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Sunday Article 10: Science of Skincare

Science of Skincare!

The skincare industry has built a stunning stronghold with more and more women and men joining their ranks each year, seeking to be knighted with perfect-looking skin. But what remains when you remove the flashy lights and look past these celebrity-endorsed products? Consumers often have very little real evidence to base their purchases on, and very often the evidence supporting its efficacy is financed by the same companies promoting the product. What adds insult to injury is the inclusion of only a very small sample size of predominantly white women giving their subjective opinion during the R&D


A turning point in the industry was the introduction of using more scientific methods in proving the efficacy of a product. An example is the independent test conducted by the Griffiths’ team at the University of Manchester (1) on the Boots’ cream ‘No 7 Protect and Perfect Intense Beauty Serum’. Using the ‘Manchester Patch Test Assay’, significant clinical improvements associated with the deposition of fibrillin-1 in the skin were seen in the treatment of wrinkles on the photoaged dermis.

Fibrillin is a glycoprotein that is secreted into the extracellular matrix (ECM) which supplies the skin with tensile strength and elasticity. The breakdown of key components such as fibrillin and collagen without adequate restoration in the skin is a process that occurs with ageing and is said to be a contributing factor of increased wrinkling.

The Boots’ cream contains retinol, which stimulates the production of collagen and fibrillin in the skin, and represents the magic wand that is seemingly capable of restoring the image of youth.

It didn’t take long before this double-blind, randomized controlled trial was adopted by

other high-street cosmetic companies such as Procter and Gamble, and L’Oréal, ushering in

a decade with more transparent and science-based practices in an industry that often

employs photoshop and miracle diets as a defence strategy. How long will this effect last,

however, is a different question altogether.

Most of the active ingredients in various anti-ageing treatments were first used in clinical dermatological settings. Retinoids were used to treat acne, wrinkles and to even out skin tone. Acids were used to remove older skin on the surface, and antioxidants were prescribed to reduce wrinkles and pigmentation, as well as to protect against UV damage.

The last decade saw an increase in the concentration of active ingredients in commercial

skincare products, but they are often still lower than those prescribed in clinics. To use

higher doses, cosmetics companies are not only required to move around more red tape

and legislation, but also need to consider the increasing side effects including redness and

skin irritation, which would not help sales.

Let’s take a look at the different skincare ingredients that target specific dermatological




The active ingredient, retinol (vitamin A), was first used to treat acne. However, female

patients using topical retinoids also noticed the welcomed side-effect that resolved the fine

lines on their faces (2). This observation, however, should be considered with

a healthy dose of scepticism, which is always true when navigating the ∼$142 billion global

skincare industry (3).

Retinoids act by increasing skin turnover, which helps fade dark spots and keep pores unclogged. Thus, it repairs some of the damage inflicted on the skin, specifically from ultraviolet light, radiation and pollution. The general consensus is that prescription retinoids are able to increase collagen production in the dermis, keeping the skin looking plump and firm. However, the application of collagen itself directly to the skin has no visible benefits, and the verdict is still out on its effectiveness when taken as an oral supplement.

An example of a retinoid is Tretinoin, a derivative of vitamin A, which is said to be able to treat signs of ageing and sun damage, such as fine lines, dullness, and pigmentation. A study by Griffiths C. (1993) 6 found that a Renova product containing topical tretinoin seem to stimulate collagen production by 80% over the course of a year. Another important consideration is that prescription retinoids also frequently come with side effects such as burning, stinging, and irritation. There are also other types of retinoids that are FDA-approved to treat acne and psoriasis, while other slightly milder forms, most notably

retinol, are common in over-the-counter skin creams.


Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that also appears to increase cell turnover and reduce dark spots. It helps the skin maintain its normal barrier function by increasing levels of ceramides, a family of waxy lipid molecules. It locks moisture in the skin by adding fats and other protective ingredients to the skin to help maintain water levels, which is how most moisturizes work.

It also acts as an antioxidant, the second level of protection along with sunscreen, that binds and disarms harmful free radicals which cause skin damage and contribute to the appearance of ageing. Besides creating free radicals that cause oxidative damage, ultraviolet light (both UVA and UVB) also cause cancer. Hence, using a topical antioxidant in the morning along with sunscreen with SPF would be ideal, even when it’s overcast or cold.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is another popular antioxidant that is capable of increasing collagen production, giving it protective and regenerative properties. The biggest caveat of adding Vitamin C to your beauty regime is that the ingredient might never actually make it to your face. Vitamin C is highly unstable and breaks down when exposed to water, air, and UV light. It is virtually impossible for vitamin C to go through a production process without being exposed to one of the three elements that degrade it.


