The wonderful world of skincare is constantly abuzz with new products, beauty hacks and “skinfluencers”, but this can easily lead to information overload when it comes to decoding the essentials and curating your own skincare routine.
Victoria Fu and Gloria Wu are the founders of the educational platform Chemist Confessions and authors of Skincare Decoded: The Practical Guide to Beautiful Skin. As cosmetic chemists with experience working for global brands including L’Oreal, Victoria and Gloria are no strangers to ingredients, formulations and targeting skin concerns. But before we dive into products and ingredients, it’s important to learn about how skin actually works.
Your skin is the body’s largest organ and is made up of multiple layers: the epidermis is the outer layer and the body’s first line of defence against nasties such as bacteria, viruses and pollution; the dermis is the next layer, containing hair follicles, blood vessels, sweat glands and sebaceous (oil) glands, where all the detoxifying and collagen building happens; the inner layer is the subcutaneous layer, which attaches to muscle and bones and acts as a thermostat to insulate body temperature.
Basic skincare is designed to nourish and protect the epidermis. “Your stratum corneum (SC) [the top layer of the epidermis] is the outermost layer of your skin that protects it from the elements,” Victoria explains. “Ultimately, the core of skincare is to protect your SC health. A healthy SC consists of a neatly woven matrix of fatty materials (ceramides, fatty acids and cholesterol), just enough water for normal skin metabolism and a slightly acidic surface to guard against pathogens.”
KISS (keep it simple, stupid)
Contrary to popular belief (and marketing ploys designed to sell more products), you don’t need a 10-step skincare routine. Beauty guru, aesthetician and author of skincare bible Skincare: The Ultimate No-Nonsense Guide lives by three cardinal rules: 1) Use SPF every day and limit your sun exposure; 2) Only use the actives your skin really needs; and 3) Create a daily skincare routine.
You want to tailor your skincare according to your skin type — dry, normal or oily — but according to Victoria and Gloria, you should watch out for shifting skin conditions. “Your skin most likely falls into these three main categories … most people will cover the entire spectrum of skin types in their lifetime,” the duo write in Skincare Decoded.
Your skin will tend to get drier during different seasons and conditions (think both cold weather and air conditioning) and even more so as you age. But you’ll be able to get it back on track with minimal changes to your regular routine.
Your routine doesn’t have to take hours. “The three fundamentals are cleanse, moisturise and apply sunscreen. Cover those three and you’ve really covered the majority of skin needs,” says Victoria. Don’t forget to double-cleanse during your night routine — once with an oil-based balm or micellar water to break through the makeup, sunscreen, dirt and oils on your skin, and the second with a mild or targeted cleanser for a deeper clean.
Not sure what order to apply? Victoria and Gloria recommend applying in the order of water-based to oily products, or thinnest to thickest in texture. After cleansing, tone or use a hydrating spray, then apply your serum, eye cream, moisturiser, face oil and finally, a sunscreen for your morning routine.
Victoria and Gloria’s guide to choosing the right products for your skin
- Cleanser: You’re looking for a product that cleans your face thoroughly without that dry “tight” skin feel. It’s all about finding the sweet spot!
- Moisturiser: If you have dry skin, make sure your moisturiser has a solid occlusive such as petroleum (THE gold standard occlusive that all dry skin needs, according to Gloria) or shea butter in the formula. High levels of humectants such as glycerine and glycols high up on the ingredients list can be helpful for dehydrated skin.
- SPF: Texture is king when it comes to sunscreens. Most people under-apply sunscreen (you need about half a teaspoon for your face), so any formula that falls in the SPF 30 to 50 range that makes you want to apply gratuitously is a winner.
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“You need the highest percentage of active ingredients for a product to be effective.”
Since the get-go, Victoria and Gloria have warned their followers to be mindful of using percentages to gauge the efficacy of a product. But they’ve recently noticed many brands promoting misleading and sometimes ludicrous levels, says Victoria: “Niacinamide is actually tested at two per cent to five per cent in most studies. But nowadays, you can easily find it at 10 per cent and higher, which can be potentially irritating for some. It’s all about the right concentration, not the most.”
