Guide to Understanding Skin Care Products

The global skin care market is expected to exceed 180 billion USD within the next few years. Skin care products with wild claims can cost anywhere from $1 to thousands of dollars per pot. Our automatic assumption is that the more expensive the cream, the better it is. But is this really true?

Clever branding and fancy packaging can go a long way in deceiving us. How do you know which ones are really any good?

What’s the difference between a $2 face cream and a $1,000 face cream?

It can be difficult to know whether to believe the (often wild) claims liberally plastered on bottles. The truth is, a number of touted ingredients in skin care products don’t even penetrate the skin and have a true effect.

A way to become a more savvy buyer is to learn just a little bit about the most common clinically-proven active ingredients. Going through all the active ingredients in creams would be both incredibly complex and incredibly boring, so instead here’s a quick-win infographic covering the most common skin concerns:

Skin Care Products Infographic

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it covers the most common medically-approved topical treatments for these top five skin concerns. If you’re wondering why retinol or retinoids seem to appear in every category, that’s no mistake. Retinol is a vitamin A deriative that is one of the few topical skincare components clinically proven to improve the skin in many ways. As we age, our skin thins, loses moisture, and slows in cell proliferation. Retinols work by primarily stimulating new skin cell growth which thickens and plumps the skin, thereby reducing uneven pigmentation as well as lines and wrinkles. Regular application of concentrations as low as 0.3% retinol have been clinically shown to have anti-ageing effects, with higher concentrations being more effective.

Antioxidants & Vitamins

Vitamins C & E are common ingredients in cosmoceutical skin care ranges that claims to have antioxidant and antiageing effects. While they are both indeed antioxidants, they are highly unstable compound often rendered ineffective on contact with oxygen and light unless formulated correctly. There is yet little clinical evidence that vitamin E has any advantageous effect on the skin. However, vitamin C has been proven to be effective against photoaging of the skin when applied in a stable and bioavailable form. In its most common formulation (L-ascorbic acid), vitamin C has to be stabilised by reducing the pH of the formula to below 3.5, often by combining it with another acid, such as Ferulic acid.

A Note About Moisturizers

Moisturizers primarily improve the appearance of skin and fine lines by enhancing the skin’s water-retention. Moisturizers can either be “occlusive” and work by reducing water loss through a thin layer of oil on the skin, or “humectant” and work by increasing the intrinsic water-holding capacity of the superifical skin surface. Ingredients in the latter group of moisturizers can include glycerin, hyaluronic acid, sorbitol, urea, salicylic acid, or alpha hydroxy acids. Barrier-style moisturizers contain ingredients such as oils, petroleum jelly, silicone, and zinc oxide.

Unless you have a specific skin condition, there’s no need to overcomplicate moisturizers. Use one that feels nice on your skin and contains SPF if you’re going outside.

Now you might just be able better-informed decisions at the beauty counter.

As always, if you have a specific medical skin concern, please see your doctor.


Al-Niaimi F, Chiang NYZ. Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. 2017;10(7):14–17.

Shao Y, He T, Fisher GJ, Voorhees JJ, Quan T. Molecular basis of retinol anti-aging properties in naturally aged human skin in vivo. International journal of cosmetic science. 2017;39(1):56–65. doi:10.1111/ics.12348.

Tran D, Townley JP, Barnes TM, Greive KA. An antiaging skin care system containing alpha hydroxy acids and vitamins improves the biomechanical parameters of facial skin. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. 2015;8:9–17. doi:10.2147/CCID.S75439.

Keen MA, Hassan I. Vitamin E in dermatology. Indian Dermatology Online Journal. 2016;7(4):311–315. doi:10.4103/2229–5178.185494.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s