Is there anything I can do to make this product actually effective on my skin?

edited August 1 in Formulating
I’ve finally come to understand/accept that a formula I have recently been testing is basically just sitting on the very top surface of my skin.

My issue is I need to make a water based product for my skincare needs. I have really damaged skin which FREAKS out when I apply almost anything: oils, butters, fatty alcohols (cetyl, cetearyl), propylene & butylene glycol, thickeners & gums (carbomer, xantham gum), and more. 

I wanted to make a water-based serum with hyaluronic acid, niacinamide (research shows it can increase ceramide synthesis) and n-acetyl glucosamine (apparently a precursor to hyaluronic acid in skin, purported to increase moisture). And a preservative, of course.

My question is: Is it a waste of time to create a formula with these ingredients if they are just going to be sitting on surface of my skin? Will they produce any kind of effect at all on the quality of my skin?

On the other hand, I have also read that it is a myth that cosmetics travel and/or act much further below the stratum corneum. Are skincare products in fact supposed to act solely on the surface of the skin?

So I guess right now I’m just really confused as to whether or not I actually need it to somehow “penetrate” to a certain place in my skin for changes to take effect. 

If anyone can help clarify this for me, and/or if there are any ingredient suggestions that might make this product effective - I would very much appreciate the input. 

Thank you for your time.


  • I agree with you that it is a myth that molecules migrate deep in the skin. Anyway that did not stop the pharmaceutical industries from developing methods and techniques to make it possible to send molecules via the skin. The easiest approach is to use penetration enhancers AKA adjuvants, they are molecules that help the transport of other molecules through the skin and/or help stabilize them enough. Another way is to encapsulate them (liposomes, silica spheres, ...). Just keep in mind that the adjuvants are specific to the molecule you want, so you may need at least one adjuvant per active ingredient.

    One example comes to mind: Lidocaine (in anesthetic creams) have a better effect and migrates easily through the skin in the presence of menthol. Another is honey and ascorbic acid, together they help regenerate collagen in the skin.
  • Thank you @ChemicalPyros and @Gunther for your comments and the information!
  • Hi MJL,

    The Ordinary adds Dimethyl Isosorbide to their Niacinamide serum to increase the penetration. Check their products. Since they are very effective I believe it can be used as a reference. Btw Glucosamine made my niacinamide serum orange. I posted a question here and still waiting for an answer.

    Also, both lotioncrafter and makingcosmetics have ceramides complex that you can add to your serum. It is my personal experience (I am not a chemist) but topical ceramides make difference.

  • Penetration through the stratum corneum is not an easy task. 

    - Most enhancer of penetration (e.g. solvent, surfactants, alcohols etc) will damage the lipid matrix of the SC leading to a loss of hydration of skin, irritation and further skin and can cause long-term skin disorders.

    - Vesicles that are described to penetrate the SC are made with some surfactants and can lead to the same problems as described before.

    - Other lipid vesicles such as liposomes will not penetrate the SC due to their size. 

    - Use of mixture cholesterol/ceramide/fatty acids could be a good approach as it mimics the composition of the lipid matrix of the SC, but you have to be sure that these ingredients penetrate the SC

    An elegant method to penetrate the SC is proposed by Bicosome, they develop a unique technology made of lipids with composition similar to the lipid matrix of SC and that are structured in such a way that very small disks are able by their size/composition to penetrate the SC. 

  • "My question is: Is it a waste of time to create a formula with these ingredients if they are just going to be sitting on surface of my skin? Will they produce any kind of effect at all on the quality of my skin?"

    Based on the evidence available, I do think it is a waste of time. These are claims ingredients that will just sit on the top of your skin and do little more than moisturize. 

    You'll have difficulty showing any improvement better than just using a moisturizer alone.

    Although, I'd be happy to be shown wrong based on scientific evidence. I just haven't found any convincing evidence that under real-life conditions, things like Ceramides, Hyaluronic Acid, most vitamins, stem cells, or most any other anti-aging ingredient, actually has much noticeable effect.

