A tale about acids and peptides in glass droppers. Science tidbits and a review on eight bestsellers from The Ordinary.
Definitely a troublesome post this one, the one that lodged within my draft drawer the longest I’d say. Skincare and the chemistry involved in skincare products are not my cup of tea, and, despite me being a skin-freak, finding scientific papers providing the informations I needed proved more difficult than expected. Having direct access only to legal journals didn’t help either.
Cherry on top? Let’s say that Deciem isn’t exactly a low-profile brand, in fact it’s been constantly turning heads since the day it was born, for both positive and controversial reasons.
But hey, let’s gloss over the behind-the-scenes madness and head straight to what matters to our beautiful and care-craving faces. Get your caffeine, it’s a long journey.
Little bit of background. The Ordinary is the bestseller brand that runs under the Deciem umbrella alongside other satellite brands as Hylamide, The Chemistry Brand, Fountain and the well-known NIOD. What turned The Ordinary into a loud Big Bang amongst the worldwide beauty community is its intriguing and successful philosophy. Simple formulas based on a few specific ingredients and an almost ‘clinical’ aesthetic sold at an affordable price. The vast majority of the products comes in simple dropper glass bottles, with plain white labels. No sumptuous names, no pretentious slogans, just common skincare technologies brougth to the audience for what they really are.
Does this make it less confusing? Short answer: it doesn’t. Deciem provides a very useful Regimen Guide, but all the raw ingredient names and percentages can make the whole catalogue a bit overwhelming for those who don’t know what they actually need. But don’t worry, the Internet comes to rescue, and I’ll try too.
If you’re interested in a specific product, here’s a small table of contents that might prove useful.
Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
As the name states, it’s a simple glycolic acid toner. Glycolic acid is one of the strongest alpha hydroxy acids usually referred to as AHAs. AHAs promote skin exfoliation and renewal by reducing cohesion between the cells that compose the outer layer of the epidermis, the so called stratum corneum (forgive me this mild latinism, my classicist heart had to). As a side effect, they also induce collagen production by triggering the skin healing system.
The small molecular structure of glycolic acid allows it to penetrate further into the skin, thus making it more effective, but also more irritant. Deciem states the formula is enriched with aloe vera, rose water, amino-acids and Tasmanian Pepperberry derivative to reduce irritation and add a smoothing effect, but, in all honesty, I think that’s fairly irrelevant. There are in fact two main factors to consider when facing a glycolic acid based formulation: concentration and pH. A study from 1996 (DiNardo et al.) reported the effects of glycolic acid in different concentrations and at 3.25, 3.80, and 4.40 pH, getting to the conclusion that ‘all pH levels and concentrations demonstrated significant improvement in the condition of the skin with trends implying that increasing the pH increases efficacy‘. Other studies, however, show that higher pHs, 6 to 7 in particular, produce the neutralization of glycolic acid to salt.
The Glycolic Acid toner from The Ordinary has a pH of 3.6, the same value of Glycolic Acid’s pKa. Wait, the… what? It’s also known as acid dissociation constant, and, to put it simple, it measures how much strenght has an acid in a solution. So, the The Ordinary toner has a concentration of 7% in a well-balanced formula that doesn’t neutralize its main ingredient.
But how does all this translate in terms of usage? My skin is dry, and very prone to keratosis, a condition in which AHAs are of much help. It’s fragile, so easily damaged by mechanical stress, but not sensitive, so I usually don’t get fastidious reactions from active ingredients. This toner helps me remove dead cells and reduce keratosis papules appearence. It’s also effective on dark spots, that tend to disappear faster. However, I do find that it irritates my skin wherever it’s even slightly damaged and if I’m not mindful (lol) and overuse it I develop flaky or even crusty spots. So, I would recommend this toner only to those who have already grown accustomed to AHAs and don’t suffer from sensitive skin. Also, you have to be tolerant to a sticky feel, because that’s what this toner leaves for a few minutes after usage. As for all exfoliating products, use only in the evening and don’t expose to sun without proper protection.
Lactic Acid 10% + HA
Don’t worry, the boring part is over and the rest will flow easily. Lactic Adic is a milder AHA, associated, in this formula, with hylaluronic acid that should reduce water loss. I find this serum way more effective than the Glycolic Acid Toning Solution. I get less irritation from the acid and can benefit of the hydrating effect of hyaluronic acid, so I don’t have to apply a specific serum afterwards. Lazy, lazy beauty blogger. Less irritation also makes for smoother skin, as I don’t have to worry for flakiness or worse.
A 10% concentration, however, is still quite high for beginners, so I would recommend working your way up starting from their 5% concentration serum. Again, use only at night and pair with sunscreen.
AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution
Oh, I’m sure you’ve bumped into this mask on Instagram at least once. It’s the thick liquid red one that makes you look like a character that has just stepped into real world from a Stephen King’s novel. Go Carrie, get those likes!
