When you hear of "angel dusting," you might (like me) have whimsical visions of the Tooth Fairy sprinkling magic powder over somnolent children. Or, if you don't have the imagination of a six-year-old, your thoughts might turn to illegal drug use, as "angel dust" is coincidentally a street name for PCP. Anyhow, you probably don't picture a sinister force at work. But angel dusting in the realm of cosmetics is a grave problem that enables manufacturers to essentially mislead consumers and make off with their money, leaving them hoodwinked and helpless. [Cue ominous music]

Angel dusting, also known as fairy dusting or window dressing, is an unfortunately common practice in the cosmetics, cosmeceuticals, and dietary supplement industries. In formulating a product, certain suspect manufacturers incorporate a miniscule portion of an active ingredient, insufficient to produce any measurable benefit, for the sole purpose of deceiving consumers. By including even trace amounts of an active substance in a particular formula, marketers can make sweeping claims about its benefits without any evidence of results or hint of concentration levels. Thus, the meticulous science behind a product is supplanted by advertising hype and inflated profits.

How does this disconnect from lab to checkout happen? When an active ingredient is tested and developed in a laboratory to perform a certain action, such as boosting collagen production or reducing melanin, its minimum percentage for effectiveness is determined. This inclusion rate must be adhered to in order for the ingredient's intended action to take place. Angel dusting companies publicize the active ingredient's substantiated claims without spending a sufficient sum of money for a "therapeutic quantity" in their formula.

Cutting back the amount of an expensive ingredient, such as astaxanthin, hyaluronic acid, or valuable peptides, can result in a huge cost savings for a cosmetics manufacturer. Besides having an impact on a product's profit margin, angel dusting can mask the adverse side effects of certain active ingredients. Manufacturers might not disclose the concentration of ingredients with a risky response profile to minimize backlash from dissatisfied customers and to avert legal repercussions. Why provide angry customers with fodder for a lawsuit if the company doesn't have to?

Nutritional supplement and skincare products alike are often formulated using the same industry trick of angel dusting. Whether it is whey protein for a dietary protein booster or tourmaline for a luxurious spa treatment, the marketing department at Company X will confer with its research and development team to incorporate whatever ingredient du jour will draw in more sales. When the number crunching begins and it becomes clear that their budget will only allow for a marginal amount of the ingredient, the formulators will add in just enough so that it won't appear at the very bottom of the ingredients list. The craftiest formulators will bundle it within a "proprietary blend" of other ingredients so that it will crawl its way closer to the top.

So, if this is the first time that angel dusting has entered your personal lexicon, why have you been left in the dark up until now? Why haven't mainstream whistleblowers exposed the misconduct of angel dusting companies and compelled them to atone for their crimes on consumers? First of all, the media tends to steer clear of this subject for fear of alienating lucrative advertisers which might be implicated in such accusations. Secondly, angel dusting is not a corporate practice that can be prosecuted. As long as they list their ingredients in descending order of quantity and omit all prohibited substances, cosmetics companies that take part in angel dusting remain within the confines of the law.

If a product makes specific medical claims, the FDA will treat it as an over-the-counter drug, necessitating scientific studies that demonstrate safety and efficacy. But there are hardly any federal regulations for non-medical, purely cosmetic claims, as detailed in an FDA Consumer report from 1992, which proves that nothing much has changed in nearly two decades. It is up to the cosmetics companies themselves to set an example of good manufacturing and honest marketing practices.

The beauty industry is in the business of selling an image, and it's up to consumers to decide whether to buy into it or not. What you can do to prevent cosmetics companies from pulling the wool over your eyes is to carefully scan product labels to assess where the concentration levels of actives fall on the full ingredients spectrum. Though it is often impossible to tell whether a therapeutic quantity is present, use good judgement and do your research before buying. The best place to start is right here on Truth in Aging, where we do our best to assess the active ingredients in each product we review. As much as it were possible, you can't create collagen, reduce wrinkles, or reverse aging with fairy dust.