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Do we even NEED to moisturise and can face creams really keep you looking younger?

October 19, 2015

Wouldn’t it be terrible for the cosmetic industry if the answer to these questions was no?  Well the truth is that in some cases it might be……..

I saw this article last night and it struck me as important because it basically covered the essence of my two-hour beauty school chemistry lecture that I give – the bit where I explain what ‘the point’ of bothering to get oil and water to mix (to form a cream/ emulsion) to slap onto skin that already has a provision for both.

I think it is time to do some cross-examining.


It is currently fact that the cosmetic industry is primarily driven by fashion, marketing and big promises. Promises that we call claims and claims that are often only backed up by small trials which might be on cell culture only (cells grown in the lab that returned a positive result when tested in the presence of a key active) or more preferably on people.  This doesn’t give cosmetic claims the scientific backing that you might get with a pharmaceutical or functional food but to date it hasn’t had to as cosmetic products are, by definition, designed to beautify, perfume, protect and/or restore the appearance of the skin and nothing more.

While it is correct that a healthy skin is well equip to produce its own oil phase and water phase and therefore ‘moisturise’ its self the majority of us humans are living in conditions that are challenging to our skin at least some of the time:

  • We bathe too much
  • Use too many detergents that degrease our skin (how many times a day do we wash our hands?
  • We eat and drink foods that are not that nutritious
  • We stay up too late / don’t get enough restful sleep
  • We work in air-conditioned spaces
  • We might live in a country that is a different climate to the one in which our skin evolved
  • We wear clothing that might irritate or sweat our skin
  • We shave, pluck and wax
  • We sunbathe
  • We live much longer now
  • We get stressed
  • We sometimes react to allergens that are in our environment
  • We travel, sometimes on planes and through time zones and our bodies can’t just keep up

And this is the point where I say to my students ‘yes, the skin is the largest organ and that’s why we need to take care of it but did you realise that it is an organ of excretion?’

I didn’t see that mentioned in the article.

This fact is key to a good cosmetic product for two reasons.

  1. as our skin is actively playing a role in getting the crapola out of our bodies we need to allow it to continue to do its job – we mustn’t smother or block it.  This is one of the main reasons we make emulsions, they have the best balance between oil and water. Protective and supportive but not occlusive.
  2. Our ‘toxic’ modern life is pumping out of our pores (and yes, I do know that pores are hair follicles) and that helps to fuel our need for products that can redress the balance as we are literally sweating out rubbish.

So what about the anti-ageing?  Can face creams really make you look younger?

I feel that this is one area where the article has gone in to the fashion end and missed the basics.  Anti-ageing creams are the most expensive end of town in terms of cosmetics and people buy them for all sorts of reasons and not just because they feel that everything that is written on the pack will come true.  But before that and included in these anti-ageing creams is some technology that you can’t really fault.

All moisturisers contain an oil phase that, when rubbed into the skin disperses evenly and lightly across the surface of the skin to help to support the skins natural barrier functioning.  The fact that for most products all we are doing is lubricating the dead cells, the corneocytes isn’t an issue as these dead cells (that we all have) are still serving a key purpose in protecting us from the outside world and plump, well-ordered and hydrated cells do this better than dried out flaking ones.  Oils can help hydrate the skin by slowing down the rate at which our natural moisture evaporates.  Sometimes we really need this (see above list) but sometimes we just prefer how nice our skin looks after we’ve applied it.

All moisturisers also contain a water phase and often this water phase is boosted by humectants (water binding ingredients), salts (things like Aloe Vera or Sodium PCA), vitamins and extracts.  Out of everything the humectants probably do the best job of sustaining the skins moisture balance and helping it feel comfortable and look good over time.  Our skin cells are approximately 2/3rds water so maintaining the water balance of our cells, even our dead skin cells makes sense as this article suggests. 

So without even going into anything any more complex like peptides, collagen, elastin or growth factors cosmetic emulsions can help to boost the skins natural moisturising factor (by providing active water) and oil barrier.