This is a topic that divides skincare chemists and aficionados, so we asked Victoria and Gloria for their thoughts: “Octinoxate and oxybenzone are the two main sun filters that seem to affect coral reefs, even at pretty low concentrations. If you’re planning on doing any snorkelling, consider avoiding these two filters. The reality is that many other filters including mineral filters have been shown to have adverse effects on coral reefs, but these tests are often done at fairly extreme concentrations that misrepresent realistic conditions,” Victoria continues. “There’s still so much work that needs to be done to understand sunscreen’s impact. Of course, coral reefs are having a tough time due to climate change and other big issues way beyond which sunscreen you choose to use.”
“I don’t need to moisturise if I’m using serum or oil.”
The Chemist Confessions duo often hear of people using a hyaluronic acid serum or face oil in place of moisturiser. “You actually need a balance of water-based ingredients and oily ingredients to stay moisturised,” says Victoria. “Products like hyaluronic acid serum and face oils are there to enhance your skincare routine, but are too one-dimensional to effectively moisturise alone.”
No doubt you have been guilty once or twice of forgetting your SPF or sleeping in your makeup after a night out. But you may have a few harmful habits that you aren’t even aware of. Behold, the cardinal sins of skincare:
Ultraviolet (UV) light is the number-one cause of premature ageing and is responsible for 90 per cent of visible ageing. Sun exposure essentially fast-tracks the breakdown of collagen and essential fatty acids, causing loss of elasticity, fine lines, wrinkles and uneven tone and texture. Rain, hail or shine, applying and reapplying SPF is essential to keep your skin feeling and looking healthy.
Any beauty lover, from dermatologists to skincare addicts, will tell you that exfoliating your skin is essential for a clean, even complexion as it works to whisk away dry, dead and dull skin. But over-exfoliation can lead to dry, flaky skin, redness, irritation, hypersensitivity and breakouts. “For aggressive active ingredients such as retinol or glycolic acid, some light stinging or shedding can be normal. But it should never reach a point of itchy, angry, inflamed skin,” Victoria explains. “That really stems to all actives, retinoids and vitamin C. Skin irritation brings in a whole host of other issues that need to be addressed first before skin can go back to focusing on fighting wrinkles, pigmentation etc.” The solution: Stick to exfoliating with a physical or chemical exfoliant two to three times a week, according to your skin’s needs.
Vitamin C, retinol and AHAs are essential for treating your skin concerns and giving you that lit-from-within glow — but not all at once. You want to maintain a balanced pH, but mixing certain acids will not only make them less effective (or not at all), but also irritate your skin. As a general rule, don’t make yourself a skincare cocktail without consulting a dermatologist.
Dodgy DIY masks
Of the thousands of DIY face mask recipes you can find online, most of them favour lemon juice. But the citric acid in lemons can alter the pH of your skin in the worst way, causing irritation and sun sensitivity so it’s best to steer clear of acidic fruits. If you’re going to go the DIY route, try soothing ingredients such as chamomile, oats and avocado.
Picking and popping
Just when you thought you were past those acne-filled teen years, another breakout starts (looking at you, hormonal acne). Your automatic response is probably to pick at or pop those pesky spots, but this can make matters worse and lead to scarring. Opt for a spot treatment or serum with salicylic acid to help unclog pores and clear skin congestion, or use pimple stickers to help minimise spots and remove the temptation to pick.
Using dirty brushes, pillowcases and re-useable rounds
You work hard to keep your face clean through double cleansing, anti-pollutant serums, moisture barriers. So why would you want your skin touching bacteria-filled tools and surfaces? You should be cleaning your makeup brushes and swapping your pillowcase once a week, washing your re-useable rounds or face cloths in hot water after two uses, and even disinfecting your phone screen every week or two.
The ABCs of acids and actives
AHAs, retinol and vitamin C are having a moment in the skincare spotlight, but deciphering the uses of each ingredient can be confusing. We’ve done the hard work for you and pulled together a glossary of essential acids and actives to include in your routine.
