How does a retinol face serum compare with alternatives? If you have sensitive skin, you may want to consider these retinol alternatives.
Retinol is traditionally regarded as the holy grail of OTC cosmeceuticals. As a derivative of vitamin A, retinol works by stimulating collagen production and targeting skin receptors known as nuclei acid receptors. It’s also associated with the coveted retinoid glow which refers to a lifted, plumped and tightened skin appearance. However, one major downside is that certain skin types do not tolerate it well, i.e. sensitive skin, skin of color. Those living in sunny climates also experience much higher rates of photosensitivity.
In this edition of skincare encyclopedia, we discuss 7 categories of retinol face serum alternatives that are suited for sensitive skin types.
Table of Contents
1. Naturally occurring sources of retinol
The best retinol face serum is found in nature’s actives
The brassica oleracea genus includes crucifierous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. These are natural sources of Vitamin A found in food. Applied on skin, the body possesses the ability to convert it via a two step process to reach its active retinoic acid stage.
The reason why naturally occurring sources are well tolerated and non-sensitising is because as a whole plant extract, it contains a myriad of other compounds that mitigate skin irritation. For instance, polyphenols with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and barrier repair effects. In addition, these protect the skin from UV damage, which further reduces the skin-sensitising potential of retinol.
2. Retinyl Palmitate
Retinol face serum for acne treatment (without skin purging side effects)
Retinyl palmitate undergoes 3 steps of conversion before it becomes retinoic acid, which means it is the least potent of all OTC retinoids. This is my top pick for sensitive skin, especially when it comes to active inflamed acne. Retinoids are helpful in the treatment of comedonal acne but is often blamed as the culprit for acne purging—it induces a pro-inflammatory response. Retinyl palmitate is the best retinol face serum active for acne prone individuals. Here’s why:
Exfoliates skin cells to reduce pore clogging and comedone formation
Examples of key peptides that can be found in face serums:
3. Acetyl Hexapeptide
Acetyl hexapeptide is also known as topical botox— it works directly on the nerve junctions. Specifically, it blocks the release of acetylcholine. This means it reduces the muscle contractions involved in our facial expressions. It also has a remarkable safety profile, as it does not penetrate beyond the uppermost layers of skin. However, acetyl hexapeptide containing creams have been shown to improve wrinkles by up to 48% within 4 weeks of twice daily treatment.
The case for peptide serums: anti wrinkle effects
One major limitation of retinol use is around the eyes and lips. These are what dermatologists refer to as mucosal areas which means the skin is thinner and also more prone to irritation. This is why many who use retinol containing eye creams develop sensitivity with time.
Peptides are considered well rounded actives which mimic what is naturally found in skin. It’s also known as nature’s very own anti-wrinkle ingredient—for good reasons too. The best part about peptide serums is that they act holistically. Apart from anti-wrinkle effects, peptides are retinol alternatives that also help stabilise the skin microbiome. This is because they function as anti-microbial peptides (AMPs) which are small, naturally occurring molecules on skin that kill harmful germs that cause skin infections.
Vegan retinol that’s suited for sensitive skin
Bakuchiol is derived from the seeds and leaves of psoralea corylifolia. It’s also described as a functional analog of retinol—which means it activates the same nucleic acid receptors as synthetic retinol. This has been validated in studies which show similar gene expression profiles. Remarkably, the side effects associated with traditional retinols are also absent, as it is with other plant sources of retinol. The whole plant extracts include antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that mitigate signs of skin irritation such as redness, stinging and flaking.
Remember adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule you learnt about school? Adenosine is the amino acid present in ATP itself. When it comes to skincare, adenosine was first observed for its ability to penetrate the human stratum corneum. Later scientists realised that it was also an effective anti wrinkle ingredient in skincare. Specifically, it was tested in clinical studies which showed that it significantly improved frown lines between the brows and also crows feet.
DERM’S PRO TIP: When describing wrinkles on the face, the correct terms would be
Between the brows : corrugators
Around the eyes: crows feet
Around the mouth: nasolabial
7. Sea buckthorn oil
A blend of fatty acids, micronutrients and vitamins with skin regenerative properties that targets all signs of photoaging
This is a lesser known active that deserves its spot on our list of retinol face serum alternatives. The secret to this anti-aging skincare active is in the balanced composition of fatty acids that mimic the natural lipid ratio of the skin barrier. Specifically, the ratio of linoleic to oleic acids that make up the ideal composition for barrier repair. Sea buckthorn oil has a high linoleic to oleic acid ratio and is particularly rich in unsaturated fatty acids such as omega 6 and omega 7.
The second key feature that makes it an excellent retinol face serum alternative is its proanthocyanidin content. These are highly bioactive compounds which target the key source of aging—free radical damage. Free radicals are highly unstable molecules that are formed by environmental stress such as UV radiation and pollution. They are well established in the photoaging process as molecules which actively reduce skin integrity leading to collagen loss, wrinkle formation and skin discolouration. Proanthocyanidins effectively scavenge free radicals, improving skin resilience.
SKIN EXPERT FAQ
What is the best alternative for retinol face serum?
@booksbydr.twl Retinol is traditionally regarded as the holy grail of OTC cosmeceuticals. As a derivative of vitamin A, it works by stimulating collagen production and targeting skin receptors known as nucleic acid receptors. It’s also associated with the coveted retinoid glow which refers to a lifted, plumped and tightened skin appearance. However, one major downside is that certain skin types do not tolerate it well, i.e. sensitive skin, skin of color. Those living in sunny climates also experience much higher rates of photosensitivity. In this edition of skincare encyclopedia, we discuss 7 categories of retinol alternatives that are suited for sensitive skin types. 🏷What is the best alternative for retinol Is there a natural alternative to retinol Are retinol alternatives as good as retinol Which is safer than retinol? Do retinol alternatives work Natural retinol home made #beautytips#sgbeauty#tiktokshopsingapore#selfcare#tiktokshopsg#sgtoktok#sgdoctor#dermatologist#tiktoksg🇸🇬#skincareroutine#skincaretips#skincare101#skincareproduct♬ original sound – Beauty Books By Dr.TWL
If you have suffered retinol allergies before, you may find yourself searching for alternatives. Here’s my list of retinol alternatives:
Also consider actives with retinol-like effects on skin aging such as
Is there a natural alternative to retinol face serum?
Plants can be a source of natural retinol. For instance, the cruciferous vegetables are sources of natural retinol which do not irritate skin because these are whole plant extracts which also have anti-inflammatory effects unlike synthetic derivatives.
Are retinol face serum alternatives as good as retinol?
The truth is retinol is only as effective as…how well you tolerate it. It simply isn’t true that as long as the dose is low, as long as you skin cycle—that you won’t get side effects. What you can do instead to to switch out of retinol to other alternatives. Retinaldehyde for example is well tolerated even by those with sensitive skin because it requires a 3 step conversion process, which is gentler on skin.
Which is safer than retinol?
Peptides are recommended especially for those with sensitive skin and or a known history of retinol sensitivity/allergy. For areas such as around the eyes or the mouth area, the skin is thinner and may be more vulnerable to irritation. Look for eye creams that contain natural sources of retinol such as brassica or retinol alternatives such as peptides.
Do retinol face serum alternatives work?
Yes. Studies have shown that oligopeptides have equivalent effects as retinol does, sans skin irritation risks.
Is natural retinol home made?
No. Natural retinol refers to plant-based or botanical sources of retinol. Examples are bakuchiol, rose hip seed oil, carrot seed oil and sea buckthorn oil. Proper distillation processes are essential to ensure purity of the product and efficacy.
What does retinol face serum do for the face?
Retinols belong to the family of retinoids which stimulate cell renewal and collagen production. Retinol face serums are over-the-counter cosmeceuticals, distinct from prescription retinoids. The key differences are that retinols are less potent than retinoids and require a longer period of use before results are seen.
Is it good to use retinol face serum everyday?
It depends on how well you tolerate it. If you are using a retinol face serym product for the first time, it is advisable to start at a lower frequency i.e. 2-3 times a week or as directed by the manufacturer. Different formulations of retinol also confer different tolerability levels, so it is best to do a patch test before you apply to the entire face. For example, under the jawline, left on overnight is good practice. Check for signs of irritation such as redness, flaking, stinging or burning.
Remember to only use retinols at night because of its sunsensitising potential. Application of sunscreen and sun avoidance is also advisable.
Which retinol is good for beginners?
The dose of retinol affects how effective it is but the benefits are also limited by its tolerability.
The lowest doses of retinol begin at 0.01-0.03%. It is good practice to start at the lowest doses if you have never used retinols before. Moderate-strength retinol ranges from 0.03% to 0.3% which gives faster and more dramatic results. The highest doses range from 0.3-1% which should be reserved only for those who have tolerated lower doses.
What are the side effects of retinol face serum?
Most commonly, local skin irritation such as redness, burning, stinging and flaking. Some individuals have true retinol allergy which results in a more exaggerated response. Care must be taken not to apply retinol formulations close to the eye area unless specifically formulated for that region.
Should I use retinol or retinoids?
