Askanesthetician's Blog

An esthetician explores skincare issues and concerns

Ingredient Spotlight: Salicylic Acid May 31, 2010


I recently wrote about the anti-acne ingredient benzoyl peroxide so I thought it would be good to write about  another great OTC anti-acne ingredient – salicylic acid. 

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that is a derivative of aspirin and functions as an exfoliant helping to loosen and expel comedones (aka blackheads and whiteheads – clogged pores) from the skin.  Salicylic acid also has anti-inflammatory properties which can help reduce the redness of inflamed breakout lesions.  So this combination of exfoliation and anti-inflammatory properties helps the skin heal, prevents scarring, and helps to decrease the chance of future breakouts.  Salicylic acid, which is oil soluble, is able to penetrate deeply into the pore helping to keep sebaceous follicles clear of cellular buildup and can help minimize the formation of new comedones.

In order for the salicylic acid product to be effective it should have at least a 1% concentration of the ingredient but preferably a 2% concentration.  But just as important is the pH level of the product.  The pH must be between 3 and 4 in order for the product to be effective.  Otherwise the salicylic acid is not effective as an exfoliant.  Of course, it is quite hard to determine the pH level of products on one’s own.  Though pH strip tests are available for home use I instead refer to the charts at the back of Lydia Preston’s excellent book Breaking Out (pages 207-208 and 210-212).  Preston tested the pH levels of different salicylic acid cleansers and lotions in order to determine which products would actually do what they claim to do. 

You might also find willow bark listed in the ingredients of products that claim to have salicylic acid in them.  When ingested orally willow bark is converted by the body into salicylic acid.  It is questionable if the same process takes place when willow bark is applied topically. 


Lastly, a lot of ob/gyns recommend that women who are pregnant or nursing not use salicylic acid because of its connection to aspirin.  Most likely a OTC product with 1 to 2% salicylic acid will not harm your child, but be sure to check with your doctor before using such a product during pregnancy or while you are nursing.


Recommended Salicylic Acid Products (taken from Breaking Out)



  • Clearasil 3 in 1 Acne Defense Cleanser
  • Clearasil Total Control Deep Pore Cream Cleanser
  • Clearasil Icewash Acne Gel Cleanser
  • Neutrogena Oil Free Cream Cleanser
  • Zapzyt Acne Wash Treatment


  • Aveeno Clear Complexion Daily Moisturizer
  • Clean & Clear Blackhead Clearing Astringent
  • Clean & Clear Clarifying Toner
  • Neutrogena Blackhead Eliminating Astrigent
  • Neutrogena Multi-Vitamin Acne Treatment Lotion
  • Paula’s Choice 1% Beta Hydroxy Liquid Solution normal to oily


My Recommendation


Any Paula’s Choice BHA lotion, gel, or toner.  These products work and are easy to order online.  Buy samples if you aren’t sure that you want to invest in a whole regular size product.  I like the fact that you can use these as frequently or infrequently as you need to. 


Sources and Further Reading





Sunscreen Woes – The EWG Releases Its Annual Sunscreen Report May 28, 2010


This week the Environmental Work Group, a non-profit watch dog organization made up of scientists, engineers, policy experts, lawyers and computer programmers that researches and reports on issues concerning public health and the environment, released its newest report on sunscreen.  And the report is a doozy.  According to the standards that it sets for safety and effectiveness of sunscreens only 8% of the 500 beach and sport sunscreens that the EWG tested, that means only 39 out of 500, are recommended by the organization.

The report is extensive and long, I’ve been reading it over the last few days, and if taken at face value – scary.  As with all past EWG sunscreen reports there is much bad news and little good news about sunscreens (none really).  I looked up all my favorite sunscreens (the ones I use personally and the ones I recommend to clients, family, and friends) and all of them got poor ratings from the EWG.  What’s an esthetician to do? 

Here are the main points of the report:

  • Sunscreens do not offer enough UVA protection which then exposes people to cancer
  • Spf ratings have gotten out of control.  Spf ratings of 50 and higher aren’t much more effective than spf 30 and furthermore, the high ratings cause people to both stay out in the sun too long and use too little sunscreen
  • When Vitamin A (look for retinol or retinyl palmitate in the ingredient list) is added to sunscreen it will breakdown in the presence of sunlight and thus speed up the development of skin tumors and lesions
  • As sunscreen ingredients breaks down in the precense of sunlight it causes free radical damage
  • The FDA takes too long to approve new and effective sunscreen ingredients (ingredients that are already used in European sunscreen formulations) and to publish new regulations regarding sunscreen
  • Oxybenzone, a very popular chemical sunscreen ingredient (try finding a sunscreen without it – it’s close to impossible) is a hormone disrupting compound.  This chemical penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream causing damage or worse to the body.

