Choosing your first face cream

Choosing your first face cream
When do you need to start worrying about using a skin cream?

What age should you start using a face cream?  Is it a good idea to start looking after your skin at an early age so as to keep it in better condition later?  Which is the best face cream?

Unfortunately it is simply a fact of life that as we age the quality of our skin goes down.  There are some things you can do to fight back a bit but ultimately time always wins.  There are a few ways some of the effects of time can be somewhat reversed, but in general your skin will betray how long you have been in it.  When you get to the stage that you can see something is wrong is the time to consider looking around for a product to help.

The main thing that happens to your skin is that  it starts to get drier.  This happens because the barrier the skin forms between you and the outside world weakens and you start to lose water across your skin more quickly.

The biggest benefit you get from using a face cream is moisturisation.  Most people under the age of about 30 don’t need to even think about moisturising their face.  Moisturising is a short term process and if your skin isn’t dry you don’t need to use a moisturiser.  You won’t get any benefit years later.  Or even months later.   With most products the effects will have worn off in twenty four hours.  So no there isn’t any point in using a face cream before you appear to need it.  If you are a parent don’t encourage children to use face creams.  You don’t want  to encourage body image insecurities at an early age.  There is plenty of time for the marketing departments of big cosmetics companies to do that later.

You basically need to pick a moisturising cream that restores the balance of water loss to what it used to be.  This varies enormously from person to person.  If you aren’t losing much a light lotion might be far and away the best choice.  If you are losing a lot then you might be in the market for something like Nivea or Attrixo – or even E45, Oilatum Cream or straight vaseline if it is really bad.  You can tell pretty quickly if it is working. If you aren’t getting a noticeable benefit in about a week or less, change the amount you are using or change your product. It is possible to overdo it. You don’t want to put so much on that it blocks your pores.

The other thing that happens over time is that the collagen that gives your skin its elasticity starts to break down.  As it does, your skin becomes less tight and more prone to wrinkles.  This is an inevitable natural process and very little can be done to slow it down and even less to reverse it.  But it does start happening basically as soon as you mature, so this is something that is worth bearing in mind even if your skin is in top condition now.

Is it possible to slow this process down?  There are a few things you can do.
The biggest factor in the loss of collagen is light.  The more you go out in bright sun the worse it will be.  Stay out of the Sun as far as you can.  A sunscreen product will help a bit.  My personal preference is for physical sun blocks such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, but any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen if you are likely to be out in direct sunlight. I don’t recommend any particular SPF value, and in fact I think a low one is probably as good as a high one in the long run.   The trick is to keep an eye on your skin and make sure you are using enough to stop your skin changing colour. A bit of observation and experimenting will be more helpful than reading what it says on the packet.

Moisturisers also help a bit in this battle.  The body is equipped with a set of defences and these work best in well moisturised skin.  But I wouldn’t want to make any huge claims there.

There are a couple of minor points you might want to keep in mind. If you have sensitive skin you might want to avoid vegetable oils and go for products which contain mineral oil instead.  On the other hand, if you don’t have sensitive skin vegetable oil based formulations can give good results.  Materials like olive oil and shea butter have some skin benefits that mineral oil doesn’t.  I would also steer clear of products where propylene glycol is too near the top of the ingredient list.  Glycerin is a better choice.

Some face creams, well quite a lot of face creams when I think about it, will have one or more ‘active’ ingredients that are often what the marketing story is built around.  It isn’t fair to say that all these ingredients are totally useless.   It is fair to say to that a lot of them are totally useless.  Some of them can make a positive contribution to what the face cream is doing for you.  But I think it is fair to say that the bulk of the work is being done by the base cream with the wonder ingredient maybe just helping it along a bit.  I will probably blog more about individual ingredients in the future.

How much should you pay?  My advice is to completely ignore the price tag.  If your skin happens to need a very expensive product, well that is just the kind of high maintenance person you are.  If you find a cheap one that suits – lucky you.  At the end of the day even a very expensive skin cream doesn’t cost very much per application so I don’t see any great virtue in buying cheap stuff just because it is cheap.  But equally can’t see any reason why a budget brand won’t work just as well as a premium one.  It is largely a question of matching the amount of oil in the formulation to how dry your skin is.  In an ideal world the oil content would be marked on the pack to make selection easier, but the marketing guys would have me assassinated before they let me demystify the products that they sell to that extent.

