Decoding Skincare Clinical Testing Claims: Balancing Clinical Precision vs Consumer Experience

Consumer Testing
Skin Care
The Standard
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Skincare Clinical Testing

Navigating the vast realm of skincare products can be daunting, with promises of transformative results at every turn.

“Getting straight answers about anti-aging and beauty products is nearly impossible… vast quantities of pseudoscientific gobbledygook, a lack of independent research and information, and consumers who desperately want the products to do for them what is claimed."

Timothy Caulfield for The Atlantic, 2015[1]

To uncover the real truth behind skincare claims, let's delve into the differences between clinical testing with measured instrumentation and subjective consumer perception testing. Understanding the difference between these approaches will arm you with the pattern recognition to evaluate how effective a skincare product actually is.

Clinical Testing with Measured Instrumentation:

Welcome to the bustling laboratory, where the wonders of clinical testing unfold. This method relies on objective and quantifiable measures to scrutinize skincare products and separate fact from fiction. Subjects come into the lab to get a baseline measurement by a machine tailored to measure a specific skincare concern like fine line depth. Subjects then undergo a wash out period-- not using any skincare products for a period of time before starting to use the product that’s being tested. After using the tested product for a period of time (usually anywhere from 4-12 weeks), they are brought back into the lab to measure any improvements, reductions, or increases in the particular skin concern. While in a clinical trial, participants following a protocol are seen regularly by research staff to monitor their results and to determine the effectiveness of the products.

pictured: Multiple images taken with a Visia imaging system made by Canfield. Light, filters, and software reveal pores, sebum, brown spots, UV damage, and other signs of wear and tear.
credit: Germain Puccetti/Ashland

A little more detail on how it works:

  1. Instrumentation Extravaganza: State-of-the-art gadgets like high-resolution Visia machines measure skin hydration, elasticity, sebum production, pigmentation, and even wrinkle depth.
  2. Rock-Solid Numbers: Clinical tests thrive on rock-solid data and rigorous statistical analysis. 
  3. Controlled to Perfection: Clinical trials are conducted under strict protocols, with controlled variables to dodge biases and a statistically significant number of subjects.
  4. Peer Review Gang: Findings undergo a critical peer review by industry experts like dermatologists and clinical statisticians. This rigorous process ensures that only scientifically valid and reliable studies get the green light.

Consumer Perception Testing:

Now, let's step away from highly tuned measurement machines and venture into the more whimsical side of skincare evaluation - consumer perception testing. This is a subjective measure where subjects are told to incorporate a skincare product into their routine for a certain period of time and then asked to fill out a survey where questions ask ‘how much do you agree with the following statement,’ usually on a scale of 1-5. An example would be ‘how much do you agree with the following statement: the appearance of fine lines is diminished’ with a 1 being a strongly agree.

Consumer Perception Testing Study Questions
pictured: Example Question from a Consumer Perception Testing Study 2021

A little more detail on how this works:

  1. Feelings, Feelings Everywhere: This approach delves into the realm of feelings and impressions. Participants share their candid feedback, rating texture, fragrance, absorption, overall satisfaction, and any perceived improvements in their skin.
  2. Qualitative Vibes: Consumer perception testing thrives on qualitative data, gathered through surveys, questionnaires, and focus group discussions. 

How to Spot the Difference: Consumer Perception vs. Clinical Results:

To illustrate the difference between consumer perception and clinical results, let’s review some of the marketing language that can tip you off to which is which:



Tip: Always expressed as % of subjects. Look for words like “agreed” or “said” or “felt.”

Tip: Can be expressed as a) % of subjects or b) a % increase or decrease in a specific skin concern. Look for words like “X% of subjects saw an increase/decrease” or “X % showed or had an improvement” or a direct % increase/decrease in a particular skin concern.

100% of women said this was the most effective skin-plumping product

100% of subjects showed a clinically significant decrease in global facial fine lines and wrinkles after 4 weeks

97% agreed their skin felt replenished and nourished

96% saw a clinically significant increase in skin firmness after 4 weeks

95% said their skin felt moisturized

Subjects had, on average, a 17% decrease/improvement in fine lines and wrinkles after 4 weeks.

90% said skin looks radiant

In an eight week study, subjects saw a 66% improvement in smoothness.

Why Don’t All Brands Do Clinical Studies and Testing?

It’s clear that clinical testing with measured instrumentation yields objective data on the efficacy of skincare products so you may be scratching your head as to why more brands don’t do it. Exponent Beauty did research on the top selling 500 skincare products and found that less than 20% had conducted clinical trials.[2] We have two hypotheses as to why:

  1. Cost Factor: It turns out that clinical trials cost 5X what a consumer perception test does so brands have little incentive to invest in them unless the results will drive sales.
  2. Consumer Confusion: Consumers are, understandably, confused by the difference in these claims and consumer perception claims tend to be enough to attract a sale. 

If you're wavering between an Instagram-famous face mask or one that's been clinically tested, NYC dermatologist, Dr. Bhansuli, urges the latter. "I would generally recommend to pick products that are backed by science," he said. "If a brand relies more on marketing than testing, there could be an issue with the product."[3]

At Exponent Beauty, we proudly conduct clinical testing on all our products to ensure we deliver real results—check out our Clinical Results here. Our mission extends far beyond our formulas, empowering consumers to make informed skincare choices through our Product Recommendations Page, where we list 83 out of 500 skincare products that meet the Exponent Standard for efficacy.


  • Timothy Caulfield. The Pseudoscience of Beauty Products. The Atlantic. May 2015. Source
  • Exponent Beauty commissioned a 3rd party researcher to look at the top 500 selling skincare serums on and The products that did have clinical trial claims were incorporated into the Exponent Standard Product Recommendations List.
  • Alaina Demopoulos. What's the Deal With Clinicals, and Why Don't All Brands Do Them? PopSugar. August 2018. Source


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