Article by: Perry Romanowski

Last weekend I had the opportunity to speak at the Face and Body show in San Jose. It was a great show and I was happy to have such an attentive audience. The attendees were primarily estheticians from California.

I spoke about cosmetic science which is an area they hear about from marketing people but almost never from cosmetic scientists who create the products. They seemed happy to hear what I had to say.

In my hour-long talk, one of the things covered was an answer to the question “what works?”. People are innundated with marketing messages, studies in the news, and all kinds of anecdotal information about treatments for various conditions.

Unfortunately, very little has been proven to work. Here is a list of things that have been “proven” beyond anecdotes to work. If it’s not on this list, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. It just means I haven’t found any positive evidence that is compelling.

Cosmetic skin treatments that work

1. DHA – Makes skin darker.
No doubt about this one. Put some DHA on your skin and it will stain it an orangish color. Cosmetic chemists have improved the technology to the point that skin looks more brown. Of course, they’re still working on the slight odor problem that the compound on your skin causes.

2. Hydroquinone – Makes skin lighter
If you want lightened skin, hydroquinone works. In fact, it’s an OTC drug in the US. In the EU they have banned it due to worries that it might cause cancer. Other compounds like high levels of vitamin C, Alpha hydroxy acids, kojic acid, and tretinoin hold some promise but their effect pales in comparison to hydroquinone.

3. Depilatories – Gets rid of hair
These work. They contain calcium thioglycolate which is a strong base that will dissolve hair. If you leave it on your skin it can dissolve skin too so you have to be careful. But for hair removal, this cosmetic works even better than shaving. Unfortunately, it can cause skin irritation and has a foul odor but it does work.

4. Sunscreens – Block UV light
There is a reason that these things are over the counter drugs (OTC). It’s because there is scientifically verified evidence that they can prevent sunlight from causing sun burns, tans, and skin cancer. They work.

5. Retinoic acid – Makes wrinkles go away
Anti-aging cosmetics are full of fluffery and chemicals that are supposed to give you the skin of a teenager without the acne. They promise to make your wrinkles disappear with things like peptides, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, polyphenols, flavinoids, etc. The number of new materials is mind boggling. Unfortunately, almost none of them have actually been proven to work when delivered from a topical cosmetic formulation. You know what does work? Retinoic acid. In fact, it works so well that it is approved as a prescription drug by the FDA for treatment against…wrinkles! This is the class of the anti-aging actives. Everything else are just unproven posers.

6. Salicylic acid – Helps speed up disappearance of acne
If you have acne, this compound is proven to help get rid of it. In the US it is an OTC because when something can get rid of a disease, it is no longer a cosmetic but rather a drug. In the US anyway. Salicylic acid helps clean pores and speeds up removal of the dead skin cells in the epidermal layer. There are other actives that work against acne but Sal acid is the most versatile for cosmetic formulators.

7. Petrolatum, moisturizers – Makes dry skin look and feel better.
Sure, some natural loving folks can’t stand petrolatum or mineral oil and they are convinced that using it will degrade your skin or worse, give you cancer, but there is no evidence for this. You know what there is evidence for? Petrolatum is an excellent skin moisturizer. In fact, it is one of the best performing moisturizers that a cosmetic chemist can use. We keep looking for better alternatives but nothing else has topped petrolatum yet.

8. Cleansing products – Cleans skin
Surfactants clean skin. They have a polar head group and a lipophilic tail group. Together they make oil and water compatible and help you remove it from your skin. Want to get your skin clean? Use a surfactant.

9. Alpha hydroxy acids – Exfoliates top layer of skin
Finally, AHAs can help improve the appearance of wrinkles and they might even help get rid of some skin discoloration. Lactic acid, glycolic acid actually have been demonstrated to remove that top layer of dead skin cells and stimulate production of new cells. I don’t know how they get away without having to consider these things drugs but they’re not. Use with caution, but you can have faith…AHA’s work.

Have we missed anything for skin ingredients that work? Leave your comments below.


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    Tiffany Nguyen

    Hi Perry, is Retinoic Acid the same as Vitamin A Retinol Palmitate?



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    Just one point of clarification: hydroquinone is not banned in Europe. It is not permitted in over-the-counter products but it is allowed in prescription drugs.

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    What about Progesterone and other Hormonal creams?
    Do they actually work??

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    Jill Jones

    Great info, Perry. Thanks for keeping it real!

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    Well, I guess I would add some more “working” compounds:
    – Aluminum salts, the basic ingredient for variety of antiperspirants and deodorants
    – Triclosan ( still disputable compound for some reason) – but it’s still one of the widely used antiseptic in cosmetics
    – Alcali, which could drammaticaly change the quality and consistency of the Stratum corneum

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    I’m totally agree with the list. I would like to add the one more ingredient that works – urea. It seems the one of the best moisturising agent which is very close to the skin’s nature.

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    But according to wikipedia, 2006 hydroquinone is banned as an OTC drug in the US. Is that right?

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    i am a new.
    Thanks Perry.

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    Thanks Perry.. what a valuable information. Certainly got to bookmark this.

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    Great handout for my students today!

    Thanks Perry

    1. Avatar

      It’s the same thing. Tretinoin is the brand name for retinoic acid.

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