Every so often, I get questions from clients on skincare. Here's an interesting one from my sister: “Should I be using a toner?” Read on to find out.
There are multiple categories of skin care products: cleanser, toner, essence, serum, moisturizer, mask … what else am I missing? The function of cleansers and moisturizers are the easiest to understand. Cleansers remove dirt and oil from your skin. Moisturizers add hydration (or moisture) to your skin. Toners fall into a grey zone in terms of functionality. Some define the function as cleansing of your skin pores. Some define the function as adding more hydration or other additives. Hyaluronic acid and vegetable glycerin are examples of humectants that help with extra hydration while vitamins are other beneficial additives that can be added.
A toner, essence, water, or serum can all provide similar functionality. They are typically used after cleansing and before applying moisturizer and are watery in consistency. Some toners have alcohol in them. These are sometimes labeled as astringent toners. They are marketed as products that "tighten pores". Technically, pores do not open, close, or tighten. What happens is that the skin around the pores tightens because of dryness (alcohol is very drying) giving you the impression that your pores are tighter.
Coming back to the question “Should I use a toner?” - below are three reasons to use one
I personally use real soap to cleanse my body and sometimes my face. The reason is because I made a choice to eliminate plastic from my skin care regimen as much as possible. (Saroya offers a solid shampoo bar that is neutral in pH that can double as body soap, but I prefer real soap because it can be made from scratch from plant oils.) The pH of the soap I make is around 8 so I use an acidic toner immediately after to neutralize the alkalinity.
This toner from Keihl’s has calendula and burdock botanical extracts meant to soothe sensitive skin.
This toner from Neutrogena is just water and butylene glycol and not terribly useful in my opinion. Other than a humectant and panthenol, it has no other nourishing ingredients.
Some toners contain witch hazel, a bark with astringent properties, that constricts skin and gives the feeling of tightening pores. It is debatable if astringents do any good. However, witch hazel extract contains other beneficial skin nutrients such as polyphenols which are antioxidants. But beware of commercial products containing witch hazel as they can contain significant amounts of alcohol which is extra drying.
Saroya makes a botanical toner called Queen of Hungary Water. Apple cider vinegar is used to make a tincture of ten different botanicals selected to manage acne as well provide a bunch of antioxidants. The toner also serves the purpose of balancing the pH of skin (as vinegar is acidic) This product can also be used on underarms to fight body odor as acetic acid, a key ingredient of vinegar, is an effective antibacterial. It’s a truly multi-purpose product.
(You will rarely find skin care products containing vinegar. SW Basics, a natural skin care company sells a toner with apple cider vinegar).
Vinegar is chosen as a solvent for extracting the actives from botanicals. In herbalism, some common solvents are alcohol, vinegar, and glycerin. These solvents are good because they are unfriendly to mold and bacteria while being good solvents to extract the actives. While none of these solvents is ideal (alcohol is too drying, vinegar stinks, glycerin is too sticky), they do a good job of extraction to deliver high doses of actives than would be possible in a cream for example.
In conclusion, consider a toner if you would like to get some new functionality that you aren’t getting from your regular routine. Do not simply pick a product based on the cover - read the ingredients and understand what they can do for you!
I had been thinking for a while of formulating a facial oil with Indian and western herbs - an East meets West if you will. Not because I was feeling gimmicky, but because I wanted an oil that offered all of the following:
- Protection against UV rays (anti-oxidant)
- Anti-bacterial protection for the occasional acne
- Astringent for under eye circles
I had done a lot of research on herbs and plants that offer the above properties and decided to create my formulation. The Indian herbs I used were:
- Sandalwood bark
- Yashtimadhu (licorice - not really localized to India ...)
- Kasthuri haldi (turmeric root)
The western herbs:
- Magnolia flower (foraged from trees in my neighborhood)
- White oak bark
- Orange peels (from organic oranges that I bought for consumption)
- Pomegranate peels (from organic pomegranate fruit I bought for consumption)
-Rose hips (from my garden - collected last winter when they were ripe)
Protection against the sun's UV rays:
The idea is to use a bunch of antioxidants to help scavenge reactive oxygen species (or ROS). The UV rays from the run react with skin tissue and create ROS that can do a lot of damage - ex. cause hyperpigmentation. I really dislike sun screen so I always load all the products I use with anti oxidants. That, along with a wide brimmed hat, has offered me fantastic protection over the years (I take walks in the middle of the day, every day in sunny California).
