The big skincare experiment

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Can our complexions really be improved by skincare products? In a ground-breaking nine-month challenge – a UK magazine first – Stylist finds the answer

Words: Joanna McGarry, Alix Walker And Sherida Brindle

It’s the ultimate beauty conundrum: can we ever really change our skin just by using the right skincare? Or, are we forever shackled to the type of skin passed down to us genetically – with no hope of ever truly transforming it into the smooth, even-toned, healthy skin we want?

It’s a question we found ourselves asking on a cold, wet January morning during a Stylist beauty meeting, as we sat bemoaning our individual skin complaints. So, we decided, there was only one thing to do: embark on a ground-breaking skincare experiment – something that’s never been done before by a British magazine – to really put today’s best skincare to the test.

British women are (quite rightly) a tough crowd to please when it comes to skincare, but we’re also known to have a questionable resolve in our monogamy to a skin product, scarcely allowing it enough time to have any sort of positive impact. The latest figures suggest we waste a mammoth £964million on unused skincare products each year. By enlisting three volunteers to take part in an in-depth skincare performance test, we wanted to challenge not only the boundaries of skincare, but also our own commitment to the cause. We began with a hi-tech Visia skin scan which scientifically determines skin concerns (fine lines, sun damage and a lack of radiance).

We then asked dermatologists which products and treatments we should use to combat them. Regular scans would then show the rate of improvement (…or decline) of our skin, in terrifying detail. The scans mark your skin against the average scores for your age in each skin category, which feels a bit like a beauty contest but is the most detailed way of charting progress. So if your skin ranks in the lowest 20% for pore size, for instance, that’s not great.

When we started our experiment in January, consultant dermatologist, Dr Sam Bunting said our plan was both “ambitious and admirable”. We knew that just a couple of weeks using the right sort of skincare wouldn’t be enough. Since the natural skin cycle is six weeks, that’s the minimum time to see any genuine difference. But to really uncover the power of today’s modern skincare armoury, we’d need to stick at it for at least six months. We went one better and kept at it for nine. So, did it work? Did the fine lines beat a hasty retreat? Has the gentle mottling of sun damage dissipated and supremely smooth skin followed in its wake?

The results are surprising, fascinating, concerning and encouraging. And they might just change the way you think about skincare forever. Read Stylist’s skincare experiments below.

Skincare Experiment 1: Sun damage

Beauty director Joanna McGarry’s pale skin is flawless. But it’s also extremely sensitive to sun. Could products reverse the damage?

Name: Joanna McGarry

Age: 29

Length oftreatment :Nine months

Skin concern: Sun damage

Marseilles, France, 1987. Dad is sat hunched over in a patio chair while Mum gently splats natural yoghurt all over his furiously pink back. It’s one of my earliest memories but, looking back, it was also something of a prophecy for me. Dad is from Dublin, Ireland and has off-white, hyper-pale skin that could only belong to a Celtic man. And I have inherited the same fate. I am 29 and the skin on my face is slowly becoming the dappled sky of a Monet painting, only not blue and white – it’s the colour of pink loo roll and flat white coffee, on a canvas of magnolia – with freckles which have joined together from two decades of daily sun exposure. It’s a genuine concern for me.

Damage control

The first skin scan I have, way back in sun-starved January, shows that the brown spots on my face – the bits of long-term sun damage – is in the worst 33% for my age group. It’s calculated as my most pressing concern, above fine lines or pores. I’m floored. I knew I was prone to sun damage, but I had no idea it was this bad. I am told by Nick Miedzianowski-Sinclair, the Visia skin scan expert, that this is because I am more susceptible to the harmful effects of the sun than virtually everybody else. I spoke to consultant dermatologists Dr Stefanie Williams and Dr Sam Bunting, who agreed on what I needed to do; use a killer SPF 50 to prevent any future damage every day, as well as a “high grade antioxidant-rich daily serum and pigment regulator, and a good eye cream too, for good measure”, said Williams.

