are big business and most women use cosmetics at some time of
their lives. However, choosing cosmetics is difficult because
there are no standard measurements of effectiveness and no data
from independent studies. It is therefore, difficult for anyone,
including doctors even, to decide whether a product is potentially
useful or not.
are legally defined as products whose sole purpose is cosmetic,
i.e., to produce a superficial improvement. A drug or pharmaceutical,
on the other hand, is intended for the purpose of altering the
structure or function of the skin. Unlike cosmetics, drugs or
pharmaceuticals have to satisfy stringent Ministry of Health
(MOH) or Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations and cannot
make any unsubstantiated claims. They cannot also advertise.
Choosing the right cosmetic
right cosmetic can certainly enhance the appearance of the skin
but how can you decide which is the best product for your skin.
Unfortunately, you cannot go by advertising claims, you cannot
go by pricing and there are no scientific data on effectiveness
to go on either. So the only way - the difficult way is to learn
how to interpret the ingredient list. Generally, the active ingredients
are usually found among the first 5 items, the remainder are
usually added to keep the product stable or make it look, feel
or smell nicer. Remember too that price does not correlate with
effectiveness and exotic products or exotic or scientific sounding
names do not make a difference either. The table below lists
the more common cosmetic ingredients according to function and
the special ingredients are considered in a subsequent
section. As you unravel the ingredients list, dont be surprise
if you end up deciding that the product is just a moisturiser
(with or without sunscreens) because very often that is exactly
what the product is.
Common cosmetic ingredients
work by trapping water in the skin. It can do this in two
ways. It can occlude the skin with a waterproof layer so that
the water cannot escape or it can bind the water and keep it
in the skin. These two types of moisturisers are known as lubricants
(or occlusives) and humectants, respectively.
are products which soften the skin. Many moisturisers soften
the skin so the term emollient and moisturiser are often used
(occlusives) or emollients
Petrolatum (petroleum jelly)
Silicones such as dimethicone or cyclomethicone
Fatty acids such as stearic acid and isostearic acid
Fatty alcohols such as cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol and myristyl
Esters such as isopropyl myristate, spermaceti, octyl palmitate,
isodecyl neopentanoate, butyl stearate and isopropyl isostearate
Triglycerides such as sesame oil, palm, coconut, sunflower and
Sodium pyrrolidone carboxylic acid (NA-PCA)
Oil and water
do not mix so ingredients known as emulsifiers or surfactants
are added to enable the two components to mix together to form
lotions and creams.
Cetearyl alcohol and ceteareth-20
Lanolin alcohol (Laureths)
Polyethylene glycol 1000 monocetyl ether
Polyoxyl 40 stearate
Sodium lauryl sulphate
Sodium laureth sulphate
Esters such as glyceryl stearate or polysorbate 80
Polymers such as carbomer 934 or xanthum gum
Ethers like steareth-2 and laureth-4
Soaps such as beeswax borax or ammonium stearate.
prevent bacterial growth and along with anti-oxidants prolong
the shelf-life of the product
Parabens (methyl-, propyl- or butyl-paraben)
the product from going rancid
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
Tocopherol (vitamin E)
suspending agents, viscosity builders
These add thickness
to the product.
Cetyl esters wax
are thickeners that when combined with alcohol, acetone or water,
make transparent gels that liquefy (thin) when applied to the
What about the special ingredients?
companies often claim that their products have special ingredients
but do they work or are they nothing more than highly priced
moisturisers? It is a difficult question to answer because claims
of effectiveness are often based, not on scientific evidence
but on traditional beliefs, observations or sometimes, ingredients
are included just because they sound exotic or impressive. There
are, a few exceptions however, such as the alpha-hydroxy acids
(AHAs), beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) and vitamin C. Caution however
because merely having these as ingredients is not proof that
they work. They must, first of all, be formulated properly and
then they must be evaluated in scientifically designed clinical
trials. Unfortunately, cosmetic companies often do not conduct
these studies or only do such studies in-house where there is
a possibility of bias. That's not saying of course, that all
cosmetics containing these products do not work, but without
the results of properly conducted studies, it is simply impossible
to know? Cosmetic companies on the other hand, argue that they
do not conduct independent studies because they are simply too
expensive. Moreover, they are not marketing their products to
doctors anyway. So we are none the wiser.
at the table below to learn about these so-called special
ingredients and understand the basis for their inclusion
in cosmetics and how they do or do not work.
acids are the building blocks of proteins which in turn, are
the building blocks of our body. They are often added to cosmetics
in order to nourish and rebuild the skins structure.
The truth however, is they cannot penetrate the skin but remain
on the surface and help the stratum corneum cells retain moisture
and plump the skin up. In other words, they are good moisturisers.
