How To Choose The Right Serum For Your Age

right serum for your age

For years, I ignored serums. I just had no idea what they were supposed to do and so saw no point in buying one. Once I did, though, I never looked back. These days, a serum is an integral part of my skincare routine, both at morning and at night.

Why? Serums, which usually come in gel or lotion forms, contain a higher concentrations of active ingredients, such as antioxidants and skin-lighters, than moisturizers. That makes them more powerful. But also more expensive.

While not a must have, serums are powerful allies in the fight against premature aging. But, with so many on the market, how can you choose the right one for your skin’s needs, especially when these keep changing with age? Here’s a quick guide to help you:

paulas choice resist ultra light super antioxidant concentrate serum

For 20s somethings

In our ’20s, skin looks great. It is well-hydrated, soft, and supple. Wrinkles and dark spots are far in the future. There’s no damage to fix. But a lot to prevent. For that, you need a serum rich in antioxidants that can fight free radicals and prevent the signs of aging.

One of my favourites, and cheapest, options is Skin Actives Vitamin C Serum ($15.50). It features Vitamins C and E, and Ferulic Acid, all powerful antioxidants on their own. But, used together, they work even better. They enhance one another’s efficacy, and can help prevent damaged caused by oxidative stress and UV rays.

If you have oily skin, you may also like Paula’s Choice Resist Ultra-Light Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum ($34.00). The lightweight formula is infused with a bunch of antioxidants, including Vitamins C and E, Quercetin, and Resveratrol. It also contains niacinamide, which can reduce water loss and keep skin hydrated. Dry skin? Try Andalou Naturals Fruit Stem Cell Revitalize Serum ($24.95). Stem cells don’t work, but the blend of antioxidants, humectants, and emollients will keep your skin soft and hydrated, and premature signs of aging at bay.

paulas choice resist intense retinol serum

For 30s somethings

It’s in your early ’30s that fine lines start to appear. If you haven’t already, it’s now time to incorporate retinoids into your skincare routine. Retinoids can reduce fines lines and wrinkles by stimulating the production of hyaluronic acid and collagen, which keep skin elastic and firm. They can also prevent new ones from forming.

But there’s a catch. Retinoids can irritate skin when you first start to use them. To avoid this, apply serums with retinoids only every other day or less, and increase frequency slowly. If your skin is very sensitive, retinoids may just not work for you. Before giving up, though, try Future Derm Time-Release Summer Retinol 0.5 ($32.50). It releases retinol over a period of several hours, rather than all at once, thus minimizing the risk of irritation.

Another favourite of mine, which is currently part of my skincare routine, is Paula’s Choice Resist Intensive Wrinkle-Repair Retinol Serum ($40.00). In addition to retinol, it contains a bunch of antioxidants, including Vitamins C and E, to help prevent wrinkles, and anti-irritants to soothe skin. Retinol and antioxidants can also be found in Dr Dennis Gross Clinical Concentrate Hydration Booster ($36.00). Very hydrating, it’s more suitable for dry skin.

dr denese wrinkle rx extreme pro peptide gel

For 40s somethings

AHAs, such as glycolic acid and lactic acid, are beneficial at any age, but even more so as we get older. They exfoliate skin, thus helping reduce the appearance of wrinkles and dark spots, hydrate it, and even stimulate collagen production. All things our skin badly needs now that it is getting dryer, less firm, and uneven.

A simple AHAs serum, which contains glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid, plus hyaluronic acid for some much needed hydration, is Cellex-C Betaplex Line Smoother ($72.00). If, instead, you want both the benefits of glycolic acid, antioxidants, and retinol, try MD Formulations Vit-A-Plus Illuminating Serum ($65.00).

