I regularly find myself explaining to friends and customers that not all skin care ingredients are good for your skin. And the response is often 'well, if ingredients are not good for skin, then why would skin care companies use them?' Well, let me tell you why:

1. Fragrance. Human beings use our sense of smell as a first response to test the safety and/or desirability of anything - living or not living. I see this all the time when I give a friend one of my products, the first thing they do is smell it. But fragrance is a big irritant and risks sensitising skin (ie creating skin that is suddenly super sensitive and turns red or itchy easily) with life-long consequences for skin matrix health. So why then would any skin care company use fragrance?  Simple - consumers assume that if it smells good it must be good for you, and the skin care companies capitalise on this by adding synthetic fragrances or fragrant essential oils to improve the smell and therefore the desirability of a product.

2. Short term gains. My heart goes out to consumers who struggle to find potent products that really deliver. However, consumers tend to be impressed by fast results and skin care companies know that if they can't deliver on a quick result then consumers will assume that the product is not good. Enter front of stage Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA). Providing the skin barrier is not already compromised, AHAs will deliver quick results by giving an instant glow by stripping the top layer of cells off the skin and revealing newer, younger cells below. Instant gratification. Long term high risk damage. Beauty therapists are reporting an increasing number of clients showing up with sensitised skin because of the over-use of AHAs. Skin care companies interested more in quick sales and less interested in the long-term health of their customers' skins put too much AHAs in too many of their formulas.

3. Relying on supplier clinical studies. Formulators buy their ingredients from a range of suppliers, some of whom conduct studies and provide these to the formulators. Rarely do the formulators retest. But sometimes suppliers will talk about the good things about their ingredients, and provide studies to prove these good things, but don't mention the bad things. For example, we initially looked at using a particular ingredient in one of our products because the clinical studies from the supplier looked impressive. It was only once we conducted our own in-house studies that we discovered that the ingredient stings eyes. We immediately replaced it with a better alternative - yet I see this ingredient commonly in many big name skin care company ingredients lists.

4. Catering to the majority.  The majority of people do not have sensitive skin. It is estimated that between 10 and 15% of people do have sensitive skin from time to time. The bigger companies do not try to cater to this minority - for a range of reasons that I will explain in another blog one day. So, providing that tests show that the majority of people can tolerate an ingredient, the big companies (and some small ones) are happy to include the ingredient regardless of the risks.

5. It's too late. Skin care is a dynamic field, new ingredients are constantly being discovered and old ones improved. New issues are increasingly identified with old ingredients. But companies print their boxes and bottles in the hundreds of thousands at a time. Discovering a problem with an ingredient once the boxes are printed, the marketing materials printed and distributed, the sales team briefed etc is too late. The runway from changing out a problem ingredient for a better one is measured in years, not weeks.

I could be mean and say that there is a sixth reason and that is plain old laziness but I won't. In my experience the vast majority of formulators work hard and are professional in all that they do. But they are not the decision-makers. If formulators ruled the world, and not investors, marketers and sales directors, skin care formulations would likely look very different!


Dr Annie Holden, Sunshine Coast, Australia.



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