Understanding your Skin for a Low Waste Skincare Routine

Zero waste skincare could look like recyclable packaging, refillable liquids and DIY recipes. Or, it could be about reducing your consumption altogether.

At MTU, we’re all about less is more when it comes to a skincare routine.

The less you buy, the less packaging you have to clean, recycle or reuse. But, with so much information thrown at us about our flaws (large pores, pesky comedones, sudden appearance of fine lines!?) it can be extremely tempting to keep furiously hitting those “checkout” buttons with the relief of someone about to achieve peak beauty.

That’s why we’re on a mission to educate you about your skin, BEFORE we get into talking about your skincare! A basic understanding of your skin can help you predict a product's efficacy, determine what your skin needs and figure out if a current product in your routine is even necessary. 

By the end of this blog, you’ll understand how moisturizers *actually* work, why facial oils are suddenly trending, and whether or not that “collagen boost” cream is worth the dough. Most importantly, you’ll be shopping for skincare from a place of power, not panic: with a focus on your skin, not your skincare.

1: What is your skin?

You probably know that your skin is your largest organ and that it’s job is to protect you from the outside world. This includes making sure that harmful microorganisms like bacteria, toxins and irritants don’t get into your body, and that much needed chemicals (yip- EVERYTHING is a chemical) found inside your body, like water, don’t get out!

But did you know it’s real name: the cutaneous membrane?! We’re willing to bet there’s still a lot you don’t know about your skin. For instance, even though you've consistently heard you absorb 60% to 80% of what you put on your skin, by the end of this blog you'll be able to dodge those scary (but super effective) instagram sales captions! Yip, we're talking about the ones that leave you feeling like you're already super bloated with cancer-causing, hormone-disrupting, toxic chemicals just from using your favourite chapstick.

2: Why it's Important to Understand Your Skin

Part of a low waste skincare routine means learning how brands sell to you, so you can avoid those fear-based purchases. Brands KNOW you don't have time to learn about your skin, giving them an opportunity to simplify the science for sales. At Make This Universe, we KNOW you're a lot more savvy than that; that your main goal is to shop more consciously. Just like you, we believe fear-based purchases, carts filled with products to ease your panic and creams-to-cover-your-sense-of-inadequacy shouldn't be the norm. Conscious consumption starts with knowledge, and we're serving you (probably too much) knowledge today. So, hit that bookmark button or get ready for a whirlwind lesson in Skin 101!

3: New #skincare goals: Barrier Maintenance

For instance, you already know from experience that your skin is a very effective barrier to the outside world. It has ensured you can safely swim in chlorine-filled pools for instance, without a trip to emerge for chlorine poisoning! Oh, and also you don’t leave the beach ten pounds heavier after absorbing all the sea water… cause you’re waterproof!

Still not convinced? Consider that the majority of medicine has to be swallowed in order to be absorbed effectively by your body. Even the best scientists struggle to get products to penetrate to the deeper layers of your skin (such as the Dermis, where collagen is produced) let alone reach your bloodstream.

But what makes the skin such a great barrier? How does it work to ensure stuff from outside isn’t getting inside? How come you keep hearing about all the “chemicals” it absorbs everyday? What is Trans Epidermal Water Loss (TEWL) and why should you care about it? 

We know you’re here looking for a low waste routine that still delivers results, not just the reasoning behind the formulations. Perhaps you’re looking to prevent signs of early aging, get that glowly look, or finally figure out your adult acne.

We’re gonna give it to you straight. You need to understand HOW your skin works as a barrier, so you can help it achieve peak barrier status! A healthy skin barrier will also reduce the appearance of these cosmetic issues in many cases. And when it comes to cosmetics products- it all starts with taking care of the most superficial layer of your skin: the stratum corneum!

4: Understanding Skin Layers

Since you can easily find a diagram about the skin’s three “main” layers: the Epidermis, the Dermis and the Subcutaneous Layer (such as in this post by our cosmetic chemist) we will focus on just the top layer: The Epidermis. 

Layers of the Epidermis (By Normal_Epidermis_and_Dermis_with_Intradermal_Nevus)

Public Domain

5. Layers of the Epidermis

The Epidermis is the outermost layer of your skin and is itself made of 4-5 layers. It's the most relevant to cosmetic chemistry, since products sold as cosmetics do not penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin to any significant degree (otherwise they would be sold as drugs). When formulating any product, this top layer is where most of the magic happens in terms of softening, plumping, smoothing, moisturizing and restoring.

