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What does ‘dermatologically-tested’ mean anyway? As it turns out, not very much. While cosmetics imported and made in Singapore have to comply with the Health Science Authority’s strict regulations on what goes into them, there are little rules about what can be advertised on the bottle.
The same goes for many other common buzzwords on product packages, like ‘organic’, ‘chemical-free’ or ‘for sensitive skin’.
“The FDA doesn’t regulate cosmetic products,” says dermatologist Dr Teo Wan Lin. “There’s no rule other than ‘don’t include toxic ingredients’ — other than that, you’re free to market it in almost any way you want.”
Shea butter is a common ingredient used to treat dry and sensitive skin, but, as Dr Teo explains, it can sometimes backfire. That’s because many of these oils aren’t purified pharmaceutically from the plant, leaving harmful residues like pesticides inside — and causing irritation to the skin.
But even small, boutique brands that claim to use ‘all natural ingredients’ aren’t free from scrutiny.
“People forget that even plants have chemicals in them, and so does beneficial medicine,” says Dr Teo. “Organic skincare doesn’t really have a clear benefit, and it can sometimes be quite dangerous.”
Products like aloe vera gel might bring temporary relief, but they don’t address the root cause of the problem, which is a defective skin barrier.
“Aloe vera itself does have anti-inflammatory properties, but once it’s sold as a gel, you’ll have to add all sorts of additives to it, like alcohol — which is caustic to the skin,” she says. “Plus, there’s no part of your skin that’s made of aloe vera.”
Ultimately, for genetically-determined conditions like eczema, Dr Teo recommends that patients seek medical advice instead of trying to find that holy grail product.
“People have to realise that at some point, their sensitive skin stops being a beauty problem, but is a medical condition,” says Dr Teo. “It’s not about trying different products, it’s about treating it medically.”
“Like if you have a cough, you’d never ever think of seeing a beauty advisor to tell you what’s good for you.”
Instead, she recommends patients with severe skin conditions to look for creams with a particular ingredient: ceramide.
As Dr Teo explains, the skin is made of ‘bricks’ that are joined by a particular type of cement — and that’s ceramide, a fatty lipid that’s naturally produced by the body. And since eczema is caused by a defective skin barrier, replenishing the skin’s lack of ceramide should be your priority if you have sensitive skin.
It can be tempting to believe the hype of products that claim to cure or soothe problematic skin, especially when you’re plagued with a condition that just won’t go away — but that’s also when it’s most important to get your skin looked at by a professional. Or at least to start scrutinising the backs of those ingredient labels a little more carefully.