Aqua. Propylene glycol. Aloe barbadensis leaf juice. Phenoxyethanol. Fucus vesiculosus extract. These are all ingredients of the closest skincare product to my desk right now (Mario Badescu’s Facial Spray—rosewater version, obv). But what are those things? Aqua: water—got it. Aloe barbadensis: aloe vera is good! The rest? Not so sure. Some of them sound pretty chemical-y, and I never did too well in chemistry class. That extract though, that’s probably good, right? And herein lies the problem with skincare: Most people don’t know what’s in their products. And even if they’ve heard of some of the product’s ingredients, the average consumer doesn’t know what those ingredients do. Or if they’re effective for their skin type. Or if they’re even all that safe. You’ve likely heard various reasons we should avoid synthetic chemicals: If you can’t pronounce it, don’t use it! That ingredient is a chemical! Chemicals are used to clean toilet bowls! (Nevermind the fact that even plain old water is a chemical substance—effectively, everything is, in fact.) This fear of chemicals, often termed “chemophobia,” is misguided at best, as plenty of researchers attest. Still, the cultural trend toward safety via nature has led to an industry-wide movement—which is a bit misleading given the fact that “natural” means zilch to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates (but doesn’t approve) cosmetics and skincare in America. That term, and some others like “clean” or “green,” aren’t actually regulated at all. While the FDA does ban intentionally false or misleading packaging, it’s the responsibility of the manufacturers to act in good faith when it comes to what can be put on the front of products. So what’s a consumer to do? This is a problem Lisa Guerrera has been researching for years. A self-described skincare junkie, Guerrera is a chemist focused on the science of skincare. She did her undergraduate thesis on chemophobia, and now she’s pursuing her master’s in cosmetic engineering and building Skinno, an app aimed at educating consumers about ingredients in their products. Most consumers have difficulty decoding ingredients and their applications. Guerrera, Skinno’s founder and CEO, realized that this lack of knowledge—combined with the largely unregulated cosmetics industry—leads consumers to make decisions about products based on marketing and scare tactics instead of concentrating on ingredients. Guerrera co-founded Skinno with Christina Torres, whose background is in biology and science communication, in October 2017. The app, which has been in development since February, uses a scanner to read ingredient labels and break down what’s in your product and what those ingredients do. The app’s searchable ingredient database is entirely sourced by Torres, who has professional experience with biological databases; she personally researches each ingredient and writes consumer-friendly descriptions. Skinno also has a Routines feature to help users remember to actually use their products. As the Skinno team develops the app further, they’re focusing on personalizing users’ skincare experiences: What does your skin need and why? What are the best ingredients to achieve that and why? We hopped on the chance to speak with Guerrera about the app and how it can help consumers navigate the current skincare market.
HealthyWay: I love the idea of knowing what each ingredient in my products is used for. What’s your ultimate goal for Skinno?
Guerrera: Ultimately we want people to be educated about their products before they buy them. Consumers have the right to easy access to scientifically accurate information about products, and we know Skinno will be able to help with that through instant education and personalization.
What can ingredients tell us about our skincare products?
Ingredients can tell us a lot! These days, a lot of products are marketed based off of some “miracle” ingredient that will cure all our skin woes, but in reality, if you look up the ingredient, there is no real research backing up those claims. Ingredients can tell us if a product is really doing what it’s claiming to do for our skin.
What should people be paying attention to when they’re buying their skincare?
Definitely pay attention to what’s at the top of the ingredients list. Those are the most concentrated ingredients in a product. So if a product is claiming certain things, you would want the ingredient that will do the thing to be toward the top. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but it’s overall a good rule of thumb. People should definitely pay attention if they have a known allergy or sensitivity to an ingredient. Sometimes ingredients can be called a different name, but it’s still the same ingredient. So it’s important for people to pay attention to the label to make sure the product doesn’t contain allergens. Skinno will actually alert you if an ingredient you’re allergic to is in a product!
Are ingredients with names we can’t pronounce or things that are “chemical-y” necessarily bad? What about ingredients we notice all the time or ingredients that are “natural”? How can Skinno help users tell the difference?
Everyone has heard the rule, “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t put it on your skin!” But that is so wrong! There are tons of amazing ingredients in skincare with long, complicated names or names that are unfamiliar. Just because something “sounds” like a chemical doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. The idea that chemicals are “bad” stems from the societal phenomena of “chemophobia,” or fear of chemicals. We are conditioned to be wary of unfamiliar chemicals or anything that sounds chemical-like. With Skinno, my hope is we can educate people to know that just because it sounds scary, doesn’t mean it is! Natural ingredients are interesting … They don’t really exist. Natural has no meaning or definition under the FDA, so companies can label pretty much any product as “natural.” So even ingredients that are “naturally derived,” usually from source plants or other means, are usually put though many chemical processes before arriving in your skincare bottle. This by no means makes them worse; I just want people to see that there isn’t much of a difference just because something is labeled natural.
