Paula Begoun - Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me

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Self-proclaimed Makeup Maverick Falls Short of Her Own Ideals

Oct 17, 2002 (Updated Jun 11, 2005)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Some informative stuff - such as the glossary of common cosmetic ingredients

Cons:Flawed and inconsistent standards of evaluating products; terrible, potentially harmful advice

The Bottom Line: Self-righteous crap is still crap. Consumers are not well-served by paying for this book.


(This was originally a 3-star review. I've changed my mind. Big time.)

The first time I heard of Paula Begoun was on an episode of Oprah, a long time ago. I guess it was an episode about beauty products. Anyway, Paula just kept saying that spending money on expensive skin care products is useless, because there is nothing out there that is going to keep your skin from aging. Nothing. And then Oprah said, "But I like getting facials." And Paula just kept saying it was a waste. And then Oprah repeated, "But I like getting facials." She's a pushy gal, that Paula.

I've heard about Paula Begoun many times since then - many women interested in cosmetics know her name. So naturally, I was interested in what Paula had to say. Her book is located in the "Appearances" section of my local Borders bookstore, and shares the space with several books on makeup tips. While there are many books on how to apply makeup, it's fair to say that there is no other book quite like Paula's.

"I'm Paula! Poor me!"

Paula begins the book by telling the story of working as an Elizabeth Arden saleswoman, and getting fired when she told her customers to use hydrogen peroxide instead of buying Elizabeth Arden toner. And this pretty much sets the tone (pun!) of the book: she casts herself as some sort of consumer advocate. But it's really just nonsense.

First of all, she's working for Elizabeth Arden. So of course she's going to get fired for telling potential customers to not buy their stuff. But she tells this story like she was refusing to move to the back of the bus. Yeah, whatever. If she thought Elizabeth Arden was such a horrible company, she should have just quit her job.

And secondly, Paula currently sells her own line of skincare and cosmetics (called "Paula's Choice"). And guess what one of them is? Toner. Several different types, in fact. Now why would she make and sell toner if hydrogen peroxide is all anyone ever needed?

Lame Product Reviews

What most of this book consists of is reviews of hundreds of brands and thousands of products, and a very slapdash blurb on each. Then she provides a "Best of" list for various types of products (i.e., Best Cleanser), and proceed to list about 50 of them. Now, that's not very helpful, because it doesn't help me pick out a cleanser if I have 50 of them to choose from. I might as well just go to the store and pick one by closing my eyes and pointing, because chances are, it's on her "Best of" list anyway.

In fact, for some makeup categories, like "Best Lipstick," she just lists a bunch of companies that make pretty good lipstick - which happens to be a list of most major cosmetic companies in existence today. Again, I could randomly pick out any lipstick from any store, and it will probably be on her list. Why do I need her book? I realize that there are a billion different kinds of lipsticks out there, and she can't rank every one of them. But still, this information is not very helpful to someone who's planning to buy lipstick. I have learned nothing.

Basically, these lists are so inclusive that they are meaningless. She defends this by explaining that most brands actually make a lot of good products. That's very nice, but again, do I need a book to know this? And how does this "blow the lid" off of the cosmetics industry again?

And really, her opinions are not very accurate anyway.

Flawed Standard of Evaluation

She judges products purely on their ingredient list alone. It's a very bad standard of evaluation.

For example - there are many popular drugstore products that have a generic equivalent (products such as Oil of Olay lotion, Cetaphil cleanser, or Noxzema cream). The ingredient lists for these generic products are usually identical to the original formulas. So the products should be the same, right? But having tried several of these generic versions of popular products, I can say for certain that they did not measure up to the quality of the original.

So that's one example of the fallacy of judging a product purely by its ingredients - there is clearly some difference in how the same ingredients work in different products. But Paula judges the products only by the ingredients.

It's like judging Coca-cola and Pepsi - both are liquids which contain sugar, caramel and carbonated water. But they are not the same product - people clearly prefer one over the other. And just knowing that sugar is sweet doesn't make me an expert on all brands of soda, or give me the ability to predict which you will like more.