Now may also be the time to start using peptides. While there is no independent research yet showing they work well to reduce wrinkles, it certainly won’t hurt using an antioxidant rich serum that contains one or two of them. Just in case. One such serum is Dr Denese New York Wrinkle Rx Extreme Pro-Peptide Gel ($64.56). Not only it is loaded with any peptide you can think of, it also contains retinol and antioxidants that can help improve the signs of aging and stimulate collagen production.

dr dennis gross ferulic acid retinol brightening solution

For 50 and older somethings

At 50s, you should look for serums that can fight wrinkles, improve skin texture, and lighten sun spots. Proactiv & Proactiv+ Dark Spot Corrector ($22.00) does it all. The combination of hydroquinone and glycolic acid fades dark spots, while Vitamins A, C, and E help fight free radicals and stimulate collagen production.

Another excellent, but more expensive, option is Peter Thomas Roth De-Spot Plus ($78.00). It also contains hydroquinone to lighten sun and dark spots, and antioxidants, such as Vitamin C and caffeine to fight wrinkles. If hydroquinone isn’t your thing, try Dr Dennis Gross Ferulic Acid + Retinol Brightening Solution. It contains a bunch of skin-lightwning agents, such as licorice exrract and arbutin, as well as antioxidants and retinol.

Do you use serums? Which ones are your favourites?

Does The Clarisonic Help Or Harm Skin?

clarisonic good bad skin

It’s one of the very few innovations in skincare devices. It made Ophra’s list of favourite things. And yet, many experts caution about its use. I’m talking about the Clarisonic (although, everything in this post is true for its many clones as well). What is it, and why is it so controversial?

What is Clarisonic?

Put it simply, the Clarisonic is an electric toothbrush for skin. Developed utilizing the same technology previously used to cleanse teeth, it features a soft and gentle brush that oscillates back and forth over the skin at sonic speed. According to a 2006 study (done by the makers of Clarisonic), “the net result is the inelastic comedones become loosened and detached from the infundibular wall and are then cleared from the acroinfundibulum,” which is just a fancy way of saying it can dislodge impurities in the pores. The brush can also remove dirt, makeup, and dead skin’s cells.

A cleansing or an exfoliating system?

Clarisonic is marketed as a cleansing, rather than an exfoliating, tool. That’s probably why they recommend using this device twice a day, in the morning and at night. They’re trying to make you change your cleansing habits, and replacing your usual cleanser with their brush. But while the Clarisonic can cleanse skin well, it also removes dead skin cells, which is what an exfoliant does. And exfoliating too often, especially if you have dry or sensitive skin, can do more harm than good to the skin.

Why overexfoliation is bad for skin

Exfoliation has many benefits for the skin. By removing the superficial layer of dead skin cells from its surface, you expose the newer, brighter, smoother, and even-toned skin underneath. It also makes fines lines and wrinkles appear smaller. As a result, skin looks younger and healthier. That’s not all. Exfoliation also allows skincare products to better penetrate into the skin, enhancing their efficacy. Plus, keeping skin and pores clean also helps prevent breakouts.

But those dead cells are there for a reason. They protect the red and raw skin underneath that’s not ready to come to the surface yet. If you remove too much of this protective layer, you’ll be exposing it, and that can be very painful! Even if you don’t reach raw skin, overexfoliation can disrupt the skin’s protective barrier, allowing moisture to escape from the skin, causing dryness. Or worse. When this barrier is damaged, skin is more prone to both irritations and infections.

How often should you use the Clarisonic?

The Clarisonic should be used as an exfoliating device. And not everyone can exfoliate skin manually daily. If you have pretty thick skin, you may be able to use this device twice a day without experiencing any side effects. But if your skin is normal, dry, or sensitive, then using it 2 or 3 times a week may be best. For some people, though, even that is too much. It’s all about experimenting to find out what frequency is right for you.

Problem is, this stuff is too expensive for experimentation. You don’t want to splurge on it only to discover it’s too harsh for your skin! Oh, and be careful what you use it with too. If you use it with a AHAs or BHA based exfoliant (whether during the cleansing process or afterwards), you may be getting too much exfoliation as well. Pay attention to how your skin responds and discontinue use at first sign of imitation.

