What I learned about moisturisers after 30 years. What they don't want you to know.
How to formulate a moisturiser
To combine oil and water, which don’t usually mix, an emulsifier is needed. Emulsifier molecules work by having a hydrophilic end (water-loving) and hydrophobic end (water-hating). The hydrophilic end of the emulsifier molecule is attracted to the water and the hydrophobic end is attracted to the fat/oil. This is how any soap, detergent, cleanser of shampoo works.
The benefit is being able to supply the skin with water, humectants (water attracting ingredients), oils and waxes, in a spreadable, absorbable form. You can also blend multiple lipids, active ingredients, humectants (water attractors), waxes & skin identical ingredients in a particular ratio to mimic the skin’s natural skin surface lipids which is harder to do with plain oils.
However most moisturisers can damage the skin barrier due to the emulsifier that is used, which, especially when washing, can wash out the skin's lipids. The formulation, frequency, application & ratio of ingredients is key to a good moisturiser. The type of moisturiser is also important. If it is incorrectly formulated it is likely to damage the skin barrier. It should use skin identical ingredients, be formulated in a certain physiological ratio, be pH balanced and supplement the deficient skin lipids. Every single component of the moisturiser needs to be considered including the emulsifier, preservative system, humectants, oils and active ingredients.
I have tried countless moisturisers, almost all of which irritated my skin.
When you have a skin problem your skin is hypersensitive and often reacts to ingredients which are beneficial to others. There are three broad types of skincare products we would consider if we had problematic skin; pharmaceutical, natural/speciality and cosmeceutical.
From companies like Ego, Cetaphil, Sorbolene, Dermaid, Dermaveen, Aveeno and QV. They are cheap, generally less likely to cause irritation but use many non-physiological ingredients so their effects are quite superficial.
Typical pharmaceutical skincare products are usually based on petrochemicals like mineral oil, petroleum jelly and dimethicone. They could be in the form of gels, creams, oils, balms, lotions and sprays. As petrochemicals are inert, they are unlikely to cause skin irritation, however they cannot be metabolised by the skin. They are absorbed but they cannot be integrated into the skins natural lipids so their effect is superficial. Especially when compared with physiologically based formulations made with skin identical lipids.
Overuse of petrochemicals on the skin can also lead to product build up and interference with skin functions. For example, overuse of dimethicone can clog pores and lead to breakouts especially if not regularly cleansed from the skin. Using neat petroleum jelly which is often recommended effects skin functions such as temperature regulation, excretion and sweating. It often leads to heat rash when used in hot or humid conditions. However, it is effective at reducing epidermal water loss. However, once washed off the skin is often dryer than before application. This is due to the fact that it isn’t integrating with your skin lipids. When the skin is heavily occluded or continually covered with an external lipid, the rate of natural skin surface lipid production slows. Overuse of moisturisers, especially those that are poorly formulated, non-physiological, in an incorrect ratio or with harsh emulsifiers can lead to the skin becoming dependant on moisturisers.
Many topical pharmaceutical products contain ethoxylates. Ethoxylated ingredients (PEG's, polysorbates, anything ending in 'eth') are often used as cost efficient emulsifiers, surfactants or preservatives. The concern is that they are almost always contaminated with 1,4 dioxane and ethylene oxide, two highly toxic and carcinogenic chemicals. It is especially concerning that ethoxylated ingredients are not banned from baby products.
Products are often greenwashed to appear more natural than they are for marketing reasons, while reducing formulation costs. For example, many brands will market themselves as being natural when they contain less than a few percent of natural ingredients in a petrochemical base. The leading oat based pharmaceutical range is a great example of this. Product names, celebrity endorsements, the colour of the packaging and the name of the active ingredient seek to allude to a natural product when all it is clever marketing.
Other times, impressive claims and unique sounding patented ingredients will be used alongside incredible claims from self-studied clinical trials and surveys. With enough money and careful design, you can usually make a study show what you want.
Includes brands such as Sukin, Medihoney, Hope’s Relief, Moo Goo, Caroline’s, Burt’s Bees and Calendulis Plus. They generally contain multiple natural base oils and botanical active ingredients. Although some find these beneficial the chance of irritation is far higher due to the use of things like nut oils, beeswax, dairy and honey. They also generally contain higher levels of preservatives to protect against more complex formulations.
Such as Dermalogica, Neutrogena, Loreal, Olay, Avene, Skinceuticals and Clinique. They contain complex blends of synthetic and natural ingredients and are often fragranced, overpriced and packed with irritating chemicals. Exotic sounding ingredients, fancy packaging, celebrities and incredulous claims are made to support their expensive pricing.
Conventional Medical Advice on Moisturisers
Most dermatologists will tell you to bathe frequently and slather copious amounts of moisturiser multiple times a day bathing to boost skin moisture. This seems logical. Dry skin lacks moisture. Therefore, give it water and a lot of moisturiser.
Through my lifelong experience living with eczema and personal research I can assure you this is naïve, superficial and over simplified thinking. Continual over-moisturisation of the skin will lead to skin dependency on an external moisture source. The skin will slow down its own production of lipids as it senses there is already enough moisture.
The moisturisers dermatologists recommend are generally non-physiologic so are very temporary in their moisturising effect. They are inert so they are unlikely to irritate but they cannot be metabolised by the skin so their effect is superficial. Wash it off and your skin will be drier than before you applied it.
Additionally, applying such large amounts of moisturiser all over the body increases the instances of heat and sweat rash. Particularly if you live in a hot or humid environment and if it is a greasy ointment. This is likely due to the impact over-moisturising has on skin functions such as temperature regulation, sweating and excretion.
