A back-to-basics approach to skincare has come back into vogue. We’re sweeping our multi-step routines aside for a more concise approach to our skin that prioritizes products we need (e.g. a cleanser and sunscreen) as opposed to nice-to-haves.
As a part of this trend we’re seeing more multi-functional products like ‘super serums’ that help us streamline our routines. They feature multiple active ingredients (e.g., retinol, glycolic acid, vitamin C) and target different skin concerns in one single step. While it sounds glamorous and almost too good to be true, you can’t help but wonder how these powerful ingredients coexist in the same bottle. Are they worth the investment – or just marketing hype? Read on for the complete low down.
It Starts with a Brief
In the world of beauty marketing, the product development process usually starts with a wish list of what a product’s performance should be like. These attributes are highlighted in a product brief, along with characteristics such as texture and fragrance, as well as target formula and packaging costs. Whether we’re talking about a solution that will help serve those with hyperpigmentation, acne, fine lines or address all of those concerns in one formula (e.g. super serums), the brief is the roadmap for formulation. Briefs for super serums typically feature a long wishlist and it’s up to the R&D team/chemist to figure out how to put the different active ingredients/functionalities together in a way that will work in synergy and remain stable. More on this below.
The Kitchen Sink Approach to Formulation
Super serums are largely based on the “kitchen sink” approach to formulation, where the idea is to combine multiple active ingredients in a single formula and target multiple pathways in the skin hoping that the end product will work. You could say that these products have “everything but the kitchen sink,” with some formulas featuring a wide spectrum of ingredients from hyaluronic acid to niacinamide, peptides, retinol, vitamin c and more. Kitchen sink formulas are not new by the way – chemists have been taking this approach for decades.
Many active ingredients require varying pH levels to maintain optimal efficacy, so the challenge a chemist faces involves bringing them together to maintain a good balance and a stable formula. This may involve including some ingredients at efficacious levels and then a few sprinkled in for “the story” or at lower percentages to help maintain stability. Theoretically speaking, some active ingredients could cancel out each other in some instances. The interesting thing is that we don’t really know the exact mechanism of action – how these products are absorbed and then used by the skin.
The design of super serums is largely based on theoretical data (e.g. published literature) and then in some cases clinical studies. Large companies (think, P&G) may conduct in vitro ingredient combination studies (not at a clinical level), but you can’t compare it to the robust safety/efficacy studies of the pharma industry. In these studies, ingredient combinations are tested on thousands of people and then an optimal dosage is determined. For example, there is no evidence to support that if you combine several humectants (e.g. Hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and sodium PCA) with similar effects in one formula – it becomes a super hydrator.
So, if you have a penchant for using many actives in your skincare regimen and are looking to streamline your routine, consider super serums. From a convenience point of view, eliminating 3-4 products definitely has its perks. Just know that super serums may or may not be more effective than other single-ingredient serums. And the potential downside is that too many strong ingredients at the top of the ingredient list increases the likelihood of irritation. Just remember to start slow and give your skin time to adjust. At the end of the day, it's all about what works best for you and your skin.