Women have long been curious about the ingredients in their beauty products. Lately, though, it seems like we have collectively graduated from Skincare 101. Take this recent comment left under a photo on skincare brand Drunk Elephant’s Instagram page: “Is the zinc Umbra coated, presumably with the triethoxycaprylylsilane also shown in the ingredient list?” (The answer is yes, and the question was responded to directly by the brand’s director of R & D.) The desire for technical beauty information has led to some unlikely stars on social media: chemists. Rather than reviewing products based on sensory aspects or offering tutorials, a growing number of Instagrammers are breaking down the science behind skincare.
“I’ve seen massive growth over the past year or so,” says Michelle Wong, Ph.D., a science educator based in Sydney, Australia, of her Instagram account, @labmuffinbeautyscience, where she takes a critical look at commonly held skincare beliefs, such as the notion that all synthetic chemicals should be avoided. “I’ve been really impressed by how detailed the questions have become. I’ll do a post about something I thought only I would care about, given my medicinal chemistry background, but it turns out that a lot of my followers want to know as well.”
Stephen Alain Ko (@kindofstephen), a Toronto-based cosmetic chemist and formulator, has racked up a following of almost 30,000 people who are interested in his evidence-based approach to common skincare questions. In the United States, San Francisco-based chemical engineers Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu (@chemist.confessions) leverage knowledge they gained working with anti-aging and acne product formulations to decode ingredient lists for their 32,000 followers.
“Part of our motivation to keep Chemist Confessions going is the belief that only an educated consumer base can change the market landscape,” says Fu. “We already see changes happening now—things like choosing packaging that better protects the formula, which means it requires fewer preservatives. Or making more environmentally conscious decisions with ingredients, like sun filters, and biodegradable packaging.”
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When we mix in a moisturizer or foundation to an amount of sunscreen – we dilute it, reducing the concentration of sunscreen filters and possibly affecting their distribution. Research shows that how much sunscreen we apply affects how much photoprotection we receive The Beer-Lambert Law (A =εcl) shows us the relation between the attenuation of light between a physical material, based on its thickness (path of light) and concentration. The thickness of a sunscreen's film and the concentration of its sunscreen filters will affect its absorbance We've probably all experienced this, especially if you've mixed a foundation with a moisturizer to make it sheerer. Fewer pigments mean less absorbance leading to less coverage. The same principle is at work with sunscreens – only we can't see the wavelengths of light that sunscreens absorb Diluting a sunscreen and plotting its absorbance based on the concentration of sunscreen is a common high school or undergraduate lab In an experiment, researchers diluted a sunscreen with its own vehicle (the sunscreen formula without the sunscreen filters) and measured its effect on in vitro SPF Diluting the sunscreen by half decreased an in vitro SPF 40 to an SPF 15, and an SPF 8 to an SPF 5 Their results didn't strictly follow what we would expect from the Beer-Lambert Law (a log-linear relationship) but did show that dilution decreased in vitro SPF – which agrees with human research that shows that less sunscreen applied means less photoprotection. In comparing their in vitro data to human data the researchers point out that their in vitro SPF overpredicted and the real SPF was much lower In vitro SPF won't always match in vivo SPF, especially if the sunscreen includes antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. The biological effect captured in clinical SPF tests won't be seen in tests done like this one As a consumer, it's your choice whether you want to mix your sunscreen with other products or not. But you should understand that protection and other aspects like water resistance can be affected Source: K. Kelley, In vitro sun protection factor evaluation of sunscreen products, J. Soc. Cosmet. Chem., 44, 139-151 (1993)
WHICH COMMON BEAUTY CLAIM/UNCLEAR PHRASING FRUSTRATES YOU THE MOST?
Stephen Alain Ko “‘Studies show’ or ‘Research shows.’ Often, the results have only been demonstrated in cells in a petri dish, which doesn’t necessarily translate to humans applying the product to their skin. This information is often left out and can be misleading to a consumer.”
Michelle Wong “Using the phrase ‘chemical-free’ to mean natural. Everything is made of chemicals, including nature!”
Gloria Lu “When brands combine science fiction with dramatic prose—something along the lines of ‘Harvested from a rare flower that blooms once a decade, this rare, hyper-concentrated, nutritious gem of an ingredient acts as a reset button for your aged skin and replenishes your dermal chakra….’”
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At the start of this account, we were two lost chemists (and a cat ?) who wanted to shed some light on this muddled skincare industry. Aside from our latest product venture, we want to preserve the spirit (and the content!) of this IG account/blog of making skin science fun. So have no fear! We will continue with #decodethatIL #duckexamples, sprinkle in some bio 101, and let’s not forget all those signature insta essays! There will be a few product shoutouts here and there, but we will be carrying on pretty much as usual. Again, thank you all so much for the support, encouragement, passion, and questions! Love, Gloria and Victoria Moving on! How the hell do we use vitamin C powder? #nxtpost #engagementshootworthy ?
WHAT QUESTION DO YOU GET ASKED THE MOST?
SAK “Whether or not combining two skincare products renders them useless or ineffective. The answer is that there is no solid answer, unless the two products have been studied.”
WHAT GENERAL ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE TO CONSUMERS LOOKING AT AN INGREDIENT LIST?
MW “Don’t be afraid of ingredients with tricky names; it doesn’t mean they are dangerous or worse for you. Butylene glycol and ethoxydiglycol are complex-sounding but very safe solvents used in cosmetics that act as humectants [helping skin retain moisture]. Natural ingredients are not necessarily safer or more efficacious.”
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Ingredient lists in most countries show what's in the product, in order of how much there is – but these proportions can still vary a lot! For example, a product with the ingredients list "Water, Glycerin" could have 50/50 water and glycerin (super sticky and unpleasant), or mostly water with a splash of glycerin (nice hydrating toner), or water with the tiniest whiff of glycerin (basically just water). ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Very different ingredients can also have the same name, especially if there are natural extracts in there – extracts from the same thing (e.g. apple) can be fresh or decomposed, and different extracting solvents will result in different chemicals in the extract. There are also lots of polymers in skincare that will have different effects depending on how chopped up they are, and this typically isn't shown on the ingredients list. One example is hyaluronic acid. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ And then there's how the ingredients are put together as well – there are a lot of different emulsion types that won't have the same effect on skin. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ How can you find a dupe then? Well, comparing ingredient lists will help… but there's no substitute for trying out the product and reading reviews! ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #cosmeticscience #beautyscience #skincareingredients #instaskincare #skincarenerd #ingredientanalysis #cosmeticchemistry
HOW MUCH CAN YOU REALLY LEARN ABOUT A PRODUCT FROM READING THE INGREDIENT LIST?
MW “It doesn’t tell you how the ingredients are combined, which can make a huge difference in terms of how the product works—like how well the active ingredients penetrate your skin or how well sunscreen ingredients cover your skin and protect you from the sun. Uncooked cake batter would have the same ingredient list as the final baked cake.”
IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT SKINCARE INGREDIENT SHOULD EVERYONE HAVE IN THEIR ROUTINE?
GL “Everyone’s skin is different. Even skincare superstars like niacinamide [a.k.a. vitamin B3, which improves the appearance of pores, among other things] can be irritating to some. For hydration, we would recommend glycerine and hyaluronic acid for their reliable efficacy and low irritation potential.”
MW “Sunscreen. There’s so much science behind it. It’s the best anti-aging product. In a large clinical trial, daily usage was found to reduce the chance of cancer. My favourite sunscreen filters are the newer ones: Tinosorb S and Tinosorb M.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of ELLE Canada.
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