In terms of vitamins there is plenty of evidence to say that topically applied retinol or vitamin A derivatives do affect the skin in a positive way and that’s not surprising given that our reachable skin cells have receptors that suck that stuff right up.  We don’t have those sorts of receptors for colloidal oatmeal,  silk peptides, hyaluronic acid or aloe vera but that doesn’t mean they are useless.

If we think now about ageing and the ‘do face creams really keep you looking younger’ most of us understand that ageing can be both intrinsic (that which comes from our genetics) and extrinsic (that which comes from outside). I wouldn’t be surprised if we also discover a ‘that which comes when both get together’ type of ageing too – the epigenetic factor.  Anyway, cosmetic products would be hard pushed to change your DNA but they can help to prevent or to support the body when it comes under attack from environmental stressors, stressors being the operative word.

We know that wearing sunscreen and preventing sun burn or tanning has the added benefit of being anti-ageing. Many anti-ageing creams also contain broad spectrum sunscreen.

Anyone that has ever felt stress knows how telling that can be on the skin and how old a run of bad luck can leave you looking.  Even if we take antioxidants (vitamin C and E) out of the picture stressed skin can still benefit from having the barrier protection burden lightened in the form of a light ‘do no harm’ moisturising cream.

So what next?

I feel that the article is so focused on the ‘yes but where is the meta data’ that it somewhat misses the point that we as humans don’t necessarily NEED a robust, long-term, thousands-plus people study to validate a broad ‘anti-ageing’ claim. Yes some of the claims made by cosmetic companies are a little far-fetched and I do believe that the world would be a better place if we tightened up on this but just because some brands or product lines sell tall stories it doesn’t mean that everything is useless.  That does seem rather depressing way of looking at it.

I think it is fair to say that modern life DOES put stresses on us and our skin bares the brunt of that both from what we take into the body and what we are exposed to on the outside.  Whether you tackle that with a $5 aqueous cream or a $200 tub of ‘miracle in a jar’ is up to you and up to your budget.

I tend to look at it this way, take car shopping as an example. Most of us need a car now, cars are expensive items so the vast majority of us first look around at what we can afford, we set a budget.  Next we look to see  which car suits our primary need most  – how many seats, have we space to park it, is it up to the job.  Finally we do the less-tangible stuff – does it ‘feel’ right for us, do we ‘love’ it, do we resonate with the brand etc…..

The car we pick isn’t just the most rational choice, sometimes we pick the car that we just love the most as long as we can afford it.

Cosmetics are the same.

So what should a cosmetic cream aim to be?

  • I feel that it is imperative that cosmetic brand owners do everything in their power to test their products for safety. A cosmetic cream should first do no harm to the skin.
  • A cosmetic cream that is being sold as ‘anti-ageing’ or moisturising should at the very least support the normal functioning of the skin in terms of barrier protection and/or moisture balance.  I believe that testing this visibly and through customer feedback is enough so long as the product is safe.  Do you FEEL better with it, does your skin LOOK better, is it COMFORTABLE?
  • Claims that go over-and-above the basic moisturise and protect should be backed up by some data – not by serious big-pharma style trials but by studies on reasonable numbers of people – 100 minimum say- using visible results to back up any scientific explanations.  To be fair this does happen for most of the big brands and ingredient manufacturers are getting better at providing this sort of data before they place their ingredient on the market but we could always do more.

So do we NEED the products that people like me make?

Need is a very strong word and maybe not one that I would use in the context of cosmetics.

It is clear that the skin does everything in its power to maintain balance and under normal conditions we don’t NEED cosmetic products but we must first ask ourselves if we are living under ‘normal’ conditions?  Also  I’m not convinced that debating need is really necessary.  It feels like it is missing the point.

The point is we WANT to look after ourselves, to pamper, preen and play and our beauty ritual is an important part of that.  I feel both from personal experience and from observing others that a little bit of help in terms of barrier protection and correction is welcome and helpful at times but not necessary for everybody all of the time but that shouldn’t stop us slapping on the products if that is what we want to do.

After all nobody NEEDS ice cream but for those that love it the world would be a terrible place without it.

And unlike ice cream cosmetic products don’t contribute to the clogging of your arteries.

So that is what I think.

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