The Future of Skincare Science

Culturally, there seems to be two competing narratives of science. The first is that science and technology is pushing boundaries at exponential speeds, and that we’re on the precipice of a new scientific and technological revolution. The singularity, virtual immortality, or species extinction (depending on whether you’re a glass half full or empty person), all the stuff of science fiction seems to be imminent. On the other hand, there is the view that science has become corrupted by media, money, and politics, and is no longer as reliable or credible as it used to be.

Where there is doubt and skepticism of science, pseudoscience and various conspiracies have always offered to fill the vacuum. Certainly pseudoscience is as popular as ever, and with the Internet, it can be argued that it’s even expanding. Is skincare science part of the wide range of what might be called pseudo-science?

Does skincare have real science backing it?

Absolutely. The core of skincare is based on understanding chemistry and how it interacts with human skin. Skincare is evidence-based, and manufacturers of skincare products have many scientists working to improve their products in a variety of ways and their approach is evidence-based. The science of skincare does not rely on unprovable premises, or require one to believe in systems which itself can’t be questioned.

Unfortunately, as over the counter products are not regulated as drugs, while safety standards are high, the requirements for efficacy are not as high. Exaggerated, or intentionally misleading claims are also not uncommon for this reason. Unfortunately, this has put a black eye on the skincare industry, hurting honest manufacturers as well.

Are modern cleansers, moisturizers, and sunscreen products any better than the products from decades ago?

Cleansers, moisturizers, and sunscreens form the very basics of skincare. While the benefits of using a complicated concoction of products three times a day is often unwarranted, cleansing, moisturizing, and sun protection are essential for everyone. The science behind these products has a lot of history and has evolved considerably over the years. It can sometimes be hard to notice incremental advances, but modern products are incomparably superior to ones that were on the market 20 years ago. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any low quality products in the market now, or that there won’t be any such products in the future. Overall though, skincare products have seen huge increases in quality. New formulations have also allowed for more convenience and textures that people prefer overall.

To take some examples, modern cleansers are much more gentle on the skin compared to the old bar soap, and very effective at removing dirt, grime, and germs that contact the skin. Moisturizers now address dryness in multiple ways. They help to draw more moisture in, lock in existing moisture preventing it from escaping via evaporation, and fill in the gaps in the skin to help make the skin feel supple. Finally, modern sunscreens have made the biggest leaps. Information about the effect of UVA rays, which are the longer rays responsible for premature aging, was lacking in the earlier years, as well as ways to effectively shield the skin from UVA rays. Modern sunscreens for the most part, provide adequate protection from both UVA and UVB rays, providing the full protection that the skin requires.

Can anti-aging creams be optimized to be better than Botox one day?

Saying never is almost always dubious when it comes to technological advancements, but it’s extremely unlikely to be anytime soon, and they would be regulated as drugs--and would not be available over the counter unless the pharmaceutical system changes drastically. Claims like this really taint the skincare industry--they are false almost by definition. Botox is regulated as a drug, and there are hundreds, thousands of clinical trials proving the efficacy and safety of the drug, as well as decades of success in the market that support the efficacy of Botox. Over the counter products are not drugs--by definition, they cannot cause any biological changes, or they would be drugs, and regulated as such.

With years of research, and plenty of financial incentive, why haven’t we found the perfect skincare cream yet?

Skincare science certainly isn’t hindered by a lack of financial incentive. It’s also important to understand that there is a clear distinction between drugs and non-drugs. Over the counter skincare products are NOT drugs. By definition, they cannot make any fundamental changes in the way that your body works, including the skin. It’s important to temper expectations when it comes to what an over the counter anti-aging product can offer.

In terms of the science, a lot of people overestimate our understanding and mastery over the biological process that occur. Biology is extremely complex, and the more our knowledge increases, the more we see how deep and complex the field is. Many drugs that work, and are approved by organizations like the FDA and Health Canada, have an unknown mechanism of action. That is, we know that it works, and that it’s safe enough, but we don’t exactly know how it works. Biology is complex. The perfect skincare cream would be a drug, and would be regulated as such. We are quite far from this reality, although it’s hard to predict just how our knowledge will expand.