Stand for Skin Peace: Why You Need Topical Antioxidants

Summer. A time for vacations, relaxation, the beach…and war. Yes, you read that correctly. War. A war on your skin. While you’re enjoying a leisurely stroll along the shoreline, your skin is secretly crying out for help. You see, when the sun hits your skin it increases the number of “free radicals.” To understand free radicals we have to use a bit of science. A free radical is an atom that has shed an electron in an abnormal way. The atom doesn’t like missing the electron so it franticly tries to attract one. It doesn’t do this nicely, but rather quite aggressively by attacking other molecules and atoms and stealing an electron from them. (in other words, it’s behaving “radically”). When it steals the peaceful atom or molecule’s electron, that atom or molecule then becomes a free radical itself and the process snowballs. This is when it starts causing damage to our skin. The skin franticly attempts to protect itself from the carnage by futilely producing a tan, or in some cases, it will just burn. The battle also causes your skin to become “stressed out” and it begins releasing enzymes that are also damaging to your skin. It can even lead to damaged DNA within skin cells. This is an overly-simplified explanation of extremely complex physical science, but you get the general idea.

When your skin is damaged, it doesn’t function the way healthy skin should. Damaged skin is more likely to have cell mutations. These mutations can slowly destroy the collagen and elastin in your skin. As you lose collagen and elastin, you decrease your skin’s supportive fibers and you end up with…wrinkles, sun damage, and sagging skin.

So why use topical antioxidants? Antioxidants neutralize and slow down this damage—both the direct sun damage, as well as the damage from stress-induced enzymes. They do so by offering the free radicals their own electron so they don’t have to attack and steal them from healthy molecules. Basically they sacrifice themselves and end the war. They’re the peacemakers of skin molecules. The result is slowing down the rate of aging.

Every antioxidant does not do this equally. Some offer more protection than others. Studies have shown that a broad mix of antioxidants, rather than just one, offers the best protection. dermaTRUTH’s In the Beginning Antioxidant Peptide Serum contains over a dozen of the most powerful antioxidants, all at or above the recommended levels. The potency is therefore equivalent to over a dozen separate antioxidant products.

So while antioxidants are important all year round, they are especially important for summertime. Give your skin the protection it needs by layering our antioxidant serum under a SPF. Stop the war. Stand for peace. Use topical antioxidants. The best anti-aging product is the one that stops aging before it starts.

Comedogenicity—A Complicated Conversation

Comedogenicity in cosmetic products has been studied for decades, but it has been a particularly hot topic the last few years. Clients and skin care professionals alike search through ingredient labels looking for terms such as “noncomedogenic” or “nonclogging,” hoping it will do no harm to acne-prone skin. But what does this term really mean and does it have validity? A closer analysis reveals that comedogenicity is a complicated and highly debated issue.

The process of clogging

Simply put, a comedogenic ingredient means that it clogs pores. It does so by increasing follicular hyperkeratosis—an increased production of keratin in hair follicles. Over time, this leads to clogged follicles and comedones. This doesn’t always happen quickly, and it can take months of using a comedogenic product before clogging is noticeable. Individual skin chemistry can determine the extent of an ingredient’s comedogencity, so it is highly variable between people. One client may have no reaction, while another may have excessively clogged pores in a few weeks. Even ingredients that are not typically comedogenic can become so by a person’s own unique skin enzymes. Human sebum is naturally comedogenic, so even if clients who are prone to clogging avoid all likely comedogenic products, they are not necessarily guaranteed protection against comedones. If this is the case, how do skin care professionals know if ingredients are playing a role in their clients’ clogged or acne-prone skin?

Comedogenicity testing

Although there is no definitive way to test for comedogenicity, the rabbit ear test has long been the gold standard. This test was originally used to assess the dangers of industrial chemicals in the 1950s and then entered the world of cosmetics in the 1970s. Rabbit ears were found to be more sensitive than human skin and also responded much more quickly to comedogenic ingredients. Follicular hyperkeratosis could be seen in a matter a weeks versus months.

Albert Kligman, MD, PhD, and James Fulton, MD, are known for pioneering the use of rabbit ears in cosmetic testing, and the term “acne cosmetica”—acne caused by the use of cosmetics with comedogenic ingredients—was coined at this time. Cosmetic rabbit ear testing was done by applying ingredients to the inner ear of rabbits, and follicular keratosis was analyzed both visually and microscopically after a few weeks. The first comedogenic lists created were broken into 12 ingredient categories: lanolins; fatty acids; alcohols and sugars; waxes; thickeners; oils; pigments; silicones; sterols; vitamins and herbs; preservatives; and miscellaneous ingredients. Testing results ranked ingredients from grade 0 to grade 5, with 5 being the most comedogenic. Ingredients ranked 4–5 resulted in an extensive increase in follicular keratosis and the presence of large comedones throughout the ear. Ingredients ranked 2–3 resulted in a moderate increase in follicular keratosis. Ingredients ranked 0–1 had no significant increase. Ingredients ranked 4–5 had reproducible results and were considered comedogenic ingredients. Ingredients ranked 0–1 were not considered significant and were considered noncomedogenic. Kligman and Fulton concluded that ingredients with higher numbers were to be avoided by those who had oily or acne-prone skin.

