When preparing for standardized testing in school, do you remember how everyone used to say, when in doubt, choose letter C? Someone, somewhere, decided that option C was more likely than A, B or D to be the right answer, and millions of adolescents (myself included!) blindly followed suit. Of course, this is utter nonsense, but I’d like to think that the kid who started this myth grew up to be the Chief Marketing Officer for a major skincare brand.
Most people (myself included!) do not have time to dissect the ingredient list of skincare products and understand, for example, exactly what level of salicylic acid a product must contain to be effective in the treatment of acne. Most of us are blindly guessing when it comes to our skincare products but unlike staring at a row of lettered bubbles of equal size and color on a standardized test, we’re staring at rows of beautifully packaged products with mesmerizing words like “anti-aging,” “nourishing,” “wrinkle-reducing,” or “skin-clearing.” How do you know which products present the right solutions to your unique skincare challenges and which are just smoke and mirrors?
About nine months ago, a friend and I were in my bathroom looking at the line-up of skincare products next to my sink and she began asking questions about the products that I was using. I had feeble answers for most of them—this one contains SPF because… sun damage! This one contains retinol because… wrinkles! The act of having to actually articulate the rationale behind my skincare routine was startling. My knowledge of products and ingredients was precarious at best and even more concerning was my understanding (or lack thereof) of how each product properly fits into a well-constructed skincare regimen. Can I use a Vitamin C serum with a retinol? Should I apply face oils before or after my night moisturizer? In the sea of marketing gimmicks, skincare buzzwords and one-off endorsements of “miracle” products, how do you discern the real efficacy of a product and exactly how you should incorporate it into your skincare routine?
That moment was a bit of a wake-up call for me so I began diving deep into the science of skincare and have learned a ton in the last many months. Starting with today’s post, I’m excited to begin sharing some of my learnings with you, in hopes of creating skincare guides that are practical, digestible and no-nonsense. After months of research, interviewing dermatologists and pouring over scientific reports, I thought I would kick things off today with the seven skincare myths that I believe will surprise you as many of the things in this list are in direct opposition to what many skincare brands market to consumers. All of the below information has been verified not only by scientific reports but also by an extremely well-respected board-certified dermatologist who has been practicing for over 25 years. This dermatologist asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons, which I gladly respected, especially in exchange for his candor on these topics.
Having said that, it’s important to note that I am not a dermatologist nor am I a physician of any kind. You should absolutely consult your own doctors when making decisions about your health and skincare regimen as there is a lot of conflicting research out there about the efficacy of certain products and ingredients. What works for one person may not work for the next, so it’s important to do your own research based upon your own unique skin characteristics. I hope that the information I share from my research and product testing will simply offer one perspective in the quest to find what’s best for you.
Without further ado, I give you (in no particular order) my top seven skincare myths:
Skincare Myth #1: Foaming Cleansers Are Good For Your Skin
This one shocked me. We’ve been conditioned to believe that the presence of suds or foam is an indication of a cleanser “working” but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. In order for a facial cleanser to foam like shaving cream, it must contain a surfactant. Surfactants turn your skin alkaline, creating a breeding ground for bacteria (hello, acne). If you have acne-prone skin, you should especially avoid foaming cleansers like the plague, despite the fact that many foaming cleansers are specifically marketed to people suffering from acne. To be clear, I’ve read that there are a few companies who have managed to formulate foaming cleansers with a low pH (i.e. acidic and anti-bacterial), but this is rare and most don’t publish the actual pH of their products on the bottle. So, the safest bet is to avoid foaming cleansers altogether, unless you’re interested in independently testing the pH of your cleanser at home.
Skincare Myth #2: Natural or Organic is Always Better
This is another super controversial one. In the movement to eliminate harmful chemicals from the food we eat and many other everyday products, the terms “natural” and “organic” are now widely abused by marketers in an attempt to mislead. Just because something is natural or organic does NOT mean it is good for your skin. In fact, there are lots of natural and organic ingredients like mineral oils and certain fragrances that cause serious skin irritation, break down collagen and cause a whole host of other skin issues. Furthermore, in discussing this with dermatologists, I was amazed to learn that in fact, there are many ingredients developed by scientists (i.e. neither natural nor organic) which are much more potent and effective for skin than natural or organic ingredients. Of course, there are TONS of natural and organic ingredients that are fantastic, but the main takeaway here is to never simply buy a skincare product because it’s touted as “all-natural” or “organic” AND don’t ever blindly reject another product because it isn’t. Take a step further and do your due diligence on the ingredients and proven efficacy of the product.