But the best advice is to just keep trying different things until you find one that suits you.  Use moisturises to keep your skin dry.  Use a sun screen to keep your skin its original colour.  Use whatever works whatever it costs – if it keeps your skin in good condition the price is worth paying.  But equally don’t assume that high cost products will necessarily work better for you.  A cheap one might be perfectly suited to your particular skin physiology.  A product’s value is measured by the effects that you can actually see it having on your skin.


14 thoughts on “Choosing your first face cream”

  1. Hello Colin,
    Thank you for another interesting article. You mention that knowing oil content would make selection easier for creams . At the risk of being assassinated, could you enlighten as to what an ideal oil content would be for the different skin types?

  2. I think if you are young enough, with oily skin, a nightly treatment with a humectant like aloe vera is very useful. I did that while I was modeling to avoid clogged pores yet remain hydrated. I carried that on until I started to notice wrinkles (not until after I had a good number of kids).

  3. Hi Colin-just found this your great site yesterday. Boy, do I have questions for you! What a timely subject (for me) that you decided to write about this subject this week!

    Quite frankly, although I admire most of the work and writings of Paula Begoun, I’m wondering if at times her warnings are a bit on the alarmist side? What I mean is, for the most part i have found her advice helpful, so I’m not taking anything away from what I believe is her honest caring and wanting very much to help us consumers of cosmetics and hair products. But she has frightened me off of some products purely from the fragrance aspect. One that she has given an a poor rating to is Creme de la Mer original moisturizing cream. Of course she puts down the outrageous price, but she says in her review of it on her free website
    that it is hurting women’s skin because of all the fragrance listed in it (which you have written about in your article about it) plus the fact that it contains Kathon CG (as you know the abbreviation for the preservative with the two “M” names combined). She writes that the fragrances used in it are known Volatile Oils meaning they are documented skin irritants and that even though you may not necessarily feel them irritating your skin, they are still indeed doing so and therefore breaking down your skin’s immune system.
    Another very frightening thing she wrote is that Linalool can be cytotoxic (killing off your skin cells). She does put references after these statements.
    I forget all that she has wrote on Kathon CG but basically it was to be avoided at all costs in leave on products, as it’s so sensitizing. So what’s your take on all of this? From what I understand, you actually think the fragrances listed in CDLM are good quality and shouldn’t be a problem unless your known to have an allergy to them. But she seems to think these ones all automatically are irritating, whether you feel it or not. By the way, she has a cosmetics glossary on her site, which gives all of the information I wrote here, and it’s on other sections of the website, plus stop by any book store and see her book there “Don’t Go To The Cosmetics Counter Without Me”-she writes about all of this in that book and I think it’s wrote about in a lot of her other books.

    Thanks for any help!

  4. This post has proved tremendously popular and even better has attracted some really interesting comments.

    @Lise – I can’t really comment on the oil content of other people’s formulations because I don’t know them and wouldn’t be at liberty to discuss them if I were. And I don’t think the people who paid me to develop them would appreciate me divulging that kind of detail on my own ones. What I can say is that Aqueous Cream BP is in the public domain and that has 21% oil and is very suitable for very dry skin.

    @Pedro – retinoids might just have some long term benefits if you start early, but none of the studies I have read about them have investigated this possibility. They can certainly be irritating if used at effective levels. So I would say that a 20 year old is trading the slim possibility of a minor long term improvement in their skin for a high probability of getting irritated in the short run. It doesn’t sound like a good deal to me, but I suppose some people might.

    Thanks Joanne, and that is a great website you have there.

    @Holly – I am afraid I haven’t read much of Paula’s site. I sort of know most what she talks about already. What I have read has been pretty sound and I haven’t found anything to disagree with. What you are quoting does sound alarmist. Lots of things can be dangerous if used in the wrong quantities and Kathon CG certainly would be dangerous at high levels. Its great advantage is that it works at really really low levels. It is also very unlikely to accumulate either in your body of the environment. So to my mind it is a better choice than a less toxic material that has to be used at a much higher level. I think I will stop there because I can probably get a whole blog post out of developing that line of reasoning. Likewise individual terpenes such as linalool can be harmful in large quantities. But as traces in a fragrance they are never going to get anywhere near a level to do any harm. Many shops sell neat essential oils to the general public. If they were that allergenic we would hear a lot more stories of people reacting to them than we do. With reference to Creme de la Mer, as you noticed I have inferred from the large number of supposed allergens on the ingredient list that they use a very expensive fragrance with lots of essential oils in it. Knowing some beauticians with very demanding clients who use it around Knightsbridge, I would have thought that they would have noticed by now if it was particularly irritating. Thanks for provoking some thoughts.

