Miracle creams that “defy aging;” serums that “lift and firm,” masks that “blitz crow’s feet” — according to a recent survey, the average American woman spends around $3,756 per year on beauty products. But dermatologist Dr. Fayne L. Frey says most of these bold claims are bogus — and that all you really need for healthy skin are three things: a good moisturizer, mild cleanser and a sunscreen.
Frey is taking on the trillion-dollar beauty industry with a new book, “Skincare Hoax: How You’re Being Tricked into Buying Lotions, Potions & Wrinkle Cream” (Skyhorse). “My hope is that it will empower women around the globe to turn away from the ‘I’m not good enough’ marketing messages they see hundreds of times each day and realize how truly awesome they already are,” she writes.
Frey has always been a self confessed “chemistry nerd” interested in skin-care ingredients. Early in her career, she bought a Corneometer, an instrument which assesses the water content of skin. She started testing her patients, building up a database. In 2014, she launched Fryface.com, a definitive resource of products she had discovered to be effective.
While she is careful to point out that beauty companies are not villains, and that not everything they sell is a waste of money, they are obviously in the business to move products. They do this by playing on common fears of getting older — “Feel confident in your own skin and reduce the appearance of your fine lines” — and by using vague, often medical-sounding terms that create an illusion they are backed by science even when they’re not. These include promises to “nourish” or “replenish,” when skin is actually made up of dead skin cells — meaning these claims are medically impossible.
Other products say they “detoxify,” when no toxins have been found to accumulate on skin — or “rejuvenate,” when skin does a very good job of doing this on its own. The claim “dermatologist-tested” doesn’t really mean anything either, as there are no universal standards established for how the testing was done. The same applies for the terms “cruelty-free” and “not tested on animals.” The term “hypoallergenic” suggests the product will not cause an allergic reaction — but without proper comparison testing, it means very little.
“People don’t have the chemistry background to understand them,” says Frey of complicated-sounding ingredients such as isopropyl alcohol and propylene glycol.
“So they’re confused by them.”
Strip away the hype, Frey says, and the majority of skin creams are simply moisturizers formulated from the same recipe. And one decent, inexpensive moisturizer is all you need. “When it comes to eye creams and night creams and neck creams and foot creams and toners and astringents — in my opinion, if you have healthy skin you don’t need any of those,” she says. “If you want them and they make you feel good, enjoy them. I’m not telling you how to spend your money, but they’re not necessary.”
Even the most reputable brands sell things that are completely superfluous; Frey cites CeraVe and Neutrogena, saying that both brands produce excellent moisturizers — but also sell unnecessary products such as eye and night creams.
“Remember, this is a consumer driven industry,” she says. “If we stopped buying eye creams, those companies wouldn’t make them.”
Here are the five things Frey wants people to keep in mind next time they’re shopping for skin care.
Anti-aging creams won’t banish wrinkles
Anti-aging is a $26 billion market that plays on our insecurities. “But aging is a losing battle,” she says. “We all get old. Nobody knows what causes it, let alone has a cure for it.” By law, beauty products are classified as products that “promote attractiveness and alter appearance.” If a wrinkle cream was invented that went further than that and changed the structure of the skin, it would have to be classified as a drug by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That’s why you see creams with vaguely worded promises such as decreasing “the appearance” of fine lines. The closest thing to slowing aging is using a 30 SPF sunscreen (which is defined by the FDA as a drug). In fact, many creams add sunscreens to their formulations to support their anti-aging claims.
Retinoids aren’t worth the pain
The only anti-aging ingredients worthy of closer scrutiny are retinoids (often available with a prescription) and retinol (less potent, over the counter). But, after years of prescribing them to her patients, Frey believes that they deliver little reward against the risk of side effects such as burning and irritation — and only 10% of her patients reported “moderate improvement.”
There’s no such thing as a ‘miracle in a bottle’
Hyaluronic acid and antioxidants such as CoEnzyme Q, Resveratrol, vitamin C are all what Frey calls “marketing tool ingredients” with no significant scientific evidence behind them. Creams containing them simply increase the water content of the skin — which, she says, is just what a well-formulated (and less expensive) moisturizer will also do.
Be aware of repackaging tricks
The beauty industry often repackages the same product and sells it to a different customer base, meaning that the same formulation might be seen on the baby, skin or body aisles. “If the price point stays the same, I’m OK with that,” says Frey. “But what bothers me is when they repackage it in a smaller tube and the price per ounce is higher. I don’t think that’s fair.”
The truth about parabens
Another trick is to use fake problems as a way of shifting products. Take paraben-free moisturizers. Parabens — a k a preservatives — became a target after a poorly designed 2004 study led the media to link them to breast cancer. As the firestorm raged, beauty companies saw dollar signs and a new market segment was born. Ironically, Frey suggests, alternative preservatives used in paraben-free products could be much worse for skin, although she admits the scientific data on that is sketchy as well.
Six regimen “essentials” that aren’t really necessary
By Dr. Fayne Frey
MASKS AND FACIALS
Masks are seemingly arbitrary products applied to the skin and left on for an arbitrary amount of time, often with skin-care claims that overpromise. Science doesn’t prove any of their claims to be true or that masks are more effective than a well-formulated moisturizer. Like masks, facials have no standard definition and little science substantiates their marketing claims.
EXFOLIANTS, SCRUBS AND POLISHING CLEANSERS
No one has proven that removing loose skin cells, also called exfoliation, is beneficial for skin health. Skin naturally falls away in its normal shedding process. When you keep your skin hydrated with good quality moisturizers, exfoliation happens gently. Scrubbing might make your skin feel smoother, but removing too many skin cells can result in irritated, dry, and even inflamed skin.
The fact is, skin doesn’t change from day to night, and ingredients can’t tell time. The entire night-cream topic is beyond logic and has one sole purpose: to sell two bottles or jars instead of one.
Eye cream is a moisturizer in a tiny tube at a higher price. Yes, the skin around the eyes is thin, but under a microscope a pathologist cannot distinguish a skin sample from the cheekbone from skin taken around the eye. Some might say that the thinnest eyelid skin is more susceptible to damage from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, but ironically, most eye creams don’t contain sunscreen.
The buzz about serums is the claim that they contain a higher concentration of certain ingredients than other facial skin-care products. My concern with serums is more about ingredients that they don’t contain. Most serums do not contain ingredients that keep water from evaporating from the skin, such as petrolatum, mineral oil, or dimethicone. Without one of these types of ingredients, a product is not very effective as a moisturizer.
3 Moisturizers with SPF recommended by FryFace.com
CeraVe® AM Facial Moisturizing Lotion with SPF 30
Oil and fragrance-free
Neutrogena Oil-Free Moisture Broad Spectrum SPF 35
Eczema- or acne prone
Cetaphil® Daily Facial Moisturizer with Sunscreen SPF 50
Copyright © 2022 by Fayne L. Frey, MD. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.