Moisturiser myths

by Margo White / 10 November, 2012
The truth about face creams is a slippery commodity.
Moisturiser myths

There’s so much marketing hoopla around moisturisers – or, if you prefer, “rehydrating lotions”, “fortifying hydrators” and “reconstructing creams” – that it can be difficult to tell where the truth ends and the powers of seduction begin. We know a good moisturiser promotes a dewy glow, at least for a while, but do we really need to spend $100 on something tailored for our age, skin type and a specific time of the day, or can we get away with a generic $20 pot from the supermarket? Dry skin results from a lack of water in the stratum corneum, the outer layer of the epidermis that covers the entire body like cling film, absorbs water and prevents it from evaporating. Spending time outside in cold windy air will dry out the stratum corneum, as will the warmth of a heat pump indoors. Ageing has the same effect, as we start to lose outer-layer sebum and lipid cells that give skin its smooth plump look.

What are moisturisers made of? If you visit the average cosmetic counter, you might hear about antioxidants and vitamins, some rare ingredient from the Amazon rainforest and possibly some “highly advanced delivery system”. In reality, moisturisers boil down to two main things: humectants (such as glycerine or alpha hydroxy acids), which attract water and keep it on the skin; and emollients (or occlusives), which add a layer of oil to the skin surface and slow down water loss. In other words, moisturisers are mainly water with a greasy substance to hold it in. The ratio of water to greasy substance will depend on whether it’s a bath oil, lotion, cream or ointment.

Countless moisturisers are on the market. The expensive ones tend to have more imaginative descriptors (such as “reconstructing cream”), are frequently produced in pastel shades of green, pink and apricot and invariably come in fancy-looking pots and dispensers. How to choose? Finding the right moisturiser is a matter of trial and error. But let’s be honest – you should be searching for one that smells and feels nice and doesn’t make you break out in a rash, rather than one that will wipe 20 years off your face. Most have the same (fat) chance of that. According to the New Zealand Dermatological Society, “Sorbolene cream is a good all-round moderate strength moisturiser that suits many patients because it is non-greasy, cheap and available in bulk without prescription … Very dry skin may benefit from a greasy emollient every couple of hours, but a light moisturiser may only be needed on slightly dry skin at night.” It just won’t look so sharp on your dressing table.

If you do have dry skin, the Dermatological Society advises spending less time in the shower – keep it short and warm rather than long and hot. Hot water and soap will wash away the dirt, but also any surface layer of natural oil; unless you replace it with a lotion of some sort, your skin will look dryer an hour after washing it than it did before. Dermatologists tend to caution against using soap at all, recommending instead a detergent-based cleanser, preferably one that has the same pH as the skin (5.5). So if moisturiser can temporarily plump out fine lines, what of the claims that it can penetrate the epidermis and get rid of them? Expensive face creams might contain retinoids, a vitamin A derivative, originally and more commonly used to treat acne. There is some evidence to suggest retinoids can stimulate the production of collagen in the dermis. That might soften fine lines and increase the cell turnover in your skin, which might make your skin look and feel better.

A dermatologist might prescribe retinoids as a therapeutic product, which will have a considerably higher concentration of the compound than you’ll find in any cosmetic cream. Retinoids also have the potential to irritate the skin and make it more sensitive to UV light, although cosmetic manufacturers say they recently addressed this issue. If retinoids do reduce fine lines, however, it’s still unclear whether they reduce them enough for anyone else to notice, unless they look at you under a microscope.

Health briefs


People with cardiovascular disease might want to avoid the crunchy bits on burgers or the edges of brownies, according to a study from the University of Illinois. Certain cooking methods produce what are known as advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, which are associated with plaque formation. The study found participants with higher rates of cardiovascular complications ate more glycated products, and that eating AGEs intake is associated with elevated risk of cardiovascular disease.


A study in Neurology has found fresh evidence that exercise is good for the brain. Researchers looked at the medical records of 648 people from Scotland born in 1936, gave them MRI scans at age 73 and asked them questions about their lifestyle. After three years, they found that those who were more physically active had less brain shrinkage, although there was no clear evidence of the benefits to brain size from doing mentally and socially stimulating activities.


Might aspirin also be good for the brain? Researchers from the University of Gothenburg who looked at changes in intellectual capacity among 681 elderly women found that although after five years mental capacity had declined among all the participants, the decline was significantly less for 129 women who took a small daily dose of acetylsalicylic acid (about a quarter of an aspirin) for heart disease. The researchers noted no definitive conclusions could be reached, and they don’t know the long-term effects of such treatment. “We certainly do not want to encourage the elderly to self-medicate with aspirin to avoid dementia.”
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