Pro tip: Ingredients in products are listed in descending order starting with the largest amount in the formula. It’s important to read the ingredients, not only to check if there are any that don’t agree with your skin, but also because if a product is promoting a particular ingredient that is listed towards the end, there isn’t much in the actual product. But when it comes to actives, a little can go a long way, so don’t be surprised if these are listed towards the end of the ingredients.
Ascorbic acid (vitamin C): According to Victoria, this is “the gold standard ageing preventative anti-oxidant, pigmentation fighter and collagen booster — a triple win!”
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AHA: Alpha hydroxy acid (including lactic and glycolic), commonly used in peels and exfoliants to resurface the stratum corneum (think fine lines, uneven tone and texture and inflammation).
Azelaic acid: A mild exfoliating ingredient with antioxidant power that works to unclog pores, refine texture, calm the skin and reduce pigmentation and scarring.
Bakuchiol: A natural antioxidant derived from babchi seeds of the Psoralea corylifolia plant. Bakuchiol is often used as a gentle alternative to retinol and works to soothe inflammation, refine texture and restore elasticity by increasing cell turnover.
BHA: Beta hydroxy acid (eg. salicylic acid) — an oil-soluble ingredient that penetrates deep into the pores to remove dead skin cells and excess oil. BHAs are common in over-the-counter acne treatments and to soothe sun damage.
Ferulic acid: A potent antioxidant that reduces the formation of signs of ageing including fine lines, pigmentation and decreased elasticity. Also boosts the effects of other antioxidants like vitamin C and E.
Glycerin: According to Gloria, this is an “underrated humectant that grabs water and softens skin”. It’s most commonly found in moisturisers, serums and cleansers to boost hydration or a dewy complexion.
Glycolic acid: A water-soluble AHA — the smallest molecule that penetrates deep into the pores to treat acne and ageing. Gycolic acid is the most effective chemical exfoliant, according to Gloria.
Hyaluronic acid (HA): Hello hydration! HA is naturally found in the body and plays a key role in moisture retention to plump the skin and boost our glow.
Hydroquinone: A melanin inhibitor often prescribed in low doses to reduce hyperpigmentation such as melasma.
Kojic acid: A very mild AHA and gentler alternative to hydroquinone that works to inhibit melanin production, reducing dark spots and discolouration for a brighter complexion.
Lactic acid: The gentlest AHA used to boost cell turnover, resulting in a smooth, even tone and a hydrated complexion.
Mandelic acid: A non-irritant AHA derived from almonds that exfoliates the skin to help reduce acne and signs of ageing.
Niacinimide (Vitamin B3): Works with the skin’s natural compounds to strengthen the skin barrier, smooth the appearance of pores, improve texture and reduce inflammation.
PHA: Polyhydroxy acid — a gentle chemical exfoliant that smooths and hydrates the skin and is great for treating rosacea or eczema. Think AHAs for sensitive skin.
Polypeptides: A chain of amino acids that are the building blocks of collagen and elastin. When applied to the skin, polypeptides penetrate the epidermis and trigger specific functions from skin cells, such as triggering collagen production, which results in firmer elastic skin.
Retinoids: This is “the general umbrella term for a whole family of vitamin A molecules. Many retinoids require a prescription such as tretinoin and Accutane,” Victoria explains.
Retinol: A cosmetic retinoid that you can get anywhere from your favourite skincare brand, no prescription necessary. “It covers all my ageing issues and helps with acne maintenance,” says Victoria. The Chemist Confessions duo also recommend over-the-counter Adapalene for acne breakouts.
Tranexamic acid: A synthetic acid used to brighten the skin and reduce discolouration (i.e. hyperpigmentation) with minimal irritation.
Tretinoin: A prescription-based retinoid used to treat acne that works to increase skin cell turnover, reduce sebum production and help with inflammation from papules and pustules.
Vitamin E: A moisturising and healing antioxidant that works to soothe skin and boost properties of other vitamins.
Vitamin F: An essential fatty acid known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties to retain moisture, block irritants and boost your glow.
Georgia Nelson is a journalist based on the South Coast of NSW and the features writer at WILD and WellBeing. She has a penchant for sustainable beauty, slow fashion and feminist literature.