This 10 minutes mask combines a 30% quota of AHAs and 2% quota of BHAs, beta hydroxy acids, basically salicylic acid. BHAs provide milder exfoliation as their molecular structure is much wider than AHAs’, and also help clearing congestion. The pH of the peeling solution is 3.6, once again identical to glycolic acid’s pKa, the main ingredient in the formula.
I’ve been using this cult product for over a year now, but I still have confused feelings about it. The most frequent reaction you get on the Internet is ‘it stings!‘, but I can’t feel anything, no kind of itchy, fizzy sensation at all. I guess I’m too used to acids for that. This leads me to believe it would make for a valid once-per-week treatment for moderately sensitive skins. As for me, I use it mostly for the BHA’s action and as an integration to my exfoliating routine when my face gets particularly flaky. I find that my skin gets clearer with constant use, and if I’ve got an accidental painful spot it really helps with the congestion.
I have to say that this mask feels tacky once it starts to dry on the skin, I really cannot understand how Deciem manages to get all its products so sticky. I’ll bet my money on glycerin.
100% L-Ascorbic Acid Powder
Vitamin C, no need to be formal or pedantic here. Vitamin C is a very effective ingredient when it comes to brightening and evening skin tone. Constant use also helps addressing texture issues and oxidation, providing protection from environmental agents. Sounds miraculous, doesn’t it? Well, there are a few trade-offs. Vitamin C is highly unstable and thus vulnerable to oxidation when in contact with air, light and water. Yep, water. The way antioxidants work is fairly simple: they neutralize ‘free radicals’ by giving them the missing electrons they need, so that they dont’t have to scavenge our cells damaging them. If there is oxygen in the solution you’re buying, chances are your antioxidant has already bound to it and neutralized itself before it even touches your skin. That’s why I find most vitamin C-based serums or emulsions pretty useless. There are in fact some work-arounds. The Ordinary itself, for example, offers vitamin C in water-based formulas using ascorbic acid stabler derivatives. Otherwise we only get suspensions and the world-changing powder.
It’s a fine-mesh white powder meant to be mixed with other treatments and applied right on the spot before oxidation occurs. Deciem states that at a such high exposure a strong tingling sensation is to be expected for the first two weeks, but I didn’t experience anything similar despite my skin not being used to vitamin C topical application. Again, my skin is fragile but not sensitive. However, I do feel a bit of stinging in those areas where my face already suffers from small irritation.
About the mixing. Deciem gives sparse instructions by suggesting to mix a quarter to a half of the scoop they provide you with 5-10 drops of serum or a pea-size dose of emulsion based products. I prefer mixing it with very water-y serums in a small plastic cap. I feel that this way the powder blends more easily as I can ‘stir’ the mixture for longer without having my hands absorb most of it. Otherwise I feel the urge to hurry and usually end up rubbing a gritty serum all over my face.
Million pound question: what to blend it with? Well, more what not to blend it with. Deciem website clearly suggests to avoid Niacinamide, EUK 134 and peptides and to alternate use. The first two can in fact affect vitamin C integrity, while peptides are more exposed to hydrolysis when in contact with LAA. I would also avoid products containing AHAs. Other than these you have no limitations and the world is your oyster. You can use pure water, serums, face masks, creams, or even oil. Maybe this one is a bit tricky because the powder will blend less easily, but it’s a great alternative if you want the mixture to be a touch gentler. As for me, I use the Alpha Arbutin 2% + HA serum to address dark spots, but I’ve heard great things about Resveratrol and I can’t wait to try it out.
I’ve been noticing improvements in my skin, both texture and colour wise, but I’ve also noticed you have to be constant. I know this is a general rule in skincare, but if an acid can give immediate visible results, vitamin C requires at least a week or two of use before working its magic.
Alpha Arbutin 2% + HA
Time for a confession. I don’t know much about alpha arbutin, apart from it being a syntetic derivative of bearberry used to address pigmentation. With my skin being so easily damaged I’m in a never-ending battle against dark spots, so I usually buy everything that claims to hold back melanin and this serum made no exception. It’s a transparent light solution, hydrating and, again, tacky on the skin. It didn’t change my life, I have to be honest, but that’s probably my fault. I’ve read that alpha arbutin shows results only after a three months constant use, and I didn’t manage to be constant for that long. I’ve seen however some action going on in regard to red spots and also started experiencing improvements with pigmentation once I began mixing it with vitamin C. I think both the mixture and the dedication going on with it did the trick.
Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA
I learned from the Deciem website that Natural Moisturizing Factors is an expression used to collectively identify elements that provide our skin surface hydration and nourishment, as amino acids, fatty acids, triglycerides, urea, ceramides, phospholipids, glycerin, saccharides, sodium PCA, and hyaluronic acid. This moisturizer is meant to act as a supplement for these elements thus providing immediate and long-lasting hydration. I’ve read mixed reviews about it, some say it’s too light, some find it too greasy. I’m in the middle. I’m a sucker for thick, occlusive moisturizers and this one definitely can’t compare. On the other hand, however, it’s not the typical French-pharmacy sorbet. It’s a basic moisturizer, useful if you’re not on the dry side of skin-spectrum or you’re in search of something to seal all your previous treatments. I don’t see it fitting the routine of a dry-skin fellow who cannot bother layering tons of serums or oils.
“Buffet” + Copper Peptides 1%
A common latin motto we have here in Italy says “dulcis in fundo“, and we use it whenever the best is served in the end. Well, dulcis in fundo indeed, because the last two products I’m going to mention are my absolute favourites amongst the whole The Ordinary range, or at least amongst all the treatments I’ve tried till now.
The original Buffet is still a bestseller from the brand, its name coming from the way multitasking and multi-technology products were usually referred to in the past. The base formula includes multiple patented peptidic complexes in 11 amino acids and various forms of hyaluronic acid. Peptides are small chain of amino acids, conventionally distinguished from proteins on a size basis. They’re commonly linked to antiaging properties, but in fact peptides can affect our skin in multiple ways by interfering with the physiological functions of its cells. Some of them make skin look fuller and firmer by stimulating fibroblasts to produce more collagen, elastin or other structural proteins, some inhibite enzyme reactions that degrade collagen.
The Buffet + Copper Peptides beefs up this already powerful mix by adding in, you saw that coming, copper peptides. Copper peptides, or – let’s get out of this risky drinking game – GHKs, are naturally found in human plasma and promote overall skin health by mantaining and supporting its normal functions and by promoting collagen production. But what do you really get for double the price, apart from a honestly fascinating blue tinted serum? Well, I’ve noticed massive improvements. The original Buffet felt hydrating and resulted in plumped glowy skin in the morning, but apart from that I couldn’t see much action coming from peptides themselves. The thing with peptides is that they require a lot of build-up in order to work their magic, so several months need to pass before they start showing actual effects. But with this one I get immediate results too. I would define it as calming. It tones down any redness, soothes any inflammation coming from upcoming blemishes. A true game-changing purchase, for both my skin and wallet.
Few necessary notes. First of all this improved Buffet brings with it a peculiar smell, a bit metallic, a bit chemical. Secondly, as Deciem suuggests, you should avoid using peptides in the same routine with direct acids, LAA (L-Ascorbic Acid) and ELAA (Ethylated Ascorbic Acid) and other strong antioxidants. I do pair Buffet and retinoids, but I stumbled upon studies (Siméon et al. and related bibliography) showing that copper peptides injected into damaged skin stimulate
matrix metalloproteinase-2, enzymes that break down collagen. This reaction turned out pretty useful during the healing process, but it’s probably not what you’d wish for in your antiaging routine. So, if your skin is sensitive and retinol or retinoids irritate it, you may probably want to skip copper peptides.
Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane
One of the first things you learn when you take a step into skincare world is that retinoic acid is the key to eternal youth, or more realistically one of the most powerful antiage ingredients. Using retinoic acid, however, is not a piece of cake, and in fact here in Italy tretinoin-based products require medical prescription. This is why the beauty industry uses retinoid derivatives, which are less irritating and drying on the skin but also less effective since they have to be first metabolized to more active forms by our cells. Granactive Retinoid, basically Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate, is a singular exception. According to its manufacturer’s test results, Granactive Retinoid acts similarly to retinoic acid, so it doesn’t need any conversion and binds directly to retinoid receptors, but, contrarily to it, produces minimal irritation. There are some studies on the subject (see Ruth and Mammone), but I think it still needs some research.
Anyways, this promising retinoid is diluted mainly in squalane, which is my favourite skincare oil together with rose hip seed oil. It’s a lightweight and non-occlusive oil, but still suitable to dry and sensitive skin to fight surface dehydration. In fact, this oil is so slippery that it feels almost silicon-y (this is probably also due to dimethyl isosorbide present in the formula).
I mainly use the Granactive Retinoid in Squalane to fight texture issues and flaky skin, and it works like a charm. There’s an impressive difference in my skin in the morning when I don’t use it at night, it’s not glowy or firm enough. The antiaging and wrinkle-smoothing factor is something I don’t disdain, but also something I cannot give a proper feedback on. Not yet, at least.
And… that’s all!
Pheeew! Looks like you made it this far! Or you probably scrolled through the whole page, but anyways, let me give you a big hug! I hope this overview was useful and, most importantly, not too harmful to any cosmetoligist’s eye! Before you leave let me suggest you a quick look at my friend Alice’s video about The Ordinary. It’s very experience based and was extremely useful to me, even though I had already emberked on The Ordinary ship when it came out. If you’re taking your first steps into the The Ordinary jungle, it’s a must-watch.
Now it’s really over, see you in the comments for a chit-chat!