Skin care can be confusing. In part, the industry wants us to stay confused so we continue to buy. In part, scientists are out there searching for the pot of gold. We are left bewildered by faraway cries of, “Gold, gold!” as they run from rainbow to rainbow, lab coats flapping.
Not surprisingly, High WASP women traditionally follow skin care regimes according to archetype. This used to be simpler. Grandes Dames bought Christian Dior, or Elizabeth Arden, silver-lidded jars from the department store where they shopped. My mother was on Team Saks, consumer loyalty to be taken as seriously as Pepsi vs. Coke. Artsy Cousins loved Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap, purchased in a health store where it sat next to brewer’s yeast. Sturdy Gals used Ivory Soap, some sort of moisturizing lotion, and witch hazel.
These days the Grande Dame has been known to buy a pound of Creme de la Mer in one go. To wash with fragrant cleansing oils from Japan. Artsy Cousins will make their own remedies, or hunt down obscure African nut butters. Sturdy Gals are simple folk. We just want products that work. Maybe smell good. OK, maybe help us look young and beautiful. Because let’s face it. Few are all that sturdy when it comes to skin care and the promise of youth in a jar.
Ever since science entered the picture, we have had to at least try to find skin care products that speak biology, not Faerie. I have hated biology since I was 14. All those impossible-to-remember-or-understand words. I much prefer fairy tales. But I digress. Research is required. On websites that use words like mitochondria, and glycation. You may want to pour yourself some Lapsang Souchong, and sit for a while. Here is what we uncover.
The first step in good skin care, for all ages, is to deal with your skin’s oil production capabilities, or lack thereof. This is fairly straightforward to assess, although not always easy to handle. You may have acne. You may break out occasionally. (You may think you will be done with breakouts by your early 20’s. You will most likely be wrong.) But breakouts are their own science and I will leave it to ProActiv and dermatologists to advise.
You may have dry skin. Moisture is good, apparently. Keeps your skin safe from irritation and infection, and allows the upper layer to protect the lower layers. Who knew? However, when you’re young, unless you chap or chafe, unless you live in Arizona with relative humidity of -40%, or in cold winters of wind and heaters, you don’t really need moisturizers. As you age, make sure that whatever you use to prevent wrinkles or spots or sagging includes moisturizing ingredients. This isn’t hard. The skin care industry likes to moisturize us. It’s a known technology.
So it appears that this billion dollar business actually lives or dies by aging. Or, to be more specific, the prevention of age effects. Unfortunately, skin aging is just part of regular aging, made more acute by sun exposure, and the fact that our skin is on our outsides, battered and abraded by the exigencies of life. Since we haven’t yet understood regular aging, we haven’t completely understood skin aging either.
We do know that what’s good for your body and soul is good for your skin. Exercise, eat vegetables, don’t smoke, keep your weight at a healthy level. Wear sunscreen often. No blue glass, no scent, no silver lid required. I hear that answer, but I knew it already, and I want more.
In fact, there are a few products of proven value, and a whole bunch more that you can experiment with. Great, right? Done, right? But no. Enter science, once again. Chemicals may be dangerous. Yes. The task of finding good skin care involves understanding which ingredients have been proven to work as claimed, which ingredients perhaps work as claimed, and which ingredients may, in fact, be harmful. Damn biology, and its nasty little friend, chemistry.
A Brief Summary Of Skin And Aging Biology (only for you guys, only for you)
Skin has three layers:
- The top one (epidermis) is to protect, the next one (dermis) holds the structure of collagen and elastic, the bottom one consists primarily of fat. Wrinkles happen in the middle layer, coloration in the top.
- To have any effect, products must penetrate the top layer.
- Active molecules have to be little. Applying collagen, for example, does nothing.
- Slowdown of new cell growth and old cell elimination,
- Degeneration of the collagen and elastin that sustains skin’s structure
- Changes in pigmentation as, um, pigment stuff clumps up. (I just can’t get any more biological than that.)
Skincare Efforts Proven To Work (In As Much Non-Scientific English As Possible, To The Best Of My Understanding. That Was A Disclaimer.)
Clean Carefully. Soap takes off too many lipids (fatty stuff you need), exposing skin to, well, the world. Find something gentler. Cetaphil, if you don’t mind non-plant based formulas. If you want plant-based, you’ve got to experiment and watch out for irritation.
Take Dead Skin Cells Off The Top Layer. Exfoliate with chemistry or physics. If your skin can tolerate AHAs and BHAs, they are the most effective. If your skin is irritated by these products, use a physical exfoliation product. A gentle one. With smooth particles. Those rough ones will rip the heck out of your skin.
Protect And Keep Moisture In Top Layer. Use moisturizing ingredients, occlusive ones for really dry skin (that means they make a film), or ones that attract water, like hyaluronic acid, glycerin or dimethicone, for the rest of us.
