“The science of beauty, explained simply.” Our Q&A with Michelle from Lab Muffin

If you follow me over on instagram, you might have picked up on the fact that I’m a bit of a makeup junkie. I blame (thank?) my mother; her friends sold one of the MLMs-that-shall-not-be-named and I think I was mesmerized with all the pretty colors as a three year old. It launched me on the eternal hunt for a perfect black eyeliner.
But today, we’re talking a bit more about skincare than makeup with my favorite beauty science writer, Michelle from labmuffin.com. A chemistry PhD who makes the science of skincare and beauty accessible (and isn’t afraid to try out everything), Michelle covers the gamut of skin issues. From why that magical serum can make your eyelashes grow to recipes for your own vitamin C serum (and the science of why it works), she tackles the beauty market with evidence. With all the Gwyneth Paltrows of the world telling consumers that they need a jade egg in their eye socket to achieve beauty (that’s where they’re putting them now, right?) Lab Muffin is a beacon of clarity and science in a landscape of nonsense. Onto the q&a!
I realize that I know very little about your day job and your academic background in chemistry and a lot about your hobby, tell us what you can about your work.
I finished my PhD in chemistry (a mix of synthetic, medicinal and supramolecular chemistry) in 2013. I love teaching so I originally thought I wanted to go into academia, but then like a lot of other postgrads I discovered that there are minimal opportunities for teaching in academia and there’s zero emphasis on quality teaching. So I decided to go into science education instead. My day job is a mix of chemistry teaching and resource writing, which ties in pretty nicely with beauty blogging and making videos! As I share this with lovely readers like yourself, I have been thinking about ways in which I can boost my social media following, as I feel like the content I create is worth seeing if I do say so myself! If I don’t gain these followers organically, knowing that I can get free instagram followers with socialfollow is always an option.
What interested you in communicating the science of skincare?
I really enjoyed teaching science during my PhD – I find it really satisfying when someone “gets” a concept! I was getting into make-up and skincare during my PhD and researching every purchase endlessly, and I ended up really digging into ingredients. There was a lot of interesting science there, but it was all quite complex and often behind paywalls, so I started Lab Muffin to try to summarise and share what I found, and to do my part to try to combat the vast range of unscientific nonsense out there. I didn’t really expect to get much of a readership, but it turns out people do really care about spending money on things that actually work!
Have there been any big surprises for you while you’ve been researching for your blog?
Lots! I’m always surprised when there’s a halfway decent independent clinical trial for anything. My standards have dropped a lot since I started reading about cosmetic science. If there’s a placebo controlled trial with more than 10 subjects I’m impressed.
There are a few ingredients that I never thought would be potentially legit but it turned out there were semi-decent studies behind them, or at least more so than other ingredients – snail slime and collagen supplements were two surprises for me.
I’m also surprised by how demonised certain ingredients are by marketing campaigns, especially when you read the studies and find the exact opposite. The whole paraben scare campaign, for example, started from a study where they found parabens in breast tumour tissue… but they didn’t look in normal tissue, and to top it off, they found parabens in the blanks (control samples)!
What are the major misconceptions that you hear most frequently about skincare?
Using harsh ingredients to treat your skin – this doesn’t work. Skin has a bunch of mechanisms that help it work, and treating it harshly with scrubs and alkaline soaps and irritants prevents it from functioning properly and makes everything get worse and worse.
On the flip side, there’s a misconception that skincare isn’t necessary and skin can take care of itself – this is true for some very lucky people, but if you’ve found your way to looking at skincare, this probably isn’t the case for you. And everyone can at least use sunscreen!
There’s also a big misconception that I’m sure you’ve also encountered a lot – the appeal to nature fallacy is strong in skincare, and a lot of people think that natural products are the best for sensitive skin. But natural ingredients are more prone to degradation, and contain a far larger variety of chemicals, so the chance of an allergic reaction is far higher!
Within the skincare community, there’s often a lot of emphasis on checking comedogenicity ratings to see if ingredients in a product will clog pores, but this isn’t a very useful yardstick – to get the comedogenicity ratings ingredients are tested on skin by themselves, but ingredients interact with skin very differently when diluted in a finished formula.
Which best practices have stood the test of time?
