Face Facts

by Paula Begoun


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What is and isn't possible when it comes to your skin? If you can accept the following premises, you are much less likely to waste money on overpriced or ineffective skin-care products, or to be swayed the next time you hear a sales pitch for a miraculous (or even semi-miraculous) sounding skin-care product or routine. I base a great deal of my evaluation of skin-care products on the following facts:

You can clean your skin, but you can't "deep-clean" it. You can't get inside a pore and clean it out like a dentist with a drill. Scrubs work on the surface of skin regardless of the claim on the label. Even if you could get inside a pore and clean it out, the damage to the skin would negate any benefit of deep cleaning. (I know a blackhead looks like it's dirty, but dirt isn't what's making it look black!) Expensive water-soluble cleansers will not make your face any cleaner, nor are they necessarily any gentler than the less-expensive water-soluble cleansers. In fact, the handful of standard cleansing agents used in cleansers is the same across the cosmetics spectrum. What is essential is to find a gentle, water-soluble cleanser that doesn't dry out the skin or leave it feeling greasy, and that can remove eye makeup without irritating the eyes. Many cleansers that claim to be water-soluble are really too greasy to rinse off completely and can cause clogged pores.

Spending more money does not affect the status of your skin. The amount of money you spend on skin care has nothing to do with how your skin looks. However, what products you use does. An expensive soap by Erno Laszlo is no better for your skin than an inexpensive bar soap such as Dove (though I would suggest that both are potentially too irritating and drying for all skin types). On the other hand, an irritant-free toner by Neutrogena can be just as good as, or maybe even better than, an irritant-free toner by Orlane or La Prairie (depending on the formulation), and any irritant-free toner is infinitely better than any toner that contains alcohol, peppermint, menthol, essential oils, eucalyptus, lemon, or other irritants, no matter how natural-sounding the ingredients are and regardless of the price. Spending less doesn't hurt your skin, and spending more doesn't necessarily help it.

Even minimal sun exposure is damaging to the skin. Women clamor for the latest skin-care products that contain antioxidants, vitamins, plants, and a host of other exotics, yet all of that is meaningless if you aren't using an effective sunscreen every day of your life or are getting any amount of a tan. If you are exposed to the sun, even for as little as a few minutes every day, and that includes walking to your car, walking to the bus, or sitting next to a window (the sun's damaging UVA rays come through windows), at any time of the year, that cumulative exposure over the years will wrinkle your skin. No skin-care product except a sunscreen with a high SPF and appropriate UVA-protecting ingredients (see the section on "Sun Reflections," later in this chapter) can change that. If exposure that minimal can wrinkle the skin, imagine how much worse the impact of sunbathing is. In short, there is no such thing as careful, safe, or wrinkleproof tanning or sun exposure of any kind.

A great number of skin-care problems are caused by the skin-care products used to prevent them. Overly emollient moisturizers can clog pores, temporary face-lift products can cause wrinkles because of the irritation they generate on the skin, and products designed to control oily skin often contain ingredients that can make skin oilier (oil-free products often contain pore-clogging ingredients that don't sound like oils). Allergic reactions are often caused by products that contain plant substances, because plants are inherently potent sources of allergens. Lots of skin-care products from the most expensive lines contain irritating ingredients such as fragrance, alcohol, witch hazel, and on and on. All of those things can contribute to the very skin problems you want to eliminate from your life and face.

Dry skin doesn't wrinkle any more or less than oily skin. Oily skin may look less wrinkled, which means it can have a smoother, more fluid appearance, but wrinkles are caused by sun exposure, genetic inheritance, muscles sagging (not from lack of exercise but from gravity-they slip down on the face), or other facial trauma, and just plain growing older-but not because of dry skin. All the moisturizers in the world won't change a wrinkle on your face, or prevent one, regardless of the amount of vitamins or plants they contain. That's not to say moisturizers can't temporarily make dry skin look smoother, because they absolutely can. You can prove this to yourself: simply stop using the miracle lifting or firming product you've been using and in a day or two, very unmiraculously, your skin will be back the way it was.