Can anyone use the Clarisonic?

The brand of course says yes. Their website features several studies claiming the device is gentle and safe for use for everyone, including those affected with mild to moderate acne and rosacea. However, these studies were all commissioned by Clarisonic, and were conducted on a small group of people. Only 14, for example, took part in the rosacea study. Also, they don’t provide much information on how the Clarisonic was used or how the results were measured, making it impossible to accurately review the findings.

Experts, though, are cautious. Dr Leslie Baumann, for instance, believes that, while people with thicker skin can safely use the Clarisonic, “anyone with sensitive skin – and acne-prone skin is indeed sensitive – should actually avoid these vigorous scrubbing products, which can exacerbate inflammation. Rosacea and the tendency to experience skin allergies are further indications that you should not be using an abrasive exfoliant or a vigorous cleansing brush. Similarly, anyone with very dry skin should avoid exfoliating, which may compromise an already impaired skin barrier and worsen dryness.”

Is the Clarisonic the best way to cleanse and exfoliate skin?

Let’s say your skin is not too dry or sensitive, and can take being exfoliated regularly with the Clarisonic. Should you invest in it? The cheapest model costs $99.00, while the brush heads, which must be cleaned and replaced regularly, $25.00. That may be worth it if studies showed it worked better than AHAs, such as Glycolic Acid, or Salicylic Acid. But, as far as I know, no such study has been performed yet.

Clarisonic has, however, commissioned a study to test the cleansing ability of its device. The results showed that the Clarisonic Brush removes 6 times more makeup than manual cleansing. That’s both impressive and scary! It makes you wonder how much makeup we have trapped in our skin. Well, if you feel the urge of giving your dirty face a good scrub to remove it all, don’t. You don’t need to.

The Clarisonic Brush removes 6 times more makeup than manual cleansing indeed. But manual cleansing, according to the study, simply means removing makeup by hand with only water! Everyone who has ever used makeup knows that many products, especially longlasting and waterproof ones, are best removed with oil-based rather than water-based makeup removers. And none of us would dream to take makeup off with water alone! It’s just not that effective. Any cleanser would remove makeup better than water only. And was the Clarisonic tested against other cleansers and makeup removers? Of course not! Makes you think, doesn’t it?

The Bottom Line

This post is pretty negative, but I don’t think the Clarisonic is bad. Not for everyone anyway. Like other exfoliants, it can remove dead skin cells, revealing the brighter, younger-looking skin underneath, and enhancing the penetration of skincare products. But does it do it better than other exfoliants and cleansers on the market? We don’t know. What’s certain is that using it often, especially if you have dry or sensitive skin, can lead to dryness and irritations. If you’re not sure it’ll work for you, try a cheaper option, like Olay Pro-X Advanced Cleansing System, which is only $30. Personally, until I see scientific studies confirming it works better than other exfoliants, I’ll stick to glycolic acid.

Glass Packaging: Beautifully Practical Or Uselessly Expensive?

glass packaging

Once upon a time, cosmetics were mostly packaged in glass containers. For some people, nothing else would do. Then, plastic was invented. Considerably cheaper, it allowed brands to save on materials and sell their products at more competitive prices. But glass packaging hasn’t disappeared. Glass is still the preferred material for perfume bottles and is also chosen by few brands to give their products a more luxurious feel.

Of course, it comes at a higher cost. Some people are happy to pay more for a beautiful bottle, while others consider it a waste of money. Plastic is just as good, right? Well, not always. Aesthetic is not the only reason why some brands decide to use glass instead. There are a few cases in which this material works better:

1. Glass isn’t dissolved by oils

Have you ever wondered why perfumes are still widely packaged in glass bottles? It’s not just because they’re prettier. Some perfume oils, aided by the solvent nature of the alcohol used in fragrances, can break down plastic, thus ruining the packaging. That’s true of essential oils as well. That’s why you only see those packaged in glass bottles too.

