Do You Really Need a Skin Care Penetration Enhancer?

Skin Care

Skin Care Penetration Enhancers

One question I receive a lot from readers is whether or not a skin care product will lay on top of the skin, doing absolutely nothing. (Kind-of like a lousy lover.) It sounds crazy, but it does become possible for skin care ingredients to have little to no benefit for your skin. For instance, if you apply a petrolatum or mineral oil-based product under a thinner product, like an antioxidant serum, fewer antioxidants will reach the skin. Another example is if you never exfoliate and your skin has rougher skin in its sun-damaged areas: think upper cheeks, nose, and forehead. These areas will be more resistant to skin care.

Keep in mind also that the effectiveness of topical skin care is dependent upon two things: 1.) how much of the ingredient is retained in the skin, and 2.) how much is absorbed into specific target tissues (University of California at Urvine).

There are obvious solutions, like using products only from the same line to avoid layering issues and exfoliating regularly. In addition, in general, nearly all serums and moisturizers on the market today are formulated such that some of the beneficial ingredients will penetrate the skin. However, in our one-step society, people are always looking for an even faster solution. Some companies have started to produce skin care products designed to enhance the penetration of skin care ingredients into the skin. Others are swearing by skin care boosting devices. It appears to be working: Skin care scientists, dermatologists and aestheticians have all recently noted that a number of skin treatments and ingredients are able to enhance the absorption of key ingredients into the skin. Here, I analyze the best methods to use, and how to do so properly.

The Best Skin Care Penetration Enhancers

Based upon the existing research and our subsequent analysis here at FutureDerm, we have concluded that the best treatments and skin care ingredients to enhance the penetration of skin care within your skin are, from strongest to weakest:

  • Fractional laser treatments
  • Exfoliation
  • Ultrasound/Radio/Microwave frequency devices
  • Microencapsulation
  • “Nano”-size particles/microparticles
  • Various solvents, including fatty acids and low molecular weight alcohols

Clear+Brilliant Fractional Laser

Fractional laser treatments are called “fractional” because they only affect portions, or “fractions,” of the skin. Of all the methods to increase skin care absorption into your skin, research seems to demonstrate fractional laser treatments are the best. Fractional lasers include Fraxel, which is a type of ablative CO2 fractional laser, and Clear+Brilliant, which is a non-ablative CO2 fractional laser. In essence, ablative fractional lasers like Fraxel work by poking little holes in your skin, which triggers the healing process and stimulates collagen production. This obviously increases the absorption of skin care. However, recent research shows non-ablative fractional lasers like Clear+Brilliant can also increase the absorption of antioxidant serums into deeper layers of the skin (Clear+Brilliant, 2012).  In turn, antioxidant serum has been shown to stimulate the non-ablative healing process to be just 48 hours post-treatment (Clear+Brilliant, 2012), so it’s a mutually-beneficial effect.

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel

Exfoliation may sound like an obvious solution, but there is both physical and chemical exfoliation. Physical exfoliation includes methods like microdermabrasion. Examples are scrubs that can contain aluminum oxide, magnesium salts, or other abrasive material that literally slough off portions of the top layer of skin. Dermatologists and aestheticians also can administer physical exfoliation with mechanical devices designed for microdermabrasion. On the other hand, chemical exfoliation includes chemical peels with glycolic acid, lactic acid, and the like. In general, the more pressure with which physical exfoliants are applied, or stronger the concentration of the chemical exfoliant in the solution, the more sloughing of skin you’ll have from the top layer – and hence, the greater the penetration of skin care into the skin. The best treatments are obviously adminstered in-office by dermatologists or aestheticians, but lesser at-home effects can be achieved with treatments like Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Extra Strength Peel ($87.95,

Talika Cream Booster

Ultrasound/radio/microwave frequency devices are all the rage in Asia right now. These include the JeNu Active Youth Skincare System ($249.00, and the Talika Cream Booster ($104.11, Like the wand applied to your belly when you are pregnant, the JeNu Active Youth Skincare System emits ultrasound waves that gentle “jostle” the skin, allowing for subtle vibrations to open microchannels through which ingredients can better penetrate the skin. Similarly, the Talika Cream Booster has placed an electric microcurrent into its cream booster. The subtle vibrations are designed to enhance skin care penetration. There is unfortunately a dearth of data on either. Of the available devices, I like the Talika Cream Booster better; the microcurrents also emit light, which has been shown to stimulate collagen production on its own. So it’s a two-for-one!