If you already use retinol, prescription retinoids may be an option for highest efficacy. However, bear in mind that sensitisation can still occur. This is why at the pharmacy, our formulations are all retinol-free. Instead, we focus on non-sensitising retinol alternatives such as bakuchiol, sea buckthorn oil and oligopeptides.
Firstly, skin cells actually “exfoliate” naturally—at its own time. The movement of skin cells from bottom layers to the surface, is also known as cell differentiation, which occurs during the skin cycle. The trouble is with aging, the skin cycle lengthens. The layer known as the stratum corneum accumulates dead skin cells—that’s when skin looks dull.
The Wrong Way to Exfoliate
So beauty brands came up with ways to get rid of dead skin—literally by scrubbing it off.
Sadly, that’s not how skin works. By scrubbing skin down like sandpapering wood, skin actually gets irritated. It turns red, before it starts to flake and finally. It becomes angry.
Skin’s revenge dress (if the scrubbing goes on long enough)
That’s not the end of the story. When the dust settles (just call it dead skin)—she actually decides to grow new skin cells. But it’s not what we wanted. Instead of fresh, baby soft skin, you get layers of thickened, dark skin. What dermatologists term at first as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH for short) becomes lichenification—the development of a tree bark-like skin texture.
@drteowanlin How To Glow Up in 1 Day Dermatologist Edit- Let’s get to the root cause of dull skin, So we all desire skin radiance translucency elasticity clarity by the way. That’s me too. You must first understand one thing- dull skin is caused by a combination of factors. First, external factors like PM2.5 pollutants, UV damage all cause free radical stress also known as surface aging. At the epidermis,the first layer of skin, dead skin cells also accumulate, known as retention hyperkeratosis, lack of moisture can also cause dull skin. At the second layer, collagen loss and antioxidant depletion occurs with age, worsening the problem. The all-in-1 copper peel comprises of 3 stages Stage one: hydrodermabrasion with antioxidant essences, which essentially is using the power of vacuum to gently physically exfoliate and infuse antioxidants into the skin. Stage 2: You apply the peptide based gel mask included in the kit and microcrystalline copper ions begin to stimulate collagen production while resurfacing skin. The peptides also have a wrinkle-smoothing effect, as they relax the facial muscles and also act as natural Antimicrobial peptides, known as AMPS—that help build a healthy skin microbiome. Actives like vitamin C and propolis further creates the ideal skin healing microclimate for optimal results. Get my free newsletter Skincare Blueprint: Glow Up From Within & skincare routine checklists customised to your skin type 👆🏻 How to glow up in 1 day How to glow up in 1 week #instantglowingskin#sgdoctor#dermatologist#sgtiktok#instantglowing#instantglowup#homefacial♬ original sound – Dermatologist Dr.TWL – Dr.TWL Dermatologist
Enter Chemical Peels
Glycolic, lactic and salicylic acids are must-haves in a dermatologist’s office. For a good reason—these actually do exfoliate in a way that doesn’t damage skin barrier the way physical scrubs do. Chemical peel acids work at a microscopic level, which means it specifically dissolves the bonds between the surface skin cells known as corneocytes. The result? Renewed, baby soft, smooth skin that will make you glow and others too—with envy.
The downsides to chemical peels: side effects are real
Sun sensitivity occurs commonly with chemical peels. As does skin irritation i.e. redness, flaking—as a result of a disrupted skin barrier. The concentration of the peel acid, the duration it’s left on skin affects how intense the effects are. Hence, higher concentration peels (the most effective) must be performed under medical supervision.
The microdermabrasion facial miracle
So when microdermabrasion came on the scene, it was celebrated as a gentler alternative to medium/deep chemical peels, sans side effects. A technology based on crystal/diamond resurfacing, microdermabrasion facial combined the benefits of vacuum assisted topical delivery with skin resurfacing to enhance absorption. But boy, was it messy. It wasn’t as straightforward as the inventors had made it out to be—crystals flying around…even in the crystal-free systems aka diamond microdermabrasion, it still required skill operators in-office and took 30-60 minutes.
Enter new gen microdermabrasion facial systems
In the mid 2010s, Korean medi-facials took off with vacuum only skin resurfacing techniques which focused on minimal epidermal disruption and maximum antioxidant delivery.
Home Face Peel that Works:
A microdermabrasion facial system for sensitive skin types
Dr.TWL Biomaterials Copper Peel System was launched in 2020 as a revolutionary copper oxide based microcrystalline handpiece with the ability to exfoliate, infuse and repair the skin barrier all at once. Designed for use with the 360 Amino Acid Gel Mask, it delivers a suite of benefits in a single application
Peptides for anti-wrinkle effects
AMPs as a natural microbiome stabiliser
Propolis for anti-inflammatory, antioxidant shield
Adaptogens for skin resilience
Want radiant skin? Remember to exfoliate—correctly.
Bite-Sized Beauty features visuals, skincare hacks and skin science in short form. Written by Dr Teo Wan Lin, author of Skincare Bible: Dermatologist’s Tips on Cosmeceutical Skincare, a complete beauty bible in an easy-to-read FAQ style. Subscribe to Skincare Blueprint: Glow Up From Within for insider tips on skincare routines. Discover skincare courses by Dr.Teo Wan Lin.
What sensitive skin teaches one about skin intelligence
As a complete ecosystem, the skin plays host to diverse microorganisms collectively known as the microbiome. Barrier function is a critical component of skin health that ensures the survival of good germs, effective cell communication and self-regulation. Healthy skin barrier function in turn requires ceramides which are key constituents of the skin barrier and which we explore in this article.
Sensitive skin isn’t really all that allergic, it all boils down to an impaired skin barrier
Decades ago, atopic dermatitis was interpreted as a predominantly allergic type skin condition—it’s true. Sufferers tend to be allergic to house dust mite, pollen and VOCs. They also have associated conditions under the umbrella term of the “atopic triad”—asthma, allergic rhinitis/hay fever.
Then, studies emerged which showed that eczema was really due to a deficiency in filaggrin gene expression—a fact already established in conditions such as icthyosis vulgaris. This led to impaired ceramide production, which meant that the epidermis became “leaky”. Out of this emerged the brick and mortar model of the skin barrier— the bricks are superficial skin cells known as corneocytes, and the fatty lipids which join the corneocytes together, the cement. This lipids known as ceramides could be replenished with ceramide-dominant moisturisers which fill the “gaps” between the bricks.
When sensitive skin is treated with barrier repairing moisturisers, it becomes less reactive to environmental triggers.
The Art of Replacing Like for Like
Over 340 types of ceramides exist within the human stratum corneum alone. The composition of which is varied. From the 12 classes identified researchers conclude the following:
The basic ceramide structure is composed of:
Sphingoid base joined to a fatty acid via an amide bond
Beginning at the bottom most layer of the epidermis, the stratum basale
Ceramides are made within the endoplasmic reticulum
Golgi apparatus: sphingomyelin
Converted to sphingomyelin in the Golgi apparatus
Packed into secretory vesicles (bubble-like)
Multiply & differentiate
These vesicles multiply as skin cells (keratinocytes) differentiate and move towards the surface of skin
The bubbles burst and release sphingomyelins
Sphingomyelins converted back to ceramides
Packed into secretory vesicles (bubble-like)
These vesicles multiply as skin cells (keratinocytes) differentiate and move towards the surface of skin
The bubbles burst and release sphingomyelins
Sphingomyelins converted back to ceramides
Ceramides, free fatty acids & cholesterol are compacted into layers in the stratum corneum to form the skin barrier
Bite-Sized Beauty is a short-form feature emphasising visuals that impart skincare hacks and skin science in a digestible format.
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Are you searching for the best vitamin C serum formulation for your skin type? Which vitamin C serum do dermatologists recommend? The ideal formulation follows certain criteria which we will go through in this article.
We will begin with the science behind how a vitamin C serum works.
The Science Behind The Best Vitamin C Serum Formulation
L-ascorbic acid is the active molecule from raw vitamin C which works on skin. It is also highly unstable, meaning it gets oxidised rapidly upon exposure to environmental oxygen. Once it is oxidised, it is rendered useless. By default, all vitamin C serums are packaged in an amber glass bottle to minimise oxidation by light as well. The best vitamin C serum formulations get around this problem by:
Increasing the concentration of L-ascorbic acid to ensure there is still a sufficient amount that works on skin taking into account the oxidation process
Ensuring the companion ingredients have anti-oxidant properties i.e. green tea extracts can synergise and boost the effectiveness of L-ascorbic acid
Instead of L-ascorbic acid, vitamin C can be formulated as a salt known as sodium ascorbyl phosphate (SAP) which is highly stable and resistant to oxidation
In the case of sodium ascorbyl phosphate (SAP), its functional form is still L-ascorbic acid. It is absorbed via the epidermis and when it reaches the dermis, the enzyme phosphatase transforms it to L-ascorbic acid in a one-step conversion. There is hence no atmospheric related oxidation and the effectiveness is preserved. Clever, isn’t it?