Some potent antioxidants are a class of compounds called polyphenols and flavonoids. Pomegranate peels, orange peels, rosehips and amla are rich in phenolic compounds. Another excellent antioxidant is vitamin C - found in amla, rosehips and orange peels. In addition, the turmeric root contains curcumin, another powerful antioxidant.
Antibacterial and anti-inflammatory:
Acne is caused by bacterial infection of a pore clogged by sebum. Therefore, it is important to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory ingredients in your skin care. Ingredients in this oil that provide these benefits are magnolia (rich in magnolol and honokiol) and manjishtha. Manjishtha is a much revered herb in Ayurveda - many good things, such as being anti-inflammatory, are attributed to this herb. Both magnolia and manjishtha are good for acne. Sandalwood bark is also well known for being anti-inflammatory.
Under eye circles:
With age (and accumulation of bad habits and exacerbated by genetics) comes the raccoon look. I have tried formulating any number of gels, oils, and creams for this and received not so great results. Licorice, magnolia and manjishtha are known for skin whitening (see references below) and great for pigmentation issues. I added the white oak bark because it is rich in tannins - chemicals that constrict blood vessels. Pomegranate peels are also rich in tannins. So by using a multi-pronged approach of pigmentation suppression and blood vessel constriction (astringents), I hope this will help with dark circles.
I used Ayurvedic methods to extract the herbs in water and then incorporating the decoction in sesame oil and rounded the whole thing off with a drop of my favorite rose absolute.
Been using this oil for a month now and I plan to get this out for sale. Calling it Timeless Radiance - an oil that can be used at any age.
I grew up in India, the country that gave the world Ayurveda. Ayurveda is a medical system that is based on the tenet that human disease is caused by the imbalance of “Doshas” and the disease should be treated using predominantly plants and herbs (roots and bark etc.) to bring the doshas back into balance. Ayurvedic skincare is enjoying a reawakening (much like Yoga) and is all the rage today due to its esoteric appeal.
There is quite a bit of debate regarding the efficacy of Ayurvedic treatment - see this paper for example. The core issue seems to be lack of regulation of the ingredients used in Ayurvedic medicine and the lack of clinical trials that clearly establish efficacy of such treatment. Despite being born and raised in the land of Ayurveda, I will admit I have a healthy skepticism for Ayurveda - concepts like Doshas are hard for scientists to accept. In many Indian households (including mine growing up), using herbs and plants for daily skin and hair care was fairly common. I remember vividly my mother cooking an oil with herbs like curry leaves, henna, hibiscus, Eclipta Alba (or karasillankanni aka bhringraj) and giving me regular oil massages with the dark concoction that smelled ... like a bunch of herbs. She would also use a bunch of Ayurvedic oils for body massages, make a paste of chick pea flour and turmeric to cleanse (until I was grown enough to declare this the most unsexy thing to cleanse with and switched to fragrant soaps). With that rather long story, I now come to the point of this post - how to cleanse skin the right way.
Modern science gave us soap - a product formed by the sapinification of fatty oils using sodium hydroxide (or lye). The way soap works is by emulsifying dirt that sticks to our skin via the sebum - an oily substance that protects our skin. Sodium hydroxide is a highly alkaline substance - meaning it’s highly abrasive. Many cleaning substances such as the Comet cleaning powder, are highly alkaline which is why they are effective as cleaners. Typically the pH of soap is 9, that of water is around 7 (neutral pH) and that of sulfuric acid as present in battery acid, is 1. Strong acids and bases are abrasive and good for cleaning things - but not our skin! When you use a strong alkaline substance to cleanse your skin, you do effectively get dirt off. But you also strip your skin off its protective sebum making you feel very dry.
The other interesting fact is that your skin is actually slightly acidic with a pH of less than 5! I remember being amazed when I first read about this. This paper shows that even bathing with hard water (that’s more alkaline) can impact the acid mantle of the skin. So why is disturbing the skin’s pH not good? Because doing so (by using alkaline products) can disturb the skin’s micro flora - the bacteria - that live on our skin. Turns out that not all bacteria are bad - and we need these bacteria to have healthy skin. Disrupting the skin’s micro flora can lead to a variety of skin problems like eczema etc. So long story short, if you’re using soap to cleanse, stop.
