Penetration Enhancers

What Our Skin Absorbs: Pros and Cons of Penetration Enhancers

As we all know, ingredients in our skincare products are of utmost importance. They directly affect our skin condition – and in general, our health. Most of us pay close attention to the different types of ingredients we apply on our skin. However, here is the big question as we apply layer after layer of product…

What actually gets absorbed among all those products?

Not all of the substances found in skincare products are absorbed by the skin. The skin has three main layers – the outer layer (epidermis, aka the horny layer) and lower layers (dermis and the hypodermis). The epidermis acts as a protective barrier against foreign substances, preventing dirt from entering the skin.

Due to the complex skin structure, your skin does not absorb everything you apply to it. This is where what we call “penetration enhancers” come into play.

Why use penetration enhancers in skincare?

Humectants, for example, are substances that reduce the loss of moisture, as in lotions. Those that penetrate the skin deeper moisturizes the skin better and keep it hydrated longer.

Skincare scientists, dermatologists and aestheticians use a variety of methods to enhance absorption. The uppermost skin layer (the horny layer) is removed by using methods such as chemical peels, microdermabrasion, and adhesive tapes. This would then enhance the absorption rate of the skin.

On a consumer product level, penetration enhancers are chemicals that help the skin absorb substances. This can happen in two different ways. One, these agents bring the substances directly through the skin cells. Or two, they transport the substances between the cells. A penetration enhancer interrupts the structure of various skin layers. This occurs when they interact with proteins dilating the space between cells.

The downside is that these enhancers can disrupt your skin. What seems harmless is often drying for the skin and worst, carcinogenic.

Due to the complex skin structure, your skin does not absorb everything you apply to it.


Are penetration enhancers present in my skincare products?

Chances are, yes. The effectiveness of topical skincare relies on several things. These include how much of the ingredient the skin maintains, and how much the specific target tissues absorb the beauty-enhancing qualities. The problem lies in the kind of chemicals (synthetic or organic) used to quicken it.

Today, nearly all skincare products contain a formulation that includes these enhancers. Companies want their skincare product to perform faster. But, they also want to give a financial advantage to the manufacturer and reduce their manufacturing expenses. To meet these requirements, some companies have taken some chemical shortcuts to solve their problems.

What are the side effects of penetration enhancers?

Penetration enhancers make it easier for substances to pass through the skin by using chemicals. These chemicals are expected to be inactive and safe, and are common in topical preparations. In spite of this, penetration enhancers are linked to a high rate of dose-dependent side effects. These range from local irritation to systemic reactions upon acute or chronic use. The toxicological aspects can take many forms, such as skin irritation.

The toxicological aspects of penetration enhancers can take many forms, such as skin irritation.

Alcohol as a common penetration enhancer

Manufacturers often use alcohol as a solvent to mix different ingredients together. It ensures a smooth finish to the product. It’s low evaporation point also makes it useful in certain cosmetics that require drying fast. Alcohol can also act as a penetration enhancer as it helps to increase the skin’s absorption rate.

Prolonged usage of such alcohols leaves the skin dry and flaky as it eats away at the skin surface. This causes unnecessary stress on the skin surface, eventually interrupting the skin’s renewal cycle. It may also result in an extremely unhealthy skin condition.

Look out for: Ethanol, SD alcohol, Methanol, Denatured alcohol, Ethyl Alcohol

What is the benefit of using natural & organic skincare products?

Penetration enhancers may help increase skin absorption. But many of these enhancers are also chemicals that may cause harm in the long run. Furthermore, penetration enhancers might also increase absorption for even more harmful ingredients. Instead of helping your skin to better absorb the benefits of skincare, you might be exposing it to more harmful chemicals.

A safer option would be to avoid penetration enhancers altogether. Alternatively, use natural and organic options of penetration enhancers. They are Aloe Vera Gel, German Chamomile oil, Eucalyptus oil and Argan oil.

Before buying a skincare product, it always pays to have a look at the ingredient list first. We never know what we purchase under the guise of carefully-designed labels – we might end up harming our skin instead.