The concentration of L-ascorbic acid does matter. When L-ascorbic acid is chosen as the active vitamin C compound, concentrations generally are at 20% to take into account environmental loss. However, this also means that the formulation becomes acidic and can irritate sensitive skin. For SAP on the other hand, concentrations at 4-5% are sufficient because there is minimal to no risk of oxidation as it is a stable salt. In fact, concentrations of just 1% have been shown to inhibit the acne-causing bacteria, cutibacterium acnes.
Acne purging can be a nightmare—it’s also a myth that acne treatments cause purging. It occurs mainly with retinoid treatment. Microcomedones form under the surface of skin 2-4 weeks before they appear, and retinoid therapy drives the comedones to the surface. The beneficial effects occur when it increases skin cell turnover, so there is less follicular plugging.
But here’s the problem. Retinoids are also pro-inflammatory. Which means it causes acne flare-ups. Before it even gets to work, we see the side effects first. But here’s a secret—certain botanicals can treat acne without the purging side effect. Berberine for example treats acne by suppressing inflammation and comedone formation. It also regulates sebum production and reduces post-inflammation hyperpigmentation which means your scars heal faster.
This refers to the sensitising potential of vitamin C. As an acidic compound, it can irritate skin when concentrations are too high especially when applied to sensitive skin types. This is why vitamin C serums should not be applied to areas of active eczema, raw or broken skin. The exception is with acne bumps and cysts, as vitamin C itself creates a beneficial antioxidant environment that prevents acne bacteria from proliferating.
Vitamin C also prevents the oxidation of sebum, which contributes to comedone formation. However, when sodium ascorbyl phosphate is used, there is minimal to no risk of irritation. This is because it is a stable salt and the concentrations used are lower. Unlike L-ascorbic acid, there is no need to take into account environmental oxidation.
What’s in the ideal vitamin C serum?
It is important to include synergistic actives such as
Certain botanical extracts have an anti-inflammatory effect on skin. For instance our pharmacy’s formulation contains camellia sinesis, sage extract, brassica and belamcanda chinesis root extracts which also create a profound antioxidant environment to enhance the efficacy of the product.
We know the importance of an intact skin barrier—a damaged skin barrier leads to conditions like eczema and dermatitis. But did you know the skin barrier is also a barrier to absorption? This is why dermatologists are concerned with enhancing transdermal absorption, which refers to the ability of cosmeceuticals to cross the skin barrier into the deeper layers of skin such as the dermis where it exerts its effects on target cells.
Humectants i.e. sodium hyaluronate
Occlusives i.e. castor oil
Hyaluronic acid is a well known humectant, which means it traps water under the skin. It is a hygroscopic molecule which means it attracts water and in fact is known to hold 1000 times its own weight in moisture levels. The ideal vitamin C serum formula should contain a humectant which can also be polyglutamic acid or glycerin as this enhances the effects of vitamin C on skin—by creating a moist environment it increases epidermal permeability. This enhances absorption of vitamin C via the skin barrier. Plant-derived oils like castor also facilitate transdermal absorption by increasing the overall occlusivity of the product.
You may have heard of wet wrap therapy which refers to using layers of wet fabric on top of moisturisers to enhance absorption of skincare. Sheet masking is a concept based on this technique as well. But did you know that when formulating skincare, ingredients can also be paired in order to boost its effectiveness? For instance, vitamin C paired with humectants and occlusives can be better absorbed via the epidermis. When paired with botanicals, it can enhance the overall anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on skin. For acne prone skin ingredient pairing can also help regulate sebum production.
Natural moisturising factors i.e. amino acids methionine
How Vitamin C Can Be Used to Treat Acne Purging
Vitamin C serums are underrated, especially when it comes to treatment of acne. I generally don’t recommend application of vitamin C serums on areas of raw or broken skin—but the exception really is with inflamed acne bumps and cysts. Here are the reasons why.
Inflammation Related to Sebum Oxidation
Firstly, the type of inflammation in acne is slightly different from what occurs in eczema or areas of injury. It’s inflammation that’s driven by an oxidative process, namely from oxidation of sebum. Acne prone skin tends to produce excess oil, and this isn’t just uncomfortable. It’s actually driving the inflammation which makes acne flare-ups worse.
Infection/Colonisation with C. Acnes
Acne is also associated with bacteria—in particular Cutibacterium acnes. Vitamin C serums create an anti-oxidant environment which inhibits the growth of this bacteria. This means vitamin C serums can be used for acne prevention and long term maintenance treatment as well.
Speeds Up Wound Healing
Vitamin C is essential for collagen production and wound healing. Acne scars develop as a result of inflammation. The commonest type of scar is known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and fades with time. Using a vitamin C serum can reduce melanin production and this also has a brightening effect on skin.
Deeper acne scars known as ice pick or box car type of scars are due to dermal scarring, for eg due to an acne cyst or an infected acne papule. Since vitamin C stimulates collagen production, it can encourage proper wound healing and reduce the risk of developing acne scars
Ingredient Pairing Notes
Vitamin C paired with EGCG results in a complementary effect via the following mechanisms.
Focus on Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG)
EGCG is a well known polyphenol found in green tea. It is primarily regarded as an anti-oxidant ingredient, but it also enhances skin barrier repair. Specifically, by the following mechanisms:
Enhancing the expression of natural moisturising factor-related genes filaggrin (FLG), transglutaminase 1, HAS-1 and HAS-2
Prevents free-radical damage associated cell death by downregulating caspases
A study by Eunji Kim in 2018 found that EGCG exerted a positive effect on skin moisture levels, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation via the above.
Why are antioxidants important in antiaging?
First understand how and why aging occurs. External causes also known as extrinsic aging refer to environmental factors such as UV, air pollution and particulate matter like PM2.5. Intrinsic aging refers to biological aging which occurs because of cell senescence, essentially, when cells grow older they become sleepier. They lose functions gradually until they stop working altogether which is when cancerous cells develop. Aging also causes skin cells to lose moisture, which is why actives like hyaluronic acid are important. HA increases skin moisture by regulating genes known as hyaluronic acid synthase (HAS). Retinoic acid (vitamin A) also effectively regulate HA in the epidermis
What are natural moisturising factors? How are they affected by UV damage?
NMF are composed of HA and filaggrin, which directly or indirectly affect the skin moisture barrier. NMF themselves are regulated by factors which are not clearly defined. However we know that components of NMF are affected by UV radiation. This is a possible pathway that For example, hyaluronidase which breaks down HA is highly altered by UV radiation. When EGCG is added, it prevents the breakdown of cells caused by UV-damage.
How does pairing vitamin C with EGCG improve overall efficacy?
One of the key ways vitamin C works is by engulfing free radicals generated by UV-damage. It is an antioxidant, which means it fights the oxidative stress. However, L-ascorbic acid itself is also susceptible to UV-damage and when it undergoes oxidation, it will become ineffective. Pairing vitamin C with EGCG preserves the integrity of L-ascorbic acid or SAP formulations as it stabilises the vitamin C extract itself.
In the next tutorial, you’ll learn aboutenhancing serum absorption, how to properly apply serums and the correct steps to include in your skincare routine. Learn to maximise the benefits of vitamin C serum in your skincare regimen and make every skincare step count. Do you want more skincare tips like this? Subscribe to Skincare Blueprint to receive detailed tutorials in your inbox weekly. Follow Dr.TWL @drteowanlin on Instagram & TikTok.
Hormonal acne is mostly associated with adult women diagnosed with polycystic ovarian disease. However, all acne is actually hormonal in nature. Except in teenage acne, we consider that physiological. The surge in testosterone in both males and females triggers the production of sebum. In those who are genetically prone, acne develops. The dermatologist recommended acne skincare routine for all subtypes of acne is standard. The key principles are:
Stabilise the microbiome with a good balance of bacteria
Regulate oil production instead of drying skin out
Reduce inflammation to prevent new formation of pimples
Encourage quick healing of pimples to reduce scarring i.e. post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and deeper dermal scars like ice pick, box car type scars
Fungal acne skincare routine
Fungal acne is a misnomer. Fungal acne is actually not acne at all. It’s folliculitis, which is inflammation of the hair follicles. It can be associated with infection, but most of the time it is an immune reaction that occurs. Pityosporum folliculitis is the accurate scientific name for fungal acne. The fungus in this case is a yeast known as malessezia furfur, which is a commensal on healthy skin. This means that it lives on human skin without causing any problems. However, in those who have too much of this yeast, a condition caused by genetics, environmental factors such as excess heat and humidity, the fungus causes this acne-like condition.
The condition can occur on the forehead, near the hairline and also the jawline. It can look quite similar to comedonal acne. When around the jawline, it is sometimes mistaken as hormonal acne. Treatment is with anti-dandruff shampoos applied on the scalp to reduce the population of yeast on the scalp. Prescription anti-dandruff shampoos include ketoconazole, also known as Nizoral. However, these can be quite drying and sensitising when used long term. Non-prescription anti-dandruff shampoos are helpful for long term treatment and maintenance. These contain zinc pyrithone, salicylic acid which helps to inhibit the growth of the yeast. When the dandruff symptoms improve, fungal acne around the face will also resolve.