FutureDerm Time-Release Retinol 0.5

Microencapsulation enables for ingredients to be released into the skin for longer periods of time. To properly understand microencapsulation, first you must remember the basic chemical principle that “like dissolves like.” This simply means that oil-based ingredients, like retinol (vitamin A), will dissolve only in oil-based ingredients. Similarly, water-based ingredients, like vitamin C, will dissolve only in water-based ingredients.

So microencapsulation occurs as oil-based ingredients are wrapped in very small amounts of an oil-based protective coating, whereas water-based ingredients are wrapped in small amounts of a water-based coating. Then the ingredients are combined into solution with the rest of the formulation. Sometimes, as in our FutureDerm Time-Release Retinol 0.5, the ingredients used in small amounts to microencapsulate are also used as all or a part of the solvent, or the main solution into which the other ingredients are dissolved.

Over the course of time, microencapsulated ingredients enable better penetration of actives into the skin, partly because the ingredients have had greater amounts of time to traverse the skin, and partly because the ingredients have simply accumulated in the skin without being metabolized or broken down. The latter is particularly true in dealing with fat-soluble ingredients, like vitamin A and D, rather than water-soluble ingredients.

Nano-sized particles enable ingredients to penetrate the skin better, because, let’s face it, they simply are less impervious and can get through skin layers more readily. This is particularly beneficial for ingredients like hyaluronic acid and collagen, which are bulky and have been shown to do little more than hydrate, unless injected or cleverly scaled-down to reach deeper layers of the skin. While nano-sized particles are available in a number of products, I do not find this delivery method to be as effective in enhancing skin care penetration and efficacy as well as laser treatments, chemical/physical exfoliation, electrical/ultrasound devices, and microencapsulation. The reason? Skin care ingredient efficacy depends on a lot of factors, including an ingredient’s molecular weight, solubility, polarity, and lipophilic/hydrophilic nature. I get a little skeptical that nano-sized or micronized ingredients are able to maintain the same chemical properties, and even if manipulation is carefully done, I am then convinced most products don’t contain enough concentration of the nano-sized or micronized ingredients to maintain efficacy. So this is my least favorite method.

Are Skin Care Penetration Enhancers Safe?

For every skin care scientist, nowadays it seems there is someone who is alarmist about every chemical on the market. To this, I will honestly say: Relax. First of all, nearly every ingredient, natural or synthetic, actually enhances the penetration of skin care to some extent. The reason is that any ingredient applied topically to the skin will change its barrier function. The exception are ingredients that do only lay on top of the skin, occlusive agents like petrolatum or mineral oil. Studies have even shown topically-applied olive oil changes skin’s barrier function, as do many other fatty acids (Current Drug Delivery, 2009).

Second, the body has a fair checks-and-balances system. In order for an ingredient to be effective, it has to reach target receptors within the skin. Once a target receptor has bound to a certain quantity of an ingredient, it is “filled.” The excess ingredient is likely to be eliminated from the body. There are exceptions – a few ingredients may be able to stay in the circulation long enough to come around again after the target tissue has processed the first round of the ingredient and is now free again. But in general, skin care ingredients are in systems where this won’t occur.

Lastly, and perhaps most notably, penetration enhancers have been used in topically-applied drugs for a few decades now. They simply reduce the amount of hindrance ingredients experience in getting into the skin. As you might imagine, topically-applied prescription drugs are typically significantly stronger than what you can get over-the-counter. And these penetration enhancers have been shown not only to be safe in prescription drugs, but also to enhance the results seen from using the treatments (Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews, 2004).

The only concern I have with skin care penetration enhancers is that they will make your skin more receptive to ingredients, and hence, somewhat more sensitive. Therefore, apply products after using a skin care penetration-enhancing device or topically-applied treatment with caution. If you experience redness, dryness, swelling, or any other form of irritation, lessen or discontinue use of your products.

Bottom Line

Skin care efficacy depends upon how much of the ingredient is absorbed/retained in the tissue, and how much binds to target receptors in the key cells where you need it. By using methods to enhance skin care ingredient penetration, your skin care is likely to work better, because more of the ingredient will reach the target tissues, and hence there is a greater chance of binding and an effect. From studying the scientific literature, my conclusion is that the best methods are laser treatments, followed (in decreasing order) by exfoliation, ultrasound/radio/electric current-emitting devices, microencapsulation, and decreasing particle size. However, skin care penetration enhancers may also make your skin somewhat more sensitive, so use a light hand when returning to your favorite skin care products.

This was a long and intriguing article to write! I know you all must have questions; please, let me know in comments below!

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