Making Sense of Skin Care Ingredients 101

Making Sense of Skin Care Ingredients 101

White Paper: Making Sense of Skin Care Ingredients 101

By: Justin Piasecki, MD, FACMS


As a surgeon I did (and continue to do) a lot of learning, and because of that I always recommend doing your homework. The biggest problem in doing your homework in the anti-aging facial market though is that there are:

tons of ingredients + not much science + not a lot of doctors = lousy cosmetic results and low trust 

Making sense of the chaos that is the cosmetic skincare industry is possible though.  It just requires first framing the conversation so we know which direction to steer our boat.

You see, the need for corporate profits by the big cosmetic companies leads to a marketing focus on sales over substance.  To pull this off, they focus on one small aspect of an ingredient (in some cases just its name), which takes advantage of the human brain’s reflex when it focuses on one thing to ignore all other details (called the “spotlight trap”).  This leads us to believe the product being advertised is something we need, which leads us to buy it, but the product fails to deliver. Why?

Consider that true results are not just about one or two ingredients, it’s the whole recipe.  Sugar is a great ingredient but what determines whether it’s a great wedding cake is how much sugar, what else it’s combined with and how the whole package influences the taste buds.  It’s the forest that matters, not just one tree in it.

So to do our homework properly, we need to be focused and maintain clarity of OUR goal – to make the face look as good as possible (pros) with the least amount of maintenance, effort and cost (cons).  When evaluating a specific brand, you can start this process by looking at the brand’s pre and post photos.

In the rest of this paper, I’ll go through what I believe are the most valuable, high yield and powerful ingredients for the face.  This is based on my training, reading, science and clinical experience.  If you don’t see an ingredient mentioned here, that doesn’t mean it’s not effective or that it’s not a good fit for you.  It just means that in my analysis, it didn’t meet the grade.  But if it’s working for you –since actually delivering results is the goal of your skincare – then keep using it.

I’ve written before on the plastic surgery principle of Facial Priming.  Plastic surgeons agree that skincare routines should be built around these basic steps:

  1. Cleanse
  2. Protect
  3. Restore

Click here to view my white paper for more on Facial Priming.

Let’s take that discussion a step further and look at the ingredients that are highest yield for each step of facial priming.


The Biologic Cleanse

The goal here is to clean the face (kind of important daily hygiene task) without letting the face know we are doing it.   This is sort of like being a cat burglar and sneaking in and out of the house silently without being detected (in this case we are stealing dead skin and dirt).  Why be silent?  Because if the face detects external trauma, it will adapt like the hands of a heavy weightlifter and create calluses. 

Standard soap only works if the dead skin and dirt are broken off the surface into small particles so they can then be enveloped with soap micelles and then washed away.  Practically speaking, this means scrubbing/friction – but to the face this is like setting off the house alarm putting the face into hyper anxious mode and causing it to INCREASE cell turnover to make even more dead skin cells in an effort to protect itself from outside threats (it doesn’t know we are trying to help).   More dead skin cells clog pores (causing breakouts), make wrinkles look deeper, make skin heavier and thus more saggy, and create an even thicker barrier for us to get any anti-aging ingredients to the actual face itself.  Big picture: all of this is defeating the entire purpose of priming the face (and cleaning it at all).

The better way to tip toe in and out on our cleaning journey is to use a different approach than soap.  Instead of relying on friction/scrubbing to get the face clean (an overkill nuclear approach from the face’s perspective), why not do like we do in the surgery world and find a minimally invasive, specific, “surgical” way to just remove the excess dead skin cells without scrubbing, since it’s on top of them that the dirt, makeup, etc is sitting anyway. 

Sericin is a protein that is up for this task.  Made by silkworms to keep their mile long strand of silk stuck together to make a cocoon, in the silk industry this protein is boiled off to allow the strand of silk to be separated, unwound and then ultimately woven (along with many other similar strands) into scarves, garments, etc.  But we can use this nature’s miracle.   Because Sericin isn’t just used in nature by silkworms, it’s used by spiders in their webs and is the protein that helps stick the web to the insect.  It does this by binding to keratin, the primary protein present in insect exoskeletons – and, as our luck would have it, is the primary protein in our dead skin cells.  The idea here is to use Sericin to remove excess dead skin cells (and the makeup, dirt, etc. on top of them) instead of friction and scrubbing.  This allows us to very effectively and efficiently clean the face – and not set off the face’s alarm bells in the process. 

This is what we define as a “Biologic Cleanse.” Instead of scrubbing, simply get the face wet, apply the product, give it time to bind, then rinse it off.  That’s it. 

Chinese based oil cleansing

An ancient Chinese oil cleansing method has stood the test of time and doesn’t involve friction/trauma to the face.  It was used by royalty and then forgotten when dynasties changed hands.  It involves using a unique blend  (recipe theme again) of oils to blend out excess facial oil without removing it all (which is what current day soap based facial cleansers do).  Removing all facial oils dries the face, which – you guessed it – raises its alarm bells and causes it to freak out and make more dead skin cells in response.  Ironically, when done well, even with oily skin, cleansing with the appropriate blend of oils DECREASES breakouts.

So to clean your face, I recommend this stealth approach – a biologic cleanser and a gentle oil therapy.  Look for a sericin cleanser and Chinese based oil therapies. 


