Dr. Hsieh Lab. Smart RetinolIngredients explained
Good old water, aka H2O. The most common skincare ingredient of all. You can usually find it right in the very first spot of the ingredient list, meaning it’s the biggest thing out of all the stuff that makes up the product.
It’s mainly a solvent for ingredients that do not like to dissolve in oils but rather in water.
Once inside the skin, it hydrates, but not from the outside - putting pure water on the skin (hello long baths!) is drying.
One more thing: the water used in cosmetics is purified and deionized (it means that almost all of the mineral ions inside it is removed). Like this, the products can stay more stable over time.
Butylene glycol, or let’s just call it BG, is a multi-tasking colorless, syrupy liquid. It’s a great pick for creating a nice feeling product.
BG’s main job is usually to be a solvent for the other ingredients. Other tasks include helping the product to absorb faster and deeper into the skin (penetration enhancer), making the product spread nicely over the skin (slip agent), and attracting water (humectant) into the skin.
It’s an ingredient whose safety hasn’t been questioned so far by anyone (at least not that we know about). BG is approved by Ecocert and is also used enthusiastically in natural products. BTW, it’s also a food additive.
A super common emollient that makes your skin feel nice and smooth. It comes from coconut oil and glycerin, it’s light-textured, clear, odorless and non-greasy. It’s a nice ingredient that just feels good on the skin, is super well tolerated by every skin type and easy to formulate with. No wonder it’s popular.
A copolymer is a big molecule that consists not of one but of two repeating subunits. This particular copolymer is a handy helper ingredient to form nice gel textures.
It usually comes to the formula combined with emollients (such as C13-14 Isoparaffin, Isohexadecane, Isononyl Isononanoate or Squalane) and can be used as an emulsifier and/or thickener to produce milky gel emulsions with a soft and non-tacky skin feel.
The famous or maybe rather infamous mineral oil. The clear oily liquid that is the "cheap by-product" of refining crude oil and the one that gets a lot of heat for its poor provenance. It is a very controversial ingredient with pros and cons and plenty of myths around it. So let us see them:
The pros of mineral oil
Trust us, if something is used for more than 100 years in cosmetic products, it has advantages. Chemically speaking, cosmetic grade mineral oil is a complex mixture of highly refined saturated hydrocarbons with C15-50 chain length. It is not merely a "by-product" but rather a specifically isolated part of petroleum that is very pure and inert.
It is a great emollient and moisturizer working mainly by occlusivity. Occlusivity is one of the basic mechanisms of how moisturizers work and it means that mineral oil sits on top of the skin and hinders so-called trans-epidermal water loss, i.e water evaporating out of your skin. When compared to heavy-duty plant oil, extra virgin coconut oil, the two of them were equally efficient and safe as moisturizers in treating xerosis, a skin condition connected to very dry skin.
The other thing that mineral oil is really good at is being non-irritating to the skin. The chemical composition of plant oils is more complex with many more possible allergens or irritating components, while mineral oil is simple, pure and sensitivity to it is extremely rare. If you check out the classic French pharmacy brands and their moisturizers for the most sensitive, allergy prone skin, they usually contain mineral oil. This is no coincidence.
The cons of mineral oil
The pros of mineral oil can be interpreted as cons if we look at them from another perspective. Not penetrating the skin but mostly just sitting on top of it and not containing biologically active components, like nice fatty acids and vitamins mean that mineral oil does not "nourish" the skin in the way plant oils do. Mineral oil does not give the skin any extra goodness, it is simply a non-irritating moisturizer working mainly by occlusivity.
The myths around mineral oil
Badmouthing mineral oil is a favorite sport of many, it is a cheap material and being connected to petrolatum makes it fairly easy to demonize.
While it is true that industrial grade mineral oil contains carcinogenic components (so-called polycyclic compounds), these are completely removed from cosmetic and food grade mineral oil and there is no scientific data showing that the pure, cosmetic grade version is carcinogenic.
What is more, in terms of the general health effects of mineral oils used in cosmetics, a 2017 study reviewed the data on their skin penetration and concluded that "the cosmetic use of mineral oils and waxes does not present a risk to consumers due to a lack of systemic exposure."
Another super common myth surrounding mineral oil is that it is comedogenic. A 2005 study titled "Is mineral oil comedogenic?" examined this very question and guess what happened? The study concluded that "based on the animal and human data reported, along with the AAD recommendation, it would appear reasonable to conclude that mineral oil is noncomedogenic in humans."
Overall, we feel that the scaremongering around mineral oil is not justified. For dry and super-sensitive skin types it is a great option. However, if you do not like its origin or its heavy feeling or anything else about it, avoiding it has never been easier. Mineral oil has such a bad reputation nowadays that cosmetic companies hardly dare to use it anymore.
We don't have description for this ingredient yet.