Today, comedogenic testing is also done on human subjects. This is particularly important, because animal testing is losing favor with consumers. These tests are often done in third-party labs, and each lab performs the test differently. Generally, 10–30 subjects receive patch applications that are tested against a positive control of a known comedogenic ingredient and an untreated site as a negative control. Sites are often chosen on the back; however, this varies by lab. At the end of the testing period, a surface biopsy is conducted, and the cells are then analyzed under magnification. Testing commonly runs for a time period of 4–8 weeks. Testing parameters can also be customized for the manufacturer.

Validity of comedogenicity claims

The primary issue when it comes to determining whether or not an ingredient is comedogenic is that there is no definitive list of comedogenic ingredients. Although there are several lists that can be found in published research and on various online websites, many lack actual testing of commonly used ingredients, which casts doubt on the validity of the list. Some lists label an ingredient as comedogenic, while another list labels that same ingredient as noncomedogenic. Several current studies even call into question the hallmark rabbit ear test, noting the absence of scientific correlation with human experience. Even later rabbit ear studies by Fulton resulted in some ingredients dramatically changing their comedognicity grade. Testing on human subjects is questioned, as well. Some say skin tested on the back is not accurate, because it will not respond similarly to facial skin and the duration of the testing is not long enough.

Discrepancies in comedogenic lists are based on several factors. First, depending upon the ingredient, concentration of that ingredient within the formula is important. A formula is not just a sum of its parts—ingredient combinations can turn a comedogenic ingredient into a noncomedogenic ingredient and vice versa. Secondly, the method in which an ingredient is extracted and processed plays a role. Whether an ingredient was refined, hydrogenated or fractionated can dramatically change its comedogenicity ranking. Third, the source of the raw material can affect its rating. Unfortunately, these variables cannot be easily determined by reading an ingredient label.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines further complicate the issue. The FDA defines a comedogenic ingredient as one that is known to clog pores. However, the FDA does not define a list of ingredients that are excluded for a product to use the term “noncomedogenic.” So ultimately, any company can make the claim that its product is noncomedogenic and still fall within FDA guidelines. In addition, there is no standardized testing and are no watchdog groups to catch misuse of the claim. Even if the industry attempted standardization, it would be an extremely difficult and costly endeavor.

To date, third-party comedogenic testing of a complete formula on human skin is the best way to know whether or not a product is comedogenic, and it is also the only way to legally substantiate claims such as “noncomedogenic,” “unclogs pores” or “reduces the appearance of blackheads.” However, third-party comedogenic testing is expensive and, because there is little-to-no regulation over the use of the term, very few cosmetic companies take that extra step. This is particularly troublesome with new ingredients that have no historic rabbit ear comedogenic studies behind them. Skin care clients are left scouring literature in an attempt to find a study that tested that ingredient or simply search for anecdotal evidence.

Comedogenic ingredient lists can be used as guidelines; however, it should be kept in mind that only some ingredients—in all of their forms—have repeatedly shown comedogencity in scientific studies. Table 1 contains ingredients that have been shown to be highly comedogenic. Table 2 on lists ingredients that are often mislabeled as comedogenic, but are actually noncomedogenic. In order to avoid ingredients that are debated, the lists are not all-inclusive, but are an abbreviated consensus among several other well-known lists.

What estheticians can do

Although comedogenicity is not an exact science, there are steps that skin care professionals can take to help direct their clients to appropriate product choices.

  • Educate clients on the theory of comedogencity and explain that, although they may love a particular product, if it contains comedogenic ingredients, it may not be the best for their skin if it is acne-prone.
  • Instruct clients to bring along their products to their next appointment and examine the ingredient labels. Note that many companies have the ingredient label on the outer package and not directly on the bottle, so you may need to research the full ingredient deck online or request it from the manufacturer.
  • Be sure you know ingredients well. Similar sounding ingredients are not the same. Isocetyl alcohol is not the same as isopropyl alcohol; steareth-2 is not the same at steareth-10; caproic acid is not the same as capric acid; and squalane is not the same as squalene. Keep a list handy.
  • Keep in mind that comedogenic ingredients fall across all categories, from emulsifiers to thickeners, surfactants, waxes and oils. “Oil-free,” for example, does not mean it is noncomedogenic. Although several oils are comedogenic, many are not, and some are actually good for acne-prone skin.
  • Seek out products that conduct independent third-party comedogenic testing by reputable labs. This may not be apparent from the label—reach out to the manufacturers directly if this is the case. Don’t be afraid to ask for their study results. If third-party testing is not available, request the information from which they concluded their product to be noncomedogenic.