Renew Collagen, Retinoic acid, i.e. Retin A, has been proven to make us grow collagen faster. (It also makes that critical middle layer thicker). Retinol, which is commercially available from Roc, Neutrogena, you name it, also works, without prescription but less effectively. Copper peptides and vitamin C have been shown to help skin to produce collagen, copper peptides also help heal and reduce inflammation, Vitamin C is also an anti-oxidant. Were we to move beyond routine skin care to the world of dermatologists, we would undergo laser therapy and deep peels. Just be clear that dermatological interventions work via what they call controlled tissue injuries. Eek. I may do it anyway.
Reduce Dark Patches. We have known how to help fade dark patches for some time. Hydroquinone works, but there has been enough concern about its safety that prescription is now required for concentrations over 4%. Companies are trying out arbutin, a related compound, in hopes of finding a less worrisome replacement. Beauty roulette.
Experimental Skin Care
Prevent Free Radicals From Rampaging Through Your Skin. Free radicals are implicated in aging overall. We find a different anti-oxidant, to combat free radicals, advertised every time we turn around. Q-10, Idebedone, Alpha Lipoic Acid, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and so on. It appears, however, that little proof of topical anti-oxidant effectiveness exists. We know they are good for us if we eat them. We suspect they are good for us if we put them on our skin. So anti-oxidize away. Just be clear, you’re experimenting.
Prevent Degradation Of Collagen And Elastin. Some theorize that just growing new collagen and elastin isn’t good enough. We need to prevent the stuff we’ve got from falling apart. To this end, skin care companies are researching, and in come cases offering, topical tropoelastin, Ethocyn, and topical matrix metalloproteinases inhibitors. Yikes. I told you this stuff was biology.
Temporary Fixes, Because Why The Heck Not?
- Spackling Wrinkles. You can fill your wrinkles in with silicon. And why not, I ask? No reason. But it’s temporary. On the other hand, so is life.
- Distract With Mirrors. Some ingredients reflect light and ostensibly blur the look of wrinkles. OK. I’m always up for fun at makeup counters. My kind of research.
- Plumping The Shriveled. Hyaluronic acid, and other water-binding compounds, can have a temporary plumping effect. Sounds good.
- Tightening Sagginess. Some ingredients have a temporary tightening effect. See life.
Skincare Chemicals Proven To Be Harmful
Here’s the thing. I see no evidence that skincare ingredients currently offered have been proven harmful. Not the the way the Western scientific community defines proof, or harm, for that matter. The Western community is more upset about the use of botanicals that may be ineffective or cause irritation and allergic reaction. However, alarms are now sounding about many compounds, parabens in particular. And as we know from history, smoke, when hovering around the heat of commerce, often means fire.
Stuff You Maybe Hadn’t Thought Of (I Certainly Hadn’t)
Turns out that packaging may be more important than a host of other things we pay attention to. Active ingredients become inactive very quickly. Jars are bad, little pumps are good. Clear containers are bad, opaque good.
The Most Important Part Of This Post, Otherwise Known As, So What Do I Do Now?
You have a few choices. As long as you are wearing sunscreen or hats, exercising, and eating well, I believe that skin care falls into the do-whatever-makes-you feel-best-category. Especially if you are under 30. That said, if what makes you feel best is trying to act on current science, I present:
The Sturdy Gal’s Short List Of Skin Care To-Dos.
- Find a non-soap cleanser at a happy juncture of price, ingredients, feel, and scent.
- Pick an exfoliation strategy. Minimal for the young, more intentional for the older. Chemical, or physical, your choice.
- Use moisturizer with an anti-oxidant that doesn’t irritate your skin. Or a copper peptide cream.
- Rotate Vitamin C serums and/or Retinol for collagen support to see what you can tolerate. Make sure the packaging protects from oxygen and light.
- Choose between Retinol, peptides, Vitamin C, and any other anti-oxidant cluster. Pick 2 only. Using too many different ingredients at the same time is risky business.
- If you want to avoid scary chemicals, you should sample several different natural product lines. Everyone has different skin, and botanicals can be unpredictable.
- Find a sunscreen you will actually wear. 45 SPF doesn’t work if it’s in your drawer.
Of course, if you are truly Sturdy, feel free to ignore everything I just said. Nothing wrong with Dove soap and some Aveeno after to avoid that too squeaky feeling.
Finally, if you really want to optimize (any engineers out there?), I recommend that you take a peek at the three websites I relied on for my research. Paula Begoun’s Beautypedia, available for a minimal subscription fee, takes the Western stance. Science is all. She excoriates many skin care products for complete ineffectiveness or appalling over-pricing. Well worth the read. But, and it’s a big but, she pays no never mind to questions of toxicity. For that information, you need to go to Skin Deep. They focus on ingredient safety. Cross reference, if you will. Take your list of products and go see what these sites say about them. Rinse, lather, repeat.
The third resource, Smart Skin Care, provides the background against which to understand Beautypedia and Skin Deep. But it’s just full of biology. Biology and that little sot, chemistry. Some of you are good at that. If you see something I missed, let me know. Unfortunately, you’ll have to use English or it may take me a long time to understand what you say. Everything I say here is as true as I can make it.
Note: This post was at a reader’s request. Months ago.
Image: .snow’s photostream on Flickr