Desquamation, our skin’s ability to shed old cells, slows with age. Hence, desmolytics are chemical exfoliates that are used to speed cell turnover by breaking up desmosomes (the protein bridges that hold cells together) to reveal the fresh and smooth layer beneath. Moreover, its long-term use has been prescribed to improve acne and hyperpigmentation, a harmless condition where patches of skin become darker.


Most dermatologists agree a solid moisturizer is the backbone of a good skincare routine.

Increasing the skin’s water content not only results in a softer, more flexible skin but also reduces the appearance of fine lines and minor scarring. However, the fatty lipid layer in the stratum corneum prevents moisture from being added to the skin. The word moisturizer is a bit of a misnomer because it doesn’t really add moisture. Instead, it prevents water loss from the skin.

Ingredients in moisturizers can be divided into three categories: humectants, emollients,

and occlusives.

Humectants are like sponges. They attract water from below the epidermis and from the atmosphere, drawing it into the stratum corneum. Some common humectant ingredients include glycerine and hyaluronic acid. Glycerine, a water-soluble alcohol, is a very cheap ingredient and often found in many products. It is also sometimes called the “moisture magnet”, as it is capable of holding several times its weight in H2O. However, it can occasionally be so good at doing its job that it feels sticky on a humid day.

Hyaluronic acid is an abundant carbohydrate that is found from skin cells to connective tissues. Some companies market it as an anti-wrinkle ingredient that can promote collagen growth, but it’s actually too large to penetrate deep into the skin. But because it is such an efficient humectant, it can temporarily reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by plumping them up with moisture.

Emollients such as Jojoba oil or squalene are lighter, oil-based substances. However, they typically contain unsaturated fatty acids that are prone to oxidizing which could cause inflammation, clogged pores, and acne. Its allure comes from its ability to ooze between the cracks of the skin, making it feel plump and smooth, cementing its presence in almost all products as cosmetics companies understand that customers associate smoothness as a sign of a good moisturizer.

Occlusives are thick, fatty, and waxy substances that prevent dehydration by forming a water-resistant barrier on the surface of the skin. Some common examples include beeswax and petroleum jelly.


Skincare products bought online or at a drugstore are technically cosmetics, meaning they could potentially change the appearance of your skin, but they cannot, by definition, change the skin cells themselves. “Anything that’s regulated as a drug is going to have the most evidence behind it,” says Michelle Wong (4), who holds a PhD in chemistry and the beauty blogger of Lab Muffin. It would be wise to think twice before splurging RM150 a pot of cream that claims reduce wrinkles.

A cosmetic can’t really do that, it can only make you look like you have fewer wrinkles.

Despite their purported effects, most ingredients are not drugs and are often advertised with ambiguous terms, such as “smooth,” “rejuvenate,” “glow,”, and “plump”, keeping in mind that none of these are scientific terms. However, no matter the background of skincare specialists, they all seem to be able to agree on one fundamental piece to the skincare puzzle – that

it consists of three essential steps: face wash, sunscreen and moisturizer.

Deciphering strange ingredients on the backs of bottles can be overwhelming. The current market includes all sorts of exotic ingredients such as stem cells, snail slime, charcoal and diamonds, who’s the efficacy that is at best, questionable. However, do not feel like you need a chemistry degree to purchase a basic moisturizer, consulting a dermatologist is the best way to be sure you’re doing what’s right for the skin you’re in.



1. Watson, R. E., Ogden, S., Cotterell, L. F., Bowden, J. J., Bastrilles, J. Y., Long, S. P., & Griffiths, C. E. (2009). Effects of a cosmetic 'anti-ageing' product improves photoaged skin [corrected]. The British journal of dermatology, 161(2), 419–426.

2. O H Mills and A M Kligman, Semin. Dermatol., 1982, 1, 233



5. Robinson M, Visscher M, Laruffa A, Wickett R. Natural moisturizing factors (NMF) in the stratum corneum (SC). I. Effects of lipid extraction and soaking. J Cosmet Sci. 2010 Jan-Feb;61(1):13-22. PMID: 20211113.

6. Griffiths C, Majmudar G, at el. (1993). Restoration of Collagen Formation in Photodamaged Human Skin by Tretinoin (Retinoic Acid). The New England Journal of Medicine. N Engl J Med 1993; 329:530-535. DOI: 10.1056/NEJM199308193290803


This article is prepared by Emily Ng.

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