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The truth about skin products: do they actually work?

So, you’ve probably heard all sorts of things about skin care products, right? Some folks swear they’re the holy grail, while others call them a big, fat scam. As a scientist who’s also in the biz, I’ve got some insider info and will bring you the truth on skincare products.

Skincare products do work when:

  1. We have the right expectations. A cream is not and will never be botox. A cream will make your skin more beautiful, healthy, soft. It can also improve your levels of hydration and wrinkles (when properly formulated). The beauty industry is responsible for years and years of exaggerated claims that quite honestly are just embarrassing. It’s a shame there are people that would say anything for money. 
  2.  The skin is an organ and it’s not detached by the rest f the body. This means that it’s directly affected by what’s going on in the body. DNA (genetics), hormones, general health have ALL an impact. And I know this sounds weird coming from a brand owner BUT this impact is actually higher that the impact any cream will ever have.
  3. There are skin conditions that are morbid. Skincare products can alleviate symptoms but not cure the source. This is why severe acne or eczema, psoriasis etc require drugs not cosmetic treatments.
  4. They are used as intended, following the instructions. For example I still see people on the internet saying to apply hyaluronic acid on damp skin. This is not true and it actually washes it away. If it was intended to use on damp skin, companies would instruct you to do so.
  5. The formulation. See below.

What’s in a Formula? More Than You Think! Deep Dive into Formulation 

One of the things I learned at the school of pharmacy that stuck to me the most is how critical is the formulation in achieving a successful treatment. This applies to drugs AND to cosmetics. 

Even experts have sometimes a difficult time understanding this concept. Let me explain. We are always discussing active ingredients like retinol, hyaluronic acid, vitamin C and so on but the truth is that these ingredients don’t and won’t do anything unless they are formulated in a way that allows them to 

  1. Reach the site where they need to work. When it comes to the skin, this is the hardest. It has to do with the formulation pH, presence of penetration enhancers and more.
  2. Reach the site at the right amount (if too little nothing happens, if too much we might experience sensitivity or irritation).
  3. Be in the right state to interact with the skin’s mechanisms. This has to do with chemical structure. For example retinol needs to be converted into retinoic acid before it can work.

When a cosmetic product doesn’t work, it’s because it fails on one of these 3 things. As you can see these 3 are all equally important- unfortunately I see the tendency to only care about the active ingredient. When a product is not properly formulated, it doesn’t matter how much of an ingredient it contains- still won’t work. The formulation is a vehicle that allows the active ingredients to get where they need to go in a timely manner.


Now let’s go a little more into details into formulation aspects. It gets complicated, but I will do my best to keep things easy to understand.

PENETRATION ENHANCERS: these are ingredients that help with absorption through the skin. The main one is alcohol. Unfortunately alcohol is also drying and irritating to some degree (this is why you don’t see it listed in any of my products). Other examples include polysorbate (like in our vitamin C serum). Glycols like propanediol or propylene glycol (in several of my products), fatty acids and alcohols like oleic acid, cetearyl alchol, retinoic acid.

pH. Simply put if the pH of the product is wrong, the active ingredient won’t be able to penetrate the skin. This has to do with the pH Partition Theory.Because active ingredients are often acids or bases, depending on the pH, they can be either ionized or not. Penetration through the skin membrane is a lot less when molecules are in their ionized (charged) state.

Absorption through the skin

Skin layers

The main obstacle in penetration through the skin is the stratum corneum (the outer layer). This means that any alteration in this layer is going to somehow affect penetration. 

This is why penetration is enhanced every time the stratum corneum is damaged (this could simply mean too much sunlight or could be caused by a skin disease).

Another important factor in determining the amount and speed of actives penetration through the skin is the hydration level. Skin hydration level is typically around 15 and 20%. Humid weather increases the amount of water in the stratum corneum and, as a consequence, favors penetration of skincare products. 

Humectant ingredients like glycerin or hyaluronic acid act the same way. Hence keeping the skin hydrated with our hyaluronic acid serum makes other treatments work better.

Other factors that affect penetration are the temperature, the use of occlusive bandages (this applies to topical drugs not cosmetics). 

dark spots are common with mature skin

Practical tips to make skincare products work

  1. Be consistent. There’s no such thing as skin resistance or tolerance when it comes to cosmetics ingredients, so keep using them. 
  2. Apply products on clean skin to favor penetration.
  3. While I don’t recommend “steaming” your face, I recommend using products right after a warm or hot shower as heat increases the amount of product your skin absorbs. 
  4. Don’t overdue it. Layering too many products means waste. Absorption through the skin is a somehow slow process and the more 

The Bottom Line: Your Skin, Your Rules

At the end of the day, the truth about skin care products is that they’re tools, not magic wands. They can help improve your skin’s appearance and health, but they’re just one piece of the puzzle. Eating right, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, and managing stress are all crucial for healthy skin.

Remember, it’s okay to be skeptical about outrageous skin care claims. You should be! Trust your instincts, do your research, and don’t get swayed by pretty packaging or celebrity endorsements. After all, the best judge of whether a product works for you is, well, you!

So, keep it real, stay informed and cheers to healthy, soft skin!

12 thoughts on “The truth about skin products: do they actually work?

  1. Dawn Thomas says:

    Hello Luisa. I hope you can help I still have spots at 61 tried absolutely everything could you please help me with a gel for spots that will help clear them and not dry my skin out. Plus really have oily skin. Also can’t use serums or creams as it clogs my skin or if there is a hydrator that can help. So hope you can suggest something as suffered with spots for 40 years and would so like to have nice clear skin. Look forward to hearing from you. Many thanks

    Kind Regards

    Dawn Thomas

    • Luisa says:

      Hello Dawn, for the dark spots you should be using these 4 products: vitamin C serum, retinol serum, glycolic acid exfoliant and tranexamic acid. You also must wear sunscreen every day.

  2. Blanche Russell says:

    I had fallen into the camp which believed hyaluronic acid had to be applied over damp skin. So I am glad to know that is not true, because I never seemed to be able get it on there while my face was still wet. Also glad you made the distinction between moisturizing fatty alcohols such as stearyl and cetearyl versus other (drying) alcohols. I think people sometimes see the word alcohol in an ingredients list and erroneously think it is drying.

    • Luisa says:

      Thank you so much for reading. For hyaluronic acid, the water is already in the formula so it doesn’t need to be applied on damp skin. In my experience doing that only cause the product to be washed away!

  3. Lauri Negron says:

    I enjoyed reading your article. I do have a couple of questions/doubts… where you mention ‘Skin care products do work when’… #4 I believe you are referring to ‘damp’ skin?…(as in slightly wet?)
    Also, I’m a little confused as to the section about the penetration of the product. I understand that penetration is good to get the product through the outer layer, but then you mention ‘penetration is enhanced every time the stratum corneum is damaged’..as sun damage…so damaged outer layer ‘enhances’? penetration??🤔
    So does that mean that products penetrate sun damaged skin better?🤔
    Thank you for clarifying these doubts.
    (I always appreciate your tips and informative articles and love your products! )

    • Luisa says:

      Yes, I am sorry for the mistake- I guess at least you can be sure I wrote the article lol. I fixed it. When there’s a damage, the skin barrier is not as efficient and as a consequence, penetration is enhanced. This means that your skin might react to products that usually doesn’t react to. So need to be a bit more careful , that’s all. Waiting 24 or 48 hours before applying anything is usually recommended!!! Hope this makes sense to you!

  4. Maria Gemma says:

    That is why I usually “really read” your articles because I believe you speak the honest truth about skincare. And, I not only read them, I share it with others too! Thank you very much for this article! 🫶💕

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