London - For most women, applying moisturiser twice every day is as automatic as brushing their teeth.
We’ve been brought up to believe a ritual of cleanse, tone and moisturise is essential to keep skin glowing and to keep wrinkles at bay. And of the three steps, moisturising is seen as by far the most important.
So strong is our faith that eight in ten British women use moisturiser daily. This costs us a huge £549-million a year, and adds up to 59 percent of all skincare sales.
But could the habit of slathering creams and oils over our faces actually leave skin drier and make us look even older?
According to skincare company La Roche-Posay, 70 percent of women say they have dry, sensitive skin. Yet, there is also an epidemic of adult acne, with 44 percent of women reportedly suffering spots.
Some dermatologists say this is not a coincidence.
“Moisturisers are a widespread and silent traitor and an important contributor to skin disease,” says cosmetic dermatologist Dr Rachael Eckel.
She claims moisturisers lead to “the accumulation of dead surface skin cells, dryness, large pores, acne and sensitivity” and that only 15 percent of us actually need a moisturiser.
“These are people who have genetically dry skin,” she says. “They tend to not to have visible pores and have dry body skin, with conditions like eczema. The rest of us have normal skin, which doesn’t need a moisturiser.”
Moisturisers are usually a mix of water and emollients, such as mineral and plant oils, which stop water evaporating from the skin - plus humectants, which draw water up from the lower layers to the surface. They make skin feel moist and relieve itchiness and tightness.
But, says Dr Eckel, in reality, moisturisers make the skin “lazy”, so it becomes less able to hydrate itself. This means we need more moisturiser to relieve dryness, creating an expensive, demoralising cycle.
Dr eckel explains: “Normally the skin’s surface is renewed every six weeks, but from age 25 this process slows.
“Dead cells gather on the skin’s surface, making it rough and dull. When a woman first notices this, she assumes it is caused by dryness, so buys a light moisturiser.
“The skin stops producing its own moisture and her skin starts to feels tight after the shower, so she buys a thicker moisturiser. But what she really needed was an exfoliator.”
Dr Eckel claims oil, including our own sebum, causes “detriment and disease” to the skin. It is water, she says, that makes our skin glow and feel moist: “We store water in the lower levels of the skin, in sponge-like structures called glycosaminoglycans (GAGs).
“This water is sealed into the skin by the skin barrier - layers of hardened, flattened skin cells, or stratum corneum. This top layer is like a brick wall, with cells the bricks, and a mix of water, fats and protein the mortar, keeping everything together and cells hydrated.
“In addition, the upper layer produces vital natural moisturising factors (NMFs) - amino acids, urea and lactic acid. These keep skin supple, protect us from UV light, maintain the skin barrier and regulate the skin’s natural exfoliation.
“If you artificially saturate the skin surface with moisture, this sends a signal to cells to stop producing GAGs and NMFs. The epidermis shrivels and thins, and fine lines start to appear.”
To add to our problems, Dr Eckel says moisturisers stick dead skin cells to the skin’s surface. And oils clog pores, contributing to acne and rosacea, a condition that causes bumpiness, redness, and spots.
Thick, oily moisturisers can also create the oxygen-free environment acne bacteria love, and kill off “friendly” bacteria that keep skin healthy.
Dr Eckel says the idea that moisturisers are anti-ageing is “flagrant mis-marketing” and that “up to 85 percent of moisturisers have zero evidence for their claims”.
Eckel puts patients on a skincare regime including exfoliants and oil-free serums with vitamins, such as the “superhero anti-ager” retinol.
She says retinol, a form of vitamin A, speeds up skin regeneration and triggers natural hydration.
Dr Sarah Tonks, an anti-ageing expert at the Omniya Clinic in London, also believes we over-moisturise. “I get my patients off moisturiser and on to a chemical exfoliant and a product to reduce pigment,” she says.
A recent convert to a moisturiser-free life is Jo Thompson, 57, a business development manager from Hertfordshire. She says: “I always cleansed, toned and moisturised, but as I got older, my skin was looking lifeless.
“In the end, I went to see Dr Tonks, who told me to stop using moisturisers and put me on a regime of exfoliators.”
Dr Tonks advised a prescription vitamin A product plus another to reduce pigment.
She says a similar effect can be had with an over-the-counter product containing between 0.5 and onepercent retinol.
An exfoliating product such as Obagi Exfoderm (facethefuture.co.uk) plus SkinCeuticals Advanced Pigment Corrector (my-dermacenter.com) could also be used to reduce brown spots and increase radiance.
Jo says: “After two weeks I could feel my skin becoming less dry. It was as if it was coming back to life. It had a youthful glow and radiance that other people noticed. I will definitely stick with this routine.”
So is it time for us to ditch our favourite face creams? Dr Stefanie Williams, of European Dermatology London, is cautious.
However, the dermatologist agrees we often overload our skin, saying: “Many acne sufferers in particular use overly heavy skincare, which aggravates their acne. Rosacea patients often complain of dry skin, but this is actually skin roughness caused by low-level inflammation. But if your skin is truly dry, using the right moisturiser is important.”
But, she says, we can save money by just using sunscreen. “The most important part of skincare is sunscreen, and formulations now are so hydrating you often don’t need a separate moisturiser.”
Skin specialist Dr Mervyn Patterson, of Woodford Medical Aesthetics, says while normal, youthful skin may be able look after itself, “ageing, sun exposure, harsh skincare, pollution, hormonal imbalances and even taking statins all mean your skin may need a moisturiser”.
He says modern, sophisticated formulations won’t clog pores and contain ingredients to promote youthful-looking skin without the irritation often caused by exfoliation.
He recommends Epionce Renewal Cream (epionce.co.uk), which he says “has been shown in studies to make skin thicker and healthier”.
Professor Marie Loden, of the University of Uppsala, Sweden, who led a study into the effects of moisturiser on skin, says in the end it should come down to common sense: “If you don’t have dry skin, then why use moisturiser? If you just wear it because you think you’re worth it, or because it comes in a pretty pot, that’s okay, but remember - it might not be benefiting your skin.”