The 4-5 layers of the epidermis each serve their own function. An easy way to think of these layers is as a journey! Specifically, the journey of your skin cells slowly dying. As morbid as that sounds, it sure is memorable.

The 5 layers of the Epidermis, starting with the most superficial layer, are shown in the following diagram:

Layers of the Epidermis | Make This UniversePublic Domain

The “journey” of your skin cells begins with the Stratum Basale (shown as Stratum Germinativum), were your skin cells are born! Millions of cells are produced daily via the process of mitosis within the Stratum Basale, which pushes the older cells up towards the more superficial layers of your skin (where they eventually flake off, as with dandruff and house dust). Cell mitosis can happen only in this deeper layer as it is the closest to your blood supply. 

As cells get pushed up and out of the Stratum Basale, they first form the Stratum Spinosum (or Mucosum), and then the Stratum Granulosa. Throughout this process they undergo changes including losing most of their nucleus and going through keratinization (a process whereby they become filled with keratin). Once cells have travelled far enough away from the Stratum Basale (i.e your blood supply), they begin to die, forming the Stratum Lucidum.

These dead skin cells accumulate to form the most superficial layer of your skin: the Stratum Corneum. You can tell the cells in this top layer of your Epidermis are dead, simply by shaving. Even though you’re removing millions of dead skin cells, you won’t bleed!

When you’re younger, your skin cells are completely replaced every 6-8 weeks. As you age, this process becomes much slower, hence the look of dryer, duller skin.

6. The Skin Barrier Function 

You may be wondering why an understanding of these layers of your epidermis is relevant. Firstly, once you understand the journey of your dead skin cells, it’s easier to understand one of the most important concepts in skincare. Often underplayed by marketing departments– probably because it doesn't sound like an emergency, making you hit that "checkout" button in a time crunch panic– is the maintenance of the skin barrier function. 

Along with things like pH, the acid mantle and Langerhans Cells, your Stratum Corneum helps form an effective, waterproof barrier to the outside world, preventing trans epidermal water loss (TEWL) and keeping pathogens out. The cells found in the Stratum Corneum (SC) are organized in a “bricks and mortar” structure, specifically to create a great barrier. Since the “dead” cells in the SC are surrounded by lipids (fats), an easy way to think about it is: the cells are the bricks and the lipids are the mortar! It’s exactly because the cells are surrounded by lipids that they “repel” other liquids, creating a thin but effective waterproof barrier.

Skin Barrier Function

Due to this “bricks and mortar” structure, it’s much harder for toxins and irritants to penetrate to the deeper layers of your skin, because the “gaps” between cells are not lined up. Add to this the fact that your cells are constantly moving upwards and outwards, and it becomes hard to believe anything is finding its way BETWEEN this brick-like structure of cells, and down into your bloodstream!

But there are cases where irritants, toxins and bacteria DO make it into the body via the skin. How does this happen? 

Well, apart from actual cuts in the skin, imagine if those “bricks” (your dead skin cells or corneocytes) start to shrink- and the gaps between them get bigger? This would mean irritants could start to find there way through these gaps! 

This is why it’s important to have a healthy skin barrier function via hydration: hydrated skin means less gaps between cells, or points of entry for irritants and allergens! To put it simply: when your cells are well hydrated, they swell up, squish together and the gaps between them become smaller. Since TEWL is a process whereby your skin “leaks” moisture everyday, you can help prevent excessive TEWL via your choice of skincare. 

So, as you can see– the way the cells are layered like bricks and mortar, the way they’re surrounded by fats to repel outside liquids, the way that they retain water in order to prevent cracks– are all facets that work together to create what is known as the skin barrier function! 

7. Natural Moisturizing Factors and Epidermal Lipids

Although the word “barrier” suggests the main aim is to keep pathogens and bacteria out, your skin is also an expert at keeping moisture IN. In terms of cosmetics, TEWL can also lead to dehydrated skin, a “dull” appearance and in severe cases, eczema.

Since oil and water don’t mix, the skin uses a unique blend of lipids (fats) and humectants to lock in moisture. This amorphous mix of friendly chemicals is known as your Natural Moisturizing Factors!

The Natural Moisturizing Factors (NMFs) are a combination of things like amino acids, urea, salts, sugars and lactic acid- which work together to attract and bind to water, keeping the Stratum Corneum happily moisturized. Ingredients which replicate this function (binding to water) are known as humectants, such as Hyaluronic Acid. Although the size of this molecule is considered too large to penetrate the skin, it can absorb 1000 times its weight in water!

