La Prairie, Bad Science and Conspicuous Consumption

Since Ben Goldacre stopped writing his weekly science column for the Guardian, it seems to me that more bullshit ‘science’ is creeping in. Take this item on rip-off Britain. I refer to the section wherein one Rachel Simmonds attempts to justify La Prairie selling a skin cream for £656. For a 50ml bottle.

The high cost is because of the platinum colloidal water we use. It is magnetically charged particles of platinum, so it has an impact on the electrical balance of the skin. It helps to realign the water molecules so you have a better receptivity to nutrients. But it also stops vital hydration from being lost.

Ms Simmonds refuses to say how much platinum is in the cream but even if it was pure colloidal platinum it still would not justify the price. These people sell it for $375 per gallon. Assuming that is a US gallon since it is an American site, that would be 3785 ml. As of this afternoon (15 April 2012), £1 exchanges for $1.586 so 50 ml of colloidal platinum would cost La Prairie £7.85. The rest of the cost is taken up by profit, packaging and bullshit.

There is certainly plenty of bullshit. From the quote above we have “It is magnetically charged particles of platinum”. This is nonsense, platinum is paramagnetic i.e. becomes slightly magnetised when exposed to a magnetic field but loses its magnetism when the field is removed. So no impact on “the electrical balance of the skin”, whatever that may mean, over and above what you get from being in the Earth’s magnetic field. Just as well platinum doesn’t retain its magnetism, incidently, because according to this weak magnetic fields have been shown to increase evaporation rates so if the colloid were magnetically charged it would not stop “vital hydration from being lost” but rather the reverse.

Incidently, that link does mention that magnetic fields cause an increase in the ordered structure of water around colloids which is probably where the bit about realigning water molecules comes from. It says nothing about improving receptivity to nutrients though and Simmonds never once references any research so we are unable to check the validity of her assertions.

On the subject of research she says the product has been scientifically tested in a Swiss lab and on human volunteers but they “don’t publish the results.” One can only speculate as to why not.

To the point that “Dermatologists say precious metals can have beneficial effects, but not in the tiny quantities used in these creams” she says:

Because of the magnetic charge each particle contains, it’s symmetrical within the product and the way those tiny particles – they’re submicrons, so they’re really, really tiny – that’s how it spreads evenly on the skin, and that’s why it is able to shift water molecules and change the electrical balance.

As noted above, the particles do not contain a “magnetic charge” and even if it did, it would clump together not spread itself evenly around. Unless the magnetic charge is a magnetic monopole, in which case La Prairie’s scientists are shoo-ins for the Nobel Prize for Physics. The rest of her statement is just a meaningless collection of words. I doubt even she could tell us what she actually means.

Simmonds claims that the high cost of of this product is partially due to the cost of materials. As I pointed out above, each bottle contains a little under eight quid’s worth of platinum colloid. She skates past this point by claiming that “platinum has a higher cost than every other metal.” This is not true. According to this market prices of platinum are less than gold and according to this the scrap price of 0.999 purity gold is £30.69 per gramme whereas the price for equal purity platinum is only £27.37 per gramme. Not the most expensive. Their publicity material also claims that platinum is the “rarest metal on earth”. However, according to this it is true that platinum is rare in the Earth’s crust at 0.0037 ppm but tellurium, gold, ruthenium, rhenium, iridium, rhodium and osmium are rarer still.

All this emphasis on rarity and costliness, combined with packaging that contains silver and gold show that what La Prairie are really about is conspicuous consumption. What their customers are doing is saying that they can afford to chuck £656 on a bottle of gunk for which there is no published evidence that it does anything more than something that costs under a tenner a bottle.

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One Response to “La Prairie, Bad Science and Conspicuous Consumption”

  1. A Fifth Year of Steam « Letting Off Steam Says:

    […] the Guardian has been going down-hill since Ben Goldacre left. I did a couple of blog posts (here and here) on Guardian Weekend’s credulous coverage of La Prairie’s £656 for a 50ml […]

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