Perfect skin is unattainable because it doesn't exist. -Krithika Varagur
By Caitlin Huang
Cleanser. Toner. Serum. Moisturizer. The morning routine many people follow to try to obtain smooth, clear, and ultimately “perfect” skin. Miss a day of skincare, eat the wrong thing, use the wrong products, and those pesky pimples might make an appearance and make you regret those decisions. Stuck at home, many people have found new ways to clear their skin, get rid of acne scars, and shrink their pores.
Acne, the most common skin condition, affects 50 million Americans each year, and approximately 85% of people aged 12 to 24 experience some form of it. Acne occurs because excess dead skin, oil, and bacteria accumulates in our pores and cannot escape. Thus, many people turn to skincare products to cleanse their pores. The search to get rid of acne and acne scars can take months and even years, and even then the solutions are typically very costly. A recent study on the average cost of skincare concluded that on average, women spend $313 per month on their appearances, with an estimated total of over $225,000 spent in a lifetime. Men, on the other hand, spent $244 a month on their appearance on average and over $175,000 in a lifetime. So before spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on potentially harmful products, it is important to look into what ingredients are actually helpful and what combination of ingredients are suitable for different skin types. Keep in mind that our skin is healthiest around the pH level of 5.5 (mildly acidic), an important factor as you begin to build your skincare routine. To start, here are some of the more common ingredients found in skincare along with their suggested usages:
AHA- Alpha- Hydroxy Acids
Glycolic acid and lactic acid are common AHA’s. Their primary use is for exfoliation, a process where dead skin cells are removed from the surface of the skin, clearing room for a new layer. This can help reduce acne breakouts, discoloration, and wrinkles. Another use for AHA’s is for fuller and smoother looking skin through collagen production. Collagen is a protein rich fiber, and it forms the middle layer of our skin, or dermis, which gives our face our structure (see Figure 1). As we age, collagen begins to deteriorate, and AHA’s help to destroy old fibers to allow new collagen to form. The FDA suggests using products with AHA concentrations of 10% or less and a pH of 3.5 or greater. While these products are incredibly effective in reducing acne, they also increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so the FDA encourages concurrent use of sunscreen.
While many people do not consider sunscreen a part of their skincare routine, it is one of the most important steps. UV causes our skin to age prematurely and can lead to skin cancer, but according to the CDC, the proper application of sunscreen cuts that risk in half. Those few minutes spent outside walking from your front door to your mailbox— even on a cloudy or snowy day— eventually add up, accumulating damage that has the potential to cause more serious problems.
Broad spectrum sunscreen is recommended because it covers both UVB and UVA rays. UVB rays cause sunburns, while UVA rays age our skin through tanning which may also lead to sunburns. It is recommended that you use sunscreen with SPF 30 or greater: SPF 30 tells us that it’ll take 30 times longer to burn compared to no sunscreen.
BHA- Beta- Hydroxy Acids
BHA is more commonly known as Salicylic Acid. Salicylic acid softens and dissolves the keratin, a protein that causes cells to stick together, in our skin. Specifically, it penetrates deep into pores to loosen any clogging, which can help with active breakouts and prevent future ones from happening. BHA is oil soluble meaning that it can help slow down the production of oil.
BHA’s has many of the same functions as AHA’s, so how do you know what is right for your skin? AHA’s are usually recommended for those with drier skin because it exfoliates the top layer of skin whereas BHA’s are used for those with normal to oily skin because it penetrates deeper into the tissue. However, these ingredients can be used together depending on one's skin concerns and if more exfoliation is needed- usually if sun damage and/ or stubborn pores are present.
Hyaluronic Acid (HA)
This is a sugar naturally found in our skin to retain hydration and is often used to prevent the appearance of aging such as wrinkles. HA brings the moisture to the surface of our skin. As we get older, the amount of hyaluronic acid our body produces diminishes. Other factors such as diet can also affect the amount of HA in our bodies. The healthier we eat-- such as leafy greens and citrus fruits-- the more our skin retains HA.
Although it’s most commonly used as a pick-me-up, caffeine can be very beneficial for the skin. Caffeine is an antioxidant and has many anti-aging benefits— it can reduce puffy eyes, redness, and wrinkles. When used topically, caffeine constricts blood vessels and tightens our skin.
These ingredients can come in many different concentrations and forms. What works for one person’s skin most likely will not work for someone else’s skin. Similar to how different ingredients are intended for different concerns, different concentrations and forms of these ingredients also impacts their effectiveness.
Commonly known as Ascorbic Acid in skincare products, vitamin C is an antioxidant— it protects our skin from free radicals which play a role in cancer and many diseases— and makes our skin look even and bright. It also accelerates the production of collagen. Vitamin C is found naturally in the epidermis and dermis layers of our skin, but as we age, this decreases; constant exposure to pollution and UV can also expedite this depletion process.
Retinol is derived from vitamin A which helps to hydrate the skin and prevent breakouts. Retinol specifically increases the amount of collagen in skin, reducing fine lines and wrinkles and makes the skin more plump.
Clay masks have become increasingly popular recently and are commonly used to treat acne and blackheads. Clay acts as a deep cleanser to draw out impurities and also helps to absorb oil, a leading cause of acne. There are many types of clay, all of which have their own purposes (see Figure 2):
Some products you should never mix:
AHA and Retinol: These both are surface exfoliators, so using them in combination may result in significant irritation to the skin.
BHA and Retinol: Both of these can dry out the skin, and when layered, they can lead to over-drying of skin.
Vitamin C and Retinol: These are most effective when vitamin C is used in the morning and retinol is used at night, as vitamin C protects and retinol rebuilds. Layering these ingredients makes them ineffective.
Vitamin C and AHA: Because these two ingredients are acidic, when used together, they make our skin too acidic.
Many people have entire collections of barely-used facial cleansers and moisturizers because they just don’t work. The sheer abundance of skin products with labels such as “clears breakouts,” or “clinically proven to deep clean,” or “look and feel younger,” along with various influencers claiming the best skin routine are the exact reasons for the clutter in the back of our cabinets.
Cosmetics are innocent until proven guilty. -Julie Beck
Unfortunately, there is not much we can do to test if these products work for us until we try it. All we can do is search for what ingredients we should be looking for in the products we buy. As for what brand works? That is also a search that could take years but can be accelerated by knowing your own skin type and needs.
Our skincare routine does not just end with these products. Important factors that are almost always forgotten are our diet and lifestyle. Be on the lookout for a follow-up article covering these topics!
Acne occurs because excess dead skin, oil, and bacteria accumulates in our pores and cannot escape
Affects 50 million Americans each year
Approximately 85% of people aged 12 to 24 experience some form of it
Hundreds of dollars are spent each month on skincare
AHA- Used for exfoliation, help reduce acne breakouts, discoloration and wrinkles, fuller and smoother looking skin (Typically drier skin)
Sunscreen- Protect our skin from the damaging effects of UV- aging prematurely and skin cancer
BHA- Loosen clogging, helps with active and future breakouts, slows the production of oil (Typically for normal to oily skin)
HA- Retain hydration, prevent appearance of aging, brings moisture to the surface
Caffeine- Reduce puffy eyes, redness, and wrinkles, constricts blood vessels and tightens our skin
Vitamin C- Makes our skin bright and even by protecting our skin from free radicals (damage the growth and survival of cells)
Retinol- Hydrate our skin, reduces fine lines and wrinkles
Clay- Commonly used to treat acne and blackheads, draws out impurities to absorb oil
Cover Image belongs to ScienceMade.org,Caitlin Huang.