The Formulation of Skincare Creams and Their Uses

The Formulation of Skincare Creams and Their Uses

By Francesca Camponeale



Audrey Hepburn once famously said, “I owe 50% of my beauty to my mother and the other 50% to Erno Laszlo.” Erno Laszlo was a pioneer in skin care in 20th century.

Skin creams have been made and used for centuries in various cultures around the globe, as people realised that to maintain healthy skin took some care and maintenance, and that depending on one's lifestyle the gradual effects on the skin can be damaging.

These days there are endless skincare products on the shelves, from simple soaps and bodywash to moisturisers, exfoliants, toners and cleansers; and it can be overwhelming not knowing what's what, and which products your skin would benefit from.

Here's the lowdown on the main types of skin creams; their properties, what they're good for, and how to use them.

Why is skincare important?

Here's a brief explanation of the composition of our skin. These are the skin's 3 different layers, from the outer layer to the innermost layer:

  • Epidermis: made of corneocytes and keratincytes, the epidermis acts as the main barrier from external elements and protects the skin's deeper layers. Skincare products work on this outer layer of the skin.
  • Dermis: rich in elastin and collagen protein, this layer is what provides the skin's elasticity and firmness.
  • Hypodermis: rich in fat cells the hypodermis is composed of small blood cells, hair follicles and glands.

Overall, skin creams protect the skin from the external environment, and some specific creams have other functions, for instance hydrating the skin and making it more soft and supple. Here are some of the types of skin creams and their primary functions:

  • Cleansers: Remove dirt, sebum, sweat, exfoliated corneocytes and microorganisms from the skin.
  • Soothing Creams: Reduce redness and itching
  • Restoring Creams: Restore dry skin and reduce inflammation
  • Toners: Reduce germs and balance the skin's pH

Water based creams are the most widely used as they are comfortable on the skin, absorbing well with little grease. Water based creams are easy to use and easy to remove. Oil based creams have more drawbacks as they are thicker in oil content, however when it comes to delivering fat-soluble active ingredients to the skin, oil-in-water creams are more effective. Oil based creams are also more hydrating, moisturising the skin and preventing water loss from the stratum corneum (the outermost layer of mature skin cells of the epidermis).

Cleansing Creams

The ideal skin cleanser is something which cleans the skin, removes dirt, grease and dead skin cells all without causing the skin any damage.

Skin cleansing methods and rituals go back to ancient times, when people would either use a piece of bone to scrape and cleanse the skin, or eventually create plant based mixtures dissolved with water to use on the skin. The methods evolved over time, and people began to use oil bases for skin cleansing creams.

Cleansing creams have become an integral part of the modern skincare regime. As cleansing and moisturising are the two most important steps, cleansing creams are designed to do both.

Regularly cleansing of the skin helps to improve the texture and reduce or prevent acne. However, excessive use of cleansers and overly vigorous washing of the skin can also cause damage and disrupt its natural protective mechanisms.

A few facts on the composition of cleansing creams:

  • The most common components are petrolatum, mineral oils, waxes and water, as well as emulsifiers which are added to prevent the ingredients from separating into layers.
  • Emollients are grease-like substances which are added to give cleansing creams moisturising effects. Common emoillients include isopropyl myristate, isopropyl ester of myristic acid, and polysorbate20.
  • Moisturising ingredients work by repairing the skin's lipid barrier (which attracts and retains moisture from the environment) increasing water content which is held and redistributing throughout the skin.
  • Natural fats, such as mango butter, cocoa butter or coconut oil, are often used in creams to create a similar layer to the skin's natural layer of lipids.
  • A humecant is an ingredient which acts like the skin's lipid barrier; attracting moisture from the air and locking it into the skin. Glycerin is a popular humecant used, and one study showed softer and more hydrated skin after 10 days of regular glycerin application.
  • The cleansing agent: sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a surfactant commonly used in cleansing creams, which should be used with caution as once absorbed through the skin it can end up in the heart, lungs, kidneys and brain with harmful effects. It can even cause blindness when contact with eyes is made.
  • A safer alternative to SLS is sodium cocosulfate which is derived from coconut oil.

Modern cleansing creams have been formulated after decades of research, trial and error, and so the ingredients are proven to be effective and safe to apply to the skin. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel analysed and confirmed the safety of 39 polyether lanolin components and triethanolamine (TEA) and 31 related TEA-containing ingredients which are commonly found in cleansing creams.

Cold Creams

A cold cream is a thick softening cream which is is an effective way to treat eczema and dry skin, especially in the winter. Called 'cold' cream because they are cold to touch, these creams are oil based. The water in the cream evaporates when applied, leaving the oils and fats to both remove dirt and moisturise.

The concept of a cold cream originates back to the second century, formulated by Galen, a Greek physician. The formula has of course evolved a lot since then! In the past, cold creams where made with vegetable or almond oil, and later with borax (a powdery white mineral) or beeswax. This later formula turned out to be cheaper to make and more long lasting. Cold creams were often used to cleanse and remove make up, as well as to treat dry skin.

The use of cold creams has declined a lot over time. Due to its alkaline nature, borax (one of the most widely used bases for cold creams) causes skin irritation, as well as internal issues such as kidney damage and problematic foetal development when it accumulates in the body.

Although borax is a natural ingredient, there's also evidence to suggest it can cause damage to the immune system. This goes to show that despite an ingredient being natural, it may not always be good for humans, whether internally or externally used. Creams, although applied topically, are absorbed through the skin into the body. Alternatives to borax include sodium behenoyl lactylate, ceresin, carbopol, butylene glycol and polyethylene glycols.