All pretty upsetting things, right?  My fear every time I read the EWG’s sunscreen report is that people will stop using sunscreen because of it.  The EWG even states that the best ways to protect yourself from sunburn and sun damage is not to apply sunscreen but rather to seek shade, wear protective clothing, and avoid the sun in general especially mid-day.  All great advice – but realistically – how many people can maintain a lifestyle like that?

Two other issues brought up in the report interested me in particular.  In the section of the report called Hall of Shame the EWG gives a great big thumbs down to powder sunscreens.  Anyone who has read this blog knows that I use powder (brush-on) sunscreens daily and highly recommend them as a convenient way to reapply your sunscreen throughout the day particularly if you wear make-up.  The EWG objects to powder sunscreens because they say that the titanium dioxide and zinc oxide particles can be easily inhaled and settle in various parts of the body causing damage and irritation.  Another point from the Hall of Shame section of the report is about The Skin Cancer Foundation and their seal of approval on sunscreen products.  According to the EWG all a company has to do in order to receive this seal of approval is to donate $10,000 to the foundation and prove basic claims about their sunscreens and its spf factor.  The company’s seeking approval for their products do not have to prove if the product provides adequate UVA protection, and the company can even make claims about their products that violate FDA regulations.  Since I continually mention The Skin Cancer Foundation in this blog and ways to support their work this information was very interesting to me.


So Should You Worry?  Should You Throw Out Your Sunscreens?

Opposing Opinions to the EWG Report



First and foremost, please keep using sunscreen daily and keep reapplying it especially if you are spending the day outdoors! 

Now should you only use the sunscreens that get the best ratings from the EWG?  Truthfully I don’t know.  First off, all the sunscreens that the EWG recommends are rather obscure, for lack of a better term, for the most part.  These are not the brands that you can readily find on the shelves of Target, Walgreens, and CVS for the most part. 

So is it right to err on the side of caution and only use sunscreens that the EWG recommends?  Perhaps.  But you should know that not everyone agrees with the EWG’s findings.

I found a report on the Cosmetics and Toiletries website that quotes John Bailey, chief scientist of the Personal Care Products Council, views on the EWG report.  The Personal Care Products Council  is the trade association representing the cosmetic, toiletry and fragrance industry in the United States and globally.

I would like to quote the response in full since it addresses all the issues mentioned above:

John Bailey, chief scientist of the Personal Care Products Council, has released a statement in response to the 2010 Environmental Working Group (EWG) Sunscreen Report.

Bailey finds the report unscientific and unsubstantiated, noting that the American Academy of Dermatology, the Skin Cancer Foundation, the Center for Disease Control, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), physicians and other health care professionals have all emphasized the safety of sunscreen use. Bailey is concerned that the group’s report will needlessly cause consumers to avoid using sunscreens, when that use is critical to prevent skin damage and skin cancer.

“Sunscreens in the United States are regulated as OTC drugs by the FDA and must undergo pre-market approval that involves rigorous scientific assessment including safety and efficacy substantiation according to FDA standards,” noted Bailey. He furthered, “The FDA testing and regulatory process for sunscreen products is the most rigorous in the world.”

According to Bailey, EWG did not use the established scientific and regulatory safety assessment process for sunscreen products and ingredients. The following topics are those proposed and questioned in the report.  

Vitamin A: In their report, EWG questioned the safety of vitamin A in sunscreens, referencing the National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) announcement in 2000 that it would study the potential of retinyl palmitate to enhance UV radiation-induced photocarcinogenisity. Bailey noted that the study is ongoing (scheduled for late 2010 or early 2011) but is not designed to study retinyl palmitate in the presence or absence of sunscreen formulations. He notes that retinyl palmitate has been reviewed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) expert panel and found to be safe in cosmetics.

Skin cancer: EWG questions the ability of sunscreen to fight skin cancer based on increased skin cancer rates. Bailey maintains that skin cancer rates are the result of excessive unprotected sun exposure from several decades prior and on our ability to better track, monitor and report occurrence of the disease.

