15 Beauty Treatments That Are A Total Scam

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.

December 4, 2019
img HealthyWay

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.

HealthyWay
istock.com/Neeila

“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.”

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.”

HealthyWay
istock.com/Image Source

“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.

3. SPF Nail Polish

Obviously, proper sun care is very important. As dermatologist Fayne Frey, MD, 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.

HealthyWay
istock.com/AZImages

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.

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.”

HealthyWay
istock.com/LuckyBusiness

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.

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.

HealthyWay
istock.com/InnerVisionPRO

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.

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.”

HealthyWay
istock.com/macniak

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.”

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 on 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?

HealthyWay
istock.com/Creative-Family

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.

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.

HealthyWay
istock.com/lesichkadesign

“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.”

9. Gold-Infused Face Creams

We totally understand the appeal of gold face creams; they’re slightly shiny, they leave you feeling moisturized, and they contain real specks of gold. What’s not to love?

For starters, the price tags. Real gold is expensive, and facial creams that include precious metals aren’t ideal for budget-conscious consumers. Some gold-infused eye creams and moisturizers cost upwards of $200. More importantly, gold doesn’t do anything to improve skin health. 

HealthyWay
iStock.com/inarik

“At best, [gold skin creams] do nothing, and at worst, they can give you irritation of the skin,” dermatologist Judith Hellman told The New York Times in 2010. “I would tell people to put that money into gold that they can wear around their neck or on their fingers.”

While some other doctors note that gold may have anti-inflammatory properties that could potentially provide a real-world benefit, we couldn’t find any research supporting that claim in relation to skincare.

10. Bee Venom Lip Plumpers

Ever notice that your favorite limp plumper makes your lips hurt? That’s by design.

The fastest way to increase the size of body tissue—to “plump” up—is to cause irritation. That’s exactly what plumping glosses and lipsticks do; most contain cinnamon, peppermint oil, capsicum (an extract from peppers), and other mild irritants, which draw blood flow to wherever you apply them. You might notice your lips stinging for a while, and repeated use can cause your lips to dry out or crack. 

HealthyWay
iStock.com/SerhiiBobyk

Those are annoying side effects, but they’re relatively minor, and hey, sometimes you’re willing to put up with a little pain in the name of beauty. We’re not here to judge, but know this: Some lip plumpers use stronger ingredients, including products derived from bee venom (Kourtney Kardashian endorsed one such product, because of course she did).

If you’re prone to allergic reactions, make sure to avoid these glosses. And if you’re not, still be wary. Some dermatologists don’t recommend any irritating products, but if you really crave that fuller pout, stick with the peppermint- or capsicum-based products. Oh, and use them with moderation—nobody likes cracked lips, even if they do look rather plump. 

11. Collagen Supplements (Maybe)

Your body uses collagen to grow skin, hair, and fingernails. Give your body more collagen, and you’ll have better hair, skin, and fingernails—it makes sense, doesn’t it? 

Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence to show that collagen supplements do much of anything. While a few studies have shown that regular supplements can improve skin collagen density, moisture, and elasticity, those studies used small sample sizes…and tended to be sponsored by the companies making those supplements.

HealthyWay
iStock.com/Luis Echeverri Urrea

“I don’t think that I am in a position to pooh-pooh it and say this definitely doesn’t work,” Diane S. Berson, associate professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College, told The New York Times in 2018. “But as a physician, I would want to see more evidence-backed science.”

Another issue: In many of the studies, participants took relatively large amounts of collagen, so to get the same possible benefits, you’d have to take six pills per day or pay upwards of $40 per month for powdered collagen. Again, there’s not a ton of evidence showing that the supplements actually have a noticeable effect, so that’s a lot of effort for limited benefits.

And as we’ve covered in other pieces, many supplements contain far less of their active ingredients than the amount listed on their labels. If you do decide to supplement, make sure you trust the source—and don’t count on breathtaking results.

12. Activated Charcoal Foods

Emergency responders use activated charcoal to treat patients who have consumed poison or overdosed on medications. It’s effective at sucking out toxins, allowing them to harmlessly pass through the gastrointestinal tract.

But while charcoal is incredibly effective in some emergency scenarios, it’s not the type of thing you want to take regularly—despite what manufacturers say. Charcoal is said to whiten teeth, brighten skin, and reduce bloating, but physicians are skeptical of those claims.

HealthyWay
iStock.com/bhofack2

The reason: Activated charcoal absorbs toxins, but when you’re not actively treating a toxin, there’s really no reason to use it.