2. Glass is a better barrier against oxygen and light

Oxygen and light don’t get along well with antioxidants. They can degrade them, causing them to lose their effectiveness over time. Airtight plastic bottles and tubes are usually a great way to protect them from oxygen and light, but only when they are thick enough. If the container is too thin, some light and oxygen can still get inside, slowly spoiling the formula unseen. A darkly tinted glass bottle, which is nonporous and impermeable, is better able to protect delicate skincare formulas from these two enemies. What about glass jars? Avoid them. They may protect the product decently when closed, but you’ll still expose it to light and air whenever you unscrew the lid.

3. Glass doesn’t leak harmful substances

Some cosmetic ingredients, when packaged in plastic containers, may cause them to leak out plasticizers. Eventually, this will spoil the formula. Responsible brands will avoid the risk by packaging such formulations in glass containers, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it. If you’re really concerned about it, though, paying more for products packaged in glass bottles may be worth it to put your mind at ease.

4. Glass is recyclable

Only some consumers and a handful of brands run by environmentally conscious owners care about this, but glass is a better choice for the planet. Glass is highly sustainable and easy to recycle. Unless you break the bottle, you can wash it and reuse it again and again. And if you have no use for it, you can throw it in recycling bins. It will then be taken to a glass treatment plant where it will moulded into a new product.

Of course most often than not, brands package their products in glass containers only for aesthetic reasons. In that case, you’ll be paying more just to have a pretty-looking bottle sitting on your vanity. But it’s nice to know that there are some cases where glass is better than plastic and investing in it makes more sense, isn’t it?

Do you buy beauty products packaged in glass containers?

3 Things You Need To Know About Comedogenicity Ratings

comedogenic ingredients

Today I’m very excited to bring you a guest post by one of my favourite acne experts, Seppo Puusa. In his blog, Acne Einstein (what a great name is that?) he shares science-based advice on natural acne treatments. Here, he explains why comedogenicity ratings aren’t as reliable as you may think:

There’s danger lurking in every skincare bottle. Hidden deep beneath glossy marketing claims and polished labels lurk an untold number of comedogenic ingredients that threaten to turn your carefully cared face into acne battleground. Or at least if you listen to any of numerous comedogenicity experts out there.

As with many other things, commonly accepted ‘beauty blog wisdom’ doesn’t always line up with what science says. In this post we’ll go over 3 reasons you should take comedogenicity claims with a grain of salt.

Products with comedogenic ingredients aren’t automatically comedogenic

Many beauty bloggers like to post long lists of ingredients ranked by comedogenicity rating. Your duty is to check your skin care products against that list and discard any that contain comedogenic ingredients. This sort of detective work seems so.. scientific, and makes us feel smart.
It’s also utter rubbish.

In 2006 Dr. Draelos and colleagues showed that products with comedogenic ingredients don’t cause acne. Read that again. Products with comedogenic ingredient’s don’t cause acne.

In the study they tested 10 products with known comedogenic ingredients on 12 people prone to getting back acne. The products were applied on patches to the upper backs of the participants. The patches were changed every 48 to 72 hours, and this went on for 4 weeks. The researchers counted the number of comedones before and after the study and this was compared to both positive (highly comedogenic substance) and negative (nothing) controls.

These graphs show the results:


The graphs show relative increase in the number of comedones before/after the study. The authors note that any results +/- 10% of the negative controls are due to random variation and can be considered as non-comedogenic.

In short, none of the products containing comedogenic ingredients caused acne.

There are limitations to what we can conclude from this study. Most of the ingredients were rated between 1 and 3 in the comedogenicity scale, with only a few that were considered strongly comedogenic.

This apparent disconnect between comedogenicity ratings and real world results leads us to the next point.

Comedogenicity testing doesn’t reflect real life usage

Comedogenicity ratings are appealing because they seem to offer a simple answer to a complex problem. But you should keep in mind that this data hasn’t been generated by observing people using skincare products in everyday life. The data comes from ‘acne models’, both human and animal, and there are severe limitations to what we can conclude from the data.