Collagen is the structural protein that lends support to the
dermis and the overlying skin. Degeneration of collagen in the
dermis results in wrinkles and sagging skin. However, collagen
is a large molecule and cannot penetrate the skin. The only way
collagen can get into the dermis is when it is injected. This
is why doctors have to inject collagen into the dermis to efface
wrinkles and scars. The collagen in creams merely plump up the
stratum corneum and are, in actual fact, good moisturisers.
Elastin is a protein found in the dermis. However, like collagen,
elastin is also too large to penetrate the skin. In other words,
elastin too is a good moisturiser.
A great deal has been claimed about the beneficial effects of
vitamins, especially the so-called anti-oxidant vitamins A, C,
and E. Free radicals are oxygen with an extra electron. Because
electrons like to exist in pairs, the extra free electron goes
around looking for a partner and in the process, damages cell
membranes and DNA and cause the cells to age and become vulnerable
to disease. Free radicals are produced by a number of environmental
factors such as UV rays, pollution and smoke, and by the bodys
own chemical processes. The anti-oxidant vitamins are supposed
to sponge up these free radicals before they cause damage. Recently,
a number of vitamin C formulations have come into the market
which are able to penetrate the skin but at the moment these
are only available from doctors. Vitamin A compounds such as
retinol, retanyl palmitate and retanyl acetate are found in so-called
anti-wrinkle creams and may give the impression that
they are the same as tretinoin (the active ingredient in Renova,
Retin-A, Stieva A and Airol) which has been proven to reduce
wrinkles. The answer is they are not and most doctors believe
that the concentrations are too low to be effective. The only
effective form of vitamin A is tretinoin which has to be prescribed
by a doctor. Although vitamin E or tocopherol acetate is an anti-oxidant,
there is no proof that it actually works. Very often vitamin
E is added to cosmetics as an anti-oxidant to prevent the product
from going rancid and not for its activity. In such cases,
you will usually find the name towards the end of the ingredient
list. Vitamins have also been added for reasons of marketing
since they may convey an impression of health benefits for the
skin. Co-enzyme Q10 is another anti-oxidant that has been added
to cosmetics to prevent the damage caused by free radicals.
acid (RNA) decreases with age so some cosmetics use RNA to supposedly,
retard ageing. Again there is no evidence that they do. Brewers
yeast is also rich in RNA and is sometimes included in cosmetics
for this reason.
elements are essential for health so they too have been added
to cosmetics to give the impression of some health benefits.
Selenium and zinc have anti-oxidant properties and have been
added to cosmetics, as well.
thymus glands of some animals stimulate cell renewal and are
sometimes added to cosmetics.
placenta is the lifeline for the developing baby and supplies
all the nutrients and oxygen necessary for growth. Cosmetic products
with placental extracts imply that they may maintain or promote
youthfulness. The truth is they are moisturisers, nothing more.
skin degenerates after the menopause when the production of female
hormones declines. Female hormones are therefore, included in
some cosmetics to give the impression that they can delay the
degeneration or ageing process. Unfortunately there is no proof
that they do. This is why these hormones have to be taken by
mouth, injected or implanted under the skin.
are countless extracts from herbs and plants which have been
included because of some traditional benefits. Examples include
aloe vera, arnica oil, calendula oil, jojoba oil, carrot extract,
chamomile, cornflower, cucumber extract, hayflower, horse tail
extract, juniper extract, rosemary and thyme. Some of them have
soothing and moisturising properties. But thats all and
dont imagine that they cannot cause allergies because they
is a uric acid obtained from cows or other mammals. It has a
long history of use in the treatment of wounds and ulcers so
cosmetics include it because of its healing and soothing properties.
It too is non-irritating and a good moisturiser. Allantoin is
therefore, used in cosmetics for sensitive skin.
Phospholipids and lecithin
are a component of cell membranes. The amount of phospholipids
in ageing cells decrease and the cells lose moisture and become
dehydrated. Phospholipids are added to to cosmetics to supposedly
repair damaged cell membranes but are, in fact, just very good
moisturisers. Lecithin is a type of phospholipid.
