Beauty adverts toned down, but can still mislead, say medical experts

Doctors warn consumers to treat product claims with care, despite new law, and say many are not backed by medical research

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 7:19am

Advertisements for slimming and beauty products have toned down their more outrageous claims since new trading laws came into force on July 19, but consumers may still be misled by ambiguous messages, say two medical experts.

The amended Trade Descriptions Ordinance prohibits false or misleading trade descriptions in all forms, including in advertisements. It also bans companies from using testimonials from celebrities about a product's effectiveness when they did not use it.

Magazine readers might have noticed the changes. Two weeks ago an advertisement for a "weight-loss" gel appearing in gossip magazine 3 Weekly claimed the gel could heat up legs and make them slimmer. A columnist, who reportedly used the gel for one and a half months and did not exercise, claimed to have lost about 11.5cm from her thighs.

However when the same advertisement appeared in Weekend Weekly, published on July 19, the day the new law took effect, the columnist's testimonial was missing, leaving only ambiguous claims that the heat triggered by the gel would make legs prettier.

Another advertisement for a drink that claimed to help a person "shed 15 pounds in six weeks", which also appeared in the previous issue of 3 Weekly, did not appear in the latest issue.

Dermatology specialist Dr Henry Chan Hin-lee debunked the advertisements' claims, saying there was no medical evidence to prove that applying substances to the skin would stimulate metabolism and help someone lose weight from a particular part of their body.

Meanwhile, Dr Walter King Wing-keung, of the Society of Plastic and Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons, said having a sauna every day and sweating a lot could help people burn off some calories, but it was much less effective than doing exercise.

"Also applying gel to a small part of the body would have little impact … less than skipping a can of soft drink, which contains 250 calories," he said. A typical Asian weighed 54.4kg to 63.5kg and needed to consume about 1,800 calories a day, he said. A person would gain weight if they ingested more than that.

The doctors said other advertisements could also be misleading. For example, claims that laser treatments could remove body hair permanently could not be substantiated.

"Up to 40 per cent of people are unable to have hair removed permanently," said Chan, quoting a journal published in 2011 that traced various studies since in 1995.

He described advertisements promoting the treatments as a "Ponzi scheme" - saying the beauty centres only kept going by attracting new clients who were unaware of the drawbacks.

King had reservations about the effectiveness of beauty products applied to the skin or taken orally.

"Anything that goes through the digestive tract would decompose and become substances like amino acids," he said, explaining there would be little difference between swallowing collagen pills and eating meat.

The various facial masks and lotions on the market also had a limited effect, he said. "Many substances cannot be absorbed. Their molecules are too big and cannot penetrate skin."

Lawyer Eugene Low, a senior associate at Mayer Brown JSM, said subjective descriptions on advertisements such as "delicious" or "very good" should be acceptable under the new laws.

"But they should be careful when using objective wording such as '2012 bestseller' or 'whitening in seven days'," he said.

Getting studies from suppliers to back product claims would make retailers safer in face of regulations, but it was possible customers could challenge the origin and reliability of the studies. It was best to stick to reliable suppliers, he said.

The amended Trade Descriptions Ordinance, which was passed by the Legislative Council in July 2012 and took effect 10 days ago, was expanded to cover offences relating to services as well as goods. The law prohibits false or misleading information in any form, including statements, advertisements or display notices communicated through whatever means.

It also created a suite of new offences, such as misleading omissions, aggressive commercial practices, bait advertising and wrongly accepting payment.