There are a lot of ingredients in cosmetics that are said to “work” for all kinds of benefits, like curing wrinkles, reducing the size of pores, skin lightening and more. The reality is, in the US, cosmetics are not allowed do anything beyond superficially changing the appearance of skin. If a product cures a disease or otherwise interacts with skin metabolism (e.g. boosting collagen production), it is considered a drug, subject to FDA drug regulations. Cosmetic marketers get around this limitation by carefully crafting product claims that don’t state any drug effects.
But there are technologies in topical products that are proven to work for specific conditions. Some of these are over-the-counter drug actives, while others are cosmetic technologies. Here is a list of cosmetic ingredients that have been proven to work in practice and not just in lab studies. If a technology is not on this list, that does not mean it doesn’t work. It just means I haven’t found any positive evidence that is compelling.
Topical skin ingredients that work
Functional Cosmetic Actives:
- DHA – Makes skin darker
No doubt about this one. If you put DHA (EU) on your skin, the skin will turn a slight orangish color. Cosmetic chemists have improved the technology to the point that skin looks more brown. Of course, they’re still working on the slight odor problem that the compound on your skin causes.
- Depilatories – Get rid of hair
These work. They contain calcium thioglycolate which is a strong base that dissolves hair. If you leave it on your skin, it can dissolve skin too, so you have to be careful. But for hair removal, this cosmetic works even better than shaving. Unfortunately, depilatories (EU) can cause skin irritation and have a foul odor, but they do work.
- Petrolatum moisturizers – Makes dry skin look and feel better
These oil-derived ingredients get a bad name on the Internet but there is no doubt about it, ingredients like petrolatum (EU) or mineral oil (EU) are excellent for improving the condition of skin. In fact, petrolatum is one of the best performing moisturizers that a cosmetic chemist can use. We keep looking for better alternatives but no single ingredient has topped it yet. Cosmetic formulators eagerly await the day when someone introduces a plant-based moisturizing ingredient that can compete on a performance level with these oil-derived compounds.
- Cleansing products – Cleans skin
Surfactants (EU) clean skin. They have a polar head group and a lipophilic tail group. Together they make oil and water compatible and help you remove it from your skin. Want to get your skin clean? Use a surfactant.
- Alpha hydroxy acids – Exfoliates top layer of skin
AHAs (EU) can help improve the appearance of wrinkles, and they might even help get rid of some skin discoloration. Lactic acid (EU) and glycolic acid (EU) actually have been demonstrated to remove that top layer of dead skin cells and stimulate production of new cells. This technology is on the borderline between cosmetic and drug, but as long as the cosmetic marketer keeps claims focused on exfoliation, the products remain in the cosmetics category. Use with caution, but you can have faith…AHA’s work.
Functional OTC drug actives:
- Hydroquinone – Makes skin lighter
If you want to lighten skin, hydroquinone (EU) works. In fact, it’s an OTC drug in the US. In the EU they have banned it, except when prescribed by a doctor, due to worries that it might cause cancer. Other compounds like high levels of vitamin C (EU), Alpha hydroxy acids, kojic acid (EU), and tretinoin hold some promise, but their effect has not been proven in the same way as hydroquinone. Remember, if an ingredient can actually lighten skin, it is a drug active. The only approved drug active for skin lightening is hydroquinone.
- Sunscreens – Block UV light
There is a reason that these things are over-the-counter drugs (OTC). It’s because there is scientifically verified evidence that they can prevent sunlight from causing sun burns, tans, and skin cancer. Sunscreens (EU), both mineral compounds and organic compounds, work.
- Retinoic acid – Makes wrinkles go away
Anti-aging cosmetics are packed with compounds which are supposed to give you the skin of a teenager without the acne. They promise to make your wrinkles disappear with things like peptides, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, polyphenols (EU), flavonoids (EU), etc. The number of new antiaging materials is mind boggling. Unfortunately, almost none of them have actually been proven to work when delivered from a topical cosmetic formulation. You know what does work? Retinoic acid (EU). In fact, it works so well that it is approved as a prescription drug by the FDA for treatment against…wrinkles! This is the class of the anti-aging actives. Everything else are just unproven posers.