In more severe cases or when there is an overlap with true acne conditions, oral medications may be necessary. Oral erythromycin, doxycycline prescribed exert an anti-inflammatory effect which works well for both fungal acne and acne vulgaris itself. For severe cases, oral isotretinoin which stops all sebum production may be prescribed. However it is important to note that oral isotretinoin itself can disrupt the balance of skin bacteria. The disturbances in the skin microbiome can cause folliculitis as well. Seek medical advice if you think you have been affected.
The best acne skincare routine explained by a board-certified dermatologist, including tips on managing hormonal acne.
Acne skincare routine step #1
How it works:
A gentle, hydrating and oil balancing cleanser
The goal of an acne skincare routine is to harmonise the skin microenvironment. Acne is genetic and driven by inflammation as well as excess sebum production. Addressing the latter 2 factors is the goal of an ideal acne skincare regimen.
Options: botanical emulsifiers and amino acid surfactants are gentler options of acne face washes compared to SLS-laden cleansers.
If you wear makeup, double cleansing is necessary. Choose a milk or emulsion makeup remover cleanser for the first step. Milk cleansers are preferred over micellar face washes for acne prone skin because of the following:
Gentler and leaves moisturising layer
Easier to remove without friction on skin
Makeup wipes are detrimental for acne prone skin. The harsh surfactants damage the skin barrier.
Antioxidants like vitamin C change the skin microenvironment. Lipid peroxidation is due to increased sebum on skin of acne-prone patients. This process worsens skin inflammation and formation of whiteheads/blackheads. When comedones get infected, red bumps like papules emerge. Acne cysts are when the papules get infected at a deeper level, causing the skin cells to form a wall around the infection. This requires injections with intralesional steroids like triamcinolone. But in serious cases when the cyst recurs over many months, surgery may necessary.
Acne skincare routine step #2: How vitamin C serums work for acne treatment
The bacteria Cutibacterium causes acne. Reducing growth improves acne flare-ups.
Hyaluronic acid is a humectant molecule that attracts moisture from the environment and traps it under the skin. Moisturising oily acne-prone skin is important because it sends a signal to skin to regulate oil production. Oily skin occurs when there is excess stimulation of the oil glands known as sebaceous glands. When oily skin is stripped of moisture with strong lathering agents, the skin barrier is also damaged. This triggers sebaceous glands to produce even more oil, a condition known as reactive seborrhea. It is a paradoxical condition whereby oily skin feels dehydrated and tries to compensate.
Acne skincare routine step #3
Non-irritating pimple cream with anti-inflammatory ingredients
Traditional acne treatments involved creams that dried up the skin barrier. The idea that oily skin is the cause of acne is outdated. In fact, dermatologists know acne is caused by a combination of genetics, excess oil triggered by hormones at puberty, bacteria and inflammation. Benzoyl peroxide, tea tree oil and salicylic acid all dry up the skin. However, it worsens inflammation. This may be the reason why you find your acne bump redder, more inflamed after applying your acne cream.
Retinoids are usually prescribed for comedonal acne. However, retinoids worsen inflammation and should not be applied on actively inflamed acne bumps like papules and cysts. This is one reason why individuals experience acne purging.
Topical antibiotics should be avoided, i.e. erythromycin, clindamycin. These quickly breed resistance and lose effectiveness. Combinations with benzoyl peroxide, also known by trade names Epiduo commonly cause irritation. A side effect known as irritant contact dermatitis is actually due to skin barrier damage. Antibiotic resistance can also be a serious problem
Choose botanical actives that treat inflammation. Berberine, chlorella and argan oil are the actives used in our pharmacy recommended acne spot creams. Berberine in particular acts on multiple pathways. It is naturally antibacterial without the same risks of antibiotic resistance common to topical antibiotics. There are additional benefits which include antioxidant properties, this makes the acne bacteria less likely to thrive. In addition, anti-inflammatory effects help the pimples resolve faster. There is also an effect on comedogenesis. This means that blackheads and whiteheads are less likely to form. The key advantage is the absence of irritating side effects which are associated with traditional acne creams.
Acne skincare routine step #4
I recommend pimple patches as spot treatment. First of all it helps to reduce picking and squeezing. There are many other benefits:
Reduces inflammation with antibacterial effect
Encourages healing with the ideal skin microenvironment
Rapid healing means a lower risk of scarring
Hydrocolloid patches that come with infused medicated oils or essences can irritate skin, avoid these. Choose plain hydrocolloid patches or ideally, one that is formulated with skin barrier repairing ingredients like glycerin. The hydrocolloid patch from our pharmacy contains glycerin and urea. Urea is a keratolytic which means it breaks down dead skin cells. In acne, there is retention of keratinocytes which are dead skin cells—this leads to comedone formation via a process known as follicular plugging.
Acne skincare routine step #5
Moisturising mist, emulsion
A moisturising mist or emulsion is the best moisturiser for oily, acne prone skin types. Cream formulations or ointments are too heavy on oily skin to be comfortable. Definitely avoid paraffin, common in skincare trends known as slugging. That occludes skin and increases flare ups of acne.
Look for these ingredients in your facial mist:
Botanical extracts like rice bran
UV protective antioxidants i.e. portulaca oleracea
Layer your emulsion or face lotion with facial mists:
Use your facial mist before, after or anytime in between your skincare steps
When used before and after facial lotions, it increases absorption of moisturising skincare actives
The ideal face moisturiser for acne prone skin should contain
If you are using prescription retinoids, it may not be enough to just use sunscreen. It is wiser to also practice sun avoidance. However here are some important things to bear in mind when choosing a sunscreen for acne-prone skin:
Easily absorbed, does not leave a sticky residue
In general, sunscreen is quite a tricky skincare product for those who suffer from acne. It is true that some sunscreens can worsen acne. This is because of the oil vehicle as well as chemical sunscreen components which sometimes irritate areas of broken skin. My best advice is to sample sunscreens if you are not sure. The sunscreen formulation at our pharmacy has been tested on those with acne prone skin with good clinical outcome.
The ideal acne skincare routine is one that addresses the following
Skin hydration levels to repair skin barrier damage
Treats the acne microbiome to reduce growth of bad bacteria
Regulates oil production to prevent excess oil on skin
Anti-inflammatory to reduce comedone formation, post inflammatory hyperpigmentation and scarring
All these strategies are important for long term treatment and prevention of acne. Medical treatment must be used in conjunction with an acne skincare routine as maintenance therapy.
Weekly skincare routines (up to thrice weekly)
Exfoliation addresses the build up of dead skin cells. Physical exfoliation with abrasive beads damage the skin barrier and are especially bad for those with active acne. Instead choose chemical exfoliation or enzymatic exfoliation. Acids such as glycolic, lactic and salicylic acids target cell renewal and inflammation. However, in sunny climates depending on where you live can cause photosensitivity. Using sunscreen is essential. A newer form of exfoliation exists—which is my preference. Enzyme peels based on papain and bromelain, these are derived from papaya and pineapple respectively. Besides breaking down and exfoliating dead skin cells for skin radiance, enzyme peels for acne also have additional benefits of reducing inflammation, scars and have minimal side effects.
Masking in acne prone individuals is mainly to improve skin barrier function. This can help to regulate oil production. However there are added functions when certain active ingredients are included:
High doses of Vitamin C
This is possible in a wash off gel mask, as leave on formulations like vitamin C serums tend to have lower concentrations. Overall, an antioxidant rich skin treatment can help reduce growth of acne causing bacteria.
Botanicals in face masks can synergise to improve the skin microbiome and reduce inflammation.
I developed the mask peel range to address both exfoliation and masking in 1 step. There are no abrasives and natural botanical extracts are selected to maintain optimal skin health by strengthening the skin’s immune system—a concept known as skin resilience.
Textiles are a new advancement in skincare. I discussed this in my paper—as a good therapeutic option for those with acne-prone skin. Biofunctional textiles help to reduce the growth of bacteria without causing antibiotic resistance. Additionally the release of ions such as copper nanoparticles from materials embedded in pillowcases can also improve scars and reducing formation of acne marks.
Incorporate blue light LED therapy Into your acne skincare routine
Blue light for acne is one of the most underrated treatments. The reason being, it is traditionally offered in dermatologist’s offices and the costs per treatment could really add up. Let me go into how blue light works. Essentially, research shows that twice a week 30-minute durations of blue light therapy in-office for a month, confers antibacterial effects similar to traditional oral medication therapy for acne.
Hand-held devices do not produce sufficient energy for treatment and LED face masks without eye protection could be dangerous for the eyes. Consider latest designs which are modelled after in-clinic machines but created for home users. An example is the AURORA light therapy machine for acne which has a small footprint and includes options for treatment of body acne and acne scarring.
Frequently asked questions
Skincare routine for acne-prone sensitive skin
Acne-prone sensitive skin needs to be understood this way. There are 3 potential problems going on:
Eczema/dermatitis caused by a damaged skin barrier
We understand this to be a multi-factorial condition which is affected by genetics, bacteria, excess oil producing and hormonal factors.
