Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Gwyneth Paltrow launched her wellness brand Goop in 2008. Do wellness brands like hers and Jessica Alba’s manipulate everyday women for profit?

Have wellness brands by Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba and others made women’s health into a trillion-dollar industry by playing on female anxiety?

  • Rina Raphael is a women’s health reporter who believes the wellness industry manipulates women into buying unnecessary and sometimes harmful products
  • From Paltrow’s Goop to Alba’s Honest, she says skincare and food brands play on fear and make claims that aren’t backed by science, with dangerous consequences

The Covid-19 pandemic helped catapult the wellness industry into a trillion-dollar enterprise – but part of that success is built on a well-documented scam that lures many women into buying unnecessary, overpriced products.

That’s according to a new book, The Gospel of Wellness, by Rina Raphael – a long-time wellness and women’s health reporter.

“Wellness has become an aspirational lifestyle,” Raphael says.

In her book, Raphael outlines how wellness brands use certain techniques to prey upon women’s anxieties to drive sales, under the guise of promoting health and happiness.

Gwyneth Paltrow attends the Goop lab Special Screening in Los Angeles in 2020. Photo: Getty Images

“We believe if we buy the supplements Gwyneth [Paltrow] buys, we will look and become like her. But a lot of times it’s based more in fearmongering that’s terrifying consumers about certain ‘toxic chemicals’ without fully explaining the nuance there,” Raphael says.

The wellness industry manipulates women to buy useless – and sometimes harmful – products, according to Raphael.

What makes a skincare product expensive? Experts break down the costs

Women’s legitimate concerns about the healthcare system might drive them to seek natural remedies, as they are more likely to have their symptoms dismissed by clinicians, says Raphael.

“For many women, traditional Western medicine seems built to make a buck, not to significantly care for their needs.”

But many alternative medicine companies are making a buck, too – by selling products with no scientific evidence to suggest they actually work.

Rina Raphael, author of The Gospel of Wellness
Take Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s buzzy wellness and lifestyle brand. On its first day, Goop’s supplement line sold US$100,000 (HK$785,000) worth of expensive products that had little proof of efficacy, Raphael says. Paltrow had to pay US$145,000 in civil penalties in 2018 for product advertisements that lacked reliable scientific evidence.

Raphael says the rise in supplements could be the most harmful of all wellness trends for its potential to cause serious health complications.

The supplement industry is unregulated and under-researched, meaning doctors have no consensus on safe dosing or known side effects for alternative treatments. Cardiologists report that they’ve seen a rise in heart problems in young people, stemming from herbal supplements.

Honest brand beauty cleanser and shampoo + body wash. Photo: Bloomberg

“A lot of alternative medicine can be very dangerous because it robs people of real therapeutic treatments that could actually help them,” Raphael says.

Another way in which wellness brands manipulate consumers for profit is through the natural beauty products. The natural beauty movement took off in the last decade as more women began to reject lab-made ingredients, Raphael says. Three-quarters of millennial women said “natural” ingredients are an important factor in their purchases, according to a 2018 survey.
With it we saw the rise in popularity of skincare brands like Supergoop! and Jessica Alba’s Honest.
Jessica Alba, co-founder and chief creative officer of Honest beauty company. at the New York Stock Exchange. Photo: Bloomberg
These brands, among others, have marketed themselves as free from the synthetic ingredients like parabens and phthalates – chemicals commonly used as preservatives in cosmetics that many believed to be linked to cancer.

But studies reviewed by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not found significant health risks from the amount of preservative phthalates or parabens in cosmetics.

Unlike the supplement industry, the federal government does regulate cosmetics, and bans products with harmful ingredients, cosmetic toxicologist and founder of The Eco Well podcast Jen Novakovich says.

Do your skincare products contain ‘good’ or ‘bad’ alcohol? Experts explain

Removing these ingredients for less effective natural alternatives can lead to bacterial contamination, writes Raphael in The Gospel of Wellness.

News agency Reuters reported dermatologists have seen an increase in itchy rashes, bumps, and other allergic reactions linked to botanical or natural ingredients in beauty products.

“I’m seeing a lot more scepticism when it comes to clean beauty. A lot of the early reporting on clean beauty wasn’t checked with toxicologists or medical experts, and now we’re seeing a lot more nuanced conversations about what is clean beauty and should we be made so terrified of our body wash,” says Raphael.
The cover of Raphael’s book.

Organic food companies are also in on the scam, and take advantage of women who spend more time caring for the home, meaning they make more decisions about which groceries to buy, says Raphael.

Organic food brands and companies that grow foods with fewer synthetic pesticides know this, and play on mothers’ anxieties about keeping her children safe, for profit: marketplace watchdog magazine Consumer Reports estimates organic foods are 47 per cent more expensive than their non-organic counterparts.

Evidence does not indicate that organic foods are better for consumers. The FDA has said pesticide residue doesn’t pose a public health concern, as most foods sprayed with these chemicals retain only trace amounts that fall well below the amounts deemed to be harmful by safety standards.

Organic-food diet linked to reduction in cancer risk, study finds

Research also doesn’t indicate that eating organic foods results in better nutrition or health outcomes.

“The organic industry is betting on consumers conflating farming standards with supposed health benefits,” Raphael writes in her book. “More specifically, they’re counting on mums worried about properly feeding their children and made fearful of overhyped pesticide risk.”