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Jun 13, 2004
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Skin care for Dummies

by Andrea Toochin

A democratic marketplace yields a vast array of product lines often hard to distinguish. For the average consumer it’s overwhelming; for junkies constant innovation is expected. Thankfully, though, survival of the fittest whittles the pack down to worthy and disposable brands. While some obsess over recent developments, hoping the latest chemical is the answer to surgery-free youth, we realize our consumers need a little help deciphering the details when shopping sans expert.

With our new design, we bring you Skin Care for Dummies, cosmetics 101 if you will. We feel it’s important to be realistic and practical when it comes to diets and skin care regimens since time, money, and dedication vary among people. So we’ve broken it down into two sections: Keep It Simple (KIS) and Go the Extra Mile (GEM). KIS details required steps everyone should abide by, that will ensure healthy skin if followed consistently. GEM involves additional steps, selected at your discretion, that will take your regimen up a notch and assume additional measures to prevent aging and heal skin damage.

We are not here to draw the line between average and exceptional companies—we are here to tell you about prerequisites and electives. But before you reorganize your medicine cabinet you need to know what to discard and what to keep. Despite years dissecting cereal boxes, we know almost nothing of the unpronounceable names listed on the back of far more costly boxes: cosmetic packages. Think of this as part glossary, part guide—a refresher course for veterans and a user-friendly approach for virgins.

Keep it Simple

Cleanser is a must. Irritations such as skin discoloration or dryness come from a variety of stressors, but acne is the product of dirt and bacteria that become lodged in the pores. The nagging friend who insists you should never sleep with makeup on is worth listening to; the makeup adds another layer of product that clogs pores. There are plenty of cleansers: gels, foams, mousses, and creams. Since oily skins requires less moisture, gel or foams work best; conversely dry skin needs the hydration and benefits from cream cleansers, especially in the winter. All cleansers are water based; common secondary ingredients include milk, glycerin, aloe, panthenol, and orange extract. Steer clear of alcohol and lanolin. If you’re lazy or anticipate late night partying, where you barely make it to your bed, keep a box of disposable wipes on your nightstand. You can get rid of makeup and most of the dirt, thereby avoiding an instant breakout.

Moisturizers weren’t always differentiated by day or night. In all honesty, part of it is a marketing ploy, which is why the one thing every day cream should have is a built in Skin Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15. Don’t be ignorant regarding climate or season; some people think they’d don’t need sunscreen in the winter, but the rays are always present. Even when you are using an SPF day cream, prolonged exposure requires additional applications. Most days creams contain glycerin, soy, vitamin A, C or E, algae, coenzyme Q10, Hyuralonic Acid, or antioxidants, and natural healing agents such as green tea or grape seed extract. Sensitive skin will favor brightening soy or natural extracts over chemically vitamins and Alpha Hydroxy Acids. Obviously, those prone to breakouts should opt for an oil-free formula.

Night creams tend to be heavier as the philosophy maintains skin will absorb the nutrients and moisture while you’re sleeping. You can expect to see the same ingredients as in the day cream, minus the SPF, plus collagen stimulating agents such as caviar, seaweed, yeast extracts, peptides, copper, and the usual array of vitamins. As with your day cream, when the weather changes, so should your regimen; you’ll need less moisture in the summer, so switch to a lotion if you’ve been using a cream.

Exfoliating is a necessary evil. Yes it’s one more item to fit in your cabinet, but a mild scrub even once a week can keep skin fresh. Not only is dirt buildup an issue, but skin can also get ruddy, especially when exposed to harsh winds and dry, overheated homes. Exfoliating removes dead skin cells and reveals a smooth surface. Choosing a scrub is an issue of sensitive versus normal skin. Normal skin can handle a harsher scrub with course grains, but sensitive skin might develop a rash. All it takes is a bit of friction, so choose accordingly. Common ingredients include apricot, oatmeal, and nut extracts. Keep in mind newer products are employing chemical agents to do the job, such as glycolic acid, but they’re not for everyone. The best bet is to exfoliate at night so skin has time to recoup if any abnormal reaction occurs.

Body moisturizers are one product almost everyone can have fun with, without worrying about allergies or reactions. There are tons of formulas out there from anti-cellulite to shave minimizing lotions. Realistically the best thing you can do is use lotion every day, immediately following a shower because skin absorbs it best when it’s a bit moist. Reliable old school sources like shea butter, vitamin E, aloe, and cocoa butter are always safe choices. Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids were added over the past decade as chemical exfoliators that promote cell turnover. Newer moisturizing agents include olive oil, avocado, and even coconut oil. Cellulite and tightening creams is a group to be wary of—they can be effective, but again it’s temporary, as only exercise and diet will permanently reduce cellulite. Common ingredients include caffeine and seaweed; without knowing the concentration it’s hard to tell which is most effective. Drugstores carry a number of options, but Clarins has an excellent selection.

Go the Extra Mile

Toner isn’t a required step because dry skin doesn’t need extra cleansing. For combination and oily skin take note that purified water is the base of almost every toner, with rose water and witch hazel second in line. Other common ingredients include melaleuca (tea tree oil), aloe, green tea extract, and occasionally, natural soothing agents like sage extract, calendula extract, geranium oil, camphor, and chamomile. As toner isn’t always necessary, it’s not the product you should spend the big bucks on; there are plenty of suitable drugstore versions that will conserve cash so you save up for the platinum standard eye cream.

