I was first introduced to professional skincare products the first time I got a facial. I was vacationing in New Orleans with my mother for my 17th birthday, and we got facials together at a swanky little spa. I LOVED getting a facial. I didn’t even mind the extractions, because the aesthetician was so nurturing and assured me that it would help my acne (I’m sure her soothing Cajun-French accent helped too). So when she lined up about $300 worth of her own brand of “professional” skincare products at the end, I was all in, hook, line, and sinker. I begged my mother to buy them for me–and then of course threw a typical teenage tantrum when she said no.
I was wooed by the notion of professional skincare products
After that I got facials as often as I could (which on my teenage income wasn’t that often), and always bought the products that were recommended. Why did I do that? Because the aesthetician told me they were better than products I could get at the drug or department store. I knew nothing about things like ingredient sourcing, ingredient quality, how to read an ingredient label, or understand what’s in a product. What I did know is that when I compared product labels between my professional skincare products and the products I sold at the cosmetics counter at Bloomingdales, they all contained water as the first ingredient. They also all contained LOTS of chemical ingredients that I couldn’t pronounce. But what I found interesting was that they all contained many of the SAME unpronounceable ingredients.
The department store products were comparatively priced with the professional skincare products, but the main difference was that the products I was selling had supermodels and actresses in the magazine ads and on TV–and I had never heard of the products the spas sold. It was explained to me that it was because they were more “active,” and therefore could only be sold by professionals who understood the skin and understood ingredients. So I bought and used them instead of using the free products I got from the commercial brand I worked for.
The brandwashing continued…
Years later when I was in aesthetics school, the idea that professional products that could only be sold by aestheticians were better than “over-the-counter” products was re-affirmed repeatedly and convincingly. I learned that there were different “grades” of ingredients–food grade, cosmetic grade, pharmaceutical grade, etc–and that the professional brands did in fact contain more “actives,” higher concentrations of actives, and higher quality ingredients. Did they work better than the department store products did? Maybe–but it was hard to tell, since I was also getting weekly facials at the time.
But I have to tell you, the more trade shows and manufacturers’ workshops I attended, the more skeptical I became that professional products are better than, well, not professional products. I started reading more labels, comparing them with OTC product labels, researching ingredients, and asking more questions. Sometimes my questions were answered enthusiastically and directly–but more often, not so much.
It’s those other times that caused the notion of professional products to be problematic for me. The reason is because more often than not, the product reps had no knowledge of what ingredients were in the formula or why they were in there beyond what I could already find on the company website, a trade show brochure, or a features and benefits training booklet. Sometimes the brandwashed product rep would even get angry with me for asking deeper questions. Other times, I was directed to contact a chemist at the lab that made the products, which resulted either in me being completely ignored, OR being given some response that was all cosmetic chemistry jargon that I couldn’t understand.
It was even worse though with the OTC lines. Have you ever tried to get ingredient information from a conventional skincare brand that doesn’t disclose them on their website? It’s as bad as when you’re trying to dispute your cable or cell phone bill–on hold forever, transferred to 5 different people who you have to re-explain yourself to, disconnected, etc.
My own products were better than the professional skincare products.
I really got turned me off to the idea of professional products though, when I began making my own products from carefully selected organic and natural ingredients. I also saw that ingredients I one thought were unavailable to me as a small company like stem cells extracts, antioxidants, and peptides ARE easily available online. I saw how my own products contained far less water (or no water at all), no synthetic fragrances, and preservatives and emulsifiers that were as natural as possible. I saw how my skin soaked up my products with gusto, never felt dry, irritated or tight, and got a glow it never had from the professional products I used to use. My clients had the same positive results.
I also became aware of other artisan and boutique skincare product lines that are preferred by holistically-minded aestheticians. These formulators make their products in a way that’s very similar to how I make mine. I started having conversations with these aestheticians, as well as with the formulators of some of those brands–and found that their knowledge of ingredients and the skin went way beyond brandwashed propaganda.
Many of the aestheticians still carry a professional skincare brand in addition to the boutique skincare brand, because it’s what clients look for–the word “professional.” And that’s a valid business decision–but I look forward to the day when any skincare product that’s chosen and recommended by a skincare professional is considered a professional product.
Even though I make my own products, and make personalized products for my clients, I’m still an avid label reader, and I still attend aesthetics and spa trade shows, manufacturer workshops, and other branded and brand-neutral events. Why? I believe in education just for education’s sake, first of all–especially as a skincare professional. I believe what separates an aesthetician from a cosmetics sales person IS education and ingredient and skin expertise–not just the ability to sell professional products or apply them to a client with skill.
So ARE professional skincare products really better?
I’ve been asking this question for years, and here’s what I know to be true now:
- There are scientifically-based skincare ingredients that are only available from large laboratories that come in different grades. Their cost varies based on the grade, and using them will affect a company’s bottom line. Some professional companies DO make the effort to use pharmaceutical grade ingredients from the highest quality sources, along with the best quality natural ingredients on the market. I have had lengthy discussions with their formulators–as well as brand neutral ingredient experts–that support this. But there are more “professional” companies that use ingredients that are of the same quality of what you’d find in department stores and drug stores. The only thing that’s different is who they’re marketed to.
- Products that contain high amounts of active ingredients aren’t necessarily better. Getting an ingredient into the deeper layers of the skin isn’t an easy job. Even though the skin does absorb up to 66% of what’s applied topically, an isolated active ingredient has to be formulated correctly in order for penetration and absorption to happen. Different people also absorb ingredients differently because they have different skin. It’s also important to note that the skin only has so many receptors for different micronutrients. When a product contains more actives than the skin can handle–whether these are synthesized actives or traditionally prepared botanicals–adverse reactions may occur. What I’ve found is that simpler (but properly designed) formulations with higher quality ingredients are often more effective with less risk of irritant or allergic skin reactions.
- Deceptive marketing tactics happen with all types of products–and even with individual ingredients. What you learn from a manufacturer’s representative is almost always what they want you to know so you either buy the product or recommend it to others. They focus on features and benefits, and leave out key information that might be less desirable–or hide that information behind terms like “proprietary blend” or “trade secret.” And what you see isn’t always what you get.
- Many aestheticians and skincare product representatives have little to know knowledge of ingredients beyond what they’re taught by the brand they work with. They get used to a brand, and stick with it because it takes time to “learn a new brand.” When asked about the ingredients by clients, they respond with brandwashed information. There are aestheticians who do take the time to learn about ingredients from a brand-neutral source–but these are few and far between.
- The biggest problem I’ve identified though is how closed off aestheticians and people with fierce brand loyalty are to trying other products. It does not help a skincare client to ask her aesthetician about a skincare product only to be shut down with the statement: “That’s not a professional product.” I’ve seen too many skincare professionals in Facebook groups insult popular brands (many of which are MLM brands), and the people who are loyal to them because they’re not professional skincare brands. Yet when I look at the products from a formulator’s perspective, I see little to no differences in their ingredients.
I say this with care and with love: you can’t always trust skincare brands to provide you with accurate information about what’s in–and not in–their products. You can’t always get answers to seemingly simple ingredient or product safety questions.
Just like you have the right to know what’s in the food you eat, you also have the right to know what you put on your skin.
To help you, I’ve put together a FREE checklist of 12 Questions You Need to Ask About Your Skincare Brand. This checklist is for you whether you’re a skincare professional or someone who uses skincare products. Enter your name and email address below and I’ll email it to you right away.
*Image 1 from ASCP, image 2 from Royal Siam Beauty dhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/86552932@N03/