Delivery Vehicles in Skin Care Products

Do you recognize the importance of the composition of your skin products? When assessing a certain product, many of us jump straight to the “active ingredients,” bypassing the less-appreciated, but equally important characteristics of those products that play more of a supportive role.

The composition of a product plays a large role in how well it penetrates the skin. Skin care products are often in “vehicles” that help them travel through the skin barrier, allowing the active ingredients to be deposited into the skin. Types of vehicles include ointments, gels, creams, solutions, sprays or foams. Additionally, there may be other molecules within the product that determine how the active ingredients are delivered, released, or changed into another ingredient. The formulation also determines how easily a product spreads, absorbs, or dries on your skin.

In order for any skin care product to be effective, it must be able to be delivered into your skin appropriately. If it just sits on the very top of your skin, and never penetrates any farther, it’s probably not going to do a whole lot of good. A vehicle that is drying (such as an alcohol or ethanol containing product) on your skin is going to feel different compared to one that locks in moisture (such as petrolatum) and affects water movement across the surface of your skin. Alcohol-based products tend to produce stinging/burning and skin sensitivity in many (i.e. when you use too much alcohol-based hand sanitizer and have gotten redness and irritation of your hands?); others may not like the occlusive feel of an ointment. Foams might be alcohol or emollient based; ethanol-containing foams dry quickly, but the alcohol component can be drying and irritating to the skin. Newer emollient or aqueous foams (which don’t contain ethanol) tend to spread easily without the drying effect of an alcohol.

It is important to note the presence of fragrances in any skin care product. Although certain scents might make a product more appealing, they can also cause irritation or allergy in susceptible individuals.

In my dermatology practice, I see a wide range of tolerability of various skin care products. More often than not, the ability of an individual to use a product is dependent on the vehicle formulation. I am a firm believer that most people can tolerate any active ingredient if it is in the right vehicle.

Here are a few quick tips:

  1. Individuals with dry skin typically do better with ointments, creams, or aqueous/emollient foams
  2. Individuals with oily skin often do well with lotions or gels and are better able to tolerate alcohol-containing products
  3. Lotions might contain alcohols: check ingredient list carefully
  4. Pay attention to how a product feels when applied to your skin: does it absorb easily? Does it seem to “seal and protect” your skin? Does it leave a residue? Does it sting or burn? Alter your skin care regimen accordingly
  5. Avoid alcohol-based hand sanitizers; use emollient or aqueous foams instead

I hope that this information helps you better understand how your skin care products are traveling into your skin and that you find the vehicle that is right for you!

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