Image: Brown Eyed Toast
Your skin is your hero. It’s always there, slamming its wizard staff to the ground proclaiming “You shall not pass!” to all those evil bacteria and external toxins. Obviously, your hard-working outer shell deserves to be nourished deeply. But when you slather on expensive products that claim to do magical things to transform skin, have you wondered how much of it is actually even penetrating the top layer?
Science time! The skin consists of three main layers, including the outermost epidermis, which we all know and love for keeping us from swelling up like sponges when we’re wet (not to mention it’s our most prominent feature). It has multiple layers itself: from the top stratum corneum to the bottom basal layer. If the ingredients of a cream or serum manage to make it somewhere in between these two, bingo! That’s successful penetration. But in order to get through, the molecules in your product have to be small enough and soluble (able to dissolve) enough.
Do most products on the market fit the bill here? According to an analysis by Ushma S. Neill, editor at large at the Journal of Clinical Investigation, probably not. She writes:
“ … a typical ingredient in an effective skin-care product can break up the dead stratum corneum cells … but most creams do not penetrate through the epidermis. Something like a protein won’t go anywhere past the surface.”
That’s why many high-end formulations are developed with penetration enhancers. Certain ingredients, like propylene glycol and ethanol, make chemicals more soluble. Fatty acids like oleic, palmitoleic and linoleic acids are also used for the way they interact with the skin’s lipids to increase permeability.
Some brands get real science-y: Osmosis Skincare, for instance, creates serums that copy your body’s natural phospholipid bilayer by coating ingredients like skin growth factors and vitamin A with a liposome that’s similar to cells already in the skin. Theoretically, this would give ingredients a pass to enter cell membranes (kinda like wearing your older sister’s lipstick and halter top and getting into the club with her ID back in the day).
Even if penetration enhancers like the above are on a product’s ingredients list, there’s no way to know the exact chemical composition of the formula—so whether or not all that complex chemistry is enough to deliver active ingredients into your skin is all on the chemists, whom you just have to trust. Or, you might side with some dubious dermatologists, like the ones Neill consulted in her report, and consider every $100 bottle of night cream as a beautifully packaged placebo.
Fortunately, boosting skin penetration is not completely out of your hands. There’s a gadget for that: The JeNu Ultrasonic Infuser emits ultrasound waves that gently vibrate the skin to open channels for skin care to move through. Medispa treatments like microneedling, laser resurfacing and chemical peels have shown potential, too—abrasion and exfoliation breaks down some of the skin’s barriers temporarily, clearing some pathways for chemicals to get in and do their thing. Whatever results from clinical studies on these methods show, though, you’ll most certainly find scientists and dermatologists on both sides endorsing or refuting their effectiveness.
Even if you’re skeptical that pricey contraptions and space-age serums actually do anything, there is one class of chemicals that dermatologists say really can make it to the dermis: retinoids. These are similar in function to retinol, but they’re more potent and typically used in prescription skin care like tretinoin (more commonly known as Retin-A). Both are related to vitamin A and address issues of acne, skin inflammation, aging and hyperpigmentation. Basically, retinoids are the Michael Jordan of skin care.
But there’s a hitch. According to dermatologists in Neill’s report, retinoids are so hardcore they can even go through the dermis and into the blood vessels, where they can affect your internal systems. Now that’s a bit much—after all, skin is there to block foreign substances from doing just that. This is where obsessing over skin penetration gets a little freaky. Messing with your skin’s natural function so you can get the most out of a product—you have to decide if that’s the best thing for you.
Ultimately, finding the most effective skin care is about trial and error. You’re the best judge and critic of whether or not something works for you. Sure, if you’re dropping entire paychecks in the name of flawless skin, you better be able to harness every bit of power your skincare claims to have. But even if your fave serum is nothing but snake oil, if it makes you feel like a million bucks, that’s what counts.