and vitamin E, has a pH balance of 5.5, which the manufacturers say stabilizes the skin barrier function, traps moisture, and defends against disease-causing pathogens.

8. Bee Pollen Weight-Loss Products

Bee pollen weight-loss products have been touted by some health experts as a quick way to shed pounds. These products are made from the pollen bees collect from flowers and feed to their larvae. Sellers make grand (unsubstantiated) claims about the supposed benefits of these products, which can include anything from quick weight loss to increased longevity. Scientists are still researching the effectiveness of these products, but some bee pollen products have already proven themselves dangerous and deadly. “Some bee pollen products marketed for weight loss have been found to contain hidden and potentially dangerous ingredients that may be harmful for people who have conditions such as irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and bipolar disorders,” said Gary Coody, the FDA national health fraud coordinator, in a consumer update. Over 50 people have reported adverse health effects, including renal failure and anaphylactic shock, after using bee pollen weight-loss products—and shockingly, one person has died. “It is tempting to believe that a quick and effortless weight loss supplement is safe for use,” FDA regulatory manager Jason Humbert said. “But given the fact that these products contain a hidden dangerous ingredient, consumers should avoid taking them.” We all already know the answer to weight loss, and it isn’t new or exciting: diet and exercise, done well and consistently. Move your body with regularity—sweat, lift heavy things. Eat fewer calories than you burn. Fill up on more low-calorie, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, and up your protein to increase satiety. If you don’t already have a food scale, it can make your weight-loss journey a lot easier. Etekcity Digital Kitchen Scale Multifunction Food Scale is lightweight and made of stainless steel, so it’s easy to clean and maneuver, and it looks sleek in your kitchen.

If you struggle to get enough fruits and vegetables in your diet, you might benefit from something like this Five-a-Day Fruit & Vegetable Cookbook, which offers over 200 recipes to help you get the expert-recommended number of servings of produce daily. The cookbook contains over 1,000 color photographs, plus advice about the availability, storage, and preparation of a variety of fruits and vegetables, so you have plenty of information to inspire your creativity. Bon appétit!

Protect yourself.

There are tons of treatments and products out there that truly work and are worth spending your money on. Other products, like these, are total scams, with marketing campaigns designed to appeal to people’s insecurities. So how can you tell if something is worth trying or not? First, see if you can find trustworthy reviews. Then, if the product or treatment makes grand claims, check the clinical trial registry, find out if the claims are linked to any peer-reviewed research, or see if a licensed medical doctor recommends the treatment. Generally, the more scientific experimentation and backing a product or treatment has, the more likely it is to be the real deal. Ultimately, if you’re not sure that something is effective or safe, you should avoid using it. Better to be safe than sorry!

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