Understanding the Essential and Non-Essential Skin Care Products


When you walk down the skin care aisle, you’re greeted with an overwhelming array of products promising to improve your skin. But which ones do you really need and which ones can you skip? Are “clean” cosmetics worth the extra cost? And is sunscreen truly that important? In this article, we’ll address these questions and more, offering insights from a team of dermatologists at UCSF.

MYTH #1 — Maintaining Healthy Aging Skin Requires a Complex and Expensive Skin Care Routine

Contrary to popular belief, a simple drugstore moisturizer is the most crucial product, aside from sun protection, for healthy aging skin, according to Dr. Katrina Abuabara, an associate professor of dermatology at UCSF. Moisturizers play a critical role in protecting the skin barrier, which becomes increasingly compromised as we age.

As our skin is exposed to toxins, allergens, and pollutants over time, the skin’s ability to act as a barrier declines. This can lead to low-grade skin inflammation, resulting in symptoms like redness and dryness. Inflammation in the skin may also spread throughout the body, leading to systemic inflammation and potentially serious health issues.

Applying moisturizer can help prevent skin inflammation, and there is ongoing research to determine if it can alleviate inflammation-related problems beyond the skin. In fact, a study conducted by UCSF dermatology professor emeritus Dr. Peter Elias suggested that applying Vaseline petroleum jelly to mice reduced inflammation levels in their blood. While it may not be a cure for dementia, moisturizer is a cost-effective and simple option that can be considered as part of elder care.

When choosing a moisturizer, opt for products with high moisturizing power, such as ointments and oils. Creams are also effective, followed by lotions and gels. The choice ultimately depends on your individual dryness level and product preference.

MYTH #2 — Wearing Sunscreen All the Time Can Lead to Vitamin D Deficiency

While it’s true that sun exposure is a significant source of vitamin D, relying solely on the sun for this essential nutrient is not a wise strategy for sun protection, according to Dr. Lindy Fox, a dermatology professor at UCSF. Even with regular sunscreen use, most individuals receive enough unintended sun exposure to meet their vitamin D needs.

While experimental research suggests that sunscreen can reduce vitamin D absorption, observational studies indicate that everyday sunscreen use does not lead to vitamin D deficiency. However, it’s important to note that proper sunscreen application is essential. You should aim to apply at least one ounce (about the size of a shot glass) of sunscreen to cover your entire body and reapply every two hours if swimming or sweating.

UVA rays can penetrate through windows, so even if you spend most of your day indoors, you’re still at risk of sun exposure. Sun protection should be a daily habit, similar to brushing your teeth. Ensure that you apply sunscreen to all sun-exposed areas, including your face, chest, hands, and arms. Additionally, consider using sun-protective clothing, like rash guards and wide-brimmed hats, to supplement your sunscreen routine.

MYTH #3 — Darker Skin Tones Don’t Require Sunscreen Protection

People with darker skin tones still need sun protection, although their risk factors may differ from those with lighter skin, says Dr. Jenna Lester, the director of UCSF’s Skin of Color Program. Darker skin tones naturally have more melanin, which provides some protection against skin cancer. However, melanoma, although less common, is more fatal in individuals with darker skin who are diagnosed with it.

In terms of skin cancer prevention, sunscreen use does not seem to prevent melanoma in black patients based on current knowledge. However, it’s essential to recognize that sunscreen has other benefits for individuals with dark skin. Sunscreen use can help prevent pigmentary disorders, such as melasma, which causes dark patches or spots on the face. Additionally, regular sunscreen application can maintain an even skin tone and prevent other visible signs of sun damage.

MYTH #4 — “Clean,” “Natural,” or Organic Skin Care Products are Superior

Contrary to popular belief, products labeled as “clean,” “natural,” or organic are not necessarily better for the skin. In fact, these products often contain ingredients that can be harmful and cause skin issues. The terms “clean” and “natural” lack a standardized definition, and the ingredients in these products are often not well-studied.

An ideal skin care product, according to dermatologists, contains ingredients that are proven to be beneficial for the skin, effective through scientific research, and unlikely to cause allergies or irritations. Examples of such ingredients include retinoids for anti-aging, niacinamide for hydration and restoring the skin barrier, ceramides for moisture retention, and squalane for improved elasticity and reduced signs of aging.

When it comes to choosing skincare products, it’s important to prioritize scientific evidence and the known benefits of specific ingredients, rather than falling for marketing claims of “clean” or “natural” products.

By understanding these myths and truths about skincare products, you can make informed decisions about which products to incorporate into your routine. Remember, simplicity, effectiveness, and evidence-based ingredients should guide your choices for healthier skin.


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