Oxybenzone: In response to the safety of oxybenzone, Bailey notes, “When used as a sunscreen ingredient, oxybenzone, also known as benzophenone-3, protects the skin from harmful UV rays. Oxybenzone is also used to protect cosmetics and personal care products from degradation by absorbing UV rays.” Benzophenone-3 is approved in the United States, Canada and the EU as a safe and effective OTC sunscreen ingredient. In addition, it has been found safe for use as a photostabilizer by the CIR. Finally, Bailey added that there have been no available scientific data supporting a link between UV filter exposure to endocrine-disruptive effects in humans.

Nanotechnology: Nanoparticles have been found to pose no risk to human health, according to Bailey. In addition, when used to protect against UV damage, nanoparticles are required to go through an extensive FDA pre-market review process to prove they are safe and effective.

FDA sunscreen monograph: Finally, Bailey added that the FDA is not intentionally delaying the release of the final sunscreen regulations. He noted that establishing sunscreen safety standards is a long and vigorous process, and that the FDA is considering a number of viewpoints before establishing final guidelines.

So who to believe?  Frankly and honestly, I just don’t know.  I wonder sometimes if the EWG is hysterical or if they are right and we are all just sticking our heads in the sand.  This question made me think of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.  When the book was first published in 1962 and warned of grave health and environmental issues that were affecting everyone and being ignored by the government and industry, many people didn’t want to believe Carson.  Of course, it turns out that Carson was right, particularly when it came to the horrible effects of DDT on the environment and human health.  So I ask myself – is the EWG right?  Should I follow all their instructions?

Truthfully, at the moment I am not going to change anything.  But when I run out of my current sunscreens I think I will look at the EWG’s recommendations again and perhaps try one of the sunscreens that gets a best rating from them.   As for The Skin Cancer Foundation, I still think their website is an excellent source of information about skin cancer prevention and issues, and I will continue to recommend that people look at the site.  I’ll also keep using my brush-on sunscreen.  I just think that concern might be overblown.

I would be very curious to hear what my readers have to say about the report.  If anyone has tried any of the sunscreens that the EWG recommends I would like to hear what you think about them.

Here is a link to another blogger’s take on the EWG report.  You can find the American Cancer Society’s comments on the EWG report here.

Here is one of  The Skin Cancer Foundation’s response to the EWG report.  This is a more comprehensive response by The Skin Cancer Foundation.

And here is a comment from Allure magazine about the issue of Vitamin A in sunscreens.

P.S.  – About two weeks after writing the above post I went to the dermatologist for a skin cancer screening.  While there I asked her what she thought of the EWG’s sunscreen report.   Her response was that she didn’t agree with the findings in the report and that the group’s conclusions were misguided and even silly.  Though my initially my thoughts about the EWG sunscreen report had been more borderline, that I was inclined to change my sunscreens to recommended brands by the EWG eventually, now after more thought I am beginning to think that the dermatologist is right.  Since the EWG is the ONLY group saying the things that they are saying about sunscreens I want validation for at least another source before agreeing with them.  The dermatologist told me that she recommends La Roche Posay Anthelios 45 Ultra-Light Fluid for Face and Vanicream SPF 30 (which by the way the EWG thinks is ok) as good sunscreens for her patients to use. 

For more opinions on the sunscreen controversy see my post The Debate Continues.

For Dr. Leslie Baumann’s opinion about the EWG’s sunscreen report see this blog post by her.

The American Academy of Dermatology disagrees with the EWG’s findings on retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) in sunscreens.



All That Glitters: Gold as a Skincare Ingredient May 27, 2010

When I saw this article in The New York Times it immediately reminded me of an article I had read about a year ago in New Beauty.  The article in New Beauty, in the Spring/Summer 2009 edition of the magazine, was entitled “Bizarre Beauty: Powerful Products with Unusual Ingredients” (pages 48-52).   The article featured products with rare and even strange ingredients like snake venom, snail secretion, and placenta.  Certainly the article was intriguing, but frankly it didn’t want to make me go and seek these products out.

