We have watched over the past couple of years as consumer products continue to grow, not just in their numbers, but in their push for results that can rival that of our own professional-only brands. Active ingredients not only became the norm a few years ago, but since then the percentages of these actives are increasing, so too is their overall strength. Many practitioners feel threatened by this trend, unsure of how to convince their clients to switch from their consumer products to the professional stuff. Others feel content in the fact that they can never really be compared. But as consumer products continue to find ways to close the gap, what does this mean for us as an industry?
We are lucky enough here at Beaute Industrie to stay afloat of most new brands that come onto the Australian market, both consumer and professional. Many of us at this point, with a market so saturated, feel like we’ve seen it all and that nothing can surprise us anymore. But we were nothing short of gobsmacked when a new brand landed in our inboxes recently that heroes an ingredient that many professionals won’t even touch. That ingredient is hydroquinone, and the brand – John Plunkett’s SuperFade. For us, this immediately begged a few questions. Are we verging on unsafe territory? What could products like these do in the wrong hands? And are consumers getting enough fair warning about their products and how to (and to not) use them?
Pharmacy medicines & high strength ingredients
Dermatologists have long used hydroquinone to fade hyperpigmentation. Anyone can pick some up from their derm in varying strengths, and you will need a prescription if it’s over 2%. It’s a bit of a taboo ingredient because it does leave patients at risk of Ochronosis, a rare condition that leaves blackish-coloured deposits in the skin. This occurs after prolonged use of hydroquinone due to a build up of homogentisic acid, which binds irreversibly to dermal collagen. With this aside, it is the gold standard topical ingredient for pigment. John Plunkett’s SuperFade Face Treatment Cream has definitely taken the ‘go hard or go home’ approach, combining 2% hydroquinone with salicylic acid, plus a sunscreen ingredient to combat the sun sensitisation effect (it’s still recommended to use at night only). This 2% hydroquinone makes SuperFade Face Treatment Cream a pharmacy medicine, as is available for consumers to purchase at their chemist.
John Plunkett’s is certainly not the first brand to boast incredibly high levels of active ingredients into consumer products. Our first gut instinct as a therapist is that this is a bad thing. But maybe it’s time to unpack this.
Are all consumer products really ‘bad’?
As professionals, we have been taught to intrinsically despise all consumer products, that they are all horrific in quality, packed with filler ingredients, carcinogens, and other ingredients that cause harm. This may have been true once upon a time, years ago, but definitely is no longer the case. If you look at products out there on a case-by-case basis, there are actually some decent ones. Like that Go-To Face Hero oil that 60% of your clients are using? It’s actually very skin friendly and totally benign, if you take a look at the ingredients list, you will notice it’s 100% botanical oils. And don’t forget those brands out there that are available to professionals AND consumers. Elemis, a spa classic, is still available at Mecca. Another example is Murad – while it may be available at Adora Beauty and Sephora, you’ll also find it favourited by some of our country’s most highly regarded dermatologists like Dr Davin Lim. So perhaps it’s time for a shift in mindset. Maybe not all consumer products are bad. Maybe the problem isn’t the products themselves, but how they are being used.
Consumers can be their own worst enemies
You may at this point be thinking “but so many of my clients come in with damaged skin from consumer products”. We completely agree, however, this problem isn’t necessarily due to the individual products. In many cases, it comes down to the final combination your clients are self-prescribing. The strength and ingredients of their products may be fine on their own, but too much when used together.
Dr. Michelle Rodrigues is a Melbourne-based dermatologist from Chroma Dermatology, Australia’s first dedicated dermatology centre for pigment and skin colour problems. Michelle tells us she too has seen a rise of patients with compromised skin health.
“Consumers are exposed to an ever-increasing tsunami of information and ‘influencers’ through all forms of media. Through this increasing exposure to vast amounts of information and influencers, consumers develop expectations, and formulate thoughts on what they think will benefit them and their skin health. In many cases, the piece-meal and incomplete information leads to ideas on wanting more actives in skincare, actives at a younger age, and a combination of actives in their daily routines. This can all be detrimental in the end.”
“Over the last decade of my practice, I have seen a growing number of people, especially younger people, who have been combining numerous active ingredients as part of their daily routine. We see patients at Chroma Dermatology on a regular basis who have added too
many actives to their skin care regimen or those that incorrectly combine actives in their daily routine which has resulted in everything from rosacea and perioral dermatitis through to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and scarring. While some consumer products may be great and pose little risk of harm individually, it’s when customers combine them together in their routines that poses risks.”
Why aren’t consumer brands doing more to protect customers?
It may seem like a simple solution that brands slap a few more information and warning labels on products. This was certainly my first thought. However, there are a few problems with this too. Firstly, there are too many possibilities. For example, you could say ‘Do not combine with AHAs’. But that only covers one thing. What about all the other potential adverse combinations? Secondly, the box isn’t a dermatologist – it cannot prescribe or treat skin conditions. The product can only advertise what it is designed to do, on its own. And thirdly, when you think about it, even prescription medications don’t list their interactions with other drugs on the box. You have to speak to your prescribing doctor to obtain this information. Some consumer brands are still doing their part to reduce risks. SuperFade includes explicit warnings on the tubes about test patching, irritation, pigmentation from prolonged use, and speaking to a doctor after 3 months. John Plunkett’s has designed other products to use in conjunction with the Face Treatment Cream in the hopes that customers won’t ‘mix and match’, but we know as professionals – our clients will continue to do what they want to do!
What can we do, as professionals, to improve things?
As Michelle says, education for the consumer is the key. “We need to inform consumers about qualifications – many people don’t know that 13 years (minimum) of medical school and work as a doctor, followed by a series of rigorous exams are required to be a dermatologist, and that dermal clinicians have to undertake 4 years of study. I feel that educating the community so they can choose a provider is the key. Consumers need to make informed choices about what qualifications they will trust when it comes to their skin. Dermatologists need to cut through the noise and get the right messages across to patients. Dermal clinicians need to support patients as they make their skin care choices.”
So, moving forward, perhaps instead of just telling our clients to ‘stop using those products’ simply because they aren’t professional, we can instead try to work with them? Have an open and honest conversation. Are they really happy to ditch their current products? If they aren’t, maybe it’s possible to work around them. Find out why they love their products, find out what’s in them, and if they really aren’t causing genuine harm to your client’s skin health, consider what you could do to fit in other professional products and treatments. Educate your client on ingredients, skin anatomy and function, and how easy it is to overwhelm the skin with actives and disrupt the barrier. This way, not only will they come away from the experience having learned something valuable, they can make informed decisions for themselves, leaving them feeling empowered and respected – instead of just feeling ‘sold to’.