A Myth Buster’s Skin Care Glossary

What ingredients really work in skin care? With sales of skin care creams in the range of $40 billion annually, finding just the right marketing buzz words is important. Overstate the benefits of your anti-aging product, and the FDA takes umbrage; understate the effectiveness and you lose market share. Combine “cosmetic” and “pharmaceutical” and you get cosmeceutical, nonprescription products that contain ingredients expected to have a measurable therapeutic effect on improving skin’s health. The trick is distinguishing between cosmeceuticals and cosmetics trying to sound like something more. Entire books have been written on this (see especially Paula Begoun’s Don’t Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me) but I thought a very brief list of the basics would be helpful. (Hear my interview on Paula’s radio show here) Consider this the myth buster’s list:


  1. Hypoallergenic. There is no universally agreed standard for this, same as with “allergy tested” and “non-irritating.”
  2. “Patented secret formula” This one is an oxymoron, since patents are a matter of public record. And if it is a secret formula, it means that you are applying things to you skin without knowing what they are. This category would include for example Lancôme’s “Visionnaire Advanced Skin Protector” with 4% LR 2412, whatever that is. They don’t say.
  3. “Dermatologist tested.” If you see a cynical theme developing with this list, consider that this term says nothing about what the tests were or the results of those tests. Ditto for “clinically tested” and “dermatologist recommended.”
  4. “Prescription-strength” is only relevant for products requiring a prescription, or products that used to. When prescription drugs are released for over the counter sale, the approved version is generally not the same strength; for example, ibuprofen was originally available as Motrin 400 milligrams; the OTC version is 200 mg. An offender in this category is Clinique’s “prescription strength” serum called “Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector” which contains no prescriptive or formerly prescriptive ingredients.
  5. Detoxify. Products claiming to “detoxify” the skin universally fail to explain exactly what the targeted toxins are, how the product removes or neutralizes them, and what exactly the benefits are.
  6.  “Face lifting” or anything that says “lift” from a skin cream stretches the truth more than it stretches skin. But that didn’t stop Avon from trying, with their Anew “Clinical Thermafirm Face Lifting Cream” that prompted an admonishment from  the FDA stating “Your products are not generally recognized among qualified experts as safe and effective for the above referenced uses …” Note also the use of the word “clinical” in the name, though the product is not sold through clinics.
  7. Chemical free. To begin with, everything – every molecule in your body – is technically a chemical. If the implication is that synthetic substances are inherently bad and “all natural” products are good, keep in mind that some of the most toxic substances known are natural, plant-derived, and 100% organic.
  8. pH Balanced. This is a measure of the acid/base ratio, with “balanced” indicating that the product is non-irritating and somehow better. Consider that Vitamin C, an effective skin care antioxidant, is highly acidic and nowhere near “pH balanced.”


The bottom line here is that salespeople at the cosmetics counter may be sincere but they are not scientists. In general, skin care lines developed for sale in physician offices are more likely to have legitimate supporting science.

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