Searching for skincare products is a daunting task. Not only do prices run from nothing to ridiculous but who even knows what all those ingredients labeled in teeny-tiny print mean?
La Mer for all of your skincare needs or Lancome? Creme de la Mer, which you will find only at exclusive venues, will run you $310 for 2 oz. Lancome which is sold just about anywhere retails their Renergie Night Creme at $107 for 2.5 oz. In fact there are any number of face cremes that are much less expensive than either and boast the same results. But is La Mer really worth the $310 price tag? I certainly don’t know but I will tell you this; unless Santa plans on surprising me with the coveted nectar from Le Mer I will never know. Searching for skincare products is a daunting task. Not only do prices run from nothing to ridiculous but who even knows what all those ingredients labeled in teeny-tiny print mean? The only thing I am acutely aware of is science has a lot to do with advancements in skincare products. However, there is so much money behind the marketing of the seemingly infinite number of choices that I am unable to decipher truth from fiction when it comes to claims made by skincare manufacturers . It would take a scientist to unravel the mysteries of skincare so I asked one.
Nina Jablonski, PH.D in anthropology, palaeobiologist and author of the book Skin, A Natural History, welcomed my questions.
If you had a magnifying glass with you while you shopped for skincare and were able to read the ingredients, which ones would you avoid?
The first thing to consider before shopping for skin care products is the nature of your own skin, particularly your level of sensitivity to the sun, to different kinds of sunscreens, to different kinds of soaps and cleansers, and to retinol products. The product that works remarkably well for one person may have ingredients that cause the next person to break out into hives or acne. In recent years, there has been a major trend away from skin care products with any kind of preservatives, and most skin care companies have gone to great lengths to remove most or all of these from their products. The most commonly used preservatives were parabens, derivatives of vitamin E and vitamin C, alcohol-based compounds, and benzoic acids. These compounds were added to prevent bacteria and fungi from growing in the product. The dangers posed by these products to humans were close to nonexistent, but the public got whipped up into such a frenzy (particularly about parabens, more below) that industry decided it was easier to remove them. Now, nearly all products tout “no preservatives,” which means that they are going to be denaturing quickly and becoming wonderful culture media for bacteria! Great!! What progress!!! There are no specific ingredients that one needs to absolutely avoid, but I would not indulge in an industrial size bottle or pot of anything unless you plan to use it up quickly.
Which ingredients would you want to see on the packaging?
So much depends on what you are looking for. Do you want to buy a new cream to reduce the appearance of wrinkles, to fade or even-out pigmentation, or prevent sun damage? You really need to do your research before going shopping. This is actually easier than you might think. In order to find out what the best new molecules are (whether they are targeted for reducing wrinkles, evening out pigmentation, or as sunscreens), check out the web sites for top-of-the-range products in any particular corporate line, and see what ingredients they are featuring. The big skin care and cosmetics companies like L’Oréal, Proctor & Gamble, LVMH, etc. put LOTS of money into developing new molecules that have specific actions on skin, and when they have something good, they roll it out first in their top product line. Over the years, the new molecules eventually make their way down the product lines and become much more affordable. Consumers are very discerning about the products they buy, and these companies know that. There is very little “snake oil” that is being marketed any more, but you need to know what you want before you go shopping. There is a lot of good information on corporate web sites. If you see a product advertised in a magazine or elsewhere and you are interested in it, dig around on the product’s web site to find out more about it.
If your budget allowed you to splurge on one skincare item for your face what would it be?
My first inclination is to say, “a hat,” because most of the damage that women seek to treat – wrinkles, loss of elasticity, and irregularities of pigmentation – is due to sun exposure. It’s not surprising, then, that I’m recommending that women should consider splurging on a good facial sunscreen/moisturizer that is appropriate for their skin color and skin sensitivity. This should be a “broad spectrum” product that protects against UVA and UVB, and one that would be used in addition to your normal BB cream or foundation. After that, my bucks would go to a good anti-wrinkle serum. After that, my priority (based on my own skin issues) would be a good serum for evening out pigmentation.
What do you consider splurge in US dollars?
You can get a top-of-the-line facial sunscreen for $20-$40 and highly effective serums for $20-$30 per tube, in most any drug store. Good products for reducing unevenness of pigmentation tend to be more expensive ($30-$60) and available only at places like Ulta or Sephora, but are really worth it for women over 40.
Are petroleum products the devil’s work?
No, they are not, and anyone who tells you they are is being less than honest. Many women around the world use petroleum jelly on their skin as their sole moisturizer, and their skin looks good into their 6th, 7th, and 8th decades!
What are parabens, in plain English please, and should we approach then with caution?
Parabens are esters of para-hydrobenzoic acid with various alcohols. They are small organic molecules that are excellent at preventing the growth of bacteria and fungi. They are cheap to produce and highly effective at prolonging the life of skin and hair care products and cosmetics. They started going out of favor over a decade ago, when there were indications that their use might be associated with increased breast cancer and other health risks. These risks have never been substantiated by well-constructed scientific studies, but the public outcry against parabens became so strong that most companies have vowed to replace them in all of their product lines within the next few years. Parabens pose no established threat to health.
What is your best advice when it comes to skincare?
Know your own skin, and be very careful about exposure to strong sun, especially on your hands and face. It is easier to prevent damage than to try to fix it.
What skincare products for your face actually work?
Retinols are very effective at reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles through stimulation of dermal collagen. Facial serums containing the LR 2412 molecule are also very effective at reducing fine lines and the appearance of pores.
If you could come back as any face what face would you come back as?
To me, the most beautiful and memorable faces are those that belong to happy people. If you are happy with yourself, and not angry with yourself or the world, your facial expressions and overall facial tone will reflect this. When people tell me that I look great, it’s because I’m happy and I look happy. I take care of my skin, but I’m not obsessive about it, and I smile.
Days after Nina sent me the answers to my questions she sent me this in an email which I would like to share with you.
I realized another important aspect to your question about what constitutes a “splurge” on skin care, and what skin-care splurges mean to women. When women spend a lot more on a skin care product than they normally spend, they feel both responsible and somewhat guilty, and this combination of reactions changes their behavior. They generally start investing more time and attention in care of their skin (and their bodies in general) than they did previously. Whether we’re talking about diligent makeup removal, sun protection, drinking more water, or eating more fruit, women tend to double down on healthy routines after a major skin-care splurge. This is well documented, and skin-care companies count on this effect to amplify the efficacy of their high-end products. In other words, skin-care splurges are probably worth much more than their dollar value because they induce positive changes in our behavior that will benefit our health and appearance!
Dr. Nina Jablonski, anthropologist and paleobiologist is the author of two notable books, Skin: A Natural History and Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color. The other thing you should know about Nina is she is a snappy dresser. I first met her in my boutique years ago and have always been delighted by her quick wit and poise. Today she is a professor in Anthropology and teaches at Pennsylvania State University. Nina has appeared on the Colbert Report and TED Talks. In addition Nina sits on the Scientific Advisory Board of L’Oréal Research and Innovation.