• drsophia

Simple Skincare Science

Updated: Aug 13, 2019

Skincare products have advanced incredibly in recent years and products previously only available to the rich and famous are now flying off the high street shelves. To those of you looking into this for the first time, you may be left feeling like you need a chemistry degree to navigate yourself through the acids and antioxidants on offer.

So what exactly are these ingredients and what do they do? Here’s a summary of the most popular ingredients on the market today …

AHAs- Alpha Hydroxy Acids

Best for: Exfoliation

Ever used face scrubs with exfoliating microbeads? Well AHAs are the chemical equivalent, and if you think this is a new discovery then think again. It is rumoured Cleopatra, the beauty queen of BC, used to bathe in sour milk (lactic acid) for its skin brightening properties. Exfoliation is important not just to remove dead skin cells and reveal brighter looking skin, but it also allows better penetration of other skin care products. AHAs are a group of compounds that break down the chemical bonds keeping dead skin cells together. Glycolic acid, from sugar cane juice and lactic acid from sour milk, are two of the most commonly used AHAs with glycolic acid being the most potent due to its small molecule size, allowing better and deeper penetration into the skin. Just like the scrubs and microbeads of yesteryear, AHAs can help remove rough and dead skin cells without causing the damage and inflammation common with manual exfoliation. AHAs are commonly used to tackle acne, sun damage, hyperpigmentation, fine lines and age spots. Whilst low concentrations can be found in over the counter products, higher concentrations are used by therapists in chemical peels. They are generally safe to use, including on sensitive skin, but can cause mild irritation and redness which eventually resolve. AHAs can increase sensitivity to sun damage and so it is strongly recommended to use SPF alongside any AHA containing products. (To be fair, you should always be using SPF regardless!) Some people also prefer to use AHAs at night only.


Best for: Wrinkles and Fine lines

'Antioxidant’ is one of the buzz words of the health and skincare industry, but do you really know what they are? Ever cut an apple and left it out only to see it go brown? This is oxidisation in action. It’s an essential process that happens in the body which can also be harmful because it creates ‘free radicals’. In excess amounts, free radicals are damaging and destructing to cells and in terms of skin health, lead to premature ageing/ wrinkles/ loss of skin elasticity. Antioxidants are vitamins and minerals that can counteract the negative effect of free radicals that can accumulate due to external factors such as sun exposure, pollution, smoking and processed foods. Aside from their effect on skin cells, free radicals also play a major role in cancer, heart disease, eye disease, Alzheimer’s dementia and many other chronic diseases. It is therefore vital that you get your antioxidants from your diet as well as your serums and moisturisers!

Potent anti-ageing antioxidants in skincare:

Vitamin A/ Retinol

Retinol is a type of Vitamin A commonly thought of as the ‘miracle’ ingredient in skincare. When applied to the skin, it is broken down into retinoic acid which stimulates collagen production, increases cell turnover and leaves your skin looking younger and smoother. It’s best used for acne and hyperpigmentation as well as signs of ageing. On sensitive skin, retinol or retinoids (a more potent prescription version of retinol) can cause redness and irritation, so it is advised to approach cautiously if you are new to them by starting with a lower concentration. Retinols are best used at night as sunlight is thought to break down its structure.

Vitamin C/ Ascorbic acid

We’ve all heard of this one when we’ve had the cold/ flu or a hangover and it’s just as great for your skin. Vitamin C in skincare products has numerous benefits including skin brightening and evening out skin tone.

Vitamin E/ Tocopherol

Not only is Vitamin E another powerful antioxidant, it is also very moisturising and can protect against sunrays (although it shouldn’t replace actual sunscreen)

Green tea

Used for centuries in the East, drink it and massage it to see its full anti-ageing benefits!

Vitamin Q

You may have heard of Vitamins A, C, D etc but have you come across Vitamin Q? An antioxidant also known as Coenzyme Q10 or Ubiquinone, it is a substance already found in the body which plays an essential role in cell energy. As we get older, the amount of natural Vitamin Q goes down and cells become less efficient at fighting ageing. Replacing the Vitamin Q that we lose as we age will keep our skin looking younger for longer.

Beta Hydroxy acids

Best for: Acne prone/ oily skin

Beta Hydroxy acids, like AHAs, exfoliate the skin. In skincare, this ingredient is also known as salicylic acid. Whilst AHAs are water soluble and work on the surface of the skin, BHAs are oil soluble and penetrate deeper; helping to clear out clogged pores; hence they work best on oily /acne prone skin. As with AHAs, make sure to follow this up with SPF.

Hyaluronic Acid

Best for: Moisturising

H for Hydration, H for Hyaluronic acid. Even though it has acid in its name, it doesn’t exfoliate dead skin cells like AHAs and BHAs. We all have hyaluronic acid in our joints and tissues and in terms of skin, HA acts like a sponge, holding onto moisture. As we get older, we make less HA which leaves our skin dry, wrinkly and saggy. HA can help to keep it plump, smooth and reduce the appearance of wrinkles. Although it’s known to work well when used as an injectable filler, there are mixed reviews with regards to using HA in topical creams and serums.


Best for: Moisturising

Another great ingredient especially for dry skin is Glycerin, a humectant. Humectants are substances that preserve moisture and make the skin soft and supple. It’s used in lots of products and known to be suitable for all skin types.


Best for: Lots of different things!

A more recent addition to the skincare market, peptides have great potential as the anti-ageing ‘not-so-secret’ secret and have been said to mimic Botox. The building block of the skin is a protein called collagen, giving it its structure, firmness and texture. With age and environmental factors such as sun exposure, we lose our ability to replenish broken down collagen and hence our ageing skin.

Chemistry class flashback: Proteins such as collagen are made up of amino acids and peptides are smaller chains of amino acids. If proteins were bead necklaces, then amino acids would be each individual bead and peptides are essentially shorter necklaces. Different peptides tackle different issues with the skin such as correcting wrinkles, restoring firmness or maintaining hydration. This is why you may see so many different products with peptides of different names. Normally when collagen breaks down, causing saggy skin and wrinkles, it produces peptides. The body takes the presence of peptides as a sign that collagen is breaking down and in turn stimulates collagen production. So when you apply peptides on your skin, the body thinks this is a signal of collagen break down and starts collagen

production. Clever right?

What now?

You can find all these ingredients in lots of skincare products and treatments like masks, chemical peels facial regimes etc. With regards to your home skincare routine, the best way to get these ingredients is through your serum. The consistency of serums allows penetration deep into the skin instead of sitting on the surface like some heavy moisturisers.

No single ingredient is going to be the philosopher’s stone, despite what some products claim, so it is best to use a variety of antioxidants, acid exfoliants and SPF to achieve that youthful complexion.

Some personal favourites in terms of brand are The Ordinary, Medik8, Estee Lauder, Zein Obagi, Dr Dennis Gross and Sunday Riley (no conflict of interest) but remember we are all different and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you! Now that you have an idea about skincare’s tried and tested solutions, you can check out the ingredients in your serum and make an informed decision before handing over your hard-earned cash!

© 2018 - Dr Sophia Raj. All Rights Reserved.