There are dozens of skincare brands on the market which claim to be the next best thing and consumers are becoming more aware of the key products and benefits but sometimes we need a chemistry degree to figure out what is good. I am often asked my thoughts on certain cosmetic and high street brands so I thought each week I would take a closer look at a few of the most common ones. Now, I am not a scientist but I will try to explain with the depth of knowledge I have studied to. Today’s blog is all about The Ordinary. This brand has taken the skincare world by storm and this is largely due to the incredibly small price tag of the products. The main products in their very large (maybe confusing?) line up are retinoids, vitamin c and acid toners.
Let’s start with the retinoids. They have various strengths and combinations but the increasing popularity comes from the use of HPR (Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate), which is an ester of retinoic acid. To understand why this is important, we need to examine the science behind each type of retinoid available.
When we use retinoid products, most of them have to convert to retinoic acid for it to be beneficial for our skin health. Products like L’Oreal have to undertake several conversions so they are very weak (retinol palmitate). Pure retinol is the entire vitamin A molecule and has to convert less so it is very effective and also usually well tolerated by our skin. Retinal is not as commonly used as it is expensive to formulate but only needs to convert once to become retinoic aid. Retinoic acid, or Tretinoin, does not have to convert at all and it is only available by prescription. This means it can be more irritating to the skin initially but demonstrates superior benefits, quicker. So, where does The Ordinary HPR fit in? They use an ester of retinoic acid which The Ordinary claim is as beneficial as prescription retinoic acid but without the irritation. Sounds fabulous right?! Well, unfortunately, there is very little evidence to demonstrate this apart from the claims of the brand. The little research available on the ingredient studied HPR in combination with pure retinol, so cannot reliably attribute any benefits directly to HPR, especially for treatment of acne.
Next up is vitamin C. Again, The Ordinary have an array of vitamin C products so I chose to look at the 100% l-Ascorbic powder because, if you have seen me extolling the virtues of l-ascboric acid percentage, you will know that this matters. The research shows that 10-20% l-Ascorbic acid is beneficial for our skin. 10% for sensitive skin, 15% for normal and 20% for oily skin. If you go above 20%, there is no extra benefit. So why is it so high in this product? Another confusing thing for me is that you have to mix this powder with a serum. I can understand the concept. Vitamin C serums are very unstable and oxidise, becoming ineffective, easily. This is usually the reason they are super expensive. However, there is no mixing solution provided so how do we know what is safe to use? How do we know the concentration is consistent when we have to mix every time? How can we guarantee the pH is consistent? I would avoid this as I cannot see a place for it. I also looked at their newest addition which is 30% Vitamin C suspension in silicone. This was to replace their 23%+2% HA sphere serum which was reported to be very gritty, although some reviews report the same issues as this is a suspension (powder in liquid). The reason they have used 30% l-Ascorbic acid is because silicone can reduce the efficacy of the serum, okay, seems reasonable. The only things which make me unsure is I cannot find the pH for this product. Vitamin C should be less than pH3.5 (My favourite Obagi is 2-2.4 and stable for 6-9 months). The higher the percentage of l-Ascorbic acid, the more acidic the product is and causes increased irritation to our skin. In addition, we have to consider molecule size and ability to cross the lipid barrier into the dermis. Don’t assume all are made and tested equally. Obagi vitamin C is the perfect formulation which remains effective on the skin for 24 hours, 5 times more than SkinCeuticals equivalent. The last thing which I have to question is why is it preferable to apply this at night? Whilst applying vitamin C at night will not cause harm, the most benefit will come from application on a morning, when exposure to UV radiation and free radicals are highest.
The final topic I want to cover is acids. I am a big fan of chemical acids so I am genuinely intrigued by The Ordinary's range. The first things that strikes me as I browse their website is that I would never recommend purchasing a peeling solution from the internet. There is limited information on which specific acid concentration is in their 30% AHA. There are no instructions on needing to stop other acids prior to use and a lack of any aftercare instructions. The next product I looked at is the Salicylic acid 2% solution. This product also contains witch hazel (which really reminds me of being a teenager terrified of the smallest spot). Witch hazel is an old fashioned ingredient which used to be popular for dealing with acne, however, there are far superior ingredients available with more recent research. One of the problems with witch hazel is the ingredient tannin which can dry the skin out too much but the use of this if formulated correctly isn’t always bad for the skin. Now, I feel a bias towards discussing this product because I would only ever recommend my favourite Obagi Pore Therapy. This is a medical product, available by prescription only. This is also 2% salicylic acid, but it penetrates deeper, rather than sitting on the surface, and makes cellular changes. These cellular changes are why this cannot be bought without a consultation. On paper both are 2%; will consumers assume they are comparable? It is important to consider the brands you are using and whether or not they are tested to monitor absorption rate and bioavailability. It is not necessarily accurate to suggest they are equally effective because the ingredients list has similaities. This is not always clear without hours of research, and even then, important information is hard to obtain. One thing I did find interesting was the use of alcohol. The Ordinarys’ toner does not include alcohol, whereas my toner of choice does. I have done a lot of research about alcohol content in toners and it largely comes down to the type of alcohol used in the formula as to how it effects the final product. Benzyl alcohol is the preferred ingredient, rather than ethanol, the use of which can increase ingredient absorption. Since the removal of parabens from a lot of products, benzyl alcohol is used more to stabilise and preserve the product. Although it doesn’t have any specific benefits for our skin, it is an antioxidant so helps to reduce free radical damage.
My intention here is not to say all The Ordinary products are bad but I would say if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. If your budget does not allow you to use medical grade skincare then this may be a good option but be realistic with your expectations in how much difference you will notice. I am not against high street brands, I often recommend cheaper alternatives for moisturisers and sun protection if needed but this is not one of the brands I would direct my clients towards.