Skin Care Explained !


What the hell am I looking for and what do all those labels mean?

Now that you're interested in caring for your skin, you will have to spend some time understanding not just how to take care of your skin, but how to relate that knowledge to all the products that are out there clamoring for your dollars and attention. So that you can make the choices that are right for you, the ones that will make you absolutely Mantastic! That's what this feature is all about. Since it's a big subject, we've provided an index at the right so that you can jump directly to any particular topic. Knowing your skin type

Basic product types

Skin treatment types

Skin care brands

Knowing your skin type

The key to choosing the right skin care for you is figuring out your skin type. There are four basic types, though combinations of these types can exist. They are:

Dry skin - Your skin has trouble retaining moisture and usually feels dried out, flaky and irritated. If this is your skin type, you should at all costs avoid products for oily skin. In practical terms, this means avoiding any products that have "purify" or "astringent" in their names. Normally, if you have dry skin you will want to choose lotion or cream cleansers, as gel cleansers are made for people with the opposite problem: oily skin. When it comes to toners, avoid anything with "purify" in the name, and avoid toners that contain alcohol or witch hazel.

Oily skin - Your skin produces lots of oil on a regular basis. Sometimes this condition is accompanied by a susceptibility to acne breakouts, though not always. If you have oily skin you certainly want to avoid products for dry skin, because they will saturate your skin with oils and moisturizers that you don't need. But, believe it or not, you also need to avoid oily skin products that are too astringent, too potent, for a very simple reason. Your skin keeps track of how much oil you have on your face. If you use products that strip it all away, your body will take this as a message to produce more. So you have to be careful not to be overzealous and napalm your face, otherwise this will lead to more oil being produced, not less. You will want to gravitate to products with "purify" and "astringent" in their names, use a gel cleanser and a toner designed for oily skin.

Sensitive skin - Sensitive skin is prone to redness and is easily placed in distress by environmental factors like wind and cold. Your skin will often react to many skin product ingredients that cause no one else any problems. Some times sensitive is a sign of a dermatological problem, such as rosacea, and sometimes it is just a general predisposition of your skin. People with sensitive skin tend also to have very fair skin, with capillaries close to the surface. Sensitive skin products generally try to calm these capillaries down, strengthen them, and spare your face exposure to any ingredients that might irritate it. This is why most sensitive skin products are scent free. The difficulty with sensitive skin is that it is usually combined with other skin types - such as dry skin or oily skin. For example, I have sensitive skin which is very dry, but many sensitive skin products turn out to be very drying, so often they are not helpful. If you have sensitive skin, generally you will want to avoid products containing alcohol, witch hazel, many kinds of AHAs and BHAs (though there are AHA products forumlated specifically for people with sensitive skin), retinol, menthol, camphor, eucalyptus, tea tree oil, etc.

Combination skin - This is skin that is dry in some areas, and oily in others. Usually the distribution is dry cheeks and oily forehead and nose (i.e., the fabled "T-zone"). This is the toughest skin type to find one product for, since most products are optimized for dry skin or oily skin. I have very combination skin, and have given up trying to use one set of products on my face. Now I use a different type of product for each zone of my face. The combination skin products I have tried are just way too drying on my cheeks, so they're not helpful.

In addition to the skin types above, you may also have special needs and concerns, of which the major ones are:

Hyperpigmentation - I.e., you are really, really freckled and/or have uneven coloring on your face and don't like it (there's nothing wrong with freckles really!). People with this concern will use products with "whitening" or "brightening" in their names. Most skin care companies over complete lines for this concern. These products contain ingredients (hydroquinone; kojic; mulberry) that fades freckles and evens the skin tone.

Wrinkles - These are self-explanatory. Skin care companies make all their money on so-called "anti-aging" products that supposedly prevent, "treat" or "reduce the appearance of" wrinkles. Well, I think the jury is out on the effectiveness of any of these claims. It is best to approach the subject with skepticism, but if you still want to try some products in this category, go ahead. Many of them will actually improve the color and tone of your skin, even if they don't prevent or remove a single wrinkle.