Someone I talked to put it this way: we can give the same sugar, flour, eggs, etc. to two different people and ask them to bake a cake. In the hands of a skilled chef, the cake will be delicious. But with the exact same ingredients, someone else may make a less tasty cake. Anyway, you get the point: you can't judge the cake by reading the ingredient list. You have to taste it. But Paula does not taste the cake, she just reads the ingredient list and tells you, "This is good! This is bad!" Ridiculous.

Another criticism about her ingredient-list-standard is that out of the hundreds of cosmetic companies she evaluates, only a handful have fully disclosed all their ingredients and how they make their products. Yes, it's probably true that some of these companies that didn't fully disclose this information are shady and corrupt. Shame on them. But a lot of them, I imagine, just don't want to give all their trade secrets away. So Paula is basing most of her judgments on very limited information. Basically, she doesn't have any information that isn't available to the rest of us.

And she lists thousands of products, and often rejects many of them based on ONE ingredient - such as, "This contains mint, which is an irritant, so it's no good!" That's not a very convincing review of that product.

In this manner, she downgrades several products because they contain "Vaseline." Okay. But then in another section, she praises the benefits of petrolatum. But the last time I checked, Vaseline is pure 100% petrolatum. Now that's just plain stupid.

Unsupported Criticism

She also seems to be pretty clueless about a lot of the new developments in cosmetics, such as anti-oxidants, or innovative ingredients like copper, vitamins, fruit or plant extracts. She writes most of these off as useless hype.

I realize that she revised her stance on anti-oxidants and jumped on the bandwagon eventually (now it's part of her skincare line), but it just proves that she didn't know what she's talking about in the first place, and it really discredits everything she says.

Yes, it's possible that these innovations are really just there for hype-value. But Paula doesn't know what is hype, and what is not, because she doesn't understand what they do, or how effective they are in that particular product. She just dismisses them all, by saying either that
- they are irritants, or
- they are "unstable" ingredients which aren’t in useful form, or
- they are not present in enough quantity to have any effect.

The problem with this is that she doesn't back up these claims with any convincing, scientific evidence - they don't appear to be anything more than her hunches and assumptions. She seems to reject anything she doesn't understand.

Terrible Beauty Advice #1

She warns against using makeup removers, because it involves rubbing your face with a cotton ball/pad, and that is unnecessary stress on your skin. And that a good water soluble cleanser should remove all your makeup, including eye makeup.

But then she immediately contradicts herself and admits that most of the gentle, water soluble cleansers she recommends will actually NOT remove all your eye makeup (especially waterproof mascara), and they will also not remove certain types of foundations and concealers which are designed to really stick to your skin.

So what does she suggest instead? She recommends that you use a washcloth while cleansing, OR using a toner after cleansing to "remove the left-over traces of makeup.

What the fudge?

• How is rubbing your face with a washcloth any less abrasive than rubbing your face with a cotton pad? She calls this an "exception to the rule." What exception? It obliterates the very point of the rule!

• Using a toner to remove traces of left-over makeup? Wouldn't that involve using a cotton pad and rubbing your face with it? How is this different from using makeup removers? In fact, wouldn't this be even more stressful to your skin, since all toners are less slippery than all makeup removers? And how do you use toner to remove eye makeup? (That is just a terrible idea. It is. Trust me.)

• This is just awful advice in the first place, as anyone who has ever worn eye makeup can tell you. Ever try to wash eye makeup off your eyes? Even cleansers labeled as "gentle" will sting your eyes. And even cleansers that are harsh won't remove all the eye makeup. This is why most cleansers have warnings on them that says, "Avoid Eye Area!"

This is just one example of her ridiculous "advice."

Terrible Beauty Advice #2

Paula says eye creams are a scam - that they are just expensive moisturizers put in a tiny jar. While this may be true in many cases, she goes on to say that we should just use regular moisturizers and creams directly around our eyes instead.

And that's really bad, potentially harmful advice. Some creams contain retinol, and retinol which is not ophthalmologist-grade can blind you, so you really shouldn't put them near your eyes.

Ripped-Off Beauty Tricks

She gives some interesting recommendations, like exfoliating your skin with baking soda, or using Milk of Magnesia as an oil-absorbing mask. It's not exactly revolutionary stuff, ranking up there with washing your hair with beer or eggs. These tricks (unlike her makeup remover / eye cream suggestions) are probably not going to hurt you, and most women know these tips from talking to girlfriends or reading magazines. And we've all tried some of it. But none of this is "debunking" any "myth" or "blowing the lid off the cosmetics industry."

