≡ Menu

How cosmetics fool your brain

I wrote this piece to help other cosmetic chemists but I thought everyone might benefit from a better understanding of how cosmetic products fool your brain. 

What is the Halo Effect?

The Halo Effect is a psychological phenomena in which people come to erroneous conclusions about product features based on non-related factors. For example, if a consumer likes the way a product smells, they might rate something like foam quality higher than if they didn’t like how it smells. It doesn’t matter that the fragrance has no measurable impact on foam quality.

To demonstrate the Halo Effect for yourself, make a batch of body wash and split it into two separate batches. To one add a nice smelling fragrance. To the other add a foul smelling fragrance. Give the products to a panelist and ask them which one is better. Then ask them to rate the foam quality on a scale of 1 to 10. Invariably, the product with the more preferred fragrance will score higher in foam quality.

Factors that impact Halo Effect

We’ve mentioned fragrance as a significant factor in the Halo Effect, but there are others. These include…

a. Color — If people like the color of the formula, they’ll rate other factors higher

b. Clarity — A pearlized or translucent formula will perform different than a clear one.

c. Packaging — If two products are identical except for packaging, the one in the better package will be rated higher.

d. Story — If you present a story about the formula and people like it, they will be more inclined to like the performance.

Unfortunately, these factors rarely have an actual impact on how well the overall formula performs. This means, as a cosmetic formulator, you could be wasting your time improving formulas if you don’t consider the Halo Effect factors.

It should also be pointed out that the Halo Effect is not limited to consumers. You can be fooled by the Halo Effect too. For example, you may add a new technology to your formula and you want so badly for it to make an improvement that you might notice one that is not there. As Richard Feynman said about science

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.

How to deal with the Halo Effect

The Halo Effect does not mean that you should stop trying to improve your formulas. What it does mean is that you have to take it into consideration when you send your formula out for salon, panelist, or consumer testing. The further you get away from lab testing, the more impact you find from the Halo Effect.

Here are some key steps to take to control for the Halo Effect in your formulating work.

1. Control the Fragrance — In your lab work, you should use a standard fragrance that is the same no matter what test you are running. Using a standard fragrance is better than having unfragranced samples because even unfragranced formulas have an odor. In consumer testing, you should use as near-identical fragrances as possible.

2. Control the Color / Appearance — While it doesn’t matter as much in the lab, it is important to control the color when conducting consumer tests. It doesn’t have to be an exact match but they should be relatively similar in color and appearance. This also means you generally shouldn’t test a pearlized formula versus a clear formula. You can do it but understand that the results may be highly skewed by the Halo Effect.

3. Control the packaging — If you are going to test formulas with panelists or consumers, always give them the product in identical packaging. This may mean you’ll have to transfer a competitive product from the standard packaging to an opaque, white package. The more generic you make the package, the better.

The Halo Effect can be troubling, especially when your Market Research studies show differences in things like thickness even though you know the products had the same measurement viscosities. All you can do is to control as many factors as you can and don’t put too much faith in what consumers tell you about specific aspects of the formula. If your consumer panelists tell you the product is too moisturizing but your Trans Epidermal Water Loss (TEWL) measurements say otherwise, don’t automatically improve your formula. First check to see if there is a Halo Effect that you didn’t consider.

{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Christina August 4, 2014, 1:38 pm

    It is always so interesting how all of our sensory experiences play a role in how we make decisions on if a product is efficient.

    I personally do enjoy the aesthetics of a product as well as the effectiveness. Science + Hearts and ponies = A good well rounded experience.

Leave a Comment