“Our bodies have the ability to detox ourselves,” Kristin Kirkpatrick, manager of wellness nutrition services at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, told TODAY. “That is the majority of the role of the liver … it does so much of the detoxing.”

Activated charcoal might make prescription drugs less effective, and it can draw out many important vitamins and minerals.

With all of that said, some charcoal skin products (yes, including sheet masks) look cool and feel great, and if you like them, that’s enough of a reason to keep using them. Topical applications of charcoal won’t hurt you—they just won’t suck out “impurities” or “toxins” that aren’t there. Some of those peel-off charcoal skin products are effective at removing blackheads, but many aren’t.

Still, if you use them in moderation, they’re far from the worst treatment on this list. Just be sure to skip those charcoal-infused foods at your local health food store.

13. “Slugging”

“Slugging” involves covering your face with a thin layer of petroleum jelly before you head to bed at night. It gets its name because…well, it makes you feel like a slug. Proponents of the therapy swear by it.

“My face has never been so soft,” Reddit user trainbangled wrote after trying slugging. “I am reborn. I am a new woman. I was not a slug; I was a caterpillar in the cocoon.”

We’re glad that the slug life worked out for her, but dermatologists aren’t sold on the technique. While petroleum jelly can keep moisture from escaping from your skin, it can also plug your pores, causing breakouts.

HealthyWay
iStock.com/ajt

“Dermatologists already know that people who use greasy hair waxes or gels tend to breakout more along the hairline, so it is highly likely that slugging would do the same to the whole face,” dermatologist Justine Kluk told Women’s Health.

Other physicians echoed that sentiment.

“I would never recommend this as a first line of treatment to my patients,” dermatologist Steven Swengel told NewBeauty. “Although it is an inexpensive way to hydrate the skin, there is a potential risk for acne prone skin. Pure occlusion can set off some bad outbreaks so this method should be used with caution.”

The consensus seems to be that if you’re considering this therapy, you should talk to your dermatologist first. Other treatments might give you the same results without putting your skin at risk.

14. Sunscreen Pills

Applying sunscreen is a lot of work. Well, okay, not really, but some people don’t like slathering themselves in SPF 30 before spending a few hours at the beach. There’s got to be a better way…right?

Enter sunscreen pills, which are exactly what they sound like: capsules intended to shield consumers from harmful UV rays. The keyword in that last sentence is “intended,” since sunscreen pills don’t work. In fact, several were cited by the FDA for making misleading claims.

HealthyWay
iStock.com/07photo

“Consumers should be watchful for unscrupulous companies making unproven claims,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a May 2018 statement. “When the FDA sees companies taking advantage of people’s desire to protect themselves from the harmful effects of the sun—we’ll step in. There’s no pill or capsule that can replace your sunscreen.”

Nevertheless, we found several “sun skin care” pills from several different manufacturers with a few seconds of Googling (we’re not linking them here to avoid giving them additional traffic). Companies typically claim that their supplements contain ingredients like Polypodium leucotomus, which is said to decrease the damage that UV rays cause to skin cells.

That extract might actually protect skin from the sun when taken regularly in high enough quantities, but more research is needed, and as we mentioned a few paragraphs ago, the supplement market isn’t exactly highly regulated. Until your dermatologist recommends a “sun pill,” stick with the lotions.

15. BB Creams

BB (or “Beauty Balm”) creams claim to combine moisturizer, sunscreen, and makeup into one easy-to-apply product. That’s an appealing concept—if you can apply one pea-sized amount of a single cream and head out the door, you’ll certainly save a lot of time.

Unfortunately, while these balms are safe and useful, they’re not a complete replacement for the aforementioned products.

HealthyWay
iStock.com/LightFieldStudios

“BB Creams are a brilliant marketing concept, however, ‘one cream that fits all’ is a false notion,” dermatologist Dr. Harold Lancer told HuffPost. “There is some modest benefit-moisturizing, but should not be the end all of the fountain of youth and certainly should not replace any other vital steps in skincare.”

The issue is that BB creams vary greatly in terms of their ingredients and efficacy. That’s not a big deal, except when it comes to the sunscreen component. Remember, you really, really need appropriate protection if you’re spending time outdoors, and a pea-sized amount of anything probably isn’t doing the job. If you decide to use BB creams, research them carefully (and consider adding a dedicated sunscreen with an appropriate SPF rating).

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.

HealthyWay
istock.com/sturti

Ultimately, if you’re not sure that something is effective or safe, you should avoid using it. Better to be safe than sorry!

ABOUT THE AUTHORS