Even if we clean the face in stealth fashion (as described above), if we then go out into the world for the entire day and are bombarded with trauma, the skin is going to get the “THREAT” signal and respond with inflammation, increased dead cell turnover and defeat our entire goal.  Because 95+% of the damage to our faces that causes the appearance of aging is from UV radiation from sunlight, sunscreens are extremely underrated “anti-aging, cosmetic” ingredients. 

Here’s what to know about using these for cosmetic purposes though: if we shoot for mediocrity, we hit it every time.  Why stop at just one method of protection?  We know scientifically that there are multiple ways to protect from UV radiation. 

Physical agents (zinc oxide, titanium dioxide) reflect the radiation away, like millions of tiny mirrors. 

Chemical agents (octinoxate, ascorbic acid) grab the radiation and turn its energy into heat before it can cause damage. 

Anti-oxidants (algae extracts) soak up and neutralize the reactive oxygen intermediates (ROI’s) that are produced when radiation gets into the cell itself and are what are actually responsible for the damage to the DNA. 

Sunscreens on the market for preventing sunburns typically have only one of these types of ingredients because that’s all they need to get FDA approval to be a sunscreen. I recommend not treating your face with that “just enough to pass the test” approach and looking for all three.  

The other set of ingredients that are key to look at for daytime priming success are moisturizers, since current day HVAC systems, wind, sun and most outside environments are very drying and after the age of 30, our faces’ ability to moisturize itself decreases.  And when the face gets dry – yes, same theme – alarm bells go off, the face perceives a threat to itself, and it anxiously goes about creating more dead skin cells to “protect” itself from the perceived threat.  Prevent this by adding moisture.  

Moisturizing ingredients are classified as humectants and there are many out there.  They work like a bunch of microscopic dry sponges put on the surface of the skin, and asked to absorb water from the air and then when saturated, ask the skin to absorb some of that water.  The problem with this is that there is often not a lot of water in the air (if there was, why would we need to moisturize at all?) and the skin is such an effective barrier to water coming in or out, that most of it just sits out there, doing nothing. 

Look for high yield humectants (hyaluronic acid is the most efficient known, able to absorb 1000x its weight in water) and ones that are absorbed instead of just put on the surface – so that the water absorbed is coming from below instead of coming from the outside air.  This is not only more efficient at getting moisture to the face, it also can help give it a tighter/lifted appearance (which also looks good).  More efficient moisturization will also make fine lines and wrinkles look less noticeable, so there’s a pretty substantial cosmetic benefit to efficient moisturization.


The face is stubborn – it won’t heal because we want it to and we can’t force it to do it either - sort of like my daughters when they were toddlers – I couldn’t “force” them to actually go to sleep.  If you are a parent, you know that the better way to get kids to sleep is to maximize the conditions so that they choose to sleep (in our household, this was winding down before bedtime, comfy pajamas, a soft bed, their “sleeping team” of stuffed animals lined up by the pillow, quiet and dimmed room, etc). 

Similarly, the smarter way to get the face to do what we want is to give it the ingredients we know scientifically it needs to heal the way we want it to.  This is where vitamins come in.  And no, not Centrum for the face.  But, there are several vitamins that are vital for cell healing and we can give them to the face to maximize its ability to repair. 

The highest yield ingredients in this regard are:

Vitamin A: we know this is important in cell healing because medical deficiency in Vitamin A causes patients slower wound healing; this has been very well studied and is key for the healing from inflammation.  The one issue with vitamin A derivatives (like Retin-A) is that it can cause irritation and thus redness to the skin.  We don’t want that.  So look for Retinyl Palmitate, since in my view, it is a lot gentler on the skin; and look for a formulation that absorbs this ingredient in so that it doesn’t cause the surface irritation;

Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide) – this we know is vital for DNA repair and cell reproduction (which decreases with age). 

Vitamin C – vital fuel for collagen synthesis and healing from inflammation in damaged skin; the slower the process of collagen synthesis and healing, the faster the onset of wrinkles, so this vitamin is high yield for our purposes.

Vitamin D – vital for skin tone and reducing inflammation.

Vitamin E – a powerful antioxidant vital in mitigating effects of any sun damage that got through your protection mechanisms and is a vitamin that is typically in very short supply when skin gets dry.  

I recommend giving these ingredients to your face at night, when it has time to chill and focus just on healing.

Again, it’s not just the “name” ingredient because that’s not the only thing being delivered.  When you eat a bite of cake, it’s not just the chocolate your tongue is experiencing, it’s the sugar, the cream, the sprinkles, etc.  So make sure you do your homework on WHO is the author of the formula, what their background and training is, and look for photos of actual patient results before you buy.  Then look for the above ingredients to make the path from point A (here) to point B (the healthiest, most cosmetically optimized possible) in the shortest line possible.

You are also welcome to try the products I designed specifically for this purpose:  The Serisilk Skin Smoothing Cleanser, the DNA Shielding Complex, and the DNA Restoring Cream which incorporate all of the principles and ingredients described above.  The cleanser is Sericin based with a precise blend of oils; the Shielding complex is an SPF 30 sunscreen with all three mechanisms for protection as well as absorbed hyaluronic acid for maximal cosmetic moisturization; and the DNA restoring cream incorporates Vitamins A through E and even contains in its unique recipe some Sericin to help keep the ingredients on the face and not the pillowcase. 

Start with priming, because you may find as many of my patients do, that by properly priming the face for 4-6 weeks, they don’t need anything else.  If at the end of such a regimen you still feel like you want more improvement, check out what I wrote in my White Paper on Subunits because I cover the remaining high yield ingredients there.