It is nice to get a question from one of my oldest friends on Twitter, Musical Houses.
Hi Colin, I was hoping you’d be able to answer a burning question I have regarding peeling gels. They are HUGE in Asia right now (and making their way to the West), and they claim to exfoliate gently. They are hugely popular because they appear to ‘work’ – when you rub the product on your face you get all these little white balls which look like dead skin cells. A typical ingredients list looks like this: water, glycerin, acrylates/C10-30, alkyl acrylate crosspolymer, dicocodimonium, chloride, steartrimonium bromide, aloe barbadensis leaf extract, gingko biloba extract, rosmarinus officinalis/rosemary leaf extract, butylene glycol. I don’t see any exfoliating on the list, but instead see a whole bunch of polymers. Do you think it’s possible that the little white balls produced are a reaction within the product itself that causes the product to pill up, forming those little white balls? I’m rather skeptical that all this is actually dead skin. Was wondering how products like these work?
I hate to have confirm your skepticism. You are quite right, you are not seeing dead skin peel off.
This trick is sadly rather a simple one. You make a gel by thickening up water with a polymer. There are plenty of these to choose from. The relevant one in the ingredient listing you kindly sent me is the acrylates/C10-30, alkyl acrylate crosspolymer.
Normally, the formulator takes care to make sure that the polymer is in at a level whereby it gives the gel its viscosity and consistency, but doesn’t actually congeal when rubbed on the skin. If it does, it is known as balling and is usually considered to be a problem.
But from time to time someone hits on the idea of using this balling effect to give the impression that skin is being removed. I saw this being done over thirty years ago in a popular product that claimed to remove dry skin from the feet. It pops up every now and again, and thanks for letting me know that it is popular in Asia at the moment. Knowing that might well be handy if I get an enquiry from someone who is not as observant as you and who might not describe it so well.
But the bottom line is you are quite right, these products don’t give a skin peeling effect that can be seen visually. They might well contain physical or chemical peeling agents that actually do have that effect, but as you rightly point out there is not one in the ingredient list above.