Misunderstood Beauty Ingredients
13 May 2022

There are many controversies and misconceptions on beauty ingredients. How much do we know about beauty ingredients and what should we look out for? Dr Ian Tan shares his insights on 3 commonly misunderstood beauty ingredients — Retinoids, Hydroxy acids and Parabens.


  • Retinoids

Retinoids refer to the broad class of products that contain retinol, which is a vitamin A derivative, an ingredient that is commonly found in many anti-aging serums and creams. These are traditionally used by doctors for patients to improve skin texture, acne control, anti-aging, and even out the skin tone.


Common Misconception: Retinoids can thin the skin.

Some people have experienced slight discomfort like stinging or flaking skin when using retinol products, but that doesn’t mean that their skin is thinning out or sensitive.


Fact: This is a misunderstanding because the initial action of retinoids is to increase the turnover of the very top layer of the upper epidermis, which lines up those cells in a more organized way. With time, retinoid use starts to strengthen the skin, making it healthier and stronger, not weaker and thinner.


Dr Ian's advice: If you’re trying out retinol for the first time, start at a low concentration of retinol and start by only using it once or twice weekly, gradually increasing the frequency to every other night before finally using it daily. Remember that retinol is one of those ingredients that your skin can build up its tolerance for.


  • Hydroxy Acids

There are quite a number of acids that most can find in the ingredient list at the back of skincare products and hydroxy acid is probably one of them. The two big groups of hydroxy acids are namely alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). These acids are present in many of our cosmetic products, such as serums, creams or cleansers, and act as chemical exfoliants.


Common Misconception: Hydroxy acids are harsh on the skin, resulting in thinning and increased sensitivity to the sun.


Fact: The potential downsides of using AHAs such as glycolic acid indeed includes possible sun sensitivity, peeling and itching. Overall, this means that you'll need to be extra diligent about slathering on sunscreen and avoid applying them in the daytime.


Dr Ian's advice: However, when used correctly, both AHAs and BHAs can penetrate the skin surface and detach more dead skin cells from the stratum corneum than physical exfoliants such as scrubbing beads. They can even improve the appearance of skin that’s dull or hyper-pigmented due to sun damage or other skin build-ups, resurface dry skin, and even reduce the appearance of wrinkles and smooth the skin. AHAs and BHAs can also stimulate cell renewal, leading to plumper skin with better texture.


  • Parabens

Parabens are a group of chemicals that are widely used in topical pharma/cosmeceutical products as preservatives, they prevent mold from growing in the skincare products.


Common Misconception: Parabens are toxic chemicals and may lead to breast cancer.


Fact: The bad rep surrounding parabens originated from a 2004 study that mistakenly linked parabens to breast cancer. However, despite what many cosmetic brands lead you to believe, parabens are not toxic and you don’t have to avoid parabens.


Dr Ian's advice: Although parabens does not do much to the skin, it's potentially more harmful to not have them in our skincare products. It's one of the oldest most effective and most studied preservatives out there. There has been no evidence that the types of parabens in the low level used in formulating skincare products have resulted in endocrine disruption or cancer in humans as some articles have claimed.


In fact, to cope with the increasing consumer demand for paraben-free products, the industry is using a worse alternative; preservatives containing Methylisothiazoline (MI) for example. MI is less effective, it is used in industrial paints and glues that has been linked to a higher rate of allergic contact dermatitis.

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