What about liquid cleansers? These are made of a cocktail of surfactants. There are a lot of liquid cleansers in the market now that are more gentle than soap - see this nice article by labmuffin for a review. I checked the pH of some shower gels I had (picked up from hotels) and found the pH to be generally between 6 and 7. Not bad! However, it feels convoluted to make a cocktail of surfactants, add preservatives since these liquid cleansers are water based, (I am allergic to a particular preservative that is commonly used - phenoxyethanol), and add an acid (generally citric acid) to balance the pH. Below is the list of ingredients in a typical liquid cleanser;
I don’t like the complexity of this product. As I continue my journey into skin care formulation, I was drawn to Ayurvedic formulation of oils etc. The methodology of extracting herbal essences in a polar solvent (like water) and then boiling off the solvent in an oil is a very effective way to get a decent concentration of the plant material in a pH neutral medium without the need of a preservative. This type of elegant formulation is highly appealing to me and that’s how I embarked on a mission to research Ayurvedic formulation.
In Ayurveda, the method of skin cleansing involves using a paste made of powders - typically a base chick pea flour - that can be customized endlessly. Such a paste is called Ubtan. I was pleasantly surprised to find a paper on the antioxidant properties, pH etc. of an ubtan featuring chickpea flour, turmeric, and sandalwood bark powder. The pH of this ubtan is 6.5, pretty decent for skin. Below is the comparison of the pH of soap, a bath gel, and the Ubtan I have made.
The Ubtan is closer to our skin pH and what’s more, you can make one that feels luxurious and smells great. I use a very mild surfactant to give the Ubtan a “soapy” feel and appearance but is totally optional. You can also use a few drops of an essential oil to add to the fragrance if you do desire.
We all love facials - the ritual of steaming, masking, pore cleansing, facial massage. Blackhead removal - not so pleasant. I'd love to hear what you like about getting a facial! Please share.
However, I bet here's something you didn't know. If you are dark skinned, blackhead removal can actually do more damage to your skin. Why? The curse of pigmented skin is its very easy tendency to scar. Squeezing out blackheads bruises skin and tends to leave behind scars that last forever. Remember that next time someone tries to de-blackhead you!
So what can you do? First we need to understand blackheads.
Blackheads are caused by two things: excess sebum (oil) and debris like dead skin cells. When the opening of a hair follicle gets clogged by these two, a comedone (bump) develops. If the bump is above the skin surface, it gets oxidized resulting in a blackhead. If the bump is below the skin's surface, it is a whitehead. If the comedone gets infected by bacteria, it is a pimple. There's a lot of hooey stuff on the internet with no scientific backing about how to manage comedones and acne ranging from "non-comedogenic" products to oil cleansing. If we were to address the root cause of blackheads, we need to control the amount of sebum produced and prevent the accumulation of dead skin cells. How can we do this?
Turns out that controlling the sebum production is not easy - it is dependent on hormones which are a bit tricky to manage. We can do something about removing dead skin cells. This is a good review published in a scientific journal about methods to manage acne including alternative therapies. The paper indicates that clay masks are effective in clearing out dead skin due to clay's excellent absorptive and adsorptive properties.
This paper also indicates the benefits of using clay masks for mild acne although it was sponsored by a company that makes and sells clay!!!
There are different types of clay to use. I think it's OK to use any of them although skin care marketing will have you believe otherwise. These are Bentonite, kaolin, French Rose, French Green, Fuller's earth (Multani Mitti) ... In general the French clays and Kaolin clay are gentler and less drying.
What you need to know about applying a clay mask:
1) Cleanse face first
2) You can use water, yogurt, honey, apple cider vinegar as your liquid medium. Water is perfectly fine.
3) Test your skin to sensitivity. If your skin is sensitive, apply a thin layer and leave on for 5-10 mins and wash off. If your skin is not too sensitive, you can leave the mask on for 15-20 mins.
4) Frequency of application - no more than once a week depending on how your skin likes it.
Some other helpful tips to manage blackheads:
1) Cleanse your face with a mild Ph balanced cleanser no more than twice a day - morning and evening. One of the key problems with liquid cleansers are that they are very hard to completely rinse off. It is vitally important to rinse the cleanser off COMPLETELY or the chemicals in the cleanser will clog your pores. A rule of thumb is to wash your face with water 10 times after applying the cleanser.
2) Steam your face to open your pores once a week.
3) Minimize the number of products you use on your face.
Lastly and most importantly - let your confidence make you beautiful, blackheads or not. Don't obsess - just follow these simple hygiene tips, eat sensibly, and live your life!