Even if we set the ethics of animal testing aside, there are serious problems with animal models of acne. Mostly because no other animal experiences acne as commonly as humans do, and there are differences in human and animal skin that probably explains this.

Rabbit ear (REA), the most common acne model, is far more sensitive than human skin and produces scores of false positive results. A 2007 paper examining various acne models concluded that the rabbit ear model is only useful for determining absolute negatives.

Presently, the most commonly used assay is the REA, which possesses a hypersensitive response to acnegenic substances compared to human skin; however, this model is unable to accurately depict the acnegenic potential of chemical compounds, and is therefore only valuable for distinguishing absolute negatives. (Source: Mirshahpanah P. et al. Models in acnegenesis. Cutan Ocul Toxicol. 2007;26(3):195-202)

Human models, while better than animal models, are still far from perfect. Human models use highly exaggerated conditions to make the tests more sensitive. These include:

Subject selection. They usually only include people with large pores who are prone to getting pimples.

Application conditions. The test materials are applied under occlusion, meaning the area is covered after application. This increases absorption and skin penetration.

Dosage. The test materials are used in high concentrations. This doesn’t take dose response in account. A substance may cause acne at high concentrations but has no effect in concentrations found in skin care products.

2 cases where comedogenicity ratings are useful

This doesn’t mean that we should just throw away all the comedogenicity data. Rather, we should take it with a grain of salt. My view is that comedogenicity data is useful in two cases:

Determining absolute negatives. Since all the models are more sensitive than real life usage conditions, a substance with comedogenicity rating of 0 to 1 should be safe.

Determining worst offenders. Substances that rank high at the comedogenicity scale should be treated as potential suspects.

There’s so much uncertainty in the comedogenicity data that it’s not very useful for anything that falls between those two extremes.

Comedogenicity addiction can lead to bad purchasing decisions

Taking comedogenicity ratings too seriously unnecessarily limits your choices. You may end up paying more or choosing less than optimal products.
For example, comedogenicity is such a fear-inducing word that many people will pay more for products formulated without comedogenic ingredients – even if it’s a distinction without a difference.

And even if you don’t end up paying more, you may still pass on a good product because ‘it has comedogenic ingredients’.

Comedogenicity rule of thumb

I condensed everything that we’ve discussed earlier into a simple rule of thumb.

Be wary of products with strongly comedogenic ingredients high up on the ingredients list. Otherwise forget about it.

Some people may challenge me and say ‘the rule is dangerous because my skin always reacts to even mildly comedogenic ingredients’. That may be so, and I don’t doubt some people are like that. My point is that comedogenicity ratings are not reliable enough to make generalized recommendations. They may be helpful for someone, but then again, even a broken clock is correct twice a day.

And of course avoid any products/ingredients you know your skin reacts badly to – regardless of their comedogenicity rating.


To me comedogenicity ratings are a bit like astrology – just because someone made elaborate charts and systems doesn’t mean it’s correct. The scientific-looking ratings hide severe limitations.

The models used to generate the data are far more sensitive than real world skin care product usage, and they produce scored of false positive ratings. As such, the data isn’t very useful in guiding everyday skincare choices.

The best we can say is to avoid products with highly comedogenic ingredients high up on the ingredients list and ignore the rest.

Concerned about acne? Choosing noncomedogenic skin care products is a start, but for more reliable results, please check out my Comedogenicity Helpers email tips written specifically for Beautiful With Brains readers. Go here to get started ==>

Can Hot Water Open Pores?

Image courtesy of phasinphoto at

Image courtesy of phasinphoto at

Wash your face with hot water to open the pores and finish off with cold water to close them. This is one of the first things we learn when we start getting into skincare. It’s used to sell millions of products, it’s repeated by magazines, aestheticians and, sometimes, even our moms, and… it’s dead wrong.