Err on the side of caution

A product that has a comedogenic ingredient is not a bad product—it may just not be the best choice for someone that is clog- or acne-prone. It very well may be a fantastic product for those with drier skin types and smaller pores.

Although every client’s skin will respond differently, it is best to avoid known comedogenic ingredients for skin that is acne-prone. With so many choices on the market today, it is easy to err on the side of caution.

SI1411_Comedogenicity_Clavarese_fcx.indd     SI1411_Comedogenicity_Clavarese_fcx.indd


Z Draelos and J DiNardo, A re-evaluation of the comedogenicity concept, J Am Acad Dermatol 54 3 507–12 (2006)

J Fulton, Comedogenicity and irritancy of commonly used ingredients in skin care products, J Soc Cosmet Chem 40 321–33 (1989)

J Fulton, S Bradley, et. al., Non-comedogenic cosmetics, Cutis 17 344–51 (1976)

J Fulton, S Pay, et. al., Comedogenicity of current therapeutic products, cosmetics, and ingredients in the rabbit ear, J Am Acad of Dermatol 10 96–105 (1984)

A Kligman and O Mills, Acne cosmetics, Arch Dermatol 106 843–850 (1972)

A Kligman and T Kwong, An improved rabbit ear model for assessing comedogenic substance, Br J Dermatol 100 6 699–702 (1979)

O Mills and A Kligman, A human model for assessing comedogenic substances, Arch Dermatol 118 11 903–5 (1982)

W Morris and S Kwan, Use of the rabbit ear model in evaluating the comedogenic potential of cosmetic ingredients, J Soc of Cosmet Chem 34 215–25 (1983)

Michelle Calvarese, PhD, is a licensed esthetician, as well as president and CFO of dermaTRUTH and founder of Truth Skin Care Esthetics Clinic. She can be contacted at

Fairy Dusting Explained

“Fairy dusting,” also known as “angel dusting” or “window dressing”, is a term used in the skin care industry that refers to beneficial ingredients being used in a product but not in amounts that are sufficient to provide much benefit. The consumer sees favorable ingredients on the label which convinces them to purchase the product believing that they will reap the benefits. Unfortunately though, the actual amounts are too small to produce results. The product has been sprinkled with just a touch of the “good stuff” like a bit of dust from a fairy.

Why would some manufacturers practice fairy dusting rather than just using effective amounts of ingredients? The simple answer is economics. Effective active ingredients are the most expensive ingredients in a cosmetic formulation. There are no government regulations regarding how much of an ingredient is required for it to be listed on the label or to make claims regarding the benefits of that ingredient. The consumer may therefore be left with a nicely marketed, yet ineffective product.

It is not always easy to tell if your product has been fairy dusted, but your best defense is to be an educated consumer. dermaTRUTH is committed to no fairy dusting; our products always contain active ingredients at levels proven to be effective. We are committed to bringing you the best products possible along with information you need to make informed decisions regarding the health of your skin.

What is an “active” ingredient?

The term “active ingredient” or “active agent” causes a lot of confusion in skin care. This is primarily because an active ingredient in skin products is not exactly the same as an “active ingredient” in a pharmaceutical drug.

An active ingredient in a drug is the ingredient that causes a change in the function of the human body-in other words, the ingredient that is doing the job.

Similarly, an active ingredient or active agent in a skin care product, are those ingredients that cause physical changes in the skin.  The tricky part here is that most skin care ingredients cause physical changes in the appearance of skin and not necessarily physical changes and are therefore not regulated by the FDA.   If they are not regulated, then they are NOT listed under active ingredients.  Essentially only those ingredients that are considered “drugs” are listed as active ingredients-among the common ones are sunscreens, salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and hydroquinone.

If an ingredient is not listed under “active” then it is most likely listed under “other” or “inactive” ingredients. This is again confusing because an “inactive” ingredient does not mean it is not doing anything or serves no purpose, it simply means it is not considered a drug.  Furthermore, there are also many chemical variants of ingredients so depending upon the chemical makeup, an ingredient that is typically listed as an active, may be listed as an inactive.  A common example is retinol.  A product may claim that it contains retinol however it is not listed under active ingredients.  This is because it may be listed as one of many OTC forms of such as retinyl palmitate, reinylaldehyde or retinyl acetate.