  5. Thanks for the insight, Colin! That the fragrances are in such low quantities that they probably wouldn’t be cytotoxic was a thought I had as well, so thank you for explaining. But there’s a couple of things that still don’t make sense, that I didn’t mention in my first post.

    When you read about Kathon CG in the cosmetics glossary at Paula’s website, she writes that “when it was introduced in the mid 1970’s it elicited a great number of sensitizations in consumers. This led to it not being included in cosmetics other than rinse off products”. But of course she writes elsewhere that when found in leave on cosmetics such as moisturizers, it should be avoided. She writes that one should only use products that have it like shampoo and so forth as these of course are rinsed off. But as you can see she states that they were banned in the 70’s. She doesn’t write anything about why they were brought back (or maybe they were never discontinued for that long from cosmetics?) so what I am thinking, and maybe you will be able to confirm this, is that they were taken off the market for awhile, and then put back in later at smaller levels then when first put into products. Just a guess, but please let me know if I might be on to what happened. I wish she would have been a little more informative when writing about the removal of it in the seventies. Because it seems there is a “rest of the story” missing there.

    Also, since ingredient listings on the label list the ingredients from at the top what’s in it the largest amounts to the bottom being what’s in it the least (that’s the law here in the States, but I’m pretty sure it’s the law in the U.K. as well-correct me if I’m wrong) the fragrances in Creme de la Mer are at the bottom, so obviously they are the lesser ingredients in the product. However,
    I’m still a little concerned about seeing Lime Extract listed as the fifth top ingredient. Wouldn’t that make it a bit too much to have in a leave on product? Maybe there is something very beneficial about Lime extract that I haven’t found yet?

    Just as an aside, I think a book like yours would be a most welcomed addition to the Health/Cosmetic section of the bookstore, and one by an actual cosmetic chemist is one that is sorely needed. Again, I agree and have been grateful for a great deal of Paula’s work. She admits she is not a scientist, but interviews many of them and studies the work they do. However, as you have seen here from my post, there are a couple of things that need more delving into and/or another opinion about. But right now her extensive research is all we in the cosmetics buying world have right now as for insight as to how ingredients in cosmetics/hair care products work. If there is anyone else with her extensive knowledge putting out books right now, I don’t know who that would be. So jump on in Colin, the water’s just right! LOL

    Thanks again for you help, sorry I’m so full of questions but you are helping me a lot!


  6. Thanks for the article, depressing though it may be. 🙂

    What about antioxidants, peptides and such? Are they beneficial? They tend to be more expensive than other skin care products, so I wonder if they’re worth the price.

  7. Nadira V Persaud

    Wise words and really interesting that you should say this,
    ‘If you are a parent don’t encourage children to use face creams. You don’t want to encourage body image insecurities at an early age. There is plenty of time for the marketing departments of big cosmetics companies to do that later.’
    I get upteen parents asking my advice on their teenage kids routine!
    Thanks again for another insightful post!

  8. Hi Colin, Great blog again!

    I know I am responding rather late but I would like to say that as a woman from a mixed background (English and middle eastern/indian/african) I was brought up from a young age being taught that I must moisturise my whole body. This simply part of caring for your skin and is not for ‘beautifying’. My mother swore on cold tar soap and cold cream. She used to think it strange that the English had a preference for body powder rather than creams and oil. As a girl I always used Simple lotion and vasaline (the latter used during swimming lessons, as a barrier to stop the Eczema)

    Also, I have 2 small children and the book I was given by my midwife called ‘Caring for your child – age 0-5 years'(or something) states that using creams on your childs skin is an important aspect to caring for them.


  9. Hi Colin,

    Great site, have scoured it several times now and love coning back to refresh my knowledge on various subjects!

    I am sure at some point I read on here the difference between w a cream designed for you face and one for the body, I just wondered if you could point me in the right direction with whether there is a point buying separate items. I have recently started using the Vaseline Intensive Rescue range ( the cream and the lotion) and for about 2 weeks my skin on my hands, face and body has never been better. However I now have pimples on my face, which for me is unheard of so I’m wondering if the richness of the creams is to blame. It’s predominantly petroleum based so occlusive. I might reduce the amount and see if that helps first though. Please could you advise on whether there is a valid reason to buy products designed for specific body parts (as it were!) thanks, Hayley

  10. Hi Colin,

    Great article! However, what I’m wondering is if you could recommend a facial cream for a four year old. We live in a very northern climate and have cold and snow from October until around March or April. Her face gets so dry, around her cheeks and chin. I hate using something with too many chemicals in it, so I was hoping you could recommend something that would work, but was not too harsh.


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