So when I read the following article in The New York Times – “Gold Face Cream: A Costly Leap of Faith” – I had a similar reaction – interesting but I won’t be buying these products with gold in them any time soon.  What was most interesting about the article to me was the contrast between the claims made by the manufacturers of the skincare products that included gold compared to the doctors’ opinions about these claims.  To say that the two sides have opposing views would be a huge understatement.  Those producing the skincare products with gold as an ingredient claim that gold is anti-aging and anti-inflammatory while doctors say that gold is irritating, can cause allergic reactions, and is toxic in high doses.  Yet despite what the doctors say people keep buying these creams and claiming that the gold in them helps their skin.

Two things were very interesting to me about this article.  One was the opposing opinions of the doctors and product manufacturers about what gold can do for the skin.  And the other thing that interested me was the fact that these products were popular despite the very high costs (see this related article “Even Cleopatra Didn’t Have These“).  I guess some people figure the more expensive a product the better it works?  Of course, high cost doesn’t mean much when it comes to good skincare product formulation.  I guess people buy into the idea  that if gold is rare and costly than it must be good for you?  In my opinion there is no need to buy products just for the gold they contain.  There are so many other great skincare ingredients that have a proven track record of both effectiveness and safety.  I would steer clear of rare and unusual ingredients if that is all the product has to offer.


Ingredient Spotlight: Benzoyl Peroxide May 26, 2010

One of the most common and easy to find anti-acne ingredients is benzoyl peroxide.  There is a simple reason for benzoyl peroxide’s availability – it works well as an anti-acne treatment particularly in conjunction with alpha hydroxy acids (like glycolic) or even better with salicylic acid products.  In the case of benzoyl peroxide there is both exhaustive and conclusive research that proves its effectiveness in fighting blemishes which definitely makes it a worthwhile ingredient to seek out if you suffer from blemishes.  


How Benzoyl Peroxide Works


Benzoyl peroxide works by destroying the acne causing bacteria in the hair follicles; benzoyl peroxide can penetrate into the hair follicle without causing too much irritation at the same time.  Benzoyl peroxide works by allowing the benzoyl to draw peroxide into the follicle.  Once the peroxide is in the follicle it releases oxygen that destroys the acne causing bacteria.  Additionally, benzoyl peroxide is anti-inflammatory and can help reduce inflammation around the hair follicles. 


The Upside and Downside to Benzoyl Peroxide


Benzoyl peroxide works quickly which is a definite upside about this product.  Another good thing about benzoyl peroxide is that it does not lose its effectiveness over time like antibiotics do.  Having said that many people have the perception that benzoyl peroxide does lose its effectiveness over time.    What really happens when someone perceives this problem is that benzoyl peroxide has done all that it can to heal the acne lesions, and in order to see further improvement the acne sufferer needs to add another anti-acne ingredient to their daily skincare regime like salicylic acid or a retinol. 

The downside to benzoyl peroxide is that it can cause irritation, dryness, stinging, and even bleach the clothes and hair of the user.  For that reason not every acne sufferer finds that they can use or want to use benzoyl peroxide.



Which Benzoyl Peroxide Product is Right for You?


Benzoyl peroxide can be found in face washes, creams, gels, and serums in both OTC versions and prescription ones.  Some of the prescription benzoyl peroxide products are combined with antibiotics which makes them super anti-acne fighting products and are good for those suffering from more severe acne.   You can find benzoyl peroxide in concentrations of 2.5%, 5%, and 10% in anti-acne products.  In higher concentrations benzoyl peroxide can be irritating, as already mentioned above, and as such it is a good idea to start out using the 2.5% concentration (my favorite 2.5% benzoyl peroxide product is pictured above) especially if your skin is more sensitive or on the dry side.  If you find cream or gel benzoyl peroxides to be irritating you can try a face wash that contains benzoyl peroxide since the active ingredient won’t stay on the skin for too long.  Begin by using the benzoyl peroxide product once a day, working up to twice a day, if necessary, once your skin has adjusted to the product.  Apply the product after cleansing but before your moisturizer, sunscreen, and make-up.

Another interesting point when it comes to benzoyl peroxide products is that a 2.5% concentration product can be just as effective as a 10% concentration product depending on the formulation of the product.  I always recommend that clients start out using a 2.5% benzoyl peroxide concentration product before trying a 5% or 10% product.  Depending on your acne and skin the lower concentration of benzoyl peroxide might be all that you need to help get your acne under control.



Sources and Further Reading



Make a Donation Just by Watching a Video May 24, 2010


I’ve already mentioned in my blog how you can buy a Sun Safety Kit through Sephora that helps benefit The Skin Cancer Foundation, but it turns out there are numerous other ways you can donate to The Skin Cancer Foundation and some of those ways won’t cost you a dime.