Antioxidants are also added to cold creams, as the oxidative process is a major reason for skin damage; vitamin C and E help to prevent this process. However, in most skin cream formulas these vitamins are not effective, as they have to be in a stable form to provide benefits.

Night Creams

These skin creams are made to be on the skin for many hours while you sleep. With a high oil content, night creams are designed remain on the skin even when the skin rubs against bedclothes.

Common ingredients of night creams are:

  • Melatonin: recently introduced, a very strong anti-oxidant molecule which visibly reduces signs of ageing.
  • Deionized water: a very effective solute
  • Glycerin: an emollient which increases the absorption of the cream into the skin
  • Sunflower oil: safe to use natural oil which does not damage skin or cause redness.
  • Hazelnut oil: non-greasy and so very adept for oil skin
  • Some natural oils can cause damage or redness, olive oil for instance can do so (depending on one's skin type).
  • Shea butter: naturally occuring emollient which hydrates and reduces swelling
  • Anti-oxidants help prevent environmental damage caused by pollution and UV rays, and stop oxidative damage which leads to skin ageing.
  • Some night creams contain whitening or brightening ingredients.
  • Whitessence ™ is a highly effective naturally found lightening agent that is extracted from Asian nangka seeds. It causes skin lightening by preventing the transfer of melanin from melanocytes to surface skin cells.
  • Tyrostat™ is another skin lightening chemical that works by inhibiting the production of melanin by inhibiting an enzyme that does the task.

Massage Creams

Massaging the skin is known to make it firmer and healthier looking, as it increases blood circulation and collagen production, which prevents the skin from turning dull and saggy. Massaging an emollient, or a massage cream, into the skin can therefore have many positive effects. Sometimes however it is possible to experience redness and swelling directly after the massaging, or even more long term issues like acne or inflammation.

Applying a cream during massage is important as it helps to reduce friction and the possibility of redness. However, massage creams can also potentially over-moisturise the skin, making it too fragile due to dead skin cells not being able to shed (and therefore preventing newly formed cells to come to the skin's surface).

Massaging the skin can be very beneficial as a supplementary treatment for the following conditions:

  • Cellulite: through reduction of swelling and fat cells, while increasing collagen production.
  • Depression
  • Skin conditions
  • Fibromylagia
  • Hypertension
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Cancer
  • Thai foot massage improves balance and also aids diabetic patients through reduction of blood pressure.

Commonly used ingredients in massage creams include:

  • Ethylhexylpalmitate: keeps skin well hydrated by preventing water loss. Acts as a lubricant preventing friction during massage; works as a good emollient for dry and rough skin, making it very effective for eczema and psoriasis.
  • Natural extracts such as grape seed, cucumber, basil, jojoba oil, almond oil and olive oil for added hydration.
  • Grape seed extract contains omega-6 and vitamin E which are responsible for moisturising, vitamin E also being an anti-oxidant so preventative against skin damage.


There are three main types of moisturisers which all work slightly differently on the skin:

  • Emollients; rich in lipids, they fill the gaps between surface skin cells, softening and improving the flexibility of the skin.
  • Occlusive moisturisers add a layer of moisture to the skin, preventing water loss and keeping skin hydrated.
  • Humectants attract water molecules to the skin from the environment for absorption.

In order to determine which type of moisturiser is best for you, it's important to look at your skin type and requirements. There are two main reasons for dry skin; firstly, low humidity and air movement, and secondly age related changes. Skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis lead to and perpetuate dry skin. Studies have shown dry skin to contain more inflammatory agents than normal, meaning dry skin is more prone to inflammation as the outermost skin layer begins to crack in the absence of moisture.

Natural Moisturising Factors (NMF) are some of the most beneficial ingredients for treating dry skin. These include different amino acids, urocanic acid, inorganic salts, sugars, and lactic acid and urea which are found naturally in the body.

Vanishing and Foundation Creams

These types of skin creams are essentially moisturisers with added components. Vanishing creams are non-greasy, mostly water based, and completely absorbed on application leaving no trace on the skin. Foundations are used to smooth the skin's tone and appearance, often to make the skin look paler (foundations contain 3-25% pigmentation).

Foundation can come in varying forms such as liquid, mousse, and powder. Often they also contain an SPF factor (sunscreen), and it is important to ensure the sunscreen works properly, as some less effective types of SPF protection leave the skin still exposed to harmful UV rays. According to dermatologists, foundation can clog the pores, preventing the skin from breathing and causing skin damage, rashes, acne and dryness.

Hand and Body Creams

Often called 'all purpose creams', hand and body creams can be applied liberally and act to universally moisturise, nourish and protect the skin. Non-greasy, they can often be used as cleansing creams or as a base for foundation. Many people find hand and body creams to be a very convenient and low-cost way of maintaining healthy skins.

Choosing the Right Skin Cream

Skin creams have been used for centuries to take care of the skin, and today, with all the different types of cream available on the market, moisturisers remain the most commonly applied and most important element of any skin care regime. When chosen correctly, a good moisturiser can help to maintain healthy skin and prevent skin problems. Mostly the composition of varying types of skin cream remains the same (80% of the formulations are similar), with differences in added ingredients and active components.

Overall modern skin care products are highly effective with very few side effects, however there is always a small risk of some unwanted side effects. Toxic substances can be absorbed through the skin and into the body, leading to health issues. Although some ingredients may be natural, this doesn't mean they are good for all skin types, as people react differently to different ingredients sometimes with adverse effects.

It is important to always make sure the cream you're using is suitable for your skin type and requirements. If possible see a dermatologist before you choose which cream is right for your skin, or otherwise be sure to buy dermatologically tested creams from trusted brands.

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