    The only ingredients that seem to have some merit are retinols (the drug kind) and niacinamide. I still find the later dubious but there is at least more than a little evidence of effectiveness.
  • @MJL Based on what you write with skin that is so damaged that it "Freaks Out" (which I read as; invokes an inflammation) on contact with nearly anything, you should consider visiting a dermatologist who will likely prescribe something along the lines of a corticosteroid to reduce inflammation.

    As for the question "is it a waste of time", from what I've read, a lot of formulations actually allowing for water-soluble "actives" to show penetration beyond the stratum corneum are formulated with a high level of emollients and oils to "force" what lies beneath the oily layer to migrate into the skin where it is more favorably dissolved than in the oil-phase.

    @Perry There are available peer-reviewed scientific studies on the efficacy of ingredients (even positive ones), but I think the most difficult part about scientific evidence of cosmetic efficacy, is that sponsors and authors are usually working for a specific company and experimenter bias is a real hindrance, and I my opinion only double-blinded studies can be trusted.

    Dabbling Formulator, cosmetic safety assessor, and experienced in claim substantiation & EU regulatory affairs.
  • I just new in cosmetics
    but selecting the ingredients which have molecular small comparing the pores. 
    Go with natural. Minimize adding additional ingredients that are not benefit for skin.
  • For example, for reduce pH, we usual add TEA or Na0H. Do not do that.
    dilute the AHA or BHA to near desired pH
  • @Sibech - Yes, I'm aware of many studies. I just find them lacking. Most are done on cell cultures or without controls or on small groups. I agree double-blind are the most reliable.  But even for those I'd like to see replication of studies which you rarely ever get.

    Like you said, most of the research is done by companies or sponsored by a company. This doesn't mean the research is crap but it does mean we have to be extra skeptical. Plus, there is the file-drawer effect where researchers don't publish negative findings.

  • I wish there were more proponents of "admitting failures" in all scientific fields. I get the financially-driven reasons to keep negative findings quiet, but ultimately reporting conditions that didn't produce intended results could save time and money. And as @Perry mentions, one study doesn't make anything conclusive, positive results or not. One of our core beliefs as scientists is in reproducibility and that should apply in all cases. Always disappoints me when personal gain wins out over progress and learning for science as a whole, but c'est la vie or whatever.
  • @EVChem I think the problem is not only person gains and financial reasons, I think a lot of journals would be hesitant about publishing negative findings - It doesn't bring a lot of exposure to the journal. My guess would be a higher proportion of such papers in open access journals.

    @Perry Can't you and Randy make "The International Journal of Negative Findings" with Brains publishing? - Think of all the subscription fees from Libraries.
    Dabbling Formulator, cosmetic safety assessor, and experienced in claim substantiation & EU regulatory affairs.
  • I will weigh-in on this all, much as I have in the past. One of my first University Internships was with Ciba Geigy doing QC sampling and QC Testing of Trans Derm Nitro patches. IT IS NOT EASY TO GET PRODUCTS TO PENETRATE INTO THE BODY. We did it based on established and complicated Calculus-based Pharmacokinetic Formulas. It relied upon a strong concentration gradient (much more active material in the reservoir of the patch), an engineered membrane with known channel properties, actives with very small molecular sizes (<500 daltons) and other proprietary processes and materials. It is naive and contradictory to Pharmacokinetic principles to believe that you can effect any real penetration or that you can establish a significant blood/plasma concentration with a simple topical product. Microformulation Cosmetic Consulting provides Custom Formulations for both large Commercial accounts as well as smaller entrepreneurs. We can provide Naturally compliant Formulations under the NSF, NPA, Whole Foods and USDA Organic Certifications.
  • This!!!! ^
    Couldn't agree more with @Microformulation
  • @Microformulation well that's depressing but honestly something I think most of us know in the back of our heads. But I don't think that skincare is all snake oil and magic marketing claims. There are ingredients that have shown promise (niacinamide comes to mind) through simple topical application. Then again,there is the poorly-hidden elephant in the room of cosmetics: our products are  not supposed to penetrate/to modify the skins function.They are only meant to hydrate.But that's a whole new discusion so I'll leave it at that.
  • A very insightful and interesting discussion, loved it. 
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