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You’ve seen it on your shampoo bottle, vitamins, and even your fancy moisturizing cream. But what does the phrase ‘clinically proven’ actually mean?

Host: Olivia Gordon

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♪ INTRO ♪ You’ve seen it on your shampoo bottle, vitamins, and even your fancy moisturizing cream.

But what does the phrase "clinically proven" actually mean? You might think it means a product has been conclusively shown to work in multiple trials with human beings.

Presumably, one group of people got the product, and a similar group of people, the controls, didn’t. And the people who got the lotion, supplements, or whatever it might be, had some sort of measurable improvement. Rinse, repeat, with similar results.

Now, that sounds entirely reasonable, and it’s exactly what advertisers want you to think "clinically proven" means. But often that’s not what it means at all. "Clinically proven" is really just a catchphrase, without any specific meaning, and a lot of the things that claim to be clinically proven might not have been tested in any kind of clinical trial. In other cases, studies have been done, but they haven’t been done well, raising questions about the validity of the results.

And sometimes the results simply don’t support the claims of the product. Companies will slap the words "clinically proven" on the box or up on a billboard to try to sell it to you anyway. They’re not supposed to, but they do.

In the U. S., there are two governmental agencies that try to stop this type of thing: the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, and the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC. The FDA is in charge of making sure that food, drugs, and cosmetics are safe and labeled in a way that’s accurate.

Drugs have to go through a rigorous approval process to show safety and efficacy before hitting shelves, but most cosmetics don’t qualify as drugs. If it’s not a drug, the company just has to make sure they don’t say their product can prevent or treat a disease. That’s a big no-no, and the FDA can stop corporations from selling products using those health claims.

The bulk of the enforcement, though, falls on the FTC, which is tasked with making sure advertisers don’t play too fast and loose with the truth. For example, if a company claims that its product is "clinically proven to ward off dementia," that implies they have conclusive evidence that it does. So if they can’t produce data to support the claim, the FTC can hit them with a fine.

That’s happening in a couple of high-profile cases, like with the "brain game" maker Lumos Labs. The FTC told the app-maker to stop using misleading statements and slapped it with a $2 million fine. Ouch.

But as a consumer, it’s important to remember that the FTC can only go after so many deceptively advertised products. It also takes time to enforce the rules, so lots of companies can make false claims for a while before getting caught. Something labeled "clinically proven" could have the studies to back it up, or it might not, and it just hasn’t been caught by regulators yet.

So if that fancy moisturizer on the shelf says it’s "clinically proven to make your skin look 10 years younger," it’s probably worth looking into before you buy it. Because a lot of the time, it’s just marketing mumbo jumbo. Thanks for asking, and thanks especially to all of our patrons on Patreon who keep these answers coming.

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