Six weeks later, I almost fall off my chair. The second scan shows my sun-caused brown spots have seriously improved. I’m bowled over. It’s a powerful feeling – years of virtually blind faith in skincare seem to be paying off. It was all going so well. And then I went on holiday to the Caribbean and it went wrong. I had religiously slathered on SPF 50 yet my good work came undone.

The third scan showed a visible decline in my skin clarity – I was now in the worst 26% for my peer group. Why? Consultant dermatologist Dr Susan Mayou believes it might have been down to poor SPF application. “None of us apply it thickly enough. We only put on around half the amount we should [a 50p-sized amount is adequate] and fail to re-apply properly throughout the day.” Still, I stuck with it and the final scan showed a staggering overall improvement in my brown spots. Remarkable. I’m told it’s all down to the hydroquinone in the pigment regulator cream which balances the production of melanin (brown spots), while the powerful antioxidants protect my skin from future damage.

My fine lines haven’t disappeared – this regime won’t stop ageing but it’ll give me a much more even skin canvas, which is ultimately what I want. Of course, not everyone has the opportunity to book in for a six-weekly complexion analysis, but there’s no stopping you from conducting your own mini skincare experiment at home. “Take good photos of your skin in the cold light of day, then compare with new photos after every six weeks,” suggests Bunting.

Can skincare really make a difference? For me, absolutely yes – I’ve witnessed it. It takes serious commitment though. And a fair financial investment. But, the one thing that can make a more profound difference to the quality of my skin is, well, me. That’s a commitment I’m happy to make.

Skincare Experiment 2: Fine Lines

Can cream and serum bring fashion advertising manager Sherida Brindle’s skin back from the brink of early-onset wrinkling?

Name: Sherida Brindle

Age: 36

Length of treatment: Nine months

Skin concern: Fine lines

From the age of nine, I remember my mum telling me, “Don’t frown, you’ll get wrinkles.” So, I suppose I had that concern subconsciously drummed into me before I even knew what skincare was. My mum’s always had pretty good skin: she’s never smoked and now at 70, she has a ‘youthful’ appearance, but with a noticeable amount of wrinkles around her eyes, understandably. My younger sister, 33, also has visible wrinkles under her eyes which started to become far more apparent a couple of years ago (sorry, Delaney). This led me to be more mindful of my under-eye area which has seemed to worsen in the last year or two. And lately, I’ve been particularly conscious of wrinkling – especially when I smile. I suppose you could say it runs in the family. I’m sceptical about ‘miracle creams’ but the prospect of softening out the lines around my eyes was too tempting to pass on – so I happily agreed to play guinea pig.

Home improvements

My first face scan before I changed my skincare regime left me feeling deflated: I was the oldest of the three of us taking part in the experiment so assumed my skin would have more obvious signs of ageing, but I didn’t expect to learn that my crow’s feet were developed enough to place me in the bottom 32nd percentile, meaning two thirds of all other people my age and with my skin type have fewer wrinkles. Interestingly, Nick Miedzianowski- Sinclair at the Visia scan clinic, explained that my wrinkles aren’t all down to age. They could also be the result of ‘mimic lines’: the natural creasing of skin triggered by how the facial muscle structure causes the face to move.

Apparently my facial muscles are formed in such a way as to move more around my eye area when I smile, rather than around my cheek and mouth area. Consultant dermatologists Dr Stefanie Williams and Dr Sam Bunting seem to have the same opinion. They recommended products based on retinol (a form of vitamin A which boosts the renewal of skin cells) and collagen (the naturally occuring elastic part of the skin) to reduce the appearance of fine lines by plumping the skin.

I’ve always maintained a regular skincare regime over the years, so I found it pretty easy to adapt to this one – just a daily application of day cream, serum and eye serum. Of course, it helped that the skin scans showed steady improvements in my wrinkles as the months went on. Still, there wasn’t a noticeable overnight change. The scan is able to pick up more detail so it charted improvements that, frustratingly, I couldn’t see myself. And admittedly, were it not for the scans, I’m not sure that I would have been as diligent about the test, given that I didn’t see any big visual improvements.