Skincare Myth #3: Rub Product Between Your Hands
Labels often instruct you to rub the product between your hands before applying, but according to dermatologists, there are virtually no products on the market that actually require you to rub or warm the product in your hands to prepare or “activate” the ingredients. In most cases, this is completely unnecessary and totally wasteful, as a large amount of the product will be distributed across your palms and absorbed into your hands. According to marketing studies, this is typically included in product instructions because consumers become more attached to products that involve these types of “ritual” steps. Nutty.
Skincare Myth #4: No Pain, No Gain
I used to think that a burning sensation following the use of a particularly abrasive facial scrub meant that I had really done a good job of removing dead skin cells. Like many people, I would also feel the tingling sensation of various skin care products or exfoliants and believe the idea that “you can FEEL it working.” In most cases, this is false. According to dermatologists, if you’re in pain or experiencing a burning sensation, you’re likely damaging your skin. You can thoroughly and effectively exfoliate your skin without causing pain.
Skincare Myth #5: A High SPF Protects You From The Sun
We all know that Vitamin D is best-obtained through supplements rather than unprotected sun exposure, but there’s a lot of misleading information about sunscreen, specifically what SPF means and how much we need. To start, it’s important to understand that the sun’s damaging UV radiation is comprised of both UVA and UVB rays. While most creams and sprays offering sun protection often prominently display their SPF levels, most people don’t realize that SPF only measures protection against UVB rays, and doesn’t measure protection against UVA rays at all. Moreover, UVA rays don’t cause sunburn—UVB rays do—so by preventing sunburn, products touting high SPF can lead you to believe you’ve been protected from the sun, meanwhile, UVA damage is occurring without leaving any skin-reddening signs. In reality, UVA rays are extremely damaging because they are a longer wavelength and penetrate more deeply into the skin. In fact, UVA rays are more responsible for photoaging and are also the primary ray responsible for the development of melanoma. To prevent against both UVA and UVB rays, you should buy sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and at most 50 (anything claiming an SPF of above 50 is not actually offering any incremental sun protection) AND make sure it also contains UVA-protecting ingredients like zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, ecamsule, and oxybenzone. Products that protect against both UVA and UVB rays are often called broad spectrum, multi-spectrum, or specifically indicate UVA/UVB protection, so make sure you keep an eye out for those on the label.
Skincare Myth #6: Mineral Oil Is Good For Your Skin
This is mentioned briefly above, but mineral oil is terrible for your skin and should always be avoided. Thankfully, mineral oil isn’t included in moisturizers as often as it once was, but I still see it often enough to feel it warranted mentioning in this list. Mineral oil is a proven comedogenic (i.e. pore-clogging) and unlike plant oils, it offers no benefits to the skin. However, since we often associate the words “mineral” and “oil” with other healthy, beneficial things (like “mineral water” or “facial oils”) it can be confusing to remember that mineral oil itself is bad for your skin.
Skincare Myth #7: “I Don’t Have Sensitive Skin”
I’ve always heard friends describe their skin as “sensitive” and just figured that I had lucked out because my skin has never really had any major reaction to anything and I don’t suffer from allergies. However, in reality, this means that my skin is just a bit better at covering up and internalizing aggravators, and that harmful, sensitizing ingredients are inflicting just as much damage—damage that perhaps will show up as I get older instead of manifesting itself in a rash right now. Of course, there are skin conditions such as eczema or rosacea where skin is inherently more sensitive, but everyone’s skin is irritated by bad ingredients, regardless of whether you break out in hives or not. This is why it’s so important to really understand what you’re putting on your skin.
I hope you find this information helpful, but it’s really important to note that you should absolutely always DO YOU. If you’ve used a foaming cleanser or a mineral oil product for years and are convinced it works for you, then by all means, keep calm and carry on with it. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, this list is based upon my own research, my consultations with dermatologists and my experience testing products on my own skin. However, you should definitely make your own mind up about what’s best for you in consultation with your dermatologist.