It’s pretty much the current IT-preservative. It’s safe and gentle, but even more importantly, it’s not a feared-by-everyone-mostly-without-scientific-reason paraben.
It’s not something new: it was introduced around 1950 and today it can be used up to 1% worldwide. It can be found in nature - in green tea - but the version used in cosmetics is synthetic.
Other than having a good safety profile and being quite gentle to the skin it has some other advantages too. It can be used in many types of formulations as it has great thermal stability (can be heated up to 85°C) and works on a wide range of pH levels (ph 3-10).
It’s often used together with ethylhexylglycerin as it nicely improves the preservative activity of phenoxyethanol.
Super common soothing ingredient. It can be found naturally in the roots & leaves of the comfrey plant, but more often than not what's in the cosmetic products is produced synthetically.
It's not only soothing but it' also skin-softening and protecting and can promote wound healing.
A little helper ingredient that works as a preservative. It works against bacteria and some species of fungi and yeast. It's often combined with IT-preservative, phenoxyethanol.
- Retinol (pure Vitamin A) is probably the most proven anti-aging ingredient available OTC
- It has to be converted in the skin to retinoic acid to work its magic
- Once converted, it has the same effect as all-trans-retinoic acid, aka tretinoin
- A generally accepted ballpark number is that retinol is 10-to-20 times less potent than retinoic acid
- It makes skin less wrinkled, smoother, firmer and tighter
- It might also be helpful for acne prone skin as it normalizes keratinization and makes the pores produce less sebum
- Possible side effects and irritation are also much less than with retinoic acid
- Do not use whilst pregnant
A so-called polymer microsphere, i.e. little spherical shaped particles from repeated subunits. Similar to other microsphere powders, it can scatter the light to give products a soft focus or blurring effect. It also works as a texture enhancer giving formulas an exceptional smoothness and a velvet touch.
It's the acronym for Butylated Hydroxy Toluene. It's a common synthetic antioxidant that's used as a preservative.
There is some controversy around BHT. It's not a new ingredient, it has been used both as a food and cosmetics additive since the 1970s. Plenty of studies tried to examine if it's a carcinogen or not. This Truth in Aging article details the situation and also writes that all these studies examine BHT when taken orally.
As for cosmetics, the CIR (Cosmetic Ingredient Review) concluded that the amount of BHT used in cosmetic products is low (usually around 0.01-0.1%), it does not penetrate skin far enough to be absorbed into the bloodstream and it is safe to use in cosmetics.
It’s the - sodium form - cousin of the famous NMF, hyaluronic acid (HA). If HA does not tell you anything we have a super detailed, geeky explanation about it here. The TL; DR version of HA is that it's a huge polymer (big molecule from repeated subunits) found in the skin that acts as a sponge helping the skin to hold onto water, being plump and elastic. HA is famous for its crazy water holding capacity as it can bind up to 1000 times its own weight in water.
As far as skincare goes, sodium hyaluronate and hyaluronic acid are pretty much the same and the two names are used interchangeably. As cosmetic chemist kindofstephen writes on reddit "sodium hyaluronate disassociates into hyaluronic acid molecule and a sodium atom in solution".
In spite of this, if you search for "hyaluronic acid vs sodium hyaluronate" you will find on multiple places that sodium hyaluronate is smaller and can penetrate the skin better. Chemically, this is definitely not true, as the two forms are almost the same, both are polymers and the subunits can be repeated in both forms as much as you like. (We also checked Prospector for sodium hyaluronate versions actually used in cosmetic products and found that the most common molecular weight was 1.5-1.8 million Da that absolutely counts as high molecular weight).
What seems to be a true difference, though, is that the salt form is more stable, easier to formulate and cheaper so it pops up more often on the ingredient lists.
If you wanna become a real HA-and-the-skin expert you can read way more about the topic at hyaluronic acid (including penetration-questions, differences between high and low molecular weight versions and a bunch of references to scientific literature).
It's one of the most commonly used thickeners and emulsion stabilizers. If the product is too runny, a little xanthan gum will make it more gel-like. Used alone, it can make the formula sticky and it is a good team player so it is usually combined with other thickeners and so-called rheology modifiers (helper ingredients that adjust the flow and thus the feel of the formula). The typical use level of Xantha Gum is below 1%, it is usually in the 0.1-0.5% range.
Btw, Xanthan gum is all natural, a chain of sugar molecules (polysaccharide) produced from individual sugar molecules (glucose and sucrose) via fermentation. It’s approved by Ecocert and also used in the food industry (E415).
We don't have description for this ingredient yet.
|moisturizer/humectant | solvent
|emollient | solvent
|emulsifying | surfactant/cleansing
|preservative | antimicrobial/antibacterial
|antioxidant | preservative
|emollient | perfuming
|skin-identical ingredient | moisturizer/humectant