Sagging/Lack of Firmness - As we age, gravity weighs our skin down. Sometimes it's under the eyes (bags), sometimes it's under the chin (jowls), but most people would rather not look at this in the mirror in the morning. There are lots of products out there meant to address this issue. Most of them use some isotope of wheat germ to address the problem. This ingredient, as it dries, draws your skin cells together and tightens things up a bit. These products will have the words "firming" or "energy" in their names. Such products are often designed to meet other needs as well, such as basic hydration, oil-control, etc.

Dull skin - Some people, particularly as they age, develop skin that is sallow looking, devoid of color and just basically very blah looking. There are lots of products out there intended to perk up skin that has this problem. Such products often will have the words "oxygen" or "revitalizing" in their names. The ones with "oxygen" in their names use a form of hydrogen peroxide (yep, the same stuff you dye your hair with) to cause the skin to open up and breathe. Oxygen creams are also good ways to deal with zits, since most skin bacteria is anaerobic, meaning they can only survive in an oxygen-free environment. So introducing oxygen into the skin will kill them.


Basic Product Types

As noted above, all of the basic skin product types are created in different versions for the various skin types, and also for the various types of concerns. Here are the basic types of skin care products:

Cleanser - To clean your face of dirt, grime, impurities, etc. Most cleansers on the market today were designed to wash make-up from women's faces. It's important to get a cleanser that matches your skin type, as cleansers for oily skin will be much too harsh for dry-skinned people, and cleansers for dry skin will cause oily-skinned people to break out.

Toner - A light fluid you wipe on your face with a cotton pad after rinsing off your cleanser. It finishes the cleansing process and perpares your skin for treatment. Ideally, it should balance your skin's pH as well. As with cleansers, be sure you choose a toner for your face type.

Day Moisturizer - Usually a light cream or lotion moisturizer for use during the day. Nowadays, these will often come with SPF 15 sunscreen included. A good day moisturizer will have anti-oxidants that will counteract the effects of pollution (smoke, smog, ultravilet rays, etc.)

Night Moisturizer - A heavier moisturizer for use at night, when your skin does most of its breathing and resting.

Mask - A more intensive treatment for your face that you use after cleansing but before your moisturizer. Masks differ very much depending on the skin type (oily skin masks will usually be a gel, while masks for dry skin will be creamier), and also often have other purposes (such as firming, whitening, etc.). Use a mask once or twice a week to get an intensive treatment for whatever your skin condition happens to be.

Exfoliant - This is a product that, through various means, scrubs away the very top surface layer of skin cells, thereby "cleaning" your skin of dead matter that may cause your skin to lose its freshness. There are two types of these: mechanical and chemical. The mechanical exfoliants use some kind of abrasive agent, such as ground up walnut shells or bits of mineral, to actually scrape the skin off. Chemical exfoliants use enzymes or acids to do the same thing. People with sensitive skin should never use mechanical exfoliants!

Serum - This is a catch-all term for any treatment you would put on after the toner but before the moisturizer. Their purpose is to provide some very specific kind of bonus to your skin that a moisurizer alone can't provide. Serum's are almost alwasy skin concern specific. That is, they are there to provide firming, anti-acne, whitening or "anti-wrinkle" benefits in a more potent form.

Sun Screen/Sun Block - A product that blocks or screens out the suns rays to some specified degree (defined by the SPF factor). In the past, these were separate products from moisturizers, but now almost any day moisturizer is available with SPF 15 protection. Please do use an SPF 15 sunscreen every day. SPF 8 is too low to offer much protection. 90% of all wrinkles are caused by sun exposure, as are many kinds of skin cancer. So if you want to look young and healthy for many years to come, please use sunscreen. Sunscreens are available for every skin type. Here's a tip to remember: If it is a sunblock (i.e., contains titanium dioxide), you can put something else over it, like a moisturizer, and it will still be effective. If it is a sunscreen, it must be put on last. If you put something over it, it won't work. The product label will tell you which type you have.


Skin Treatment Types

Many skin care products make it difficult to know exactly what it is they do. When you see something called "Energizing Beauty Cream" you may scratch your head wondering if it sends bolts of electricity shooting through your face. There are two ways to tell generally: the skin type indication for the product (dry, oily, sensitive, etc.) and the ingredients. At some later point, we plan to have a whole feature giving you the lowdown on ingredients, but for now we will settle for some of the generalizations below.

Moisture - There are two basic ways that skin care products keep dry skin hydrated. First, by placing moisture into the skin. Second, by helping the skin retain the moisture it has. Most hydrating treatments (and treatments for oily skin can also be hydrating, by the way) use both methods. Ingredients such jojoba oil, avocado oil, evening primrose oil, mineral oils, shea butter, mango seed butter, and dimethicone are very good at adding moisture, while ingredients such as hyaluronic acid help your skin retain the moisture it has.

Oil/Acne Control - These products also have two basic approaches to the problem of oily or acne-prone skin. First, effectively tamp down the overproduction of oil. To accomplish this goal, many products use herbal ingredients such as burdock root and sage, as well as various types of clay such as kaolin. Second, purify the skin of bacteria that can cause breakouts. Antiseptic compounds such as tea tree oil, camphor and alcohol are often used for this purpose.

Firming - There are lots of skin treatments to help skin regain lost firmness and elasticity. Translation: please do something about the bags under my eyes and my sagging jowls! Of the firming products I have used and reviewed, all seem to use only ingredient to accomplish the actual firming part: wheat germ extracts. Anyway, this range of products will firm your skin up. As with any type of product, some do it better and more naturally than others. Some make you look like you've had a very bad facelift, while others just gracefully restore the youthful contours of your face.

Retinol/Vitamin A - Retinol is a form of vitamin A. In concentrated doses, vitamin A resurfaces your skin and evens out the color. It is also very good for combating acne. Retinol treatments can be wonderful ways to bring clarity and vibrance back to your skin. Though they are also sold as "anti-wrinkle" treatments, which is unfortunate because there is no such thing. If you're using a retinol/vitamin A product, keep two cautions in mind. First, please use an SPF 15 sunscreen while you are using the treatment for for thirty days after (it takes that long for skin cells to be naturally replaced), since vitamin A reveals brand new skin that is very sensitive to sun damage. Second, vitamin A can be very drying and irritating to sensitive or dry skin. So don't over do it, and try a little of the product first to see if it will cause a reaction. If your skin is getting irritated or dry from using a retinol product, just go to using it every other day or night. Also, many companies now sell very gentle retinol/vitamin A products specially designed for people with dry and sensitive skin.

AHA/BHA - Alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy acids are naturally occurring acids from fruits, sugar cane and milk that can gently (or not so gently, as the case may be) resurface your skin. Unlike retinol, AHA/BHA's actually dissolve the top layer of your skin. AHA's work at the level of the epidermis, while BHA's go deeper and work at the dermal level. This makes BHAs better as a treatment for acne. AHA/BHA can be good treatments for dull skin or, surprisingly enough, for dry skin. Sometimes it helps to slough off that layer of dried out skin cells. As with retinol, please use a sunscreen/sunblock if you are using these products, and be careful of irritation or dryness. Generally, it is not advised to use retinol and AHA/BHA products on your face at the same time,

Vitamin C - About three years ago vitamin C became the "hot product" in skin care. Why? It was discovered that very pure doses of vitamin skin are very effective at curing the skin and in stimulating the production of collagen. These rejuvenating properties have made it very popular, but also expensive, since it is very difficult to stabilize vitamin C. Any exposure to air or light normally will cause it to degrade. The techniques necessary to stabilize the vitamin are what make the products a little pricey. In any event, vitamin C as a treatment has many of the same effects of vitamin A, and the same cautions apply: use a sunscreen; be careful about drying out your skin; test for sensitivity; don't use it in conjunction with vitamin A or AHA/BHA products.

Oxygen - Many of the bacteria that cause pimples are what scientists call "anaerobic"; that is, they can only survive in an environment deprived of oxygen - which is the normal environment inside your skin. Hydrogen peroxide (yes, the stuff you dyed your hair with in your early 20s) turns out to be a very effective way of introducing oxygen into your skin. Obviously, the amounts used in facial products are minute, otherwise you'd wide up with streaks and highlights on your cheeks. But an oxygen treatment is a good choice if you have pimples and/or your skin is lackluster looking. I used an oxygen cream once, and it wasn't at all drying, as I feared. It also gave my face quite a glow.

Antioxidants - Now that we've talked about why you may need oxygen in your face, let's face the apparent contradiction that antioxidants, i.e., products that combat the effects of oxygen, are also very popular skin care treatments. Antioxidants are naturally occurring substances that fight off the effects of free radical damage. Free radicals are substances that lead to increased oxidation within your body, and this process is responsible for much of the body's degradation over time. Sunlight and many pollutants increase the production of free radicals, so it would seem antioxidants should be part of any skin care regime, since we all live and work in fairly polluted environments. Naturally, skin care companies apply this same logic to your face. Perhaps the most famous facial antioxidant is grape seed extract (vitis vinifera), and many products now contain it. There is an entire French skin line, Caudalie, that is based on this ingredient. The vitamins A, C and E are also antioxidants, though not as powerful as grape seed extract. Co-enzyme Q10, or ubiquinone, is another powerful antioxidant. Green tea, alpha lipoic acid, lutein and milk thistle are other antioxidant ingredients you may encounter.

Soothing Agents - Often our skin gets stressed out and irritated, and needs to be soothed and massaged back into tranquility. Skin care products designed to address almost any need and skin type will contain many such soothing ingredients. You should look for these ingredients if you are concerned if the product in question will be gentle on your face: Calendula, chamomile, mimosa, shea butter, rose extract, yarrow extract and green tea.


Skin Care Brands

Let's end up this dissertation with a quick survey of some of the common skin care brands, with our commentary on their strengths and weaknesses: The list is organized by price point.


If, unaccountably, you don't want to spend a lot of money on skin care, you're in luck. Because the last five years have seen a flowering of the sophistication and selection of skin products available at drugstores and lower-priced stores in general. Here are some brands you might want to check out:

Neutrogena - That old acne-care stalwart now has a fairly complete line of skin care products available at your local drugstore. They sell a nice selection of moisturizers with SPF 15. I'm not wild about their cleansers or toners, because they are too harsh for my skin. They make a nice "pore refining" cream with a small amount of retinol that is a nice treat for the face. Prices range from $8 - $15

St. Ives - This drugstore brand has a reputation for being super cheap, primarily because they sell gallon jugs of shampoo for about a dollar. However, they actually make some pretty nifty skin products, such as a lovely soothing cucumber face lotion and a great face cream with CoQ10. All for super low prices. St. Ives also tends to have more natural ingredients than Neutrogena. Prices from $4 - $10.

Korres - This product line is not available at drugstores. It is a Greek skin care line available, as far as I know, only from the BeautyDoor web site ( This is an all natural line with a full complement of products for all basic skin needs. I've tried their products and I love them. Far more sophisticated and effective than any other brand at this price point. Their prices are equivalent to Neutrogena ($8 - $15), but their products are much better. By all means check them out!


Origins - In the 80s, this was the first broad-based American skin care line that based itself entirely on herbs and herbal principles. This was a very new thing in the mid-80s, when Origins was launched. For a long time, I sniffed at Origins, because it seemed every product they made was just a recombination of the same basic ingredients: Clary sage; chamomile; rosemary and lavender. It was boring and of dubious effectiveness. But in the last two years they have rejuvenated the line and come up with some very nice products for all skin types. I particularly like their products for oily skins and for combination skin. This is a very good line to get started with, as the prices are reasonable ($18 - 35), and the products all have a nice baseline of goodness. Many of my friends whom I've recommended Origins to have become very happy customers of the line. Available at every department store in the galaxy, and at

Murad - Dr. Murad is an LA dermatologist who started his own line of products a few years ago. Being LA-based, his products are ubiquitous here in LA, but also on the web, where just about every skin care shopping site carries Murad. And you know what? They're just fine, thank you. The products have very pure ingredients and fall into a very sensible set of lines that are easy to understand and follow. I am a huge fan of their sunscreens, which are the best in the business as far as I'm concerned. But their Environmental Shield line is also great, as are their products for oily and acne prone skin. Another good line to experiement with. Available at all Pure Beauty stores; at, at, and, of course, at

Clarins - This is a Paris-based skincare and cosmetics company that can be found at every department store in the known universe. They are hard to find online, but I believe has Clarins products available. The selection of skincare products is enormous, and, fortunately, Clarins makes many very nice products at a reasonable price. There are a few clunkers here and there, but generally Clarins is a line to be trusted. Also, their sales representatives tend to be extremely well-trained and are sample whores. Clarins makes kick-ass cleansers and some really great products for dry skin. Give it a try. They also have a fabulous and fabulously informative web site at, complete with its own "herbarium" which explains what each herbal ingredient is/does.

Jack Black - You know, for a men's skincare review site, we don't review a lot of men's skincare lines. Mostly because, in our snippy opinions, they suck. But here's a new line for men out of Texas that is actually quite good. And reasonably priced. I have personally tried their eye gel and their glycolic acid moisturizer for men, and they are great. Lots of pure herbal ingredients that just work the way they are supposed to. I'd give this line a try. I found it at Fred Segal's here in LA, but that won't help anyone outside of West LA. Fortunately, they have a good website at And the packaging is very butch, so if you're worried about being thought a sissy, this is the line for you.

Clinique - Poison. Pure poison. That's all I'm really going to say about Clinique. It's a French skincare line that is unavoidable if you shop at department stores. Their products are uniformly horrible, and, given the lack of quality, they are overpriced. Many a young man has gotten roped in by the lab-coated sales staff and sold a bill of nonsense. The only skin damage I have ever suffered as a result of using a skincare product was because I used a Clinique product (Stop Signs). Any of the other lines listed above is a better choice.


Sisley - This is a very high-end skin care line that is found only at very high-end department stores like Saks and Neimans. All of the products in this line are very high priced ($60 - $300) and, for the most part, incredibly mediocre for the money. Sisley is what skincare looked like twenty years ago, but charging 21st century prices. Their products are very greasy and very overscented. If you want to buy premium skincare, there are other, much better choices (see below).

La Prairie - This is the flagship line for premium skincare. La Prairie is a Swiss subsidiary of Beiersdorff, a Ger man conglomerate. Their products are certainly not cheap, running in the range of $60 - $300. The average price is about $120. So this is not a skincare line for the faint of heart. But if you have the bucks to spend, this is the place to spend them. Every La Prairie product I've ever tried has been immediately effective at addressing the skincare need it was designed for. Whether that was dry skin, oily skin or environmentally damaged skin. If you're going to splurge, do it here. You won't be disappointed. At Saks, Neimans and online at

Darphin - Darphin is a French skincare line that is every bit as good as La Prairie, and charges exactly the same prices. The difference is that, with Darphin products, the "pleasure of use" factor is much higher. La Prairie's products have something of a clinical quality about them - they get the job done, but that's about it. Darphin's products are equally effective, but they are more pleasurable to use overall. Darphin is only available at Neiman Marcus in the US. You can order some of the products online at

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