Watch this video on YouTube with actress Jane Krakowski and Jergens will donate $1 for every view (with up to $20,000 in donations total).  All it takes in a minute and a half of your time to make a difference.

Or simply sign-up to receive information from the La Roche-Posay Save Our Skin campaign and the company will make a donation to The Skin Cancer Foundation.

And check out this page on The Skin Cancer Foundation website in order to see what other ways you can help out this very worthy.

Isn’t shopping always more fun when you know you are doing some good?


All That Your Skin Does For You: Functions of the Skin May 23, 2010

Filed under: Skin and Skincare — askanesthetician @ 1:40 pm
Tags: , , , ,

I recently finished reading Kate Somerville’s book Complexion Perfection!  (click here to see my review), and some of the points in the book really stayed with me.  For instance in a section of the book entitled “Getting to Know Your Skin” (page 4) Somerville writes:

Human skin is truly amazing.  Despite my years in the business, I’m wowed by this majestic organ every day: what it does, how it heals, and just how beautiful it can be.  If you think you’re good at multitasking, trust me, you don’t hold a candle to your skin. …  Culturally, skin identifies our ethnic heritage, links us to our family, and is a blank canvas we sometimes color to express our individuality.  Like it or not, our skin is a large part of what makes a first impression, and it’s also what sets us apart as humans.  Unlike our pooches, parakeets, or pet lizards, we’re among the rare members of the animal kingdom whose skin is not protected by fur, feathers, or scales.  …  At birth, our physical shell seems too delicate to do everything we ask for it, but it’s more than up to the job.


Functions of the Skin


Somerville’s statements got me thinking about everything our skin does for us on a daily basis.  I think we take our skin for granted and only “tune in” to it when there is a problem.  So I thought it would be a good idea to highlight all the functions of our skin.

Our skin is our body’s largest organ and plays a central role in protecting and caring for our bodies. 

Our skin:

  • Protects us from outside elements, microorganisms, infections, and injury
  • Slows down water evaporation from the body and helps keep our bodies hydrated by producing protective oil
  • Melanin in the skin protects us from the sun
  • Can heal itself
  • Helps regulate our body temperature by warming and cooling the body
  • Detoxifys the body by excreting excess salt and unwanted chemicals
  • Houses our body’s sense of touch so that we can feel and respond to pain, cold, heat, and pressure.


So with everything our skin does for us shouldn’t we return the favor with a little TLC?  Take one day or even just one hour to make protecting and caring for your skin a priority.


Invest in Your Skin May 21, 2010

I received a 20% off e-coupon from this week and was debating if I should use it or not.  Now I love a bargain and like most of us out there I cannot afford to buy everything I would like (and seeing as I have a shoe addiction that is probably a good thing).  I do try to be savvy about my purchases.  Finally I realized that I needed a new brush-on sunscreen so I used my coupon to purchase it.  But all this internal debating got me thinking – isn’t investing in good skincare one of the best investments you can make?  Why was I debating so much with myself about the purchase of a sunscreen I would use daily?

I would love to hear other people’s opinions about this issue.  Personally I think people might have a problem with making skincare product purchases because they don’t always see an immediate return on their investment.  We live in a society that expects instant gratification no matter what the issue or situation.  For instance I recommend using an antioxidant serum daily but rarely will you see an immediate change in the appearance of your skin when you use such a serum.  The use of antioxidant serums is cumulative and long-term.  Additionally, antioxidant serums are usually quite expensive because of the concentration of potent ingredients in them.  Using a product with retinol in it can be the same for many people as well.  It takes months before you will see results from using a retinol product and once again the cost of the product can be high.  Of course in my opinion I would rather have smooth, even toned, clear skin everyday and am happy to cut expenses in other areas to afford my favorite serums and creams. 

I’m not saying all of this in order to tell you that the best skincare products are the ones that cost the most money.  Far from it.  You can find great skincare products at all price points.  Instead my overall point is this – if I had to choose between getting a Starbucks green tea latte everyday (I find them addicting!) and my Vitamin C serum I would choose the serum.

Investing in your skin might not yield instant gratification but the long-term results are well worth the money.

(For tips on how to save money on skincare products and make-up see my early post How to be a Skincare Recessionista)


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