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What’s the science behind skincare routines?

By Leonie O’Sullivan, March 23 2024—

This article offers information about commonly used products in skin care routines. If you have a skin condition or disease, please follow the advice of your healthcare provider.

Dewy, plump and glowing are some marketing terms used by cosmetics companies to convince you that you absolutely need that pricey cream. But what does the scientific literature reveal about the efficacy of skincare products?

Skincare routines have become increasingly elaborate, with some boasting as many as 20 steps. As finals draw near, many students may not have the time or funds to keep up with intense routines. These routines commonly use cleansers, toners, moisturizers, sunscreen and anti-aging treatments.


First off, let’s steer clear of products with microbeads due to their adverse environmental impact. Another important consideration when choosing a cleanser is its potential for skin barrier damage. Cleansers often take the form of alkaline soaps or synthetic detergents. The latter offers lower skin irritation and dryness. However, detergents can penetrate the stratum corneum — the outer layer of our epidermis — and cause swelling, dryness and cracking. These effects can be alleviated by choosing detergents with hydrophobically modified polymers (HMPs) added, which create larger surfactant structures that cannot readily diffuse into the skin. 


Originally, toners were used to rebalance pH levels after using an alkaline soap. However, the need for toners is much lower with today’s availability of gentler soaps. You may be able to skip this step and still achieve your skincare goals.

“Since you can easily get pH-balanced cleansers these days, toners are no longer necessary in a skincare regimen,” Dr. Ted Lain, a board-certified dermatologist, told Forbes.


After relocating from humid Ireland to dry Calgary, I quickly noticed that moisturizers are crucial here. The primary function of a moisturizer is to form a protective layer on your skin, serving as a barrier to prevent water loss. Glycerin, a popular ingredient, is the most effective humectant. Humectants act as magnets for water and serve as a barrier for your skin.

Be wary when considering moisturizers containing ingredients that claim to lighten skin, reverse aging, deliver vitamins, act as antioxidants or exfoliate the skin, as the available evidence is limited and unscientific. Additives need to be fat-soluble to permeate the skin. Vitamin C, for example, is water-soluble and won’t make it past the stratum corneum. This vitamin is also unstable when exposed to air; a colour change indicates reduced antioxidant activity. Additionally, molecules must be relatively small to be absorbed by the skin. Collagen and conventional hyaluronic acid do not penetrate the epidermis, but low molecular weight nano-hyaluronic acid can diffuse through the stratum corneum.


Given Calgary’s higher elevation, skipping sunscreen is ill-advised. A randomized, controlled trial with 903 adults compared individuals who applied sunscreen daily to those who only used it at their discretion. Notably, the daily sunscreen users had no detectable increase in skin aging after four and a half years. Skin aging of the daily sunscreen users was 24 per cent lower than those in the discretionary sunscreen group. Health Canada recommends the use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.

Anti-ageing treatments

Vitamin A is widely promoted for its anti-aging effects on the skin. The prescription form of vitamin A, called Tretinoin, has been shown to increase collagen and elastin in the dermis. However, the FDA reported that RENOVA®, a tretinoin cream, resulted in no improvement of fine wrinkles for 40 per cent of 279 subjects after 24 weeks. Only a minimal improvement was reported for 35 per cent of the group. Over-the-counter vitamin A sources, such as retinol, have insufficient evidence to support their use for anti-aging. Topical vitamin A is not safe to use if you’re pregnant.

If you follow a multi-step skincare routine every day, the benefits can extend beyond the physical appearance of your skin. One study reported that after following a facial skin care regimen for four weeks, participants showed significantly improved feelings of empowerment, happiness and self-esteem. 

If you can incorporate a cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen into your daily routine, your skin will be content during the busy finals season. The price tag on skincare products doesn’t always correlate with their effectiveness, so you can select suitable products that fall within your self-care budget. If you have skincare concerns, make sure to consult your doctor or healthcare provider for advice.

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