What Is 'Fairy-Dusted' Skincare? How to Tell If You're Wasting Money on This Marketing Trick

The popular practice from skincare brands makes your products less effective.

Beauty pattern made of Vitamin C serum in cosmetic bottle with dropper and slices of orange
Photo: Iryna Veklich/Getty Images

Now more than ever, we want total transparency from beauty companies—after all, the skin is our largest organ and has the ability to absorb the products we apply. Hopefully, we've all become better at navigating the endless options and have realized the importance of skincare ingredients like retinol, hyaluronic acid (HA), and vitamin C to buzzy ingredients like niacinamide, ashwagandha, and azelaic acid.

But did you ever stop to think about how much of each ingredient is in your go-to formulas? Brands are constantly facing the pressure to provide more affordable options with these trending ingredients, which has led to a practice called "fairy dusting."

"Fairy dusting is a practice throughout the beauty industry and involves brands claiming they use a popular ingredient at its proper concentration level when in reality, they're using a low percentage or trace amount of an organic, natural, or sustainably sourced ingredient," says Rebecca Hamilton, co-CEO of BADGER. "Brands are indulging in this so that their advertising can capitalize on the popularity of these trending ingredients and help the brand to remain relevant within an incredibly competitive beauty industry."

Why is fairy dusting a bad thing?

When scanning your next potential skincare purchase, you've probably spent a lot of time reading over if this product is right for you. The answer to that question lies within one very important word—actives—which refers to a main ingredient in the formula responsible for delivering the skincare benefits advertised on the label.

But seeing a product with an active doesn't guarantee you will reap those benefits. The concentration of the active ingredient also plays an important role. "Specific concentrations of each ingredient needs to be included at their proper concentrations because that's what's necessary for that desired effect to occur, and the difference between an effective and ineffective skincare routine," says Jessie Cheung MD, board-certified dermatologist. "For example, we know with vitamin C type ascorbyl glucoside, there is negligible benefit below a certain dose of five percent, and there is actually a harmful effect for vitamin C type L-ascorbic acid, the purest form of the antioxidant, above 20 percent."

In other words, the real problem comes when the brand misleads you with their marketing claims. "Consumers are unaware that the ingredient amount is too small to provide effective skincare results. They can make a blatantly false claim about lactic acid permanently eliminating all clogged pores when there isn't nearly enough to make a difference."

How are brands getting away with this?

So, here's the thing: Fairy dusting is actually not a practice that can be prosecuted. "Companies are technically listing their ingredients in descending order of quantity and remain clear of prohibited ingredients and substances, so they can remain within the confines of the law since there's no official law requiring to list the actual amount of each ingredient," says Karen Ballou, founder of Immunocologie. This problem even extends to the clean beauty world with advertising claiming that their products contain these sought-after ingredients when they're missing from the formula completely or make up less than one percent of the formula.

What ingredients are fairy-dusted the most?

Fruit extracts, oils, antioxidants like vitamin C, and lactic acid are the most common ingredients to be fairy-dusted because of their high demand. "Peptides and hyaluronic acid are also pretty common since it's very popular but expensive," says Shuting Hu, cosmetic chemist and founder of Acaderma. "Formulations will typically include cheaper yet more effective hydrating ingredients, such as glycerin while attributing the efficacy to HA in their marketing."

How can you tell if a product is fairy-dusted?

A simple way is to look at the order of the ingredients listed; if the active or natural ingredients are listed near the bottom, it means only one percent of the ingredient is present. "Higher performing natural ingredients at the beginning of an ingredient list means it's present in large enough quantities to deliver beneficial properties," says Hamilton. There is an exception to this rule, however: "Some actives are effective at low use levels, like retinol, so they'll be found lower on the ingredient list even when used at the correct percentages," says Hu.

However, very few products have ingredients recognizable to the general consumer, so it becomes difficult to identify which ones are truly natural and which are synthetic. "This trick allows brands to claim an active ingredient is present in their products without spending the amount of money it would actually cost to include the ingredient at an effective concentration," says Hamilton.

Other ways to spot if a brand is fairy dusting is if they over-emphasize the effects of a product with claims such as: "this product will make your skin look younger," or "this product will firm the skin," particularly without any support from consumer testing or trials that they've conducted," says Ballou.

How to protect yourself from fairy dusting

Now more than ever, it's important consumers take the right steps to shop smarter. The first way is to familiarize yourself with the most frequently used inactive filler ingredients, such as phenoxyethanol, ethylhexylglycerin, and glyceryl caprylate. These are known to equal or be lower than one percent, which means every ingredient listed after these will likely be less than one percent, too. "So, if you're reading a product's label and see a key-listed ingredient like glycolic acid after these filler ingredients, you're being fairy-dusted, with the exception of retinol, which we know works properly at less than one percent," says Ballou.

"Always be wary of brands that list these ingredients without specific concentrations, have zero clinical data reports available online, or use broad marketing terms like 'technology' or 'complexes' to assure you an active ingredient is present," adds Dr. Cheung.

Another option is to use the International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient (INCI), to learn more about your products' ingredients. The INCI is used globally to identify cosmetic ingredients that can sometimes make it tricky for consumers to interpret—like shea butter, which is known as butyrospermum parkii butter. "If you're looking for a special ingredient within the list on a brand's website or package, first look it up on the INCI and then locate it within the ingredient listing," advises Marisa Russell, founder of Meadow & Bark Skincare.

You can also check if your products are EU Compliant. "Europe has one of the most restrictive regulations worldwide, and the actual percentage of each ingredient, both actives and solvents, are required to be submitted for label check," says Hu.

All this to say, the most important thing you can do as a consumer is to educate yourself and do your research. The more informed you are, the less likely you'll fall victim to an unethical beauty industry shortcut.

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