Are we in the midst of a skincare revolution or is it just massaging the facts?

Are your skin care products undergoing a revolution? With all this talk about latest scientific research and cutting edge patented technology are today’s products really any different? Self-confessed skeptic, Dr Haran Sivapalan, finds out. 

For thousands of years, people have covered themselves with various substances in an effort to prevent dry skin. As far back as 150AD, the Ancient Roman physician Galen mixed molten beeswax with olive oil and rose water – and was credited as the inventor of the first cold cream. Galen’s concoction likely worked because the rose water hydrated the skin, while the beeswax and olive oil kept the moisture locked into the skin.

Of course Galen knew nothing about boosting collagen, battling free radicals or microencapsulated ingredients – the terms we hear so frequently these days as skincare manufacturers push the science behind their products.

So, with these new scientific breakthroughs, is the humble moisturiser now a thing of the past? If the hype is to be believed, moisturisers have been transformed from simple, water-containing substances into power-packed, age reversing potions that tackle everything from preventing sun-damage to increasing the skin’s natural collagen production. Are these new products really heralding a new era in skin care?


New targets

Traditionally, moisturisers work by introducing water to the skin and by helping it retain water. Ingredients called ‘occlusives’ form a barrier over the skin and prevent the evaporation while ‘humectants’ act to draw up water into the epidermis from lower down in the dermis. As our scientific knowledge of skin physiology has increased over time, newer products have been designed not just to retain moisture, but to directly target more complex skin processes, from collagen production to photoaging – the aging caused by exposure to the sun’s harmful rays.

1. Collagen

One claim of newer moisturisers is to boost collagen production. Collagen is a protein that gives the skin its firmness and elasticity. Due to both normal aging and sun (photo-) damage, collagen in the skin is degraded by enzymes (known as Matrix Metalloproteinases), which leads to less supple skin and wrinkles. The theory behind adding collagen to moisturisers then, is to replenish the collagen in the skin.

Collagen-boosting moisturisers aim to either:

a) stimulate cells called fibroblasts to produce more collagen using various signalling molecules such as peptides or

b) directly introduce collagen (extracted from plants, animals or marine sources) deeper into the skin, for it to be incorporated into tissue. The desired result – firmer, smoother and, as such, younger-looking skin.

With regards to the first method, there is a little bit of evidence to suggest that peptides can boost the skin’s natural collagen production. When it comes to the second method, however, simply slapping collagen on your skin is unlikely to be effective. Collagen is a large molecule and may not penetrate into the skin – and even if it does there is little evidence to suggest it becomes integrated into the skin.

2. Antioxidants

Another approach is to supply the skin with a diet of antioxidants – the kind of molecules you find in vitamin-rich foods like fruit and vegetables. Antioxidants combat free radical damage – a key process thought to underlie aging. As the skin ages or is damaged by sunlight, highly reactive molecules known as ‘free radicals’ are created. These free radicals are hungry for electrons and react with crucial components of cells, thereby damaging the skin.


Antioxidants, which include Vitamins C and E, flavonoids (found in thyme) and resveratrol (found in the skins of red grapes), can donate an electron and help safely neutralise these free radicals. By minimising free radical damage, antioxidants are thought to help slow down the aging process.

But again, there is conflicting evidence as to how effective they really are.

Some studies show vitamins C and E can be useful in protecting against damaging UV rays and repairing sun-damaged skin. These vitamins are often highly unstable and must be packaged correctly in airtight, opaque containers. Some forms of Vitamin A (e.g. retinoic acid) have a better evidence base for combating aging, although this is not solely due to its antioxidant activity.

3. Hyaluronic acid

Another buzz ingredient is hyaluronic acid, a major building block of skin and joints. It is often included in moisturisers as a humectant – it helps to draw moisture up into the epidermis. It’s also a filler – it lives naturally between the cells and as we age we produce less of it. So in theory, topically applying it will help plump the skin as it absorbs water and literally fill the spaces between the cells. Some studies have shown topical hyaluronic acid can increase both skin moisture and elasticity.

There is also some evidence that hyaluronic acid can promote wound healing and has been used in the treatment of venous leg ulcers and diabetic foot ulcers – less sexy than anti-aging but it shows that it may have a useful role in cell repair.


So is it goodbye to the simple moisturiser?

There’s not doubt moisturisers have progressed from simple concoctions that help the skin to retain water, to highly engineered products that target more complicated biological processes that occur naturally in the skin. So, does this spell the end of the humble moisturiser?

Interestingly, there is a growing school of thought that regular use moisturiser is actually bad for your skin. Some dermatologists believe regular moisturiser makes the skin ‘lazy’ and suppresses both the natural hydration of the skin and the natural shedding of dead skin cells.

Does that mean you should empty your shelves and head to the shop now? Yes and no. Both old and new moisturisers have been shown to help hydrate the skin, maintain the integrity of the skin barrier and also prevent the penetration of allergens and other substances that can trigger inflammation. When is comes to preventing water loss, some of the old familiar ones do very. For example, although it’s very greasy, petroleum jelly (petrolatum) is still the most effective occlusive moisturiser, reducing TEWL (trans-epidermal water loss) by up to 98%. Perhaps then, it’s just a question of how often you moisturise, your skin type and your end goal. If it’s any aging your after, exploring the newer options might be worth it – but don’t expect a miracle.