Eczema/dermatitis caused by a damaged skin barrier
Those with both acne-prone and sensitive skin may be suffering from side effects of acne treatments. Topical retinoids and retinols commonly prescribed for acne also damage the skin barrier. This can result in sensitive skin reactions such as burning, stinging, pain, flaking and redness.
Sometimes it is not acne. Rosacea and perioral dermatitis can look similar—this is why visiting a dermatologist is important. Medical treatments are slightly different. If your acne-prone sensitive skin does not seem to get better—get a specialist diagnosis.
This article caters specifically for those with acne-prone sensitive skin. The skincare routine steps are applicable for all skin types. If your condition is moderate-severe, topical skincare alone may not be sufficient. You will need adjunct medical therapy. However, an acne skincare routine is still essential for long term maintenance and prevention of flare-ups.
Am and pm skincare routine for acne prone skin
Apart from sunscreen use in the daytime only, there are no differences in the am and pm skincare routine for acne prone skin according to the regimen prescribed here.
An acne skincare routine is an essential component of acne treatment. If your acne is moderate-severe, or you have co-existing, overlapping skin conditions such as sensitive skin, rosacea or perioral dermatitis, you may wish to consult a dermatologist for a clinical examination and diagnosis.
Navigating skincare routine steps can be confusing. In this article, our founder board-certified dermatologist and author of Skincare Bible Dermatologist’s Tips for Cosmeceutical Skincare shares her blueprint for minimalist regimens. Understand the purpose behind each step and get maximum results. Discover how skin type affects your skincare routine steps, products to use and learn exactly how to build the best regimen for you. Included are tips on selecting plant actives suited for various skin concerns such as acne, hyperpigmentation, oily skin, wrinkles and skin sensitivity.
Build a purposeful skincare routine with these steps:
Table of Contents
Skincare Fundamentals With Dr.TWL
The following is applicable for both day and night skincare routine steps. For night time skincare, you may omit sunscreen, and also add on application of a sheet mask and eye cream. Targeted treatment of spots such as with prescription creams containing retinol/retinoids or hydroquinone should also typically be applied at night in order to reduce the risk of photosensitivity.
Day and Night Skincare Routine Steps
Double cleansing is a 2 step process which involves first removing makeup and sunscreen, followed by a second cleanse. The first cleanse focuses on oil soluble pigments, sebum, grime whereas the second step is focused on removing the residue. The primary goal of cleansing is to restore the healthy skin microbiome—a balance of good and bad germs. However, it is equally important to respect the skin barrier. An ideal double cleansing regimen should not strip the skin of moisture. Rather, it should cleanse skin and restore moisture levels.
Skincare Routine Step 1 Makeup removal
There are two options for makeup removers. The first is a micellar formulation. The second, an oil-based cleanser or an emulsion, sometimes known as a “milk” cleanser. I will go through the pros and cons of each but first let us define some terms.
Micellar water works by hydrophobic (water-hating) and hydrophilic (water-loving) properties of a micelle. The makeup residue is attracted to the water-hating aspect, this is best thought of as a ball that is wrapped up which continues to roll on skin grabbing the residual pigment and dirt. To remove the ball which is a micelle, you use a cotton pad. Friction or rubbing is inevitable and this can be harsh for sensitive skin
Pure oil cleansers are often too greasy, my choice is an emulsion or a milk cleanser. Milk cleansers are oil in water formulations, the oil component dissolves makeup pigments and removes excess sebum. The “like for like” principle here is that oil soluble pigments are dissolved in a similar substance—an oil in water emulsion.
The benefits of an emulsion are that it is less greasy than pure oil formulations. It is also effective as a humectant if formulated with moisturising ingredients. When you physically rub off the makeup on a cotton pad, the oil component protects your skin. It acts as a barrier between the cotton pad and skin, hence reducing friction unlike with micellar solution.
Skincare Routine Step 2 Second cleanse with a lathering agent
This step is best paired with a natural emulsifier like honey or soy, or similar botanical emulsifiers. The process of generating a foam can help improve the cleansing experience, so users feel thoroughly cleansed. However, using chemical lathering agents like laureth sulfates can strip the skin of natural moisture and cause dysregulation of oil production. This can sometimes lead to the oily dehydrated skin phenomenon. Amino acid based lathering agents are also gentler on skin.
Skincare Routine Step 3 Serum application
Serums deliver high concentrations of water soluble actives such as hyaluronic acid and vitamin C. The reason why an all-in-1 skincare cream does not work well is because the entire process of skincare layering creates a moist skin healing environment, which is not achieved with the traditional cleanse-tone-moisturise regimen. Important skincare actives to look for:
Multi-weighted molecular hyaluronic acid has benefits because it can act on multiple layers of skin and activate different targets.
Stabilised forms of vitamin C include L-ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbyl phosphate or magnesium ascorbyl phosphate. L-ascorbic acid is acidic and can cause irritation to sensitive skin. For this reason, I usually recommend vitamin C serum formulations based on the latter ascorbyl phosphate compounds. Sodium ascorbyl phosphate also is effective at lower concentrations.
The effects of vitamin C are as follows:
Antioxidant environment to fight free radical stress caused by environmental damage (UV, air pollution)
Treatment of acne (reduces skin inflammation by inhibiting lipid peroxidation in acne-prone, oily skin)
Skincare Routine Step 4 Emulsion/Lotion
The equivalent of a day moisturising cream is a lotion or emulsion formula which is lightweight, feels comfortable on skin throughout the day and is quickly absorbed.
The oil-in-water texture is the ideal day moisturiser because it maintains effectiveness while reducing any uncomfortable sticky sensations. Some important active ingredients like ceramides and also water soluble actives like plant antioxidants show increased absorption when in an oil vehicle. The oil-in-water formula is hence ideal.
Skincare Routine Step 5 Facial Mist
Many consider this to be optional, but it is actually a key step to increase penetration of all the skincare actives. The concept of sheet masking is really wet occlusion therapy which means applying products on damp skin and creating a moist microclimate enhances skincare absorption. The outermost layer of skin known as the stratum corneum naturally impedes absorption of skincare actives, enhancing permeability is hence an important principle in effective skincare routine steps.
The ideal facial mist should contain hyaluronic and polyglutamic acid, as these are hygroscopic molecules that help trap moisture under the surface of skin. Ultimately this prevents transepidermal water loss, which is a key problem in dehydrated skin.
For day skincare routine steps, I will usually wait 2-3 minutes for the facial mist to fully absorb before applying sunscreen. The ideal sunscreen formula should possess the following properties:
SPF 50, broad spectrum
Compatible with natural skin color (for asians and other skin of color individuals, a white-cast is unpleasant and will affect compliance. I.e. insufficient product use can lead to lower sunprotection)
Lightweight, easily absorbed, cosmetically appealing tor reapply
Optional Skincare Routine Step: Face & Eye Cream application
For daytime, oily and combination skin types will do well with the day moisturiser lotion alone. However dry skin types should use a moisturiser cream formula containing ceramides both day and night. In the case of a day skincare routine, the cream should be used before sunscreen. Ideally, it should be left on to be absorbed for 3-5 minutes to minimise sunscreen or makeup pilling.
For night time, all skin types including oily and combination skin will benefit from using a ceramide based moisturiser.
It is also important to use a targeted eye cream to reduce fine lines and wrinkles. The key actives in eye creams can include
4% Niacinamide (skin barrier repair and skin lightening)
Actives like prescription retinoids, hydroquinone and OTC retinol are to be used at night. This is to reduce the risk of sun sensitivity. Generally, retinoids can be used over an entire area, avoiding the part around the eyes and lips as the skin is more sensitive. Hydroquinone is a bleaching agent which should only be used on pigmented spots or as per physician’s directions.
Weekly treatment routine
It is also a good idea to include in your weekly skincare routine steps a day or two for exfoliation and masking. Masking can be done as frequently as daily, although that would also depend on the individual’s preference. I cover some points on exfoliation and masking in this final section.
Weekly Skincare Routine Step #1 Exfoliation
Exfoliation Is the removal of dead skin cells from the top most layer of skin, but most importantly, a process that encourages cell renewal. It’s also important to understand the skin cycle here, the entire process from new skin cells moving to the surface and shedding it takes about 27-28 days. Exfoliation helps remove the dead skin cells to reveal younger, brighter and more radiant skin.
There are two main types of exfoliation. Physical exfoliation using granules or abrasive beads which I don’t recommend, especially for sensitive skin or those with active inflamed acne. Chemical exfoliation with AHAs, BHAs and lactic acids exfoliate microscopically and can improve skin irregularities.
Home use chemical exfoliants: the most important aspect is a low concentration that does not irritate skin and also a formulation that has moisturising effects on skin to reduce the risk of irritant contact dermatitis.
Weekly Skincare Routine Step #2 Masking
The concept of face masks are twofold:
Creating a micro-climate around your skin that enhances skin healing and stimulates beneficial processes like collagen production and cell talk
Wet occlusion therapy which increases the absorption of skincare active ingredients by improving epidermal penetration. I.e. the ability of the cosmeceuticals to cross the skin barrier is important for efficacy.