I classify eye creams with jeans and mascara—I’m still in search of the perfect item within each category. One day I’ll open a box and the emollient inside will wisk away my tired bags and unsightly lines. Until then, I use ample eye cream under concealer in the morning, and again at night. It’s not necessary to have a separate day and night treatment, but if you do, make sure the day one has SPF. When it comes to eyes people have one of two issues: darks circles and bags, or lines and wrinkles. If you have both, I’m sad to say you know deep down no cream will fix it all, despite ‘proven studies.’ To fill lines with smoothing agents and moisturizers, looking for vitamin A, C, or E, avocado and even milk. The increasingly popular Vitamin K is used to lighten dark circles and shadows. Natural ingredients like cucumber and chamomile sooth skin by through cooling properties, but there are no long-term anti-aging promises.

Masks double as a pampering and a preventative treatment. They provide instant gratification whether the goal is skin clearing, tightening, or moisturizing. If you’re looking to rid your skin of blemishes or cleanse pores, mud and clay masks are a popular choice; Queen Helene, the drugstore brand, happens to make an excellent one: Mint Julep Mask. Exfoliating masks serve the same purpose and often have fruit extracts like papaya. Soothing and toning masks, usually creams or gels, contain cucumber, grape seed extract, aloe and oatmeal. For moisturizing masks, look for avocado, almond oil, vitamins A and E, shea butter, and herbal extracts.

A serum is for conscientious users. As you’ll be using a night cream, think of serums as the repairing and anti-aging step for your day routine. After cleansing and before moisturizing, a serum is applied to dry skin. Many have high concentrations of vitamin C, as well as forms of peptides, Linoleic Acid, Lactic Acid, soy, collagen, and more recent additions like wild yam and algae botanicals.

Spot Treatments, otherwise known as acne creams and lotions, have evolved slower than other skin care items. As teenagers we relied on Benzoyl Peroxide, which in a concentration of 10%, simply dries the area out to the point of excessive flaking. A few years back Salicylic Acid began gaining popularity. Now, most often seen in a 2% concentration, it’s less drying than BP and comes in a clear formula, as well as in cleansers. Luckily, though, we now have the advent of sulfur, which like BP, is an antibacterial agent. Some products include tea tree oil, which despite having ‘oil’ in its name, is an excellent antiseptic that can be used on anything from acne to fungus. Unlike the special types of vitamin C in serums, most acne products feature one of these three products as a main ingredient and they usually contain the same concentration. Consequently this is not where you should splurge, however, a few noteworthy boutique brands, mainly Mario Badescu, are known for their acne treatment properties and worth the extra penny. Body scrubs fall in the category of home spa treatments. Using these products shouldn’t be a chore; they are fun, often sweet smelling products, meant for exfoliating the body while showering. Most have a salt or sugar base, and are mixed with some type of oil. Nut extracts, aloe, jojoba oil, coconut oil, olive oil, and flax oil are common additives. Where face scrubs will use fine beads, body scrubs run the gamut from fine sugar to course sea salt. Course scrubs can used on feet too, as separate foot scrubs are quite similar, apart from soothing and cooling properties like peppermint and menthol. Those with oily skin should read carefully and choose cleansing scrubs over moisturizing, favoring salt and ginger, over coconut oil and brown sugar. This is one of the few products you can actually evaluate partially by appearance; most scrubs will separate, the oil settling on top of the solid. Newer products congeal better, as a result of a lower oil concentration, making them more appropriate choices with summer approaching.

Now that you’re officially overwhelmed and confused, there’s one last bit of advice: read the fine print. When reading advertisements and boxes it’s important to note the sample size of the study that is proving the product’s efficacy. The sample size is the number of people the product was tested on—often it’s an insignificant number and who knows what their skin was like before or how these individuals define results. It’s also important to recognize key terms such as reduce ‘the appearance’ of fine lines or ‘temporarily’ smooth skin. This is their way of protecting the company; through the careful wording they choose, they ensure no guarantees for permanent results, just some visual improvement.

When it comes down to it, there are three things conducive to any budget that everyone can do to prevent skin damage and keep skin healthy: drink water constantly, use sunscreen during every season, and stay healthy by working out and eating sensibly.

There are plenty of vitamin waters, beauty supplements, and endless treatments. Many are effective, some are simply convenient, and others rely on creative marketing. Even still, skin preservation is important, especially if you don’t believe in plastic surgery or dermatological procedures.

This isn’t a test, but shopping for your next product will be. That’s why the box below can be clipped and used as a shopping aid. That way you can double check the ingredients before you’re lured by the ‘free gift’ that’ll cost you $55.

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Vitamins: A, B, C, D, E, and K

A: Retinol and Retinyl Palmitate

B5: DL-Panthenol

C: Ascorbic Acid, Sodium Ascorbate, and Ascorbyl Phosphate

D3: Cholecalciferol

E: Tocopheryl Acetate

K: Phytonadione

Alpha Hydroxy Acids: Organic elements that improve skin tone by clearing dead skin cells and lightening spots (Glycolic acid and Lactic acid are most common)

Beta Hydroxy Acids: Also help shed dead skin cells and serves as an anti-inflammatory agent (salicylic acid and ascorbic acid are most common).

Antioxidants, items found in nature or the skin that possess anti-aging properties: Green and White teas, grape seed extract, seaweed, caviar, cucumber, chamomile, camphor, rosemary, sage extract, kinetin, and coenzyme Q10.

Anti-aging elements: Collagen and Hyuralonic Acid (Resylane or Perlane).

Skin Protection Factor (SPF): Ultraviolet-A is said to be more harmful than Ultraviolet -B. There are chemical and physical barriers available; most are broad-spectrum ingredients that protect against both, however nothing exists that shields all UVA rays.

Most common protectors are Parsol MCX, Octocrylene, octisalate, octinoxate, oxybenzone, and avobenzone (Parsol 1789), which extends UVA protection. Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide are effective, broad range, physical barriers that result in the opaque, white color many sunscreens leave. Other chemicals include octylmethyl cinnamate, cinoxate, sulisobenzone, salicylates and meradimate.