Your skin may become inflamed, dry, and blemished if you use too many scrubs, products that contain potentially irritating ingredients, or several AHA or BHA products, either at the same time or in combination with one another. For example, the following combinations can hurt the skin: a granular cleanser used with a loofah, a washcloth used with an abrasive scrub, an AHA product used with a granular scrub, an astringent that contains alcohol (or other irritants) used with an AHA product, or more than one exfoliating product (more than one scrub, more than one AHA or BHA). If you use too many irritating products at the same time, you are likely to develop skin irritations, breakouts, dryness, and, possibly, wrinkles.

Exfoliating the skin is helpful but it won't erase wrinkles. It is good to exfoliate the skin, and it is very important for many skin types, but exfoliation doesn't create new skin or get rid of wrinkles. Exfoliation can smooth the skin and help moisturizers be better absorbed, and some amount of exfoliation can generate collagen production, but the amounts are so inconsequential that you will never notice it, not to mention that the effects are temporary. Even with Retin-A and Renova, the effects stop after you discontinue use.

For the most part, the fewer products you use on your skin, the better. The more you use, the greater your chances of allergic reactions, cosmetic acne (from product buildup in the pores), and/or irritation. Layering skin-care products to try and get as many "wrinkle" cures on your face as possible can cause more problems, and putting all this stuff on your skin doesn't give any added benefit anyway.

Worry about skin-care products that "smell" nice or have pretty colors. I know the pretty blue or pink shades of skin-care products are attractive, and a pretty wafting fragrance from a cream or lotion can be appealing, but these are problematic and completely unnecessary in skin-care products. Ingredients that add fragrance to a product, even natural fragrances, are notorious for causing allergic reactions or skin sensitivities. Coloring agents may be great in a lipstick or foundation, but a blue or pink moisturizer is not great when the purpose of the skin-care product is to be absorbed into the skin.

Do not automatically buy skin-care products based on the notion of age. Many products on the market are supposedly designed for women who are 30, 40, or more than 50. Before you buy into these arbitrary divisions, ask yourself why the over-50 group always gets lumped together. Isn't it odd that women between the ages of 20 and 49 have skin that requires three or four categories, but women over the age of 50 need only one? There are a lot of years between 50 and 90. According to this logic, someone who is 40 shouldn't be using the same products as someone who is 50, but someone who is 80 should be using the same products as someone who is 50. Categorizing products by decades is nothing more than a marketing device that sells products; it does not correlate with benefits to the skin. Skin has different needs based on how dry, sun-damaged, oily, sensitive, thin, blemished, or normal it is, all of which have little to do with age. Plenty of young women have severely dry skin, and plenty of older women have oily skin and breakouts (particularly those women experiencing perimenopausal hormone fluctuations). Turning 40 or 50 does not mean a woman should assume that her skin is drying up and that she should begin using overly emollient moisturizers or skin creams.

Do not automatically buy skin-care products based on your skin type. I know that sounds strange, but there are several reasons for this. It's not that skin type isn't important, but more often than not your skin type is not what you think it is. It's even possible that your skin type has been created by the products you are already using. Soap can severely dry the skin, wrinkle creams can clog pores and cause blemishes, and alcohol-based toners can irritate the skin and cause combination skin. The only way to know what your skin type really is, is to start from square one with the basics that won't alter or adversely affect your skin, such as a water-soluble cleanser, an irritant-free toner (or a disinfectant if you break out), an exfoliator (such as an AHA product if you have sun-damaged skin and a BHA product for breakouts), a sunscreen for the daytime (which can be included in your moisturizer or foundation), and a moisturizer at night (but only if you have dry skin). Please understand that the intense cosmetics hype that insists that everyone needs a moisturizer is absolutely not true. (I discuss this at length in The Beauty Bible.) If your skin is truly dry or you really are prone to breakouts, you can do the extra things, such as using a more-emollient moisturizer at night, or a more-emollient foundation, or a moisturizer with sunscreen during the day. For breakouts, you can try varying topical disinfectants and oil-absorbing masks.

Treat the skin you have today, not the skin you had last month, last week, or yesterday. Skin type can fluctuate. Skin-care routines based on a specific skin type don't take into consideration the fact that your skin changes according to the season, your emotions, the climate (humidity, dryness, cold, and heat all affect your skin), and your menstrual cycle. Pay attention to what your skin tells you it needs at any given time. This month you might need an extra-moisturizing sunscreen during the day, and a more emollient nighttime moisturizer. Next month you may only need a lightweight sunscreen or a foundation with sunscreen during the day and no moisturizer at night. The same is true for oily skin and breakouts. Don't hold fast to the idea that your skin fits into only one group-it changes, and so should your skin-care routine. That doesn't mean you need new products every month, it just means you may need to use less of one item or more of another.

