Pharmacology of Skin Care

Friends who have hung around me long enough have personally experienced my obsession with skin care. And it’s not about the latest brands or quirky make up tricks but it’s about what each skin care product actually does to my skin. Having started off my career in pharmacology, which according to Wikipedia:

Pharmacology is the study of drug action, where a drug can be broadly defined as any man-made, natural, or endogenous molecule which exerts a biochemical or physiological effect on the cell, tissue, organ, or organism. More specifically, it is the study of the interactions that occur between a living organism and chemicals that affect normal or abnormal biochemical function,

I’m naturally curious about chemicals and what they do to me, especially when I’m putting them on MY FACE. Yes, I think “organic and natural” are still chemicals so I look at them equally when I’m evaluating products.

Lately, I’ve been bombarded with skin care product advertisements because I’ve been very vocal on my social media platforms about skin care. But when I read these ads, I get so annoyed because none of them actually explain what they do. Sure, they have general claims like: “hydrating,” “plumping,” and my all time favorite “regenerating,” but what the EFF does any of that mean? Specifically, what does that mean with respect to how it’s going to impact the function of the skin on my face?

See, my understanding is that skin is an organ primarily designed to serve as a boundary between us and our environment. So when I get ads that suggest something like: [insert name of famous actress] uses skin care product [X] and she looks amazing, I get pretty annoyed. Why? Because 1) I have never seen said famous actress in person and 2) I don’t know what environmental conditions said famous actress has been exposed to so I don’t see how any of the ads are applicable to me. Besides, of all the people in the world, actors and actresses comprise a very small percentage. That suggests that this is a highly limited sample size consisting of people who have already hit some sort of holy grail gene pool for attractiveness. So again, how exactly are any of these ads applicable to ME and my skin care needs?

Well, none of them are, so I have to use my brain to evaluate products. When I buy skin care products and develop my regimen, I always think about the purpose of skin in the first place. It is there to serve as a protective barrier between me and my environment. With that in mind, below is how I evaluate morning and evening skin care products.

The focus of my morning ritual is to ensure that my skin is in the best condition possible so that it can offer the best defense against exposure to environmental toxins and stress. For me this means:

  1. Cleansing in order to remove dead skin cells and any buildup so that the protective products I’m going to apply to my skin are actually on live, functioning skin cells and not on dead skin cells that are going to slough off throughout the day.
    • Cleansers can be very expensive, especially if you’re trying to stick to a particular skin care line. I’ve used all sorts of cleansers at every price point and have never seen a difference in product effect with respect to pricing. It’s more about how well the ingredients are able to emulsify whatever is already on your face from the night before so it can effectively remove it from the skin. This is actually where I see some flexibility in price points and I’ll post the cleansers I’ve used on later posts.
  2. Applying toner to get my skin to a slightly acidic pH level so that I can prep my skin to absorb the serums/essences that I’m going to put on.
    • There are websites that claim that if you layer toners on your face (See: Korean 7 skin method at you will experience increased skin hydration. Personally, I do practice the method because it feels good on my face. However, it doesn’t increase skin hydration levels, at least not when I measure my skin hydration with a bioelectric impedance analysis instrument (yes, I do have this tool, I’m a scientist, remember? LOL!). So, again, I think it’s just weird advertising that doesn’t make any sense.
    • The toner step is where I’d spend more money if they can prove that they don’t have any harsh chemicals like alcohols and parabens, etc. while still lowering my skin pH…because I want my skin to be fighting the environment for me and not the reactive chemicals I put on it voluntarily.
  3. Patting essences/serums on my face to address specific issues (sometimes I also use a facial sheet mask, which is a sheet drenched in an essence or serum).
    • This step also gets expensive because there are so many essences and serums in the market with each one promising to deliver a specific treatment or combination of treatments (e.g. lighten, brighten and tighten). Because of the variety and expense, this is actually where I do a lot of trial and error with my product purchases and where I’m more willing to pay at the highest price point.  For some serums, it make sense to buy at a higher price point if a supplier has a patent on a particular compound or formulation process. But if it’s just a brand being advertised by an actress, then I work really hard to find it from another supplier because I refuse to pay for her salary to dance around in a commercial to get me to buy something that I’m going to put on my face. I’d rather spend the money to go see her in a movie instead.
    • I’ve collected pictures and notes for the serums and essences I’ve tried but that’s going to be on a different post because it’s going to be long (and more likely over multiple posts). In the meantime, one in particular that I use to accomplish my goal of strengthening the skin barrier is the CE Ferulic Serum by Skinceuticals. Information about the serum is here:
  4. Applying moisturizer to protect against dryness and cracking to ensure that the skin barrier is properly in tact. That said, I have not used a moisturizer that didn’t do what I expected it to do and I believe it’s because they all basically have the same underlying active ingredient, petrolatum, or some closely related derivative. Do a search on moisturizer patents and you’ll notice that it’s actually hard to find. There’s not a whole lot going on in skin moisturizer innovation, it’s all focused on skin treatments, which you’ll typically see in serums, essences and repair creams. Note, sometimes repair creams and cream based serums are marketed as moisturizers so make sure, especially when purchasing moisturizers at higher price points, to look at what else the moisturizer is claiming to do (besides just preventing moisture from escaping the skin). Because depending on what else it has, a moisturizer could give you the benefit of a serum that a cosmetics salesperson may also be trying to sell to you. No need to buy 2 things when you’re being offered a 2 (or 3 or 10) in one at a higher price point 😊. But, make sure whatever chemical it is that you’re looking to integrate with the moisturizer that it actually makes sense to be mixed in with a cream. For example, vitamin C is a water soluble compound that is highly unstable and sensitive to light. That’s NOT going to be stable in a cream so if someone is trying to sell you a vitamin C moisturizer…RUN!
    • On a side note, every summer during college, I worked as a cosmetics counter salesperson. In my experience, our goal was to drive sales and not act in the best interest of our customers’ skin care needs. This is why I’m super cautious about leaving my skin care product decisions to the sales tactics of people at the cosmetics counters. I think they’re good for one thing, and that’s to give me samples so I can decide for myself. Other than that, I prefer to shop online and do research on my home computer.
  5. And finally, applying sunscreen every 2 hours during the day to protect my skin against UV damage. For this, I rely on publications from the American Academy of Dermatology, which is available here
    • When it comes to skin damage prevention, I trust the experts. And by experts, I don’t mean the marketers at Sephora or whatever brand name cosmetics company is putting sunscreen into pretty bottles. I mean, the physicians who are actually trained to evaluate, diagnose and treat skin cancer because they actually care about preventing the disease. The cosmetic brand name sunscreens are usually priced between $24-68. That seems unreasonable if you’re expected to re-apply it every 2 hours, especially when there are products at lower price points that are approved by the experts. For sunscreens, I watch for buy 1 get 1 deals at the local drug stores, which usually happen around spring. During these sales, I can get sunscreen for about $7 a bottle.

