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Active Ingredients in Action

Terri A. Wojak September 2012 issue of Skin Inc. magazine
professional skin care products with active ingredients

Every day, people are inundated with advertisements about the next “miracle” product. Whether it is an average consumer, a skin care professional or a physician, all would like to believe that they have finally discovered the magic ingredient to make skin flawless. As reality sets in, it becomes apparent that no two people have the same skin, and skin care is not an exact science. As a skin care professional, your job is to educate clients and consumers about what is best for them and to foster realistic expectations for their skin care concerns. Too often, clients come in saying they spent $200 on a product with a recently discovered botanical that will make them look 20 years younger or a product that is claiming to be better than a pharmaceutical drug. It is your job to educate them about what you know to be true.

Besides the abundance of daily advertisements, skin care professionals often have representatives call to promote their products and explain why their line is a perfect addition. Don’t shut down the opportunity to have a product representative visit. If nothing else, treat it as a learning experience that will provide knowledge about other products in the industry. You may even discover something appealing that you want to offer clients. There are many effective product lines on the market, and the hardest part is choosing the best line for your business. As a skin care professional, it is important to take a few issues into consideration including safety, education, demonstrated results and product variety.

Active vs. inactive ingredients

There are two main groups of ingredients in cosmetic product formulations—active and inactive. Active ingredients should have an effect on the skin; they are added to a product to carry out an action. (See Top 10 Active Ingredients.) For example, retinol may be added to speed cellular turnover.

Inactive ingredients are included to help deliver the active ingredients, as well as preserve the product and make it aesthetically pleasing. Inactive ingredients include buffers, coloring agents, emulsifying agents, fragrances, preservatives, solvents, thickeners and vehicles. Each of these inactive ingredients has its own function or multiple functions for making the product effective. The manner in which the product is formulated is equally as important. If products are not formulated correctly, they may be ineffective or potentially harmful.

Ingredient penetration

The function of the stratum corneum is to protect the internal organs and keep out potentially harmful bacteria. The skin also holds moisture in and acts as a barrier to keep chemicals out. You may ask yourself how skin care products can possibly penetrate this protective barrier. There are three efficient ways an active ingredient can do this.

The intercellular route. The intercellular route is said to be the most effective way to break through the stratum corneum. This method carries active ingredients through the lipid matrix between the cells. The stratum corneum is composed of keratinized cells and intercellular lipids, including fatty acids, ceramides and cholesterol. Lipid-soluble products are ideal for intercellular absorption.

The transcellular route. This route delivers products directly through the epidermal cells. Ingredients with a small molecular size that are both lipophilic and hydrophilic penetrate best this way. Manufacturers may add ingredients, such as liposomes or nanotechnology, to encase an active ingredient for optimal penetration.

The transfollicular route. This route may be used, but is not a preferred method because less than 0.1% of the skin’s surface area has sebaceous openings. This route can be used to carry larger and polar molecules through follicular openings.

With all the new technologies available, many skin care professionals are starting to use specialized delivery systems to enhance product penetration. There are electrical devices that can be used to help products penetrate, such as galvanic current, iontophoresis and ultrasound. These devices work by disrupting the barrier of the skin or using energy to drive in ingredients. Microneedling is another modality that is becoming increasingly popular to assist with the delivery of ingredients into the skin. Think of it like aerating a lawn—this technique utilizes an instrument with microscopic needles that are designed to cause minor ruptures in the barrier of the skin to allow products to penetrate more effectively.

Professional skin care knowledge

Educating consumers with tips to increase the absorption of ingredients can enhance results and should be done on a regular basis. Well-hydrated skin with an intact barrier increases product absorption. One of the reasons skin care professionals use massage and steam in facial treatments is to stimulate and heat the tissue in order to aid absorption. Exfoliating the skin on a regular basis to remove dead cells first decreases resistance from the barrier. Water-based products should be applied before oil-based products. In general, an easy way to achieve this is to apply products from thinnest to thickest. The amount of product applied to the skin is also important to produce results. Consumers may think they can buy a $100 serum and try to make it last longer by using half the recommended dose; however, this will simply give them half of the active ingredients needed.

Inform clients about the importance of using products that are of a higher standard than those available at local drug stores. Not to imply that there are not any good products over-the-counter; however, professional skin care products often carry more weight. They typically have produced in-office studies, before-and-after pictures and some even offer U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved clinical trials. Professional product lines commonly use higher percentages of active ingredients to create a desired reaction. Be aware of the type of ingredients used, as well. For example, there are many forms of vitamin C, but they may differ in various ways. Think of it as getting a cheeseburger from a fast-food restaurant compared to a high-end steak house.

Skin care professionals should have vast knowledge on a variety of active ingredients and their functions. Education is crucial when choosing and recommending the right products for each client. Industry professionals commonly believe that the majority of clients’ results come from their home-care regimen. When recommending a regimen for a client, know exactly how and why each product works. If a company does not promote proper education when it comes to using its product, question its effectiveness. Education shouldn’t stop with the skin care professional; brochures or materials should be available that thoroughly explain how the product should be used and its mechanism of action. A comprehensive product line may cover the majority of your client’s concerns, but you may choose to add items from other lines to fill in any gaps.

To run a successful business, you must be able to meet the client’s needs and, to meet the client’s needs, you must be well-informed about products that are available to the consumer.

Terri A. Wojak is a licensed esthetician with more than 14 years of experience. She has knowledge in all aspects of the skin care industry, including education, sales, medical esthetics, management and ownership, and she is the director, as well as an educator, at True University in Chicago. She can be contacted at 312-335-2070 or via e-mail at

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Top 10 Active Ingredients

  • L-ascorbic acid. A powerful antioxidant that helps fight off free radicals produced by UV, it promotes collagen synthesis and has skin-brightening properties.
  • Argireline. This is a peptide commonly used in skin care products to slow down muscle contraction over time. This ingredient should not be compared to Botox, which is a pharmaceutical drug.
  • Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Derived from green tea, this is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. It is often used with other antioxidants, as well as in products used to treat acne.
  • Epidermal growth factor (EGF). Used to help stimulate repair by reducing inflammation, EGF also enhances epidermal growth and keratinization.
  • Glycolic acid. An alpha hydroxy acid known for its exfoliating properties, glycolic acid helps strengthen collagen and increase cell renewal.
  • Retinol. Known as a skin-normalizer, retinol increases cellular turnover, collagen production and circulation within the skin.
  • Salicylic acid. This is a lipid-soluble hydroxy acid that helps to break down comedones, as well as dissolve dead surface cells.
  • Hyaluronic acid. A naturally occurring polysaccharide in the dermis, hyaluronic acid delivers moisture to dehydrated skin. It also provides a healthy environment for the growth of new cells.
  • Emblica. This skin-lightening agent, commonly used to even skin tone, is an antioxidant that also has strong anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Resveratrol. A potent antioxidant found in grape skin, resveratrol works as a matrix metalloproteinase inhibitor (MMPi), which helps to preserve the structure and function of the skin.

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