I hate bringing bad news, but the effects of your serums do not continue forever. It’s not the serum’s fault. The real culprit is your skin. Skin cells, especially fibroblasts, are like muscles. If you continuously do the same workout routine, your muscles get bored quickly and build up resistance. With a new routine, you feel a good kind of stiff a day or two after, but within a week or two this wears off and the same routine appears to have no effect. The same goes for your skincare.
Skin cells get used to the effects of ingredients and they quickly become bored and unresponsive. We call this the ‘habituation effect’. Habituation is a ‘decreased response that follows repeated stimulus’ and was first described in 1977, with the repeated use of topical steroids used in perioral dermatitis and in psoriasis, where drugs need to be rotated to remain effective.
What Can We Learn From Bodybuilders?
The late Joe Weider introduced the well-known Weider Principles into weight training routines. He discovered that bodybuilders who trained with regular, fixed routines, achieved poor results compared to those who introduced variation, including rest periods. I believe we can apply some of his principles to skincare.
The one I think most relevant is called the ‘Muscle Confusion Principle’, which was also given the fancy name of ‘the undulating periodization program’. This involves constantly changing variables in your workout, such as which days you train, how many days per week, number of sets, number of reps, exercise choice, exercise order, and the length of rest periods. This variation was designed to keep your muscles guessing – resting and shocking them at different times and on different days. For more info see here.
What the heck has this got to do with skincare, you ask?
Most of us have busy and stressful lifestyles. It’s no wonder that we feel tired all the time. You know what else is exhausted? Your skin.
While skin exhaustion might sound far-fetched, it’s a common problem. Looking run-down is a real, clinical condition. If you look in the mirror and see your skin isn’t looking its best, chances are you’re suffering from tired skin. Tired skin gives you the overall appearance of being exhausted and overwhelmed. Unlike other common skin issues, there’s no specific indicator that tells you that you do in fact have skin exhaustion, but indicators are a complexion that appears dull and lack luster, has larger pores, deeper wrinkles and crow’s feet. Skin exhaustion takes whatever your existing skin issues are and magnifies them by a thousand. And it doesn’t take long to see these changes in your skin—one morning you wake up and there it is. Not a great way to start the day.
The Flat Battery
The reason your skin starts looking like this in the first place is simple. Essentially, your skin’s battery isn’t charged. Skin cells contain mitochondria, which power everything from collagen production, to fighting off dullness-causing free radicals, to producing the enzymes that naturally exfoliate the skin, or the natural moisturising factors that keep your skin hydrated etc.
As we age, that battery starts to deplete, meaning your skin doesn’t have the energy to replenish and regenerate like it used to. It’s like a mobile phone battery that no longer holds its charge, especially one that has been kept on charge all the time and no longer remembers how to function as a battery. Sometimes you need to let it drain down, before you put it on charge again. Other factors like too much stress, not enough sleep, one too many glasses of wine and even the environment, can speed up cellular energy drainage. To keep your skin firing on all cylinders, you need to protect these mitochondria from harmful free radicals, to repair any damage that’s already been done and ‘recharge’ them with the right ‘foods’.
The problem is that serums usually act on keratinocytes and fibroblasts – they often contain actives (eg peptides) that bind to receptors on these cells’ surfaces, and request them to either start doing something, or stop doing something. All of this consumes energy and may lead to cellular exhaustion, where the cell basically shuts down. This is especially true if they are being bombarded with different actives all the time, each of which is making its own demands on the cell. A bit like trying to answer five phones at the same time. And procedures like microneedling, peels etc, increase the energy demand on cells too. These procedures stress cells, especially keratinocytes. Before we know it they scream for help, their neighbouring melanocytes declare an emergency and bingo…post inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
There is a solution!
At OptoDerm, we make products that contain energy-boosting ingredients like niacinamide, ribose, inositol, amino acids, alpha-ketoglutarate, vitamin C, superoxide dismutase etc. Most of these are in our micellar cleansers, serums and creams. These are energy sources and antioxidants that help neutralise the free radicals that the mitochondria are spending all their time fighting and instead allow them to do what they do best – keeping your skin looking good. The best part is they not only work well, but they work quickly. While skin exhaustion might appear overnight, these ingredients can revive your skin in a matter of hours. We will be introducing a new product in the next two weeks, specifically aimed at recharging your mitochondria. It is a product that is best used with our cleansers only, over a weekend, say. More to follow.
