Could moisturiser be making your skin worse?

By Ash 10th February 2021 Category: Advice
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Medically Reviewed June 2023, by Dr Benedetta Brazzini, for sk:n. Next review due June 2024.

What is a moisturiser?

From a scientific point of view, moisturisers are usually a mix of water, mineral and plant oils. They are designed to stop water evaporating from the skin. They usually include humectants, as these draw water from the air and hold it in the skin. Moisturisers make skin feel moist, and they relieve itchiness and tightness.

But what we are often told is something else entirely. Moisturisers, we are told, can reverse time, stop time or even defy time all together. We’re told moisturisers are here to make your skin look like a baby’s! But are we being misled?

Our moisturiser addiction

British women have a lot of faith in moisturiser, with 80% of women saying they use moisturiser daily. This is a big market, costing £549 million a year, and makes up to 59% of all skincare sales. However, could moisturiser be causing all this acne?

According to skincare company La Roche-Posay, 70% of women say they have dry, sensitive skin. Dermatologists revealed that it is not a coincidence, women think this; but adult acne is also one the rise. Indeed, they think that moisturisers may be contributing.

Dr Rachael Eckel, a cosmetic dermatologist, estimates that only 15% of women actually need a moisturiser. She said “Moisturisers are a widespread and silent traitor and an important contributor to skin disease,” and added that they lead to “the accumulation of dead surface skin cells, dryness, large pores, acne and sensitivity.”

“These are people who have genetically dry skin,” she said “They tend not to have visible pores and have dry body skin, with conditions like eczema.” According to her, the rest of us have normal skin, which doesn’t require a moisturiser.

What’s the harm?

Normally, the surface of the skin is replenished every six weeks. Around the time we reach 25, however, this process slows down. Dead cells tend to gather on the skin’s surface, so it feels rough and dull. When we notice this, we assume it’s caused by dryness, and so we buy a moisturiser.

This leads to the skin being less able to produce its own moisture. If you artificially saturate the skin surface with moisture, this sends a signal to cells to stop producing structures to store the moisture. The skin shrivels, and fine lines start to appear. The skin no longer produces its own moisture, and so it starts to feel tight after showering. We assume the moisturiser we have isn’t working, so we buy a thicker one. “What we really needed was an exfoliator.” Says Dr Eckel.

Moisturisers can also stick dead cells to the skin’s surface, she claims, and the oils can clog pores, contributing to acne and rosacea. These thick, oily moisturisers can also create the oxygen-free environment that acne bacteria love, whilst simultaneously killing off the natural, “friendly” bacteria that keeps our skin healthy.

clogged pores

Combat these effects

If you want to keep hydrated, you should do it the original way – drink more water. “Drink water one glass at a time rather than sipping.” says Newby Hands, Harper’s Beauty-Director-At-Large. “Start with three quarters of a litre per day and add a little each day. If you’re going to the lavatory all the time then the water is just not being absorbed by your body.”

Dr Eckel advises her patients to include gentle exfoliants and oil-free serums with vitamin additives – for example the anti-aging compound retinol – as part of their skincare regime. Retinol, she says, speeds up skin regeneration and triggers natural hydration.

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If you think your moisturiser could be making your skin worse, we offer free consultations with our dermatologists, as well as a range of acne treatments.

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