There are a lot of myths and misconceptions when it comes to skincare, but a closer look at the science behind skincare ingredients can help you sort facts from fiction.
It’s clear that there is no shortage of advice about how to care for your skin, from what ingredients to avoid or what steps to follow. You’ll also find plenty of tips that seem to suggest there’s just one ideal skincare method for everyone. Not surprisingly, a lot of these tips are conflicting, inaccurate, or just plain wrong.
Here is what science can tell us about three common skincare misconceptions.
Misconception #1: Oil will clog my pores.
Oils are key ingredients in many skincare products because of their emollient properties. They smooth, hydrate, and help create soft, silky skin. Yet, oils tend to get a bad rap for clogging pores and causing acne. So, should you be avoiding oils in your skincare routine?
It’s true – some skin types or individuals with certain skin conditions may not benefit from oil-based formulas. For most, though, oil-based products and moisturizers support healthy, radiant skin. Oils contain natural fatty acids that are key to skin hydration (1). However, the type of oil or how an oil-based product is applied impacts whether it will cause clogged pores or occlusions (2). Choosing a moisturizer that’s suited for your skin type and applying it to freshly washed skin can help lock in moisture without locking in the dirt or dead skin cells associated with acne or clogged pores (3).
Misconception #2: All alcohols are irritating and will dry out my skin.
When we think of alcohol in skincare, we often think back to our teen years and the overly drying and burning sensation we felt from acne-fighting astringents and toners. Don’t worry – those days are long gone and not all alcohols are created equally.
There are two categories of alcohol often used in skincare. The good alcohols – fatty alcohols – and the bad alcohols – ethyl or denatured alcohols.
Fatty alcohols, such as stearyl alcohol and cetearyl alcohol, are non-drying, skin-friendly, and used in “alcohol-free” products (4). They are often derived from vegetables or coconuts to help moisturize and protect your skin. These alcohols also help to evenly distribute active ingredients and botanicals across your skin for a soothing and balanced experience.
Fatty alcohols are often confused with harsher alcohols such as ethanol and isopropyl alcohol that can disturb the skin’s microbiome and moisture barrier, leaving it dry and unprotected (5). Although these harsher alcohols should be avoided by those with dry or combination skin types, other skin types may benefit from alcohol-containing formulas at times.
Misconception #3: No skincare regimen is complete without a toner.
Wash, tone, moisturize – the steps of a classic skincare regimen. But times are changing, and toner may not be as essential in skincare as it once was. For decades, toners were used to balance skin pH after using harsh, alkaline cleansers made from lye (6). However, cleanser formulations have become milder in recent years and more multifunctional, eliminating the need for toning after cleansing.
Is toner necessary for every skin routine? Not anymore. The right cleanser is enough for most. For those looking to personalize their routine to help them achieve more targeted results, a toner with specialized ingredients such as niacinamide, or vitamin C, may be a good addition.
Many common skincare tips are based on outdated, incomplete, or inaccurate information. Other tips offer recommendations that fail to account for different skin types and skincare needs.
By looking at what science can tell us about skincare ingredients, you’ll have the information you need to clear up common misconceptions and find a formula that is right for your skin.
Sethi A, Kaur T, Malhotra SK, Gambhir ML. Moisturizers: The Slippery Road. Indian J Dermatol. 2016 May-Jun;61(3):279-87.
Lodén M, Maibach H. Dry skin and Moisturizers: Chemistry and Function. 1st ed. New York: CRC Press; 1999.
Lodén M. The clinical benefit of moisturizers. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2005 Nov;19(6):672-88; quiz 686-7.
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Cosmetics and alcohol-free labeling [Internet]. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA; [cited 2022Mar25]. Available from: https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetics-labeling-claims/alcohol-free
Cartner T, Brand N, Tian K, et al. Effect of different alcohols on stratum corneum kallikrein 5 and phospholipase A2 together with epidermal keratinocytes and skin irritation. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2017 Apr;39(2):188-196.
Cosmetic Formulation of Skin Care Products. 1st ed. Eds. Draelos ZD, Thaman LA. Boca Raton: CRC Press; 2006.