In part one, we looked at the evolution of ingredients—from arsenic to retinols—and the shift to making science-based claims about skincare. In this concluding instalment, we look at three popular ‘actives’—and assess if any of them actually work.
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Researched by: Rachel John
Ingredient #1: Retinoids
What are they: These are popular derivatives of vitamin A. The first retinoid product was Tretinoin—sold under the brand name Retin-A. It was first sold as an anti-acne product in the 1970s. Today, it is included in anti-aging products that reduce the appearance of wrinkles, age spots and patches of rough skin.
What retinoids do: They basically help you produce new cells and get rid of the old. Here’s how a cosmetic doctor Mervyn Patterson describes it:
He said that it works by encouraging basal cells (in the lowest layer of the skin) to divide, and as a result you get more new epidermal cells that migrate up to the skin's surface and eventually become the rooftop. "The more retinol you put on the skin, the more these new cells appear at the surface, at which point a mechanism kicks in that wants to shed the excess skin - that's the exfoliation process," he said.
Retinoids can also help boost the production of collagen—which keeps our skin supple and firm when we are young. We lose about 1-1.7% of our collagen starting in the mid-twenties.
Retinoids vs Retinols: Retinoids are present only in prescription strength drugs. Over the counter beauty products contain retinols. These are 20X less potent—and contain “precursor molecules”—i.e they become active only when they interact with your enzymes.
The big ‘but’: There is no doubt that retinoids are highly effective. But that doesn’t mean your overpriced serum is doing the same work. Remember: Retinols have to break down inside your body to become active—unlike retinoids. And that doesn’t always happen: “[R]etinol is extremely unstable and easily gets degraded to biologically inactive forms on exposure to light and air.”
With an over-the-counter product, “you don’t necessarily know how much of it you’re getting, or how active the ingredient is,” Sachs says. “Not that we know what the right concentration is.” Even the most dogged amateur skin-care scientist won’t be able to figure out what research doesn’t yet know, or what information is hidden by manufacturers.
We don’t even know if an ingredient has penetrated our skin—which is essential for retinol to do its work. There’s also a great danger we will overuse retinol—or combine it with some contraindicated ingredient in another product. Unlike standard medicines, we have zero guidance on how to use retinols—given the rush to market every product as the ‘most potent’, ‘fastest acting’ etc.
The ‘ageing’ ingredient: Here’s the biggest irony about retinol. It works by forcing our body to produce new cells. But cells can divide only a finite number of times—which is why we age. And slathering on retinol can even accelerate that process:
We don't live forever. So if you plaster way too much retinol on in your 20s, 30s, and 40s, you could be depleting all of those healthy cell divisions that you really should be storing for cell divisions further down your lifetime.
Ingredient #2: Hyaluronic acid
What is this: It is naturally present in our bodies—and is a component of collagen. The largest amounts “are found in the skin, connective tissue and eyes, where its main function is to retain water and keep your tissues and joints well moisturised.” Unlike retinols, hyaluronic acid is not about exfoliation but hydration. Its main claim to fame: it retains up to 1,000 times its weight in water.
What it claims to do: Skincare companies claim that hyaluronic acid serums are “deeply hydrating”—and “bind water to the skin from the deepest layers of the skin to the surface.” The best example is this claim on the L'Oréal website:
Ageing skin is associated with lack of hydration and one of the hyaluronic acid advantages is to combat signs of ageing. Using hyaluronic acid for ageing skin hydrates and plumps up the skin, making fine lines and wrinkles less noticeable. Applying hyaluronic acid under your eyes is also a great way to plump your tear troughs, reduce crow’s feet, and knock off years from your age.
What it actually does: Not very much. For starters, Hyaluronic is made up of a long chain of large sugar molecules. It has a hard time penetrating our skin—leave alone drawing water from its “deepest layers.” As one leading dermatologist explains:
It just can’t do that. It’s too huge of a molecule. It’s a wonderful substance, made by our body, that is found in the skin’s dermis. As we age the level of it naturally decreases, but we are constantly making it. When you put hyaluronic acid onto the skin, it simply acts like a water sealant. It does draw moisture and water to the skin, but it just sits on the surface, it doesn’t get absorbed.
It most certainly can’t reduce your wrinkles because it would have to get past 20 layers of skin—into the epidermis and all the way into the layer below called the dermis.
The silver lining: Hyaluronic acid won’t hurt or irritate your skin. And it makes a good moisturiser that helps support your natural skin barrier. Though some do raise this red flag: “Over time, continued use of HA slowly siphons the skin’s internal moisture stores, leaving the dermis dehydrated and dependent on a cocktail of other creams and oils and essences to retain basic moisture levels.”
Ingredient #3: Niacinamide
What is Niacinamide: The latest darling of the skincare industry is a form of vitamin B3—which is an antioxidant that is important for cell repair. It is found in poultry, legumes, and eggs.
What does it do: Our body produces two coenzymes—NAD+/NADH) and (NADP+)—that help our skin cells repair damage, divide, and function normally. Giving your body niacinamide helps it produce more NAD+—and therefore repair damage. It is typically recommended as an effective treatment for acne and rosacea. There is some evidence that it helps reduce wrinkles by increasing the production of ceramides—which help maintain the skin’s protective barrier. But claims of reducing hyperpigmentation are likely overblown.
Big point to note: The father of cosmeceuticals Dr Albert Kligman identified three properties of an effective skincare ingredient. One: can it penetrate the skin’s outer layer. Two: Does it have the biochemical composition to act on the target cell or tissue. Three: “Are there published, peer-reviewed, double-blind, placebo-controlled, statistically significant, clinical trials to substantiate the efficacy claims?” In the case of niacinamide, the answer is a ‘yes’ to all three.
An important caveat: The most recent studies on niacinamide were published between 2005 and 2012. There isn’t a lot of new research on the stuff.
The bottomline: There is nothing wrong with wanting our skin to look good. But the skincare industry’s real problem is that it shames us into spending all our money to get the “perfect” (read: perfectly young) skin. And that is its biggest scam. As Jessica DeFino says:
This is an effort by the industry to manipulate the customer into spending her time and money on beauty, while also feeling empowered and intelligent. It’s thinking that if we can talk with authority about the science of a product we are using, it’s somehow not giving in to an impossible standard of beauty.
For the most on retinoids/retinols, read Business Insider, this article from Harvard University and this study from the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging. If you want to know more about hyaluronic acid, check out Independent and Newsweek. Self is best on niacinamide and how to use it. Popular Science has an excellent analysis of the ingredients in your skincare products. We spent a lot of time on the shakier aspects of skincare—Racked offers a good counterview. We didn’t get into paraben-free products—so you may want to check out Washington Post on that angle.