Teenagers are not the only ones who have acne. One of the biggest fallacies around is that women over the age of 20 should not have blemishes. What a mistaken belief that is! Women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s can have acne just like teenagers. Not everyone who has acne as a teenager will grow out of it, and even if you had clear skin as a teenager, that's no guarantee that you won't get acne later in life.

Oily skin types rarely, if ever, require a moisturizer. Specialty products such as oil-free moisturizers are rarely if ever good for someone with oily skin, because even though they may truly not contain oil, they include plenty of ingredients that don't sound like oil but that can make the skin feel oily and clog pores. Furthermore, if you don't have dry skin you don't need a moisturizer. The notion that the skin needs to have a moisturizer even if it's oily may sound nice, but moisturizers contain a lot more than water, and any and all of those ingredients can clog pores and make skin look and feel like an oil slick. You only need moisturizer where you have dry skin. Lighter weight or matte-finish moisturizers may be good for someone with oily skin over dry parts of the face, but they still should not be used over oily areas.

The basic rule of thumb for someone with oily skin is to always determine if the dryness you're experiencing is being caused by other skin-care products. If so, stop using those first before you decide to use a moisturizer.

There are great skin-lightening products to be found that can have an impact on sun-damage spots. You can expect about a 20% to 40% improvement if you use these products in association with an effective sunscreen. However, plants are not the best source of skin-lightening properties. Mulberry extract has one study showing it to have minimal effectiveness and almost none when compared to hydroquinone (Dong-II Jang et al.: Melanogenesis inhibitor from paper mulberry. Cosmetics & Toiletries 1997; 112: 59-62), and this was a pure concentration, not the minimal amounts used in cosmetics. Kojic acid, an extract from mushrooms, is another natural option though not as effective as hydroquinone, and kojic acid is considered to be more irritating (Nakagawa J, Kawai K: Contact allergy to kojic acid in skin-care products. Contact Dermatitis 1995; 32(1): 9-13). Hydroquinone (1% to 2% concentrations are available over the counter, and 4% or higher concentrations are available from physicians) has the most established research showing it to inhibit melanin production.

There are other plant extracts claiming to lighten skin, and while I have seen studies for these demonstrating some amount of effectiveness in vitro (meaning in a petri dish), there are no studies showing they can do this on human skin.

AHAs and BHA can smooth skin but they can't stop wrinkling. A well-formulated AHA product (meaning one having a 4% to 10% concentration of AHA with a pH of 3 to 4-and possibly 4.5) can help encourage cell turnover; that is, help remove built-up surface skin cells. But it can't affect actual cell production.

Tretinoin, the active ingredient in Retin-A and Renova, can change abnormal cell growth back to some level of normalcy. In discussing antiwrinkling products or skin products designed to improve the appearance of sun-damaged skin, it is important to consider the use of a retinoid such as tretinoin. What retinoids deliver to the skin is significant because of the way they can positively affect cell production. But all retinoids need to be prescribed by a physician; the over-the-counter vitamin A products cannot perform like Retin-A or Renova.

Antioxidants in theory are good skin-care ingredients but there is no evidence that they can change a wrinkle on your face or affect how your face ages. More and more products are being formulated with antioxidants (in fact it's rare to find a line that doesn't include them). But the notion that they will get rid of or stop wrinkles is not substantiated. The antioxidant wars the cosmetics industry is staging these days as to who has the best antioxidants are a fool's game. There is no "best", though there are a lot of good ones and research is discovering new ones every day.


Reprinted with permission from Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me, 6th Edition (Beginning Press, $24.95), by Paula Begoun. Paula Begoun has been researching and reporting on the beauty industry for over 15 years. She has sold over a million copies of her best-selling beauty guides and she continues to spread the word that "Inner Beauty is Priceless but Outer Beauty Doesn't Have to Be!" Visit CosmeticsCop.com or call (800) 831-4088 to find out more about Paula, request a brochure, or sign up for her free Beauty Bulletin.

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