At a push I would say that my skin began to appear clearer and more luminous, but I think that may be because the experiment made me hyper-aware of my skin. It felt nice when friends said they could see improvements in the clarity of my skin; that I looked less tired and I looked ‘brighter’. It also made me consider sun protection and I started to use an SPF in my daily moisturiser.

Now the experiment is over and I’ve seen big improvements in my eye wrinkles from the scans, I’m a complete believer in investing in good skincare, but I really did need to see the hard evidence from the scans before I could believe there was any change.

Against my expectations, the retinol and collagen have made a genuine difference – one which I’m pretty sure I can see for myself now – so I’m determined to make a beeline for any serums and creams which contain those ingredients forever. And hopefully, one day, I’ll have skin that looks as good as my mum’s.

Skincare Experiment 3: Texture and Radiance

Associate editor Alix Walker wanted her skin to glow for her wedding day. Was serum, cream and intensive treatment the key?

Name: Alix Walker

Age: 30

Length of treatment: Nine months

Skin concern: Texture

“I’m sorry to say this but your results aren’t good. In fact, they’re pretty bad.” This is not the news you want to hear from the man staring intently at your pores at the end of a nine-month programme to improve your skin.

It’s particularly bad news when you started 2012 with – rather remarkably considering a four-sunbed-sessions- a-week habit age 21 – fairly decent skin. In fact, the only thing that was worth improving was the texture – a bit of congestion around my nose, average pore size and red spots.

My goal was to have radiant skin for my August wedding. I left his office after the first scan feeling smug, thinking I’d look like a zygote walking down the aisle. Clearly the universe had other intentions…

Invasive treatment

The prescription for said radiance from Dr Sam Bunting was a daily hit of 20% vitamin C serum (which protects against free radical damage and brightens the look of the skin) and Tretinoin Cream, monthly microdermabrasion and a mesotherapy session (where a roller covered with needles is rolled over your skin to break the dermis layer before Chiroxy Oxygenating Cream is massaged in) every three months.

I can’t remember the last time I had a facial and I am lax with my skincare, so having hardcore treatments felt like a novelty. Because the vitamin C serum and Tretinoin cream can make your skin burn and go red and dry during the first few weeks of use I had to build up slowly. It stung a bit but my skin did look more radiant within a fortnight. I also noticed that my pigmentation had faded and that I felt more confident without foundation on.

Unfortunately my next scan, in March, showed that the quality of my skin’s texture was declining; tiny little bumps appeared on my skin (which I’m told are known as ‘milia’ and can be caused by using heavy products which clog the skin or not cleansing properly). It was almost as though my skin was rejecting the very thing that should be helping it. And thus began a very regular pattern…

My hope was the mesotherapy would stop that pattern in its tracks. But after one hour of being pierced by a terrifying implement of torture I looked like a plucked chicken and it really hurt. For at least two days afterwards I was puce and couldn’t smile without wincing. This kind of treatment just wasn’t for me. I felt vain; slipping into the kind of appearance obsession that I’m just not cut out for.

So, despite being prescribed another two treatments (once my skin had adapted to the first), I only ended up having the one. Hearing that my skin texture, the thing I hoped to improve, was worse by the end of the experiment was disheartening. Was it a year of work and wedding stress? An unhealthy ‘must-fit-into-my-dress’ diet? Or do these treatments just not work for some of us?

I don’t know, but it has changed my approach to skincare. Now I only use all-natural products such as Liz Earle and Avène which don’t leave your skin looking like you’ve just climbed out of the oven. It wasn’t all bad news though. Nick Miedzianowski-Sinclair informed me there have been some improvements (lucky as I was about to start wearing a paper bag).

Despite two weeks lying in the sun in August, my brown spots have improved, from best 36% to best 3% (so the vitamin C serum and Tretinoin Cream do work on other things). And my red areas have also seen a positive change, from worst 42% to best 11%. My wrinkles, which for me are the real sign of ageing, have stayed exactly the same… Oh dear.

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Stylist Team