There are 4 main types of face masks
Sheet masks (reusable or one-time disposable)
Leave on gel masks (high dose antioxidants like vitamin C, skin barrier repair actives like aloe, glycerin)
Dry masks (polymers like silicone, hydrocolloid that create an artificial micro-climate around skin)
Textiles (face masks, pillowcases engineered from novel nanomaterials like copper that exert anti-aging effects on skin).
I recommend using leave on gel masks together with reusable sheet masks made of polysaccharide for ideal results. Dry masking can be implemented simply by switching to biofunctional textiles for your pillowcase for instance.
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Ceramides for skin is one of the most important ingredients in your moisturizer, well known for their ability to repair and maintain the skin barrier. In fact, ceramide is a natural lipid present in our skin barrier. Is it important to add ceramide moisturizers for dry skin or other skin conditions?
The skin on our body is often neglected. This is a mistake because skin ages uniformly. What this means is that you would expect similar characteristics in aged skin whether it’s on the face or on the body. This undermines the importance of overall good health. For example, doctors consider that organ systems like your heart, lung, brain, liver, kidney and gut must function well for your entire body to be in an optimal state of health—that is true for the skin too. In fact, many of these internal organ conditions manifest as skin symptoms first—this is the case for instance in a condition we term pruritus.
What are ceramides?
They are lipids present in the epidermis, or the top layer of the skin, that are important for skin barrier function.
Why are ceramides important for skin?
You may have heard about ceramides for skin barrier—essentially these are the bits of cement that joins the bricks together in the well-known brick wall model of skin.
Maintain the structure of the skin, important for skin barrier function
Prevent water loss from the skin
Changes in skin ceramide associated with skin disease like atopic dermatitis
Should my moisturizer have ceramides for skin?
Phytoceramides are a rich source of natural lipids that mimic the skin barrier. In the last two decades, dermatologists have shifted their research focus on dry skin conditions such as eczema. From the allergy perspective to the current understanding of skin barrier deficiency, we have come a long way in uncovering how an intact stratum corneum does more than just serve as a physical barrier against the external environment and allergens. In fact, a healthy skin barrier plays host to a myriad of organisms we consider the microbiome, which is essential to healthy skin function. From the immune system to its ability to fight off oxidative stress, the entire skin ecosystem acts in concert for healthy, resilient skin.
Beneficial for those with eczema, or atopic dermatitis
Most ceramides beauty brands refer to are synthetic or animal sources, i.e. bovine in origin—which is also a concern for those preferring a vegan lifestyle. Dermatologist Dr. Teo Wan Lin’s top pick for ceramides is a lesser-known subtype known as phytoceramides. These are botanically derived from plant seed oils and the most prominent phytoceramide of all is shea butter. Derived from the shea tree, shea butter provides a rich source of natural origin plant-based ceramides that can repair the skin barrier effectively.
Benefits of phytoceramide skincare
Enhance hydration better than synthetic ceramide
Improve the recovery rate of damaged stratum corneum
Ceramides are the best ingredient for your moisturizer. Read on to find out the benefits of ceramides in your skincare
Types of ceramides
Animal sources, i.e. bovine
Vegan source, i.e. phytoceramides
Botanical, plant seed oils, shea butter
Sunflower oil, moringa and meadowfoam seed oil
Fatty acids, phytosphingosine repair the skin barrier
Most importantly, scientific studies in recent years have actually shown the benefits of using phytoceramides in skincare formulations. Specifically, natural oils are sources of fatty acids and a compound known as phytosphingosine which directly repair the skin barrier. Shea butter, sunflower oil, moringa and meadowfoam seed oil were observed to improve the recovery rate of damaged stratum corneum and enhance hydration even better than synthetic ceramide versions. Benefits include increased hydration as well as improved immunological function, partly because of anti-inflammatory properties inherent in botanical actives.
Moisturizers with ceramides
TheMulti-CERAM Ceramide Moisturiser is an ultra intensive skin moisturiser for skin barrier repair. It is an ideal ceramide moisturizer for dry skin and sensitive skin, and has anit-inflammatory properties for skin barrier repair. Dermatologist formulated moisturizer for eczema, dry sensitive skin and to prevent skin ageing. Botanically derived anti-oxidants to improve the appearance of cellulite. Suitable for face and body.
Glowing skin isn’t a myth. It’s achievable with the right products incorporated into your skincare routine. Dr.TWL’s encyclopedia of skincare routines is a distillation of her expertise as a dermatologist and also chief scientific officer of clinical skincare brand Dr.TWL Dermaceuticals. In this first installment, we cover one of the most frequently asked questions about skincare routines: how do you get glowing skin?
Table of Contents
Ep 1 Skincare Routines 101: How to Get Glowing Skin
We’ll begin with the science:
The anatomy of glowing skin
This is the key to an instant glow—select skincare products that target strategic layers of skin. Let’s break down what exactly makes skin glow, by first explaining what causes dull skin. With that we’ll understand the anatomy of skin, before we begin to talk about how to get naturally glowing skin.
The epidermis is the top most layer of skin. Dull skin is due to reduced skin cell renewal rates, which is directly related to skin age. That is why youthful looking skin is described as radiant. This is due to healthy cell turnover rate. The corneocytes are the superficial skin cells which are retained on the skin surface. This results in skin dullness. The moisture content of skin also affects glow—dry skin is due to increased loss of water to the environment. This is also known as trans-epidermal water loss. Hydrating the skin, enhancing healthy cell turnover rate are ways to achieve glowing skin at the level of the epidermis.
The dermis is the second layer of skin and is primarily composed of elastin and collagen. Both elastin and collagen content are also lost with aging skin. On the surface it looks like reduced plumpness and elasticity of skin. By restoring plumpness and elasticity, skin appears taut, lifted and also adds to the illusion of glowing skin from within.
Overall health, blood circulation
Inside out beauty is for real. Skin is supplied by blood vessels transporting nutrients that feed it. If you are in an optimal state of health, your skin will be too. A plant-based diet rich in antioxidants will ensure that your body has sufficient antioxidant reserve to fight free-radical damage.
Formulation of skincare products
Skincare products can be understood this way:
The vehicle (cleanser, lotion, serum, cream, mask) which determines texture and function
Cleansers work at the level of the epidermis. The rest are leave-on products which can penetrate deeper into the dermis and achieve desired effects on skin.
Active ingredients for glowing skin
Skincare active ingredients such as hyaluronic acid and polyglutamic acid are glycosaminoglycans which penetrate deeper into skin at the level of the dermis. There are multiple biological effects including enhancing skin barrier function, encouraging healthy immune system regulation. These all essential to achieve a glowing skin effect.
In the next section, I’ll teach you how to get glowing skin with 5 of my best glowing skin hacks, including tips on how to choose the best skincare products for instant glow effects.
If we had all the time in the world, I’m sure we would be applying skincare products all day long, just kidding. As a dermatologist, I prioritise efficient skincare routines. So here’s the deal, my list of 5 glowing skin hacks crystallises top tips for achieving glowing skin in under 3 minutes, in under 3 steps with 3 products or less.
Skincare Routine Steps for an Instant Glow Facial At Home
Cleanse & peel in 1 step for glowing skin
Glowing skin tip #1:
I wet my face, apply a pea-sized amount of a brightening cleanser (natural emulsifiers like those honey-based or with soy/botanical emulsifiers work). Then, I use home skincare device with a microcrystalline copper oxide tip for gentle microdermabrasion. It works with vacuum technology and the microcrystalline tip exfoliates skin on a microscopic level, similar to what a chemical peel does.
The science behind this is that skin dullness is not just caused by retention of dead skin cells, but also because of surface oxidative stress caused by pollution. Thorough cleansing itself removes the pollutants and instantly restores the glow. The key is to cleanse effectively with the help of technology, I prefer microdermabrasion or hydrodermabrasion over sonic cleansing but you would do well to use both really.
Best serums for glowing skin
Glowing skin tip #2:
Use serums religiously in your skincare routine if you desire to achieve glowing skin. The two best serums for glowing skin are hyaluronic acid and vitamin c serums. Use a vitamin C serum after cleansing, when your skin is slightly damp. This enhances absorption of the serum. Vitamin C is an antioxidant which means it eats up the free radicals generated by environmental damage on skin. UV exposure, PM2.5 pollutants, these directly cause oxidative stress on skin which causes skin to be dull.
If you have dry sensitive skin, be careful with this though. I would choose sodium ascorbyl phosphate or magnesium ascorbyl phosphate over L-ascorbic acid formulations because the latter can cause irritation due to increased acidity of the skin environment. Don’t mistake skins dryness for dullness—in this case you’ll actually need to repair the skin barrier (see 3.) The best hyaluronic acid is a multi-weighted molecular formula that targets both layers of skin. The epidermis, where it has a humectant function. The dermis, where it targets cell activity and signalling. The latter known as cell talk.