Pores cannot open and close

Yep, pores cannot open and close. They don’t have muscles. They aren’t doors. Instead, their size is genetically determined, but can also be affected by the activity of our oil glands. Sebum, which is just our skin’s natural moisturizer, is produced by the sebaceous glands and then flows to the surface through the pores. When these glands are too active (usually on the nose and forehead), they produce too much sebum, which gets trapped into the pores together with dead skin cells, comedogenic ingredients, and other impurities, stretching the size of the pores and making them look bigger.

What hot water really does

Hot water cannot open pores. But it can dry out your skin, causing it to produce even more sebum. But there is a kernel of truth in this myth. Introducing a bit of heat in your cleansing routine can help pores look smaller. How? Heat can help melt the oils and fats that are clogging up the pores, allowing them to flow out more freely. And when the pores are cleansed of all impurities, they look smaller.

The best, and safest, way to make your pores look smaller, though, is by using an exfoliant with salicylic acid. This acid can get inside them, removing all the gunk that’s clogging them.

Do you ever use heat to make your pores look smaller?

AHAs VS BHA: Which One Is Right For You?

ahas vs bha exfoliants

I have already talked about my love for chemical exfoliants. They produce more precise results and are gentler on the skin than scrubs. The types used in cosmetics are Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHAs) and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs). While they can both dissolve the “glue” that holds dead skin cells together, allowing them to slough off, they also have different properties that make them more suitable for different skin types. So, which one should you choose?

AHAs work best for normal, dry, and sun damaged skin types

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) are acids derived from sugar, milk, nuts, and fruits. The more common types used in cosmetics are Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, Mandelic Acid, and Citric Acid. They exfoliate skin, reduce hyperpigmentation, stimulate collagen production, decrease small wrinkles, and act as humectants to hydrate skin. As a result, skin looks smoother, brighter, younger, and even-toned. Because of their anti-aging and hydrating properties, they are more suitable for dry and sun damaged skin.

The best AHAs for exfoliation are Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid. That’s because their molecules are quite small and so can easily penetrate skin. But if you want to use them for anti-aging purposes, opt for Glycolic. Unlike lactic acid, it can increases the thickness and firmness of the skin too. Keep in mind that high concentrations of AHAs can irritate skin. That’s because they work by removing the top layer of dead skin cells, which protect the raw skin underneath. While removing some of them will be beneficial for the skin, going overboard will result in red, flaky, and painful skin.

So, exfoliate only two or three times a week, and stay from those 20% or higher glycolic peels. Don’t believe those who say they can be safely performed at home. If not administered by a professional, they can do more harm than good. AHAs also increase sun sensitivity so never use them during the day without applying sunscreen afterwards.

Best picks: Olay Regenerist Night Resurfacing Elixir, Paula’s Choice Resist Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% Alpha Hydroxy Acid, and Peter Thomas Roth Glycolic Acid 10% Moisturizer

BHA works best for oily, acne-prone, and sensitive skin types

The only type of Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) used in skincare products is Salicylic Acid, which is derived from the willow tree bark. Salicylic acid too dissolves the substance that hold cells together, and can reduce hyperpigmentation, surface roughness, and fine lines.

What’s the difference with AHAs then? Well, while AHAs are soluble in water, Salicylic Acid is soluble in oil. This means it is able to penetrate inside the pores, which are filled with sebum and dead cells, and unclog them. That’s why it is a better option for people with oily or acne-prone skin. It is also a great alternative for those with sensitive skin. Because it has anti-inflammatory properties and is effective at lower concentrations (1% or 2% already provide great results) than AHAs, it is less likely to irritate it.

This doesn’t mean that it won’t irritate your skin if you overdo it, though, so use it carefully. And always with sunscreen. Salicylic Acid too can increase skin’s sensitivity to the sun.

Best picks: Proactive Solution Clarifying Night Cream, Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Lotion, and Philosophy Clear Days Ahead Oil-free Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment & Moisturizer

Do you use chemical exfoliants? Do you prefer AHAs or BHA?