Other things that contribute to your skin barrier function would be the epidermal lipids (i.e fats!) such as ceramides, free fatty acids (FFAs) and cholesterol. This is why some gentle facial cleansers will include ceramides amongst the ingredients. This is also why simple Facial Oils are considered beneficial, as they have tiny amounts of FFA’s (free fatty acids) available, replacing some of these important lipids in the event of a disrupted skin barrier. 

8. The importance of Skin Hydration

When your skin barrier function gets disrupted- perhaps from the use of harsh surfactants, hot showers or over exfoliation- your skin can become dehydrated as it begins to leak moisture. Products packed with denatured alcohol could be considered “drying”, such as with toners or makeup removers. Harsh foaming cleansers packed with surfactants could also lead to a disrupted barrier function as they strip the natural epidermal lipids away. Overuse of cleansers or other astringent products, as well as environmental or health factors can all work to disrupt your moisture barrier. A disrupted skin barrier leaves your skin unable to retain those NMF’s, leading to dehydrated skin. This explains why even oily skin can be dehydrated, as it lacks moisture but still overproduces sebum!

So, how do you restore the skin barrier function for maximum skin health?

A great way to do so is with a product that has a mixture of emollients, humectants and even occlusives. Emollients (like fatty alcohols, butters and oils) work to fill the gaps between cells in the skin barrier, lubricating the surface of your skin and repairing that vital barrier function by keeping water locked in and environmental elements locked out. Emollients also may make the skin appear smoother, less dull, giving you a natural glow. Humectants (like urea, hyaluronic acid and glycerin) arguably draw water into the skin, keeping it hydrated. Occlusives (like waxes and balm-like products) help to create a waterproof layer on the skin, preventing TEWL and aiding the skin barrier function.

Since moisturizers usually contain a mixture of humectants, occlusives and emollients, as well as much needed moisture, they can be a great treatment for dehydrated skin. Even if you have extremely oily skin, you may still need a moisturizer to hydrate it. So, although you have accepted moisturizers as part of your routine- now you know why!

9. Facial Oils vs. Moisturizers

We promised to address it, so we will. Why are Facial Oils even a thing? Well, sometimes humectants and occlusives can work against you. Remember how we said humectants attract and bind to moisture, and how occlusives form an impenetrable layer? These two functions could also work together to dry out your skin. Humectants could draw water out of the deeper layers of your skin, while occlusives could prevent your skin from absorbing much needed moisture. Since facial oils are just basic emollients- without humectants and occlusives- they do one job really well: restoring the natural lipids to your stratum corneum! This is also why facial oils are often marketed as “moisturizing”, because they replace lipids present in the Epidermis, making it more waterproof. They don’t add moisture, but they help lock it in.

Since all oils are essentially a bunch of triglycerides, and since triglycerides are three fatty acids bound to a glycerol atom: oils could have different FFA’s present within them. Although the FREE Fatty Acid percentage in each oil will vary and always be very low, as most of the fatty acids would be bound up in the triglycerides (i.e not be “free”)! Nevertheless, you could still pick a facial serum made of botanical oils that have specific beneficial FFA’s suited to your skin type, whether that’s linoleic acid for reducing sebum production or oleic acid for premature aging (but more on this later!).

10. A Better Understanding of your Skin = Less Skincare

Now that you have a better understanding of your skin and its layers, a few things may be easier to understand. For instance, now you know that any product which claims to impact collagen production isn’t worth the money! Collagen production only happens in the Dermis, and very little product would even get through the stratum corneum, let alone through all 4 layers down to the Stratum Basale and into the Dermis. It’s also easier to see why oil cleansing may be better than the traditional routine of makeup remover, followed by a harsh foaming cleanser, finished with a toner (if you already have dry skin). Not only would oils be more effective at taking off your oil-based makeup (since “like” dissolves “like”), but oils wouldn’t strip your NMF with astringent, drying ingredients like alcohol, witch hazel and foaming surfactants! 

Phew, we know thats ALOT to take in. But, we need a good foundation before we can get into determining your skin type, how to target certain cosmetic issues when formulating a DIY product, and finally putting the whole “your skin absorbs 60% of your products” argument to rest before we get into some serious skincare stuff!

Stay tuned for more on our blog in the next few weeks. Let us know in the comments below if you learnt anything new today, whether this is going to help you eliminate unnecesary products on your shelf and FINALLY get you out of your panic-purchasing routine!

1 comment

This is so helpful! Will you keep going and address How to develop healthy/appropriate skin care routines?

Sallie April 15, 2022

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