But, outside of cleansing and exfoliation, there is a need to vary your routine in order to avoid habituation effects. Try rotating your serums and moisturisers – alternate your retinoid with Collastin, Green Tea Serum, or Vitamin C. Perhaps rotate randomly every few days. Use only Bio-Enzyme Gel one or two nights a week. Give your skin a break a couple of days a week, to recharge – try something different on weekends, eg a mask or exfoliator. Keep your skin guessing! And while you are at it, look at making lifestyle changes too. Read up on intermittent fasting and other diets (like 5:2) that also look to break habituation effects.
What other factors might make my products seem less effective?
- Shelf life of active ingredients
Products that have positive effects on our skin contain active ingredients and have a limited shelf life which means they degrade and lose their potency over time. Some ingredients like vitamin C can be so unstable that they oxidise when they come into contact with light and air, causing the product to become less effective. At OptoDerm we use airless containers as far as possible, to prevent exposure to air. We also photo-protect as many products as possible, with ingredients that protect sensitive actives. Store your products in a cool, dark place as far as possible. The label usually states this but how many of us actually do it?
- Product contamination
Some products are not well packaged and may be easily contaminated during use. When this happens, the product becomes ineffective and, worst case, may cause problems when used. Airless containers overcome this issue. We especially avoid packaging in jars that expose products to air and contamination sources.
- Ineffective preservatives
Most commercial skincare products contain preservatives and stabilisers to prolong shelf life and prevent them from harboring unwanted bacteria and fungi. However, these preservatives and stabilisers have a limited shelf life themselves, which can render the active ingredients inactive before the product is fully used up.
- Build up of occlusive ingredients
Ingredients like mineral oil, petrolatum and silicones generally act as a barrier and clog skin pores. Even though a product may not contain a lot of these ingredients, they may build up on your skin and prevent active ingredients, especially those layered over them, from penetrating properly. Look out for ingredients like dimethicone, as potential problems. We do not use any silicones in our products.
How will you know if you have this issue? Easy…you will notice ‘pilling’ on your skin ie when you rub your skin, bits of product will roll off. Its like the fluffy balls you sometimes get on your favorite sweater. You have one of these three problems – build-up on your skin, or you are applying too much product, or the product contains (usually) dimethicone.
- Changes in product formulation
Sometimes products don’t seem so effective because of changes in product formulation. We only ever make formulation changes to improve efficacy, never to save money. But, we also rely on our suppliers to be truthful in what they supply us and we are extremely fussy when it comes to how our suppliers handle actives, especially those that require cold-chain logistics. Many of our suppliers tell me we are fussier than any of our competitors when it comes to this. Frankly, I wear that as a badge of honor!
- Changes to your skincare routine
If you introduce new products into your skin care regime, you might suddenly find your usual products not working as well. Perhaps the ingredients clash with one another, such as copper peptides and vitamin C, or niacinamide and vitamin C, or your usual cleanser is not cleaning your face as well as usual, due to a new sunscreen you’ve introduced. And, when introducing a new product, you may also experience ‘skin purging’ where you experience breakout. Moenie worrie…this is usually normal. It can take a while for your skin to adjust to new products.
- Changes in your body
Hormonal changes may show up on your skin (menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause). Stress from work or school, or changes in diet and lifestyle also affect your skin.
- Changes in your environment
Related to the changes in our skin, is change in season, weather and the environment. Something that worked well during the drier months may suddenly break you out when used during warmer months . Likewise, a light moisturizer that worked well under hot and humid weather might suddenly be inadequate when you move to a place with colder and/or drier conditions (eg winter in Gauteng which is cold and dry).
You may be in a new work environment with air conditioning that dries the air, or under fluorescent lights, LED lights, TV, phone and computer screens that radiate harmful blue light (this is becoming a big factor in skincare at the moment).
Don’t be afraid to experiment and remember: Your skin is an investment not an expense!