Cerebrosides and ceremides
are produced by the cells in the basal layer and become ceremides
as these cells move towards the surface of the skin. They are
also found in sebum and form part of the skins moisturising
factors (NMFs). They have good moisturising properties, nothing
are microscopic spheres which can trap water soluble ingredients
in the core or fat-soluble ingredients in the membrane. The membrane
may be single or multiple layered and usually made of phospholipids
and thus, similar to the cell membrane. It is believed that the
liposomal membrane can fuse with the cell membrane and release
the trapped ingredients. It is therefore, a very elegant type
of delivery system. Liposomes have been used in medicine to deliver
drugs, vaccines and even genes. Cosmetic also incorporate liposomes
but how effective they are, is difficult to assess because these
products have never been studied in a scientific manner. At the
moment, all that can be concluded is that, being composed of
phospholipids like the cell membranes, liposomes may be good
acid is a mucopolysaccharide and a component of the skins
Natural Moisturising Factors (NMF). It surrounds the cells of
the basal layer of the epidermis and is also fills in the gaps
between the collagen and elastin fibres and gives substance to
the dermis. Hyaluronic acid is reduced in ageing and may also
contribute to wrinkles forming. It is also found in cosmetics
but again hyaluronic acid cannot penetrate the skin. It is however,
a very good moisturiser because it can bind a thousand times
its weight of water in the skin. Hyaluronic acid is also being
injected into the skin to improve wrinkles and scars in the same
way as collagen implants. This is a new form of therapy which
is not widely available yet.
Squalene is found in sebum and is basically a moisturiser. The
shark liver is one of the richest sources of squalene which was
why the shark was hunted down. Fortunately, squalene can also
be obtained from vegetable oils and can also be synthesised.
is a waxy oil obtained from the sperm whales head so much
so the whale became an endangered species. It is also a good
moisturiser. Spermaceti can now be synthetically produced, much
to the delight of conservationists.
What about over-the-counter anti-wrinkle
the demarcation between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals was very
clear. Cosmetics such as moisturisers and make-up moisturise
and beautify the skin, respectively but have no effect on the
structure and function of the skin. Recently, however, cosmetic
products have been introduced containing ingredients such as
alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) which, according to medical research,
can stimulate collagen synthesis. This is clearly altering the
structure or function and in that sense, AHAs should be considered
drugs, should they not? Not quite because according to the law,
cosmetics are still considered cosmetic as long as they do not
make drug claims. This is why you won't find too many cosmetics
that claim to remove wrinkles although many use terms such as
reduce the appearance of lines, produce younger
looking skin or smoothen skin texture. By avoiding
making obvious medical or drug claims, cosmetics escape the stringent
regulations required of a drug and also the enormous costs involved
in evaluating the it for effectiveness and safety. Generally,
established cosmetic companies will do their own in-house testing
to make sure that their products are safe because it is clearly
in their own interest. However, effectiveness is not tested as
stringently as is required if they were to be classified as a
drug. The term cosmoceuticals has sometimes
been used to describe those cosmetic products which contain products
such as AHAs which doctors believe can stimulate collagen synthesis
(in other words, a drug effect). However, as was mentioned earlier,
the health authorities still consider them cosmetics so long
as they do not actually make a direct drug claim.
Cosmetic claims and labels
to the law, cosmetics are actually not allowed to use terms such
as anti-wrinkle, anti-ageing, rejuvenating, cell-renewal because
such terms imply altering the structure or function of the skin
which can be considered to be a drug claim. Some take the risk
while others get around the problem by making obtuse claims such
as younger looking skin, reducing the appearance of lines, and
so on. In fact, these benefits can be achieved with a good moisturiser
and that is exactly what most of these creams are. The main reason
why cosmetic companies continue making such claims is because
these products command a premium compared to moisturisers. Also,
dont imagine that the men and women featured in the advertisements
have good complexions because they have been using the product(s)
advertised. Cosmetic companies seek out actors, actresses and
other individuals precisely because they had good skin to begin
with. As a general rule, beware of products that make fantastic
claims such as remove lines overnight because if you think about
it logically, lines cannot be removed overnight because. The
only way they can make lines disappear is to hide
them by filling them up. This means that the product is actually
a good moisturiser but you are most probably paying a high price
for it. There are many other claims so it is useful to understand
what they mean.
less likely to cause allergy. It does not mean no allergy. Hypoallergenic
cosmetics usually omit one or more of the more common causes
of allergy such as fragrance, lanolin and preservatives.
organic, herbal, botanical or plant extracts are often used to
suggest that the product is safe. This is not true for a variety
of reasons. Firstly, one of the commonest cause of severe allergic
contact dermatitis, in fact, is a natural product - poison ivy.
Secondly, chemicals are often used during the extraction of these
natural products. Thirdly, natural products go bad
so preservatives (chemicals) need to be added anyway.
is another label that is used to convey the impression that the
product must be safe. Not so because these products often do
not indicate the name of the doctor who tested it, whether he
is employed by the cosmetic company and how he tested the products.
term might suggest that you can get nourishment from the product.
You cannot because all the nutrients that you skin need which
are oxygen, proteins and amino acids, carbohydrates, fatty acids
come from the blood.