Worst of all, she makes it sound like these are her original ideas, and they're not. Her baking-soda-exfoliant idea in particular has been repeatedly credited to other sources on the internet. And I first read about it in one of my many teenybopper magazines during my pre-teen years.

The Beauty Industry

The truth is that most consumers are sophisticated enough realize that many goods are over-priced and over-hyped, not just cosmetics. Some lipsticks cost $25 while some just cost $4. Just like some dresses cost $500, and some cost $40. Everyone realizes this, and we make a choice.

Pretty much the only revelation in this book is something everyone already knows: drugstore beauty products are pretty good. Paula can't really tell you which ones or why, though.

Note Paula's exchange with Oprah above - people sometimes get facials and use pricey products because they just enjoy it. And that's the choice we make as consumers. We all realize we don't need a facials and manicures for survival. But some people like it, so they pay for it, and they enjoy it. We don't need this book to tell us the obvious.

And people have different skins and different needs when it comes to cosmetics and skincare. A product that works wonders for one person may do nothing, or make things worse, for another. Paula herself admits the same - that no beauty product works for everyone.

There are a million beauty products out there, and new ones being created all the time. While I enjoy trying and buying cosmetics, the many varieties and brands can be daunting. And like any industry, they are certainly trying to make a buck off me, and I've made my share of dubious purchases over the years. I was hoping that this book would help me sort some of that out, but it didn't do that at all.

Coda: Final Random Thoughts

Paula's Choice products: I've had to think about this for a bit. Is it really so awful that she sells her own stuff? After all, if she has theories on the best products for consumers, why shouldn't she make and sell her own based on those theories? In addition, I know people who really like her products. (And if they work for you, I'm happy for you. That's always a good thing.)

But whatever benefit of the doubt I was willing to give her, I discovered that on her website, she calls herself the "Cosmetics Cop." And that's the problem I have with her selling her own stuff: she calls herself a "cop," which implies that she's enforcing some sort of superior moral standard and provide justice for consumers. But she's still trying to sell you her own lipstick and face cream? What kind of "cop" is that? Talk about a conflict of interest.

• Paula also spends a lot of time in her book (and on her website) whining that the cosmetics industry won't accept her, that she's been shunned or blackballed. Of course, this just adds to her myth that she's a crusader for the consumer, fighting for our rights. But what does she expect? She's styled herself as a whistle-blower, how can she be expected to be invited to the party?

However, I think the real reason she's not welcomed with open arms by the cosmetics industry (whatever that means) is because she doesn't have a lot of credibility in the first place. She has no degree in science, and no demonstrated expertise. (Perhaps you think that it's not fair to blast her for her apparent lack of education in this area, but if someone claims to be an expert on science, someone who knows better than other real scientists, they need to back it up.) In addition, this just leads me to believe that if given a chance, Paula would sell out in a heartbeat. If some big company offers to distribute Paula's Choice products and give her a counter at your local department store, I don't think she would say no.

So I think her status as a consumer-rights advocate is not something she chose for herself. She's just bitter about being an outcast in the industry. It's like her Elizabeth Arden story - how can she blame them for firing her? It just doesn't make sense.

• The last point I want to make is not so much a criticism, but more of a disagreement. I guess there are two basic theories about skin care - some people believe one should avoid irritation at all costs, and some people believe that various irritants are useful. Paula ascribes to the latter.

Paula basically prescribes a regimen of various alpha- and beta hydroxy acids (AHA & BHA) for EVERYONE and every skin problem. While AHA and BHA are useful ingredients for controlling acne and rejuvenating aging skin, they work, essentially, by peeling off the problem skin with acid.

And I really don't know if everyone needs acid as a part of their daily, long-term regimen. As I said above, different people simply have different needs. But Paula doesn't account for this difference, and just pushes everyone to use various forms of acid on their face.

And I don't know if that's a good thing. I've read recent studies in various beauty magazines that say that long-term use of AHA and BHA can increase the chances for sun damage. But Paula doesn't agree with these new studies.