Emulisifiers in moisturisers often damage the skin
Most emulsifiers end up damaging the structure and strength of the skin barrier over time due to the wash out effect where the emulsifier washes out the skin surface lipids by emulsifying the skin’s oil and is washed out when showering. Conventional emulsifiers (sodium lauryl sulfate, ethoxylates, PEGS, TEA (Triethanolamine), DEA (Diethanolamine) and MEA (Monoethanolamine) damage the skin & have a cumulative washout effect.
They can be substituted by membrane forming substances such as phosphatidylcholine, ceramides, fatty alcohols, liquid crystal emulsions & polyglycerol esters which biomimic the stratum corneum. Look for emulsifying ingredients such as lecithin, glyceryl stearate, ceyl/cetearyl alcohol, jojoba oil, ceramides & polyglyceryl-6 palmitate/succinate.
Use the minimum amount of a natural, physiological moisturiser. You want to supplement your skin not completely occlude it. We believe in supporting the skin to rebalance itself. Sometimes help is needed on the face and hands especially due to washing and exposure to the elements.
A good indication of whether a moisturiser is good for long term skin health is how long your skin can maintain comfort and moisture before feeling the need to reapply it. Over time, does your skin require less product? How does your skin feel without any moisturiser? Is it becoming healthier over time?
My experience with moisturisers
My skin became dryer over time and more dependent on moisturisers. I was always told to use copious amounts of moisturiser. To take a large dollop of Sorbolene cream and to keep rubbing until it was all absorbed. The steroid ointments were also greasy so irritants were able to stick to my skin.
If it became too humid, too hot or an irritant touched my skin I would flare. If I washed off the moisturisers, my skin was even dryer. It was as if my skin had become dependent on an external moisture source.
I reacted to most personal care products on the market and many contained carcinogenic, toxic or hormone disrupting chemicals. All with incredible claims, studies, celebrity endorsements and dermatologist recommendations. Many green washed, marketed as natural, for example with one natural active ingredient like oat extract, when the rest of the product was petrochemical.
I spent a fortune trying most creams. From cortisones like Elocon calcineurin inhibitors like Elidel, Sorbolene, Vaseline, Caroline's, Silic 15, Cetaphil, Hope's Relief, Aveeno, Calendulis Plus, Sigmacourt, Dermaveen, Dermeze, Billy Goat, Moogoo, Ego, Pinetarsol, Medihoney, Body Shop, Emu Oil, Crocodile Oil, Bio Oil, Lanolin, Oatmeal, wet wraps, coal tar, acupuncture and various herbs. You name it I have tried it.
They did not work for me. Nearly all of them were irritating and stung my skin. Some might work for a few days. Nothing was keeping my skin hydrated long term and I felt like I had to keep applying them or my skin would dry out. The thicker ointments were greasy, irritating when sweating and impractical. Many were filled with questionable ingredients. The natural creams had over 20 ingredients and I was likely irritated by them.
Maybe the solution wasn’t just a miraculous cream. Maybe in an overactive state my skin was also over-reacting to most creams. They were not all the same. I needed to understand how they were metabolised, how much and how often to apply them and how they interacted with my skin.
My moisturiser recommendation
The ideal moisturiser needs to balance occlusion, thickness, pH, water holding ability and be physiologically compatible with our skin. With problem dry skin, the skin barrier is defective as there is a mutation with the filaggrin protein. The skin does not produce as much oil nor does it hold water as easily. This can be targeted with a balance of vegetal oils that are similar in composition to our skin lipids. Products containing humectants like glycerine, sodium pca/lactate, sorbitol and hyaluronic acid are also beneficial as they help the skin cells to stay plump and hydrated.
Balancing the level of oiliness and occlusion effects the practicality of the product and minimises the chance of heat rash. Balancing the pH is important for helping to main the acid mantle which plays a role in antimicrobial defence. Preservatives are essential for water-based moisturisers but most tend to be very irritating.
I formulated the Aether Biomime Cream 297 after 6 years and 297 batches. The intelligent formula contains our proprietary, all natural Biomime Lipid Complex made of macadamia oil, jojoba oil and olive squalane to biomimic the skins surface lipids. These lipids supplement your skin with a set ratio of squalane, fatty acids and waxes that are imbalanced in problem skin. They help to lastingly restore the health of your skin barrier. I also use a natural polyglyceryl emulsifier that does not disturb the stratum corneum or lead to a wash out effect unlike most moisturisers.
Glycerine increases skin hydration and flexibility. It is pH balanced to help maintain the acid mantle of the skin, which effects a variety of skin processes. Inflamed skin is calmed as the hydrolipid layer is rebalanced. It supports skin soothing, itch relief, lasting moisture and long-term skin health.
Don’t constantly moisturise areas which aren’t dry. As your skin heals you can lower the amount of moisturiser. You want to encourage your skin to produce its own oils but you can give it some assistance especially on frequently washed areas, problem prone areas or due to weather.
The Aether range and Skin Health System was inspired by my lifelong experience with my own skin problems. I wanted to create a core line of multifunctional, bio-compatible, minimal products especially designed for sensitive and problem skin. I call it a 'Natraceutical' range, fusing the benefits of organic, pharmaceutical and cosmeceutical skincare in an all-natural, minimal, biocompatible range. A holistic solution meticulously designed to support true health.
When you have ultra-sensitive, problem skin, any single ingredient can irritate you which is why I created The Aethereal Standard. I wanted to create a line that supported sustainable skin health. Physical, mental and spiritual health is something I truly value. I want to help people discover their own health and what works for them. When you have problem skin you are used to using big white tubs and bland looking tubes and bottles. I thought, why can't problem skin products also be beautiful, enjoyable, safe and environmentally friendly.