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Skin Actives FAQs for Beginners

How to layer products

After a shower or bath, the skin will be more permeable to water soluble actives. Take advantage of this by using water-based serums first. Then you can layer oil-based serums or creams on top.

Exfoliators (acidic like Alpha/Beta, protease-based like Pumpkin Enzyme or physical like Exfoliation Set) will increase skin permeability, so take advantage of this and apply Collagen Serum immediately after exfoliation.

Don’t mix serums together in the same bottle, they are O.K. as they are. Some cannot be mixed, like water-based (Antioxidant Serum) and oil-based (ELS) serums. Some will allow for mixing but the actives in the mix will interact with each other and decrease benefits.

Which actives should not be used together

There are not many rules here.

-Be nice to proteins (like Epidermal Growth Factor, Keratinocyte Growth Factor and SOD,) by keeping them cold (NOT frozen) and not mixing them with acid solutions. For example, rinse your skin well after using the Alpha/Beta Exfoliator, one of the few acidic products we sell.

-There is a theoretical point about Vitamin C derivatives and metals like copper and iron, so don’t add Copper Peptide to Antioxidant Serum.

General shelf life of products and refrigeration needs

Please keep all serums and creams that contain proteins refrigerated. Proteins are more stable when refrigerated, NOT frozen. For serums and creams, 6 months is a good estimate of shelf life. They are shipped to you very fresh, so you can count the 6 months from receipt. Remember that a cream will not work unless it is applied to the skin, so don’t just buy SAS products, USE them!

Powder actives are fine in a cool, dark place with the tubes closed. Some actives (like L-Carnitine) will absorb moisture more readily, so it is important that they are kept well closed. Most powder actives will last for years.

What are preservatives?

Nobody likes to use preservatives. They don’t help your skin or make you younger, but preservatives prevent the growth of bacteria and mold in skin care products. Even when you start with a perfectly clean product, spores and nasty bugs capable of causing very dangerous infections are floating in the air. They could grow in the product unless the correct preservative or mixture of preservatives is included.

Clients ask me why we at SAS use preservatives in our products. My answer is that preservatives give me the peace of mind I need, because I know that our products will not cause a skin or eye infection.

There has been a lot of bad press about parabens, and I feel pressed to come in their defense. Why? The arguments against parabens are bogus when the “evidence” is examined. Parabens have some estrogenic activity, but so do thousands of chemicals which we consume daily in our food. For example: Soy-based products. What really matters is how strong the estrogenic activity is. The strength in this case is measured by the concentration of the putative analog (in this case, parabens) required to displace the natural ligand, in this case estrogen. If you need very high concentrations of the estrogen-like chemical to dislodge the estrogen from the receptor, then the activity is very low and unlikely to be of significance in real life. This is what happens with parabens: they have very low affinity for the estrogen receptor.

Parabens have a long record of safety. They are non-allergenic and effective at very low concentrations. Plus, they don’t contribute a smell to the finished product. Smell is one of the problems associated with natural preservatives that contain a mixture of extracts from oregano, rosemary, etc. The smell can be overpowering (at least to my nose), plus several of the extracts are allergenic. In the words of Dennis Sasseville “The history of preservatives goes back to the 1930s, and ironically, the parabens, which the industry has sought to replace with “safer” alternatives, are still the most frequently used biocides in cosmetics and appear to be far less sensitizing than most of the newer agents.”

People who do like parabens may eventually lose the “media war,” as more people are convinced to avoid parabens. In this case, the general public suffers, because there are no good substitutes for parabens that will work for all products. The result will be new preservatives coming to the market too early without enough testing because preservatives are essential to keeping skin care products safe. Then, in one or two decades, we may start seeing side effects from preservatives that were adopted too soon.

It is worth mentioning that preservatives are just part of the equation. It is important to start with a clean product, i.e. to limit the bacterial and fungal presence as much as possible. It has been shown that the concentration of parabens required to inhibit fungal growth depends on the initial concentration of the organisms. In short, if you are planning to make a serum, please work in a clean environment. Disinfect everything you will be using with rubbing alcohol. Let it air dry, do not blow on the utensils! Then add the preservative at the time of preparation, NOT as an afterthought one week after making the serum.

Organic, natural, synthetic

Scientists learn to use words carefully. Marketing people tend to use words carelessly. This  doesn’t matter unless you dislike paying too much for a product or don’t want to be “taken for a fool.” I don’t like to be taken, fooled, or pay too much for anything.

A client wrote to me asking how to use our Sea Kelp Coral (one of our best-selling products) with an organic cleanser she bought elsewhere. She prefers using organic products. Here is the ingredient list she sent me: “Water, shea butter, succinic acid derivatives, karite tree fruit extract, laurel berry derivatives, coconut methyl glycol, essential oils, beta glucosamine, beta fructan, amino guanidine.”

Sounds good, especially the laurel berry and the coconut. Except that there is no such thing as laurel berry derivative in the INCI. (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) The “laurel berry derivative” is probably sodium lauryl sulfate, a detergent that people don’t like to see in the label because it is a known irritant. Unfortunately, it is the best ingredient when it comes to giving you bubbles for very little money and manufacturers love it. This is an example of the “organic” label being used by people who have no problem lying.

Organic conveys a meaning of wholesomeness. When used for food, it means that the crop has been grown without adding synthetic fertilizers and that no pesticides have been used. The FDA has some rules about how to use the word “organic” for food products, but when it comes to cosmetics there are no rules. Therefore, many irresponsible companies will take advantage of the consumer (no rules means no punishment.) My advice: whenever you see the word “organic” in a skin or hair care product, look at the ingredient list and make sure you know how to read it. (See my article How to Read an Ingredient List)

What is “natural?” My own definition: natural is something that has been taken directly from nature and has not been modified chemically.  Why is “natural” a marketing word? It sounds good, but in reality there is nothing that makes a natural chemical better than a synthetic one. In other words: a chemical is not defined by how it was obtained but by how the atoms are arranged in the molecule. There is no way to differentiate between a synthetic and a natural chemical. Moreover, whatever the feeling the word natural conveys, natural can be bad… Just think “poison ivy.”

If you are faced with a product that is advertising “all natural,” read its ingredient list. Most manufacturers use synthetic chemicals that have been optimized for use in cosmetics after many decades of testing. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as customers are not lied to.

Some manufacturers don’t even know that they are using synthetic chemicals. For example, most botanical extracts used in the industry are made using hydroglycolic solvent: water plus propylene glycol, and includes synthetic preservatives. By ignoring this fact, the manufacturer can list a “liquorice extract” and make you think you are using a natural product when in fact the extract has little liquorice in it and contains synthetic chemicals.

We at Skin Actives Scientific use many natural products, and many of them are organic. But we do not want to reinforce the idea (wrong, in our view) that natural is good and synthetic is wrong, so we don’t emphasize the origin of the chemical.

What about DMAE?

DMAE “firms” the skin, and it is one of the few “plumping” actives. I am having trouble remembering any others, except for our own Celestite Spritz. Because plumping is so effective in hiding wrinkles, DMAE has become very popular. It has also been used for decades without any problem. The problem I have with DMAE is that it’s mechanism of action is unknown, that exposes DMAE to claims from people who say DMAE is bad for you. There have been a couple of such scientific papers, and the quality of that research is so bad (yes, there is such a thing as bad quality scientific research) that no conclusions can be extracted from the results. That’s why I tell our clients to use DMAE for short term “plumping” only and make up the rest using actives that are better known.