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TikTok fake news

Why is there so much fake news on beauty TikTok?

From hormone-disrupting haircare to DIY sunscreens, beauty influencers are spreading lies on social media – and it’s becoming increasingly dangerous for our health

TextLetty ColeIllustrationCallum Abbott

With the internet at our fingertips, we have infinite access to information. But it also means endless exposure to fake news, misleading claims and cherry-picked facts. With TikTok – a platform that favours attention-grabbing content – gaining prominence, the spread of misinformation has never been more rampant. The fact that we can often see the faces of those speaking, creating the feeling of intimacy and an authentic connection, makes it all the easier to believe what we hear.  

In the beauty community, the spread of myths and dubious health claims, like sunscreen disrupting hormones, make-up containing cancer-causing talc, and moisturisers ruining your skin, is increasingly pervasive. Often allowed to remain unscrutinised, these videos are not only causing mass confusion and mistrust, but they are also putting consumers in danger too.

Earlier this month, a since-deleted video about sunscreen messing with hormone levels went viral on TikTok, only to be debunked by cosmetic chemist Dr Michelle Wong. Meanwhile, another since-deleted TikTok told viewers that all big brand haircare products contain ‘endocrine [hormone] disruptors’, an extension of the myth that synthetic ingredients like sulphates and parabens are damaging to hair and skin.

“The biggest myth that I have continuously seen spread is that sunscreen causes cancer,” says Esther Olu, a cosmetic chemist and licensed esthetician known as The Melanin Chemist to her followers, who often uses her platform to debunk false claims circulating online. “It’s causing consumers to not wear sunscreen or use improper formulations that are leading to increased cancer rates. It is beyond dangerous.” Despite experts disproving claims that Supergoop sunscreen causes cancer or that DIY SPFs are better for you, there remain numerous videos on TikTok explaining how users can make their own at home. 

Social media has always fostered conversation, but it’s TikTok’s format that lends itself particularly well to opinion-sharing – the more divisive, the better. “Sensationalism gets people to talk at the end of the day, regardless if it’s wrong or right,” says Olu. People like drama, in other words, and according to evolutionary psychologist Hank Davis, author of Caveman Logic: The Persistence Of Primitive Thinking In A Modern World, there’s a very good reason for this. 

“It was our ancestors who paid good attention to scary stories, about being poisoned or getting skin cancer, who were more successful”, he explains. Unfortunately, we are stuck with the same brains today. “Our minds are very, very well adapted, not to 2022, but to a quarter of a million years ago”, says Davis. “Does this way of thinking help us today? The answer is simply ‘no’. But that's why misinformation spreads on the internet. Because we're basically working with a stone age mind.” 

It’s this in-built urge to find and share information that could save our lives plus the modern day desire to grow our social media following, that explains the thousands of social media users chiming into the beauty conversation (often with no qualifications at all), each sharing increasingly shocking or controversial content to fight for our attention. ‘Science-washing’, where scientific-sounding language and cherry-picked or out-of-context studies – for example, research into the effects of ingredients when ingested rather than applied topically – is often used to make claims appear more legitimate. And words like “toxic”, “endocrine” and “hormone mimicking” are thrown around to create a sense of urgency.

In many cases, people who spread misleading claims have more to gain than just attention. Social media users were quick to note that both of the creators behind the sunscreen and haircare myths were owners of natural beauty companies, who are using the language of the clean beauty movement to undermine the efficacy of traditional beauty formulas. “It’s so unethical and dishonest”, wrote biomedical scientist and esthetician Alicia Lartley on Twitter. “[It’s] the oldest trick in the book to create consumer panic and then become the saviour.” Olu agrees: “If someone is trying to scare you about products you use, always check if they are trying to sell you something. 90 per cent of the time they are and that means you should run. It’s a manipulative scare tactic that consumers fall for frequently.”

Separating the real from the fake is easier said than done, however, especially when brands and beauty professionals themselves are spreading myths. It was a plastic surgeon – who uses his page to educate his followers and often debunks myths himself – who was criticised by the beauty science community after posting a video explaining how moisturisers make your skin “lazy”. While many brands do try to sell unnecessary products to consumers, chemists like Chareè (@chareesbeauty) were forced to go deep into the science, explaining exactly how moisturisers are beneficial to the skin

These myths aren’t just limited to social media platforms and unqualified content creators. Earlier this year, TV giant HBO released the documentary Not So Pretty, an “investigation” into the beauty industry, that claimed that many of our cosmetics contain ingredients that are toxic to humans. Cosmetic scientists and experts spoke out against it, en masse, including Dr Wong and Jen Novakovich, pointing to the fact that the documentary failed to take into account FDA research, withheld information, and failed to consult relevant experts. One “doctor” interviewed was a naturopath, not an MD – something the viewers were not told. Not So Pretty isn’t so much a well-researched, balanced documentary as it is a powerful piece of propaganda,” Rina Raphael, author of an upcoming book investigating the false promises of the wellness industry stated

So, with doctors, brands and journalists alike lying to consumers, how can we ever know what to believe? “The best way is really to understand the area and look through the evidence, but no one has the time… the cheap way is to work out what people who have done the research agree on,” says Dr Wong. Ask yourself “what is the consensus of relevant experts?” and use that to make an informed judgement. She recommends consulting a wide range of beauty professionals, like cosmetic chemists, dermatologists and estheticians, many of whom share extensive academic research via their accounts, and go from there.

But the responsibility shouldn’t only lie on individuals and experts. For Olu, the first step to tackling misinformation is to have “effective science communicators, a stronger emphasis on science literacy taught in the education system, and a willingness [from consumers] to unlearn cognitive biases [against who we do and don’t believe]”. We also need to support and fund educators like Dr Wong, Olu and Laterly who are sharing their knowledge online, the majority for free, and helping the public to make informed decisions about what to believe.