Use a moisturiser that contains peptides, botanicals and niacinamide
Glowing skin tip #3:
If you aren’t in a hurry, apply a palm-sized amount of your favorite moisturiser and let it absorb for at least half an hour (I usually get on with my tasks at home!) Also apply a damp cotton towel over your skin if you’re taking a nap—this will increase the absorption of the moisturiser which will guarantee your skin looks doubly radiant when you wake up.
Facial mists are the most underrated skincare step in my opinion. Face mists are an in between skincare step, which means it can be applied anytime. Unlike the rules of skincare layering which means the most lightweight goes first, i.e. serum, lotion, emulsion, moisturiser/mask. Facial mists can act as a boost to any skincare step by dampening the skin environment which makes skincare absorption more effective.
Polyglutamic acid can hold 5X the weight of water compared to hyaluronic acid, but is less commonly found in skincare because it is more expensive. Botanicals are commonly used in K-beauty facial mists, these help to fight surface free radical damage. I usually spritz on right after cleansing and again after moisturiser before I apply any makeup. I also use it throughout the day to hydrate my skin.
The facial mist is a multifunctional skincare product I highly recommend, I use it to cleanse my skin for touch-ups—water itself is a solvent and when paired with a micellar makeup remover pad it is sufficient to remove makeup. Makeup wipes are bad for skin and definitely won’t give you a glow. They are usually formulated with harsh surfactants that will disrupt the skin barrier.
Glowing skin also needs a little help sometimes-use a BB or CC cream
Glowing skin tip #5:
If you’ve followed all the above steps, you are well on your way to achieving the coveted glowing skin look. But, truth be told, the glowing skin sported by our favorite K-pop celebrities also comes with a little help, in the form of K-beauty makeup. To be clear, I’m not talking about layering full face foundation, loose powder and all.
What I’m referring to is skincare makeup, also known as the BB and CC creams which contain active ingredients in the makeup itself. The valuable aspect about incorporating skincare in makeup is that it literally boosts your skincare regimen. Your foundation sits on your skin the entire day plus it makes us all a bit more confident when we get to conceal our flaws.
BB creams and CC creams—we inherited these terms courtesy of K-beauty but the western beauty brands like Chanel and Dior have also caught up in a big way the last couple years. I’ve seen updated formulations from european brands which look a lot more similar to K-beauty CC creams in the last year for instance. My preference is always for skincare makeup that is loaded with antioxidants because they literally brighten your skin by zapping the free radical stress away.
Welcome to my skin diary! As a dermatologist, you may imagine that I do get asked about my best skincare tips A WHOLE LOT. But if you watched my video on lazy girl cooking hacks, you may have discovered by now that I value efficiency. You know, as a former fencer, speed to me, is really everything (epeeists are also known as the…slowest). So in this series, I decided it’s time to get brutally honest about whether I practice what I preach. I’ve distilled it down to just 5 things I swear by–rain or shine, busy or not.
(I think you’ll find it interesting).
Introducing the compilation…The Lazy Derm’s Best Skincare Tips for Everyone
#1 Cleansing begins with understanding skin types
Choosing the right cleansing regimen is the most important part of any skincare routine
Don’t just cleanse, cleanse mindfully
This means using either a very gentle washcloth (unless you have extremely dry/sensitive skin) a reusable soft microfibre pad can help attract the particulate matter settled on skin. PM2.5, airborne pollutants are known to accelerate skin aging and worsen skin conditions like acne. Cleansing is the most important step in any skincare regimen because it directly targets the skin microbiome.
When the skin microbiome is disturbed, skin conditions like acne, rosacea, eczema result.
How to up your cleansing game:
Add a cleansing device
Sonic technology, microdermabrasion are some clinic technologies that have now been adapted for home use.
Besides being eco-friendly, it’s also a quick and cost-effective way to quickly up your skincare regimen.
#2 Best Skincare Tips for Lazy Girls
Don’t use a toner. Use facial essences instead
Aren’t they the same? They may look similar but they aren’t. The traditional cleanse-tone-moisturise skincare mantra is passé. Toners of the past were marketed as being astringents to remove excess oil. However, this is a terrible skincare faux pas. These days, we know that oily skin isn’t to be dehydrated like a greasy wok. Oily skin can be dehydrated as well. It’s a paradox, but not really.
Here’s the science: skin knows it has to regulate itself. Those who are born with genetic tendencies to develop greasy/oily skin tend to produce more sebum at the onset of puberty. The key is to regulate oil production and not to superficially remove oil like an astringent toner does. Instead, doing so leads to a dehydrated-oily skin phenomenon. A situation in which skin feels greasy from the inside and looks dehydrated, flaky and inflamed on the surface.
Use a facial essence
K-beauty inspired facial essences are water-based. Water itself is a fantastic astringent/cleanser on its own—without stripping skin dry. This is why our skin feels cleansed after a bath. For the same reason dermatologists advise applying water compresses to wounds to gently cleanse and remove exudates.
Face mist hack
I completely eliminate toners in my skincare regimen. Instead, my facial mist is multi-purposed as an on-the-go cleanser, toner and moisturiser. I choose one that is free of potentially irritating skincare actives like AHA, BHAs and retinol. The formulation should include a mix of different hydrating ingredients such as glycerin, sodium hyaluronate, polyglutamic acid and also antioxidants. In this case, especially in summer climates, I simply spray on my face mist right after cleansing and I’m done!
#3 Want to know a dermatologist’s skincare hack?
The best skincare tips from dermatologists are free, really.
Use your favorite moisturiser as your sleeping mask
THE SKINCARE SCAM All sleeping mask formulas are the same as moisturisers, as these are leave-on rather than wash-off ingredients. They work by absorbing onto the skin to produce moisturising effects.
Are overnight masks more effective?
It really depends on the formulation. Overnight masks are really just moisturisers. Sleeping masks could possibly be more effective because it contains richer active ingredients that repair the skin barrier. It also has to do with the amount you apply. Directions to use for sleeping masks usually involve applying much more than your regular moisturiser.
Leaving a topical on the skin for more than 12 hours for example, it would be important to first ascertain suitability of the ingredients, preservative and vehicle, including concentrations and types, and all of the components being intended to be applied on the skin for an extended period and not as a wash off. It is really a good marketing invention, because this encourages people to apply the proper amount of moisturiser, which is a really liberal amount, overnight, as during the day they may not be as inclined to because of whitish cream residue that may be seen under makeup.
If the active ingredients contain irritating substances such as lactic, salicylic, glycol acids or retinols, one could actually develop skin irritation or skin allergies from masking over an extended period. Most topicals would be fully absorbed into the skin within a couple of hours, so it’s not necessary to leave something on overnight. It is more important to consider that a liberal amount of a good moisturiser is used during sleep, as that is when the skin repairs itself.
#4 Beauty Sleep is Seriously Underrated
I am obsessed with sleeping 8-9 hours a day. This dermatologist says: do not disturb (my sleep). If you need a takeaway from this article, this is it—the best of all skincare tips I have for you is to SLEEP. It’s essential to being alive, by the way. And I don’t meant to sleep at 2 am and wake up at 2 pm. To be beautiful (and healthy) you need to follow the circadian rhythm. Like the cicada…you know? Bugs?
Is beauty sleep real? I guarantee it. During the sleep cycle, skin cells work to repair damaged DNA. We all know about the sunscreen doctrine—how it prevents UV rays from damaging skin cells by preventing oxidative stress. But did you know that skin does repair its own damaged DNA? This is why the older you get, the higher the risk of developing skin cancer. Biological and chronological aging slows down the DNA repair process. Sleep helps to rejuvenate cell mitochondria, which are the powerhouses of skin cells. There is scientific evidence that backs up skin dullness and lack of radiance in sleep-deprived skin—and it isn’t psychological.
How I wake up with good skin
Sleep by 9 and wake by 6 am
Your biological clock follows the circadian rhythm—which is the sun rise and sun down pattern. Our body’s physiological processes follow that too. This ensures your cells are optimally rested and can focus on fighting the bad guys (pollution, stress, UV damage) in the daytime.
Choose cooling bedlinen
If you live in tropical humidity like I do (Singapore, land of crazy hot), you know your body heats up when you sleep. Pure cotton works well, choose higher thread counts which are gentler on skin. Your pillowcase makes a difference—use silk pillowcases or in my case I use one with copper silk which gives extra anti-aging skin benefits.
Consider sleeping without A/C
This may be heretical for some—I used to be an aircon worshipper too. But it’s also true that A/C is bad for those with allergies, asthma and eczema. It dries out the skin barrier and it’s no different when you sleep. Sleep with a fan—that’s better for your skin and healthier for the environment too. Your skin will wake up feeling more moisturised (without sleeping masks, it’s free!).
FUN FACT ABOUT ME: I have a sleep journal
I am an avid dreamer—and I think that also means I sleep deeply. I have wacky dreams most of the time, and it also gives me insights into problems I face in the day. But more than that, I look forward to sleeping every night—it’s like catching up on a new episode in dreamland!
#5 Get Your Heart Pumping
That rounds up my list of my best skincare tips. If you have no time for serum, facials or mists—I understand, just don’t forget to keep your body in good shape. Your heart does a good job of caring for your skin and plays a big part in my skincare tips.
Most people wrongly assume the best skincare tips involve skincare products/facials. Skin is an organ, much like any other organ of the body. When you are healthy, your skin will be too. Twenty minutes each day isn’t too much to ask for, especially if you are already committed to a skincare routine. The post-workout glow is real—the increased blood flow benefits the entire body and also stimulates the cell powerhouses. This is one way to instantly anti-age your skin—it does work, according to studies!
(For those who suffer from dermatological conditions like acne, rosacea, eczema, medical therapy may be necessary. This post talks about general skincare tips for those seeking to maintain healthy skin.)
Did you enjoy my compilation of the top 5 skincare tips on my radar? Do leave a comment below and let me know!
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Want to know what a dermatologist’s 5-Step DIY Home Facial Steps looks like? Here’s a hint, it’s also what I call my K-beauty medifacial hack — for all skin types!
The concept of a facial isn’t quite defined by science. From the layperson’s perspective, it can be a cleanse/extraction/mask treatment at an aesthetician’s. At a dermatologist’s office, this can include laser facials/chemical peels or a combination of procedures. Dermatologists generally don’t recommend extractions as this causes worse inflammation and scarring. K-beauty popularised medical facials are a form of microdermabrasion (hydrodermabrasion) that exfoliate and infuse nutrients into skin simultaneously. Home facial devices can mimic certain technologies well these days. For instance, we have microdermabrasion and radiofrequency technologies integrated in hand-held devices. Chemical peels with gentle fruit enzyme peels like papain and bromelain are safe even for sensitive skin to use at home when formulated correctly.
But are facials actually effective? What makes an express facial for that matter. Is it even a thing? Can we hack the process at home?
Skincare Hacks and Home Facial Steps
5-Step Korean Medifacial Secrets is an educational feature brought to you by Skin Master’s Academy (International) in partnership with Professional Skincare Tools Series by Dr.TWL Dermaceuticals. For details, you may check Dr. Teo Wan Lin’s book Asian Beauty Secrets available in hardcover, paperback and kindle format.
Dr.TWL coaches you in the art of advanced skincare routines. Specifically, what goes on behind the scenes in medifacials. Learn how you can hack the top quality facial expression in the convenience of your own home. Or if you are thinking of offering services in your beauty salon/spa, she teaches you what beauty tools you ought to have in your arsenal. Hint: they are few, and you can get these on a budget too. Let her coach you in the home facial steps you need to follow, plus equipment you need to replicate the ideal K-beauty worthy medifacial experience in the comfort of your own home.
Learn Dr.TWL’s skincare secrets
Home Facial Steps to follow like a skincare pro
The secret of aesthetic clinics
Few types of clinical grade facials you can “hack”
Replace Chemical Peels with Gentler Enzyme Peels
Tips for instantly radiant refreshed glowing skin
Replicate your medifacial experience at an aesthetic clinic or spa
What happens during a medifacial?
Step 1: Cleansing: brushless type of sonic cleanser reduces frictional damage in sensitive skin; recommended for use with antioxidant lotions infused during facial (Blade Style Sonic Cleanser)
#1 Home Facial Steps to follow like a skincare pro
Gather your tools. You’ll be surprised how a few good quality beauty tools will deliver the entire evidence based home facial that will rival that of your beauty salon’s set up, and even an aesthetic spa!
The secret of aesthetic clinics
The rise of aesthetic practice in Asia was a phenomenon fuelled by K-beauty. Korean celebrities with impeccable glass skin and even every day men and women on the streets became the envy of all their Asian counterparts. What was their secret?
Well, there is indeed a science-backed reason for this phenomenon. Dermatology clinics were highly accessible in South Korea, and professional skincare was the norm for the everyday South Korean. As a dermatologist, I’m going to spill the beans on how the medifacial experience can be exactly replicated in the comfort of your own home, the complete home facial steps at less than a fraction of the cost, thanks to the advances in home beauty devices.
There are a few types of clinical grade facials you can “hack”.
#2 Home Facial Steps: Hack Chemical Peels with Gentler Enzyme Peels
Chemical peel for instantly radiant refreshed glowing skin. Dermatology practices use a mixture of glycolic, salicylic or lactic acids in different concentrations for chemical peels performed in office. These require application for 3-5 minutes before the peel is neutralised or cleansed with water. These concentrations are not appropriate for home use and in the case of countries like Singapore, are not approved for use in a home setting.
Enzyme peels are the best “hack”. Fruit enzymes from papaya and pineapple have been proven in recent dermatology research to possess gentle yet effective exfoliant properties with additional anti-inflammatory benefits. Papain and bromelain are the active enzymes used in such formulations and are suitable even for those who have sensitive skin, because of its innate moisturising and anti-inflammatory properties.
#3 The Authentic Home Facial Steps to Follow
Replicate your medifacial experience at an aesthetic clinic or spa
What happens during a medifacial? Let me break it down for you in easy to follow home facial steps which can be replicated with choosing the right beauty devices*.
*This segment offers advice on the generic design and technology of beauty devices that can simulate the in clinic facial experience. Individual brand quality may vary for devices purchased from the marketplace.
Step 1: Cleansing
Start your home facial steps with sonic cleansing.
The brushless type of sonic cleanser, with a blade or scrubber design is what is used in dermatology practices and can be purchased over the counter from various marketplaces (although the quality may differ). The popular brush style or silicone sonic cleansers are not chosen because it can increase frictional damage in sensitive skin and is less compatible with antioxidant lotions that are infused during the facial. There are 2 modes for the sonic cleanser used in the clinic. Used in the first direction with a gentle cleanser for ultrasonic removal of dirt, airborne pollutants, excess oil and grime.
Step 2: Toning
The opposite direction should allow for dispersal of a facial cosmeceutical essence mist which essentially functions as a toning step. Ensure your facial essence does not contain astringents like alcohol or alpha hydroxy acids, salicylic acids. Apply the essence on the skin after cleansing and follow with the toning step.
Step 3: Microdermabrasion
Microdermabrasion should be applied in the next home facial steps. There are 2 main types of microdermabrasion technology used in aesthetic clinics and spas. Vacuum microdermabrasion AKA Hydrafacial-like to reduce swelling, inflammation of acne prone oily skin as well as traditional diamond microdermabrasion which is more suitable for photoaged skin with wrinkles and irregular skin texture, rather than inflamed skin. Those with acne scars will benefit from microdermabrasion provided there is no active acne present. Those with active acne must avoid diamond or other types of abrasive dermabrasion technologies.
Here is how to hack this experience:
1. Blackhead suction devices are not good for much other than its vacuum function- and dermatologists actually do not find that a meaningful intervention for blackheads. However, it is the vacuum pressure that is helpful for increasing absorption of your selected antioxidant solutions. My top tip on this is to select the best cosmeceutical essence you can find, with primarily botanical based actives like CICA, Portulaca Oleracea, vitamin C derivatives and moisturising humectants like hyaluronic acid, polyglutamic acid and glycerin.
2. The diamond dermabrasion hack is not as readily available. In fact, this is one of the areas of our materials research we focused on in 2019, where we created the ideal low irritation copper oxide based dermabrasion tool to mimic the diamond peel experience. The structure of the crystal ensures safety during home use in contrast with the diamond tip used in aesthetic clinics, while achieving effective dermabrasion at the skin surface. Apply your gel mask before using the dermabrasion tip.
The Universal Beauty Bar was created as a home use countertop device that replicates the entire Korean AquaPeel or HydraFacial experience. It comes supplied with the facial antioxidant solutions.
Step 4: Microcurrent/Electroporation followed by serum application
The next step of my recommended home facial steps revolve around microcurrent, which is one of the best inventions in home use beauty technology in my opinion. Unlike lasers, which need to be operated by trained staff and can cause skin sensitivity, microcurrent technology delivers instant radiance and tightening with low level electric currents. A suitable home microcurrent device can be used to replicate this part of the medifacial, which allows for electric muscle stimulation of facial muscles to increase collagen formation. This lifts and tightens skin instantly by working on the deeper facial tissues.
After this is the right time to apply your favourite serum. My 3 must have ingredients are vitamin C (I use sodium ascorbyl phosphate over L-ascorbic acid for its lower irritation potential), hyaluronic acid and also a form of resveratrol (trans-resveratrol from the Japanese knotweed plant is incorporated in our in-house anti-ageing serum).
Step 5: Photofacial LED Therapy and Masking
The final of the home facial steps is the most important of all as it is what delivers the immediate impeccable skin glow – red light therapy is delivered via an office use machine (not hand held devices). Available models in the marketplace include the original k-beauty omega light which is rather bulky but performs well. Our in house home photofacial LED machine is a significant upgrade with better efficacy and functionality.
Red light therapy directly stimulates mitochondria and jumpstarts cell energy. This is what gives skin the glow. Red light also reduces any existing skin redness and inflammation. If you suffer from acne, blue light can be added at this stage as well. The important aspect is to apply a cosmeceutical gel mask during the procedure, as this will allow the antioxidants to penetrate the skin deeply.