How to Shop Skincare Ingredients like a Biochemist (One Easy Trick)
The sad fact of the skincare industry:
The FDA does not actively regulate or even monitor skincare product contents.
One of the big dirty secrets of the skincare industry is that in 1938, the FDA decided that "skincare" was outside of its jurisdiction. The FDA determined that skincare was a matter of "beautification" and thus needed the same amount of regulation as makeup, not as medication, food or even pesticides. The requirements the FDA laid out for the skincare & makeup industry in 1938 are the same ones that stand today. That
[skincare and makeup products]s must not "contain any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render them injurious...or consist of any filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance"
...everything else is fair game. And even those aren't actively enforced.
Even these small regulations are only enforced if consumers file a formal complaint. The FDA does not actively monitor skincare products for lack of poisonous substances etc. Per the FDA, itself:
"Neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients. The law also does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information with FDA." (Source: FDA.gov)
With the FDA's promise to completely ignore the skincare industry and its manufacturing practices, the industry has blossomed into a $30 billion industry that is all but completely separated from the field of dermatology and dermatological research.
What this means: "Vitamin C" Serums aren't legally required to contain any Vitamin C.
As crazy as it sounds, it would be completely legal for you to mix a drop of orange juice with a gallon lotion and sell it as a "breakthrough vitamin C serum that reverses signs of aging." Unfortunately, this is not far off from what most skincare products are. They just need a single molecule of something even loosely related to "Vitamin C" (including degraded Vitamin C) to be immune from litigation. The only consequences would arise if a private citizen files a lawsuit with the Federal Trade Commission, not the FDA.
Without ingredient regulation, skincare companies have focused on making pretty packaging with sensational stories behind cheap, proven ineffective ingredients that are easy to manufacture, have infinite shelf-lives and universally appealing smells & textures.
In that process, skincare companies made their greatest money-making discovery:
The skincare industry's big, super-profitable discovery: Synthetic derivative ingredients
Synthetic derivatives ingredients (or as we like to call them "mutant ingredients"), are human-made forms of ingredients that are created by chemically altering the naturally occurring form of an ingredient (for Vitamin A , Vitamin C is ascorbic acid and Vitamin E tocopherol) with other molecules like alcohols, lipids or salts.
"Vitamin C" in its pure, natural form is Ascorbic Acid. The synthetic derivatives used by many of the biggest brands in skincare are:
- Ascorbyl Palmitate (Augustinas Bader)
- Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate (Glossier)
- Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate (Perricone MD, Peter Thomas Roth)
- 3-O-Ethyl Ascorbic Acid (Ole Henriksen)
- Bis-Glyceryl Ascorbate (Tatcha)
- Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate (Tatcha)
(Seeing a pattern? We'll talk more about this in a second.)
Both Ole Henriksen and Tatcha advertise "15% Vitamin C," "20% Vitamin C" etc. on their websites and only specify that it is a derivative form (if at all) in the fine print.
Perhaps even more disturbing though is that two of the companies listed above sprinkle just a few molecules of REAL Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in their products as well, just to make sure they are technically not "lying." You can figure this out by using the "phenoxyethanol trick" (that we've written about here).
We won't go into a detailed analysis of the effectiveness of each derivative form here. The important thing to note is that your skin can only use the pure form the ingredient. So your skin needs to find a way to chemically convert the derivative into the pure form first, before using it. In all cases, the potency of these molecules is reduced or––in some cases––completely lost in this conversion process. This is what's commonly referred to as "bioavailability" or how much of the pure ingredient is left over after conversion. For instance, retinyl palmitate is estimated to have less than 1% bioavailability, or less than 1% of it is successfully converted into retinoic acid.
So instead of going through the trouble of reading hundreds of brand-sponsored studies on the convertibility and effectiveness of these derivatives, we recommend living by one easy principle:
A derivative is never as potent as the pure form.
...And in many cases (like with retinyl palimitate), it may be proven to have zero potency.
How to spot synthetic, mutant ingredients:
Step 1: Track down the REAL full ingredient list
This is often one the trickiest steps because brands go to great lengths to bury their full ingredient list and instead put an "ingredient summary" front and center to distract from the real that are often provided as distractions.
Step 2: Use "CTRL + F" to search for the chemical prefix
Once you're in the big, ugly ingredients list in your browser if you press "CTRL + F" on your keyboard (Command + F for Mac users), you can skip the painful reading process and find exactly what you're looking for.
- For vitamin C, search "ascorb"
- For retinoids, search "ret"
- For vitamin E, search "toco"
Here's an example from a leading Vitamin C serum:
And here's example from a famous dermatologist cream: