The rise of high-dose skincare is here to stay, but is it doing more harm than good?

skincare maths
Are we flooding our skin with ingredients?getty - Hearst Owned

My brain has always been allergic to maths. While my main goal at school was to pass algebra and ghost it for life (sorry, not sorry, Rishi Sunak), my current skincare routine seemed to have other ideas. There I was, trying to work out if my quadruple hyaluronic acid, triple active and double-strength retinol serums should all be used in one night (spoiler: they should not). When did my skincare routine become filled with math conundrums? It was hurting my head, which made me wonder if it was causing the same haze of confusion for my skin.

I've seen a trend in skincare products landing on my desk claiming to be 'double', 'triple' and even 'quadruple' a buzzy new skin-saving ingredient. It sounds tempting; the more of said ingredient, the more powerful it is, right? But I began to wonder whether the maths was really working out, for our skin or our bank account. Can you really have too much of a good thing?

"In my opinion, a well-formulated product is unlikely to need a double or triple dose of the same ingredient," consultant dermatologist Dr Alexis Granite tells me. "It may be that different forms of an ingredient are used, for example, retinol and retinaldehyde, but overall a good quality, highly active form of a single ingredient should be enough to achieve the intended result," she adds.

skincare maths
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As someone with sensitive skin, if I so much as pick up a retinol or chemical exfoliant that's claiming to be triple-powered, I'd break out in a rash quicker than you can say 'square root', but loading up on some ingredients could be beneficial.

"Hyaluronic acid serums that contain multiple forms of the ingredient are usually formulated this way because different molecular weights of hyaluronic acid have slightly different hydrating actions within the skin," says scientist and dermatologist Dr Beibei Du-Harpur.

Although, 'less is more' is a motto used often in skincare, and for a good reason too. "In reality, there are many different hydrating ingredients on the market and nobody really needs hyaluronic acid specifically! A good alternative that's in many products is glycerin," she adds.

skincare maths
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While the keyword on your serum might be hyaluronic acid, the formula itself might not have multiplied it by three. In actual fact, it could be a combination of different ingredients that provide the same goal: hydrated skin. "For hydration, combining ingredients such as HA, glycerin, polyglutamic acid and/or beta-glucan is likely to have a better effect than tripling just the HA alone," says Dr Granite.

While you might not need a triple dose of vitamin C in your routine, the concept of serums combining active ingredients does boast some benefits. "I'm actually in favour of products that combine ingredients, as it means there's less need for layering, and it could help simplify routines and reduce the number of skincare products used", says Dr Du-Harpur. As an example, she says "Actives such as hyaluronic acid (a hydrating ingredient) and niacinamide (a barrier-supporting antioxidant) can actually work in very complementary ways in a product with numerous other ‘actives’".

Dr Granite echos this and adds that combinations such as "Vitamin C and retinol do both have the potential to cause skin irritation, so when amplified by a double dose for example, it is possible to overdo it".

Confusion within skincare is where problems arise. We can't always blame the product. After all, if we've damaged our skin barrier by overloading it with potent actives, it's our fault not the serum itself. "Personally, I like to see products that are designed to address specific concerns and make it clear to the user how best to use the product. This limits confusion and reduces the likelihood it would be used incorrectly, which tends to be where problems really arise. I don’t believe that any products are inherently bad, they are more often misunderstood or used incorrectly or inappropriately," says Dr Du-Harpur.

Class, dismissed.

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