In addition to actives, a skin care formula will also contain a variety of functional ingredients that are used to give the product a particular texture, help the way a product absorbs or spreads on the skin or helps preserve it.

Keep in mind that the majority of ingredients and terms used to describe ingredients are not regulated and may not be consistent.

Bottom line:

Just because an ingredient is not listed as an “active ingredient” does not mean it is not in the product.  Comparing “actives” in skin care products is not apples to apples.  Just because two products may both contain 2% salicylic acid, for example, does not mean they are the same.  One may be more hydrating, penetrate differently or not preserved well.  It is the product’s complete formulation that determines how effective it is.

Right product, wrong packaging?

Packaging Considerations by Product Category



Cleansers can come in several forms such as gel, cream, milk, oil or foam. Most cleansers have low concentrations of active ingredients, or none at all, since the majority of the product washes down the drain.  Packaging for cleansers therefore should focus more on functionality than anything else.  Does the cleanser come out easily?  Does the dispensing device clog? Does too much or too little dispense at one time?

What to look for

  • Creams and milks work best in a plastic bottle or tube with a flip-cap or pump.
  • Oils work best in a plastic bottle with a pump that dispenses a measured dose so too much oil does not come out at once.
  • Foam cleansers need to be packaged in what is called a “foamer”—a bottle with a specialized pump that turns liquid into foam.

What to avoid:

  • Glass packaging.  Cleansers often end up in the shower and glass, soap and water tend to be an accident waiting to happen.
  • Gels with a pump dispenser. Thicker formulations may clog the pump. Thicker cleansers in a pump can also lead to product being out of reach of the pump pick-up tube.  Clients will have to turn the bottle upside down (which is very tricky with a pump) or fish out the remaining product in another way.



Packaging is extremely important when it comes to serums since they usually have high concentrations of active ingredients.  The focus on serum packaging therefore should be protection of ingredients.  Air and light are the two biggest enemies to a serum’s integrity.  Ingredients that oxidize such as vitamin-c and retinol need the most protection to slow down the oxidation process. In fact some say that using an oxidized product does more harm than good.  If a product turns brown or changes in consistency, it has most likely oxidized.   While all products degrade over time, a good package choice will slow down this process.  A good analogy is an apple that has been bitten into.  Its skin is the packaging that protects it.  Once the skin is ruptured, the apple begins to oxidize and turns brown.

Product consistency must also be considered when it comes to serum packaging.  Serums can range from liquid (almost water-like) to a gel.   Poor packaging for a thinner serum can cause product waste and likewise poor packaging for a thicker serum can make it difficult to dispense.

What to look for:

  • Any vitamin C or retinol product should be in a dark or opaque bottle to slow down oxidation and other damage accelerated by light.
  • Airless pumps also slow down oxidation since there is virtually no way air can enter the bottle.  Standard pumps dispense product by pumping air into the bottle to displace the product.  Airless pumps use a mechanism to dispense the product so no air enters.  They can look very similar however so you may need to check with your vendor if you are not sure which type of pump it is.
  • Thinner serums best dispense with a dropper, particularly those with a measured dose.
  • Thicker serums dispense most easily with a pump.

What to avoid:

  • A vitamin C or retinol product in a clear container.
  • Thinner serums in a pump.  It may be difficult to control dose and they may dispense too quickly.
  • Thicker serums with a dropper dispenser.  They may coat the dropper and make dispensing messy.  If the serum is oil-based it may also coat the threads of the container, which compromises a tight closure.



Creams also can contain active ingredients that need to be protected, but they generally do not contain as many as a serum.  Creams vary in consistency from a light, whipped product, to a gel-cream to an extremely dense cream.  The consistency of the product should determine whether it is packaged in a pump, tube or jar.

If a cream contains several active ingredients, light and air should be kept to a minimum as in the case of a serum.  Airless pumps can be used if the cream has a thinner consistency. Tubes can be used for thicker creams. Airless jars are now becoming more popular for thicker creams to minimize air exposure but also to minimize bacteria transferred from fingers.  Airless jars use the same technology as an airless pump and dispense a measured amount of cream by pressing on an inner piece of plastic that covers the cream. The container for creams also tends to help define the brand more so than other product categories.  In other words, it can give the perception of a spa/luxury brand or a clinical/medical brand.

Since creams can take so many forms, functionality and protection should be considered, but a good client experience should be the packaging focus.

What to look for:

  • Opaque or dark bottles or tubes with ingredients prone to oxidation.
  • Airless jars for creams with higher concentrations of ingredients prone to oxidation.

What to avoid:

  • Jars with a small “mouth” or opening.  This can make it difficult for the client to reach the product (particularly if they have long nails).