At night, the focus of my skin care regimen is to repair my skin after a full day of fighting environmental toxins and stress and protect it against dryness while I’m sleeping. With that in mind, this is what I do:

  1. Cleanse to remove all of the products I put on in the morning. Because there’s probably a lot of product residue on my face after a full day out and about, I tend to spend more time at night making sure that my face is clean and free of any dirty substances or bacteria that got on my skin during the day. For this, I use an oil cleanser followed by a soap cleanser. Oils from sunscreen and make up are very difficult to remove from the skin. On the rare occasion that I use makeup, I often follow up with an enzyme cleanser to try and degrade the makeup/dyes that are on my face. My favorite so far for this is the rice enzyme powder made by Tatcha:
  2. Apply toner.
  3. Use serums/essences/sheet masks to put back some of the nutrients I may have lost in my skin during the day. This depends on what environmental conditions I may have been exposed to. If I’ve been outside in the cold then I’d want to ensure that I put back any oils or water that I may have lost by using hydration or oil based masks or serums. If I’ve been in an office space with an air vent blowing in my face, I’d probably want a detox mask followed by hydrating serum.
  4. Apply a face oil. I only do this because I live in the Northeast and during the winter, with the heater blowing all night to warm the house, my skin gets really dry. To help my skin out, I add another layer of protection to keep it from getting dehydrated by the heater by applying a face oil.
  5. Apply a moisturizer or repair cream. Similar to a face oil, these creams add another layer to your skin in order to protect it from drying out overnight. Sometimes, if I feel like I spent way too much time in the sun or absorbing a lot of environmental toxins, I’d use a therapeutic moisturizer such as Crème de La Mer, which has skin nutritive properties. Information available at
  6. Finally, I would apply an acid such as a light AHA in order to help skin turnover while I sleep. My favorite so far is the Watermelon Sleeping Mask from Glowrecipe Again, my goal here is to improve skin function by helping it to renew and bring newer skin cells to the top of the skin layer and get rid of old ones to ensure that my skin properly functions in the morning.

This is how I approach my skin care and not based on what [insert name of famous actress] is using and I definitely don’t listen to cosmetics counter salespeople (unless they’re willing to give me samples). Because if there’s one thing I know from being a pharmacologist (and actually having worked in industry developing these chemicals), is that no one really knows how any of it works in every person using them. It’s really up to us, as individual consumers, to figure that out for ourselves. With this post and the others that follow, my goal is to share information and empower other women to take charge of their own skin care instead of being spoon fed advertising that makes very little sense.


  1. Thank you for the detailed post! Regarding the sunscreen suggestions for what to look for. Do you know how this applies to Japanese/Korean sunscreen which tend to write PA+++ (or however many pluses they add)? I would love to hear your take on it with your pharmacology background :).

    I have seen here conflicting reports from dermatologists (and the few studies I’ve read) about which sunscreens are better, chemical or physical. One dermatologist I watch on youtube actually says, the best sunblock is the one you’re going to use (whether physical or chemical), because if it’s greasy and you don’t like wearing it (regardless of whether it’s the best sunscreen in the world) – you won’t use it or reapply it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would agree with the last sentence. Nothing works if you don’t use it. LOL! the PA at the end of the Korean/Japanese sunscreen products is a UVA protection grade based on a Japanese rating system. As far as I know, the US has not implemented that rating system because it’s a measure of how the sun’s UVA rays cause the skin to become brown and stay brown. Personally, I have no idea how in the world you would measure PA, every person is different. But I guess in Japan, they have ways of measuring it because they have less diversity in their population (?). That’s just a guess. SPF is easier to measure because it’s an actual measurement of the effectiveness of the drug, not how your body responds to it. In other words, the SPF will tell you how long you can stay out in the sun for while still being protected from the sun’s UVB rays using that sunscreen.

      Liked by 1 person

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