Whether you trust her on this issue or not is your call, I suppose. But based on her history of ignorance, I do not. In fact, I think this may be a case of selective ignorance on her part, having to do with the fact that she sells many forms of acid-based solutions as a part of her Paula's Choice line. To admit that they may accelerate aging would make a big dent in her sales. And this is exactly why I think her opinions are invalid.

• As far as this hydrogen peroxide story (at the beginning of Paula's book) goes - since then, it's been discovered that repeated use of hydrogen peroxide as toner is actually quite harmful to your skin. Now, I'm not blaming Paula for being wrong about this - no one knew about this back then. But the point is that she didn't know, because she's not "in the know": she's not at the cutting-edge of skin care technology. Yes, she reads scientific studies and quotes them to suit her own agenda, but that does not make her a scientist.

I've encountered someone who said about this debacle that at least she admitted her mistake about this issue, so it's okay. Personally, I don't think it's okay at all. First of all, it's not right for her to include this story in her book now like she's some avenging angel for the consumer, because she should know now that it was bad advice.

In addition, this just proves once again, that she doesn't know what she's talking about, and never did. She personifies the old adage, "A little bit of knowledge is a terrible thing," that knowing only half of something can be more harmful than knowing nothing. And how many chances should we give to people who screw up? Doctors, lawyers, auto mechanics, plumbers, airline pilots ... should we give them a second chance if they mess up? I wouldn't.

• Other Paula fans have told me that if I don't like her advice, then just don't buy her book or products. Well, that's always true, but look at what her book is titled: "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me" - it's a veritable command. I feel that a lot of women are being duped by Paula's nonsense.

• Yet even more Paula fans told me that I'm jealous of Paula's success. (Yeah, some women are really invested in her.) Is Paula filthy rich? Hrm, I don't know. I'm sure she's making a profit because she keeps on writing these books. But if she really had a boatload of money, I don't think she would continually complain about being "shut out of the beauty industry." Instead, I think there would be a Paula's Choice store in my local mall, or at least an infomercial.

Conclusion

Paula essentially claims that she can convince you that a $100 jar of cream can be the same as a $5 one. But she hasn't accomplished that. She hasn't de-mystified anything for me, and my future cosmetic purchases won't be affected by anything she said. Her declarations are not interesting or revelatory in the least, and she doesn't have the credibility to back up anything except the most general and benign claims.

I initially gave this book 3 stars back in 2002 when I first reviewed it, despite noting the obvious stink of Paula's doody. I was unwittingly convinced by her self-righteous tone, and gave her credit for meaning well. But I had to revise my review, because she really does a lot more harm than good.

She claims to have amazing revelations about the cosmetics industry. But she doesn't. And the truth is that she can't, because the cosmetics industry isn't really so evil after all. It's not exactly the tobacco industry, anyway. Are they ripping people off? Sure they are. But they're also interested in making good products and helping people look and feel better, because that's what keeps women coming back for more. And Paula ends up praising most of the major cosmetics company anyway. So what did she "blow the lid" off of? What did we learn? Nothing.

And Paula can't back up any of her claims with sound facts or science. She just doesn't have the goods. Her delayed acceptance of anti-oxidants is just one example: she doesn't have the facts or knowledge about these innovations. And who's coming up with these innovations in the first place? Hey, it's the cosmetics industry. The truth is that the cosmetics industry is responsible for a lot of positive advances - a jar of cream you buy today is better than what you could have bought 40, even 10 years ago. Yeah, they sell their share of crap, but then, so does Paula.

It's a classic bait-and-switch - Paula claims on the cover of her book that she will tell us the "truth" about the evil cosmetics industry and keep us hapless consumer from being ripped off. But in the end, she ends up mostly patting the cosmetics industry on the back - because they don't suck so much after all. And whatever criticisms she has are unfounded, inconsistent, and self-serving.

I know there are rabid Paula fans out there who may be enraged by my take on her. (Believe me, I've encountered some.) And that's really why I felt compelled to revise this review, because I realized that Paula is really the worst kind of self-styled consumer advocate - she is doing the very thing she accuses the cosmetics industry of doing: she is preying on women's insecurities and making them believe she's the only one looking out for them. But all she's got are half-assed opinions, false claims, and crackpot science, all designed to make you ... buy her own line of stuff! That's really messed up.


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