The Surprising Truth About Moisturisers

Here's the suprising truth about cheap moisturisers and luxury ones, plus how to stay woke to skincare marketing:

My mid twenties has definitely seen my love of skincare take preference over my love of makeup. Sure you can spend ages dolling yourself up to feel beautiful, but for me there’s no better confidence boost than to see your skin without any makeup and know that it looks glowing and healthy.

When it comes to making the choice of which skincare brand to use, we are inundated with options. I love luxury skincare; Sunday Riley, Perricone M.D, Ren and Dr. Dennis Gross are my favourites, but although I’ve found products from these lines to work wonders for my visage, these high end options aren’t  always the most affordable. If you run out of your supply and can’t afford to repurchase it, you can suddenly feel like any other affordable skincare brand you’re left with buying is inferior. But is it really?

Here’s the thing about moisturisers, whether it’s an €100 luxury moisturiser or a €10 budget one from Boots, they both work in the exactly same way. Moisturisers all contain a water content that penetrates the cell membranes in your skin and rehydrates and plumps up those external layers of dead skin cells that comprise your epidermis. Then, to trap that water inside, they’ll also contain some kind of emollient, like oil, grease, or wax. This is so the water isn’t evaporated out again by your body heat. Your body actually produces a natural emollient layer to hold in water, called sebum, but it becomes washed or cleansed away so moisturiser provides us with an artificial layer.

The term “moisturiser” is basically a marketing term, with no real scientific definition. Bathwater, for example, is technically a “moisturiser”-that’s why your skin feels so soft after you have a bath or shower, until the water is evaporated out from your skin again. Keeping your skin hydrated by trapping in water is all a commercial moisturising cream does.

So if expensive and cheap moisturisers both work in the same way, why the big jump in price between them? Well, this is partly due to the varying ingredients in formula and partly due to the billion dollar cosmetics industry taking advantage of you with their fancy marketing.

Some moisturisers add a humectant that sponges up water and holds onto that water so you get a longer lasting result. Hyaluronic Acid, for example, is a humectant that draws out moisture from the deeper layers of your skin and also occurs naturally in the body. Some will have ceramides in them, which are occlusive substances that provide a physical block to prevent water from evaporating from the skin. A decent moisturiser would probably have a mix of water, humectants and ceramides. Some skincare brands will have come up with more complex formulations of oil, wax or grease that won’t feel greasy on your skin once your cells have absorbed the maximum amount of product they can. E.g Vaseline is a very cheap moisturiser that traps in water, but if you rub vaseline all over your face it’s not going to feel nice sitting on top of your skin (that and people might start calling you ol’ vaseline face) so that’s where a better formulated moisturiser would win by not leaving your skin feeling slippery or greasy, however they both do the exact same job, that is of hydrating your skin! Some moisturisers will add perfumes so they smell inviting, some won’t add any, but just because a luxury moisturiser smells a-maz-ing doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any better than a cheap one.

This is where it gets a bit sketchy. Some moisturisers will say they have vitamins added, like vitamin C, however, unless it’s been added in clinical amounts and the right P.H environment for it to thrive, then it won’t make a difference. A lot of moisturisers will have vitamins added in too small of an amount to even work, or haven’t been formulated to ensure the vitamins won’t degrade with light or oxygen exposure, and yet STILL charge you a small fortune for that product.

What about those other buzzword ingredients I see mentioned so much?

Retinioc acid, a form of vitamin A, helps to combat visible aging by stimulating collagen production and has been clinically proven to improve skin texture, reduce wrinkles and help with acne, inflammation and skin pigmentation. It can also take the form of Retinol which is a slightly gentler form of retonic acid and biochemically works the same, but may just take longer to see results. HOWEVER, the form of vitamin A used in a lot of moisturisers are derivatives called ‘Pro Retionols’, like retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate. These aren’t as biochemically active as retonic acid or retinol, and in the amounts found in many brands, wouldn’t really have any effect on reducing aging or collagen production- but none the less, these brands will still market Pro Retinol as their magic ingredient and you’ll be paying more for it. Retinols can commonly cause irritation with new use, but this is normal and your skin will eventually adapt to it. For this reason it’s better to start off with a gentle retinol and then progress on to a stronger form of retonid such as retinoc acid.

Alpha hydroxy acid and beta hydroxy acids (AHA and BHAs) are organic acids which work as exfoliants for your skin. For example, glycolic acid  is derived from sugar cane and lactic acid comes from sour milk. Beta hydroxy acid, more commonly known as  salicylic acid, comes from plants. BHAs are oil soluble and penetrate deep into your skin to help clear clogged in pores and remove dead skin cells- this is why most spot clearing skincare contains salicylic acid. AHAs are water soluble and work at the surface later of skin to exfoliate away dead skin cells and leave you with a smoother, brighter complexion. The magic ingredient in my favourite Sunday Riley product, the cult ‘Good Genes’ serum, is lactic acid.

Peptides are tiny chains of amino acids that can penetrate deep into your skin and communicate with cells, signalling them to behave in a desired way. E.g telling them to produce more collagen. There are lots of different artificially synthesized peptides that have different qualities and can do different things for your skin that you can read about here. Peptides are sometimes touted as an alternative to retinols, as they do not cause the irritation that retinols can.

Anti-inflammatories, such as arnica, aloe vera and zinc are ingredients sometimes added to help calm redness and soothe skin from some of the more active skincare ingredients.

Some skincare brands can have dubious claims like “added collagen” which is basically like rubbing springs on a trampoline. Topically applied collagen is un-absorbable and won’t do anything, but ingredients like retinol and peptides can stimulate collagen production. There are fad ingredients that will come and go, but unless they actually do something, they’re just pointless marketing additions to make you part with your cash in an over saturated product market.

Whenever you buy skincare, make sure there are ingredients added in amounts that actually work, to back up any of their marketing claims such as ‘anti-ageing’ ‘brightening’ ‘skin cleaning’ ‘firming’ and so on. Just because it says it on the bottle, doesn’t mean it will deliver with use, no matter how expensive it is. And if it’s just hydration to keep your skin soft and prevent dryness you’re after, rest assured that any moisturiser you buy will do just that, whether it’s the cheapest or the most opulent bottle. You can read more about how moisturisers work here. Any other specific skincare benefits you may want after that would justify a more complex formula with active ingredients, but remember expensive isn’t always best! Serums (which are lotions or gels with a lightweight consistency that contain higher concentrations of performance ingredients and penetrate your skin deeper than moisturiser) are excellent for specific desired skincare results, but again, the priciest ones aren’t always the best. You can get some amazing serums with key ingredients in active amounts for very reasonable prices on Amazon.

Many brands will devote more time to making the branding look fancy and appealing and little time on the actual science, so do your homework, stay woke to their marketing tactics and make sure the cosmetics industry isn’t pulling a fast one on you.

– Aisling Abbey




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