Wearing daily sunscreen – I never used to wear sunscreen daily and only wore it to the beach, but there’s been a bunch of really solid research coming out lately demonstrating the benefits for both cancer prevention and anti-aging. Generally, protecting your skin and not assaulting it too much seems to be the go.
I went into a deep dive of trying everything last year- the full ten step Korean Skin care routine, a dermaplane procedure, a clarisonic, every serum on the market, try ALL the retinols! I have a somewhat simpler routine now, which leads to the question… is there a point at which adding more components to a routine seems to not help your skin, or is this fairly individual? (and please feel free to yell at me if dermaplaning is a bad idea).
It’s super individual in my opinion – sensitive skin is going to want as few things as possible, while thicker, more resilient skin will look amazing if you bombard it with exfoliants. For a lot of people a 10 step routine is a meditative way of relaxing, but it’s really time consuming ant not worth it for other people. I personally went from a longer routine to a shorter one as I discovered products that multitasked for my skin and my job got busier.
Dermaplaning is fine as long as you’re careful and your skin isn’t too sensitive to physical exfoliation! I’m too chicken to do it although I’ve tried shaving my face with a safety razor (it worked quite well but then I got lazy…)
How believable are before/after pictures for an at home treatments like serums and moisturizers vs in office treatments like fillers and botox?
I kind of hate before and after photos! They’re so easy to manipulate that even if a brand is doing the right thing, you can never tell for sure. It would be great if they were regulated but that’s a pipe dream.
At home treatments and in office treatments generally target different things – skincare products very very rarely make it to the deeper layers of skin (lower epidermis and the dermis), so things like deep wrinkles and sagging have to be treated via slightly more invasive methods. But for shallower problems like pigmentation and acne, the at home versions are usually just slightly weaker and safer versions of the same thing, so it’ll take longer but it’s likely to have less side effects and you can still get good results.
Are there any ingredients that you recommend against using? Conversely, which ingredients have you seen evidence of efficacy for certain needs?
I’d recommend against MI (methylisothiazolinone) in leave-on products. It’s a preservative that was named allergen of the year a while ago. I’d also recommend against high pH “natural” soaps on the face since your skin is low pH and a lot of the natural processes are disrupted by high pH, plus soap molecules are quite small so they can bury themselves into skin and cause prolonged irritation.
Ingredients with lots of evidence are vitamin A derivatives (retinoids), including tretinoin, adapalene and retinol – they work for seemingly everything: acne, wrinkles, pigmentation, psoriasis. Vitamin C, niacinamide and alpha hydroxy acids are great as well. Sunscreen of course is fantastic!
Which labels on skincare packages do you ignore and which do you pay careful attention to? (non-comedogenic, hypo-allergenic, non-GMO, etc).
I ignore all of the ones you’ve listed here! In skeptical communities non-GMO and organic are well known as largely meaningless labels, and they’re used in a lot of beauty marketing as well. “Chemical-free” turns up a lot too. Non-comedogenic and hypoallergenic are theoretically meaningful but they’re not regulated and there isn’t a commonly accepted definition of which ingredients fall in those categories. The only labels that I really look at are percentages of active ingredients (if provided, which is rare), the ingredients list, and regulated sunscreen labels (SPF, broad spectrum, UVAPF, water resistance).
What’s the most extreme sounding thing that you’ve tried for your skin (or would recommend)?
IPL works quite well for broken capillaries (though temporarily) and isn’t too painful. I’m planning to try microneedling soon, which is when you stick a whole bunch of short, tiny needles into your skin. It’s meant to help product penetration and provoke your skin’s healing processes. (SciBabe note- I tried microneedling, and it’s oddly pleasant).
Semi-permanent tattooed make-up (brows and eyeliner) is probably the scariest thing I’ve done for my blog and I highly recommend it!
If you want to find more information from Michelle, here’s where to find her in each corner of social media:
If I can find an article on the subject on her site, I follow Michelle’s thoroughly researched advice before I try new skincare techniques or ingredients. The beauty market tries to rely on our insecurities, so a friendly, reputable voice that relies on research and evidence is so welcome and necessary. If you’re someone with… skin… she’s a great resource no matter what question you might have.

-SciBabe & LabMuffin

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About SciBabe 78 Articles
Yvette d'Entremont, aka SciBabe, is a chemist and writer living in Los Angeles with her husband and their four pets. She bakes a mean gluten free chocolate chip cookie and likes glitter more than is considered healthy for a woman past the age of seven.

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