- Salicylic acid – Helps speed up disappearance of acne
If you have acne, this compound is proven to help get rid of it. In the U.S., it is considered OTC, because when something can get rid of a disease, it is no longer a cosmetic but rather a drug. In the U.S., anyway. Salicylic acid (EU) helps clean pores and speeds up removal of the dead skin cells in the epidermal layer. There are other actives that work against acne but salicylic acid is the most versatile for cosmetic formulators.
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22 Responses to “9 Cosmetic Ingredients that Actually Work”
Where can I find CALCIUM THIOGLYCOLATE for deplilatories?
The following companies have it for sale.
Cosmetic Supplies USA
Gallard-Schlesinger Industries, Inc.
Merck KGaA /EMD Chemicals
Mitajiri Chemical Industry Co., Ltd.
Toyota Tsusho America, Inc.
You always make things so easy and concise. Nice job making it simple and straight to the point.
Thank you for the info. How well does SYNOVEA HR work in practice (ignoring the research claims)? Also, for effective and noticeable performance, what % of inclusion would be ideal? Thanks in advance.
good and helpfull
Nice work Perry, I have passion for cosmetics and want to start something but I live in Nigeria and most of the materials (chemicals) metioned are not found there, please what should I do (how do I get them).
dear Romanowski,I am looking for formulation for callus gel?pls help me?best regards .
I would suggest you look through the suppliers on Prospector
I would suggest you search the formulations on Prospector.
Dear Perry Romanowski I am 74 years old lady .what cream would you recommend for my wrinkele’s and skine lightning ?. I thank you in advance for your help.
I was very surprised to read in your article the following about the antiaging ingredients: “almost none of them have actually been proven to work when delivered from a topical cosmetic formulation”. I am sure you are aware that there is A LOT of cosmetic anti-aging ingredients which are tested in vitro and in vivo (on volunteers) using the topical cosmetic formulations before being launched. These ingredients are not released from the labs if they do not work in the “real life”… Thus, sorry to say that, your statement that “Everything else (apart from the retinoic acid) are just unproven posers” is incorrect.
For wrinkles, unless you are getting a prescription from your doctor use a good moisturizer and sunscreen. For skin lightening the only thing legally proven to work is hydroquinone. Some people report effectiveness of kojic acid, vitamin C, and more but none of these are on the FDA skin lightening monograph.
Hello Julia – Thanks for your comments.
I’m unconvinced by published studies on most anti-aging ingredients. I certainly could be mistaken and always appreciate finding new evidence to demonstrate the fact. However, in the case of anti-aging cosmetic ingredients I stand by my statement. Also, if the ingredients did work and they were included in cosmetics they would be illegal, misbranded drugs. At least in the US, a cosmetic product is not allowed to significant interact with cell metabolism so ingredients which claim to “boost collagen” or things like this are either non-functional or illegal.
I’ve not used the ingredient myself I can’t really comment except to say if Synovea HR works as they claim “Hexylresorcinol is clinically proven to be four-times more effective than Hydroquinone” it would be a misbranded drug.
Skin lightening is a drug product here in the US and the only approved ingredient for lightening skin is hydroquinone.
I understand that the differences in our opinions may originate from the differences between the US and the European legislations. Thus, I strongly state by my statement, too :). There is a number of publications showing the effectiveness of the anti-ageing cosmetic ingredients both, in vitro and in vivo, published in different sources.
Best regards, Julia
Anything help with hair loss?
Minoxidil is the only approved topical hair loss treatment. Nothing else has been clinically proven to work.
Great information, thank you. My question is, in your opinion, in the battle between Retinoic Acid vs. Retinol, which product wins the efficacy war?!
Retinoic acid is better from an efficacy standpoint. I recorded a whole podcast on this exact question which you can listen to here. http://thebeautybrains.com/2013/11/the-beauty-brains-show-episode-06-which-retinol-is-right-for-me/
Hello Vedat, you should reach out to Vantage Specialty Ingredients. They have formulations using their salicylic Acid product that can be used for callus’s.
It’s awesome that you talked about how there’re anti-aging supplies that help your skin. Recently, my mom mentioned she’s worried about her wrinkles, and she’s looking for products to help her reduce them. That’s why I think my mom could benefit from learning about your article. I appreciate you helping me learn cosmetics and their ingredients.