How can skincare junkies know what’s best for their skin, besides trial and error? How do you see Skinno helping them?
The best way to mitigate trial and error when it comes to product choice is to make educated decisions before purchase. Being a skincare junkie myself, and someone on a budget, I research every product as much as possible before I decide to buy it. Skinno can really help people with this task. Instead of taking hours to do research on every product, you can just scan to see what each ingredient does and, in the future, if it will actually work for your skin type. Certain ingredients can work better for certain skin types, and we can help you decipher that!
Skincare is really having a moment. Why are you building this app now?
Honestly, it was just good timing! I’ve always loved skincare, and the opportunity to build this app fell into my lap, so to speak. But I really felt people were craving more information about the products they use every day. Ingredient consciousness is on the rise, especially in skincare, which is uniquely chemistry-driven and difficult to dissect. I wanted to help people become smarter consumers.
Tell us more about the app’s tech! The scanning feature is one of the coolest things I’ve seen and reminds me a lot of technology I’ve only seen in shopping apps or on Google Translate.
Yes exactly! So we are using optical character recognition or OCR technology to literally read ingredient labels with your smartphone camera. It’s the same tech Google Translate uses; we’re applying it to ingredient labels. This means that if a product is not in our database or doesn’t have a barcode, you can still scan it and get a readout on the ingredients, which is totally unique to our app! We do have a barcode scanner just in case the ingredients aren’t on the product. We’re also launching the app with machine learning in September, so the app will learn about you and your skin over time to give you personal recommendations.
Right now, the app is in beta. What can beta testers expect from the experience?
So right now the app can only give you simple ingredient explanations, and you can use the routine feature and be able to flag ingredients you like and ingredients you’re allergic to or don’t like. But we’re pushing new updates to the app every few days with improvements and fixes. Users will basically get a glimpse into how an app is really made. They will see us grow a lot in the next few months. All the features in there now are very basic, but they are stepping stones to help us get to the final version of the app. We always ask users to give us as much feedback as possible. We’re building this for you!
What features are you hoping to incorporate as you further develop the app?
Our biggest project is the complete personalization of the app. We want to be able to give easy-to-understand, simple, and personal skincare recommendations to users, instantly. That means when you’re shopping and scan a product with Skinno, we can tell you immediately if we think this product is worth the purchase based on multiple factors such as skin type, your environment, and budget, to name a few! To do this, we will be using machine learning and a skin type quiz (that we’re developing right now) to learn about the user over time. The other big feature is product comparison. We can automatically compare the ingredients so you know whether to splurge or save!
What challenges have you faced creating this app?
We face a lot of challenges since we’re building a product using technology that’s never been applied to this space. Definitely the biggest challenges we face are building out an extensive database with ingredients verified by science literature. It takes a long time to truly research each ingredient. Next is our OCR scanner: Round bottles or shiny packaging can be challenging, so we are in the process of creating our own technology to read special packaging. Lastly is automating something so personal! We have to consider skincare and people’s preferences from all angles, so I talk to a lot of people about skincare daily. Both Christina and I are women in science, a sometimes difficult position to be in professionally, but getting better every year thanks to amazing initiatives. But now we are also women in tech, a notoriously hard industry to get into, especially knowing that only 3 percent of companies backed by Venture Capital Investment are women-owned. We’ve definitely had people doubt us, ignore us, and assume we didn’t have the knowledge to execute this, but that only makes us work harder and smarter. We also have amazing mentors that have believed in us from the start, so that has been very encouraging.
Can you tell us about your personal skincare journey?
My skincare journey has been a long and very difficult road. Since I was 12 I’ve dealt with cystic acne, a severe type of acne that comes in the form of very painful, long-lasting cysts on the skin. I tried so many products, went to many dermatologists, and over the years developed my knowledge on skincare via trial and error, reading, googling, and getting my degree in chemistry and learning formulation. I even remember at multiple points in my life looking at my face in the mirror and actually crying because of all the painful cysts. I still have acne today, but thankfully it isn’t as bad now because I found it was hormonal acne and took the steps to get treated for it. Now I focus on acne scar reduction and keeping my dry skin moisturized.
What are your favorite ingredients?
That’s such a hard question these days! Definitely a favorite is ceramides. Such an amazing ingredient to have in a moisturizer. Another is lactic acid: It’s a gentle yet effective exfoliant that’s great for dry skin like mine.
What are your favorite products right now?
Products I’m loving are the CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser; it’s been my holy grail cleanser for years. Next is the Dr. Jart Ceramidin Cream, a new favorite moisturizer. Lastly, the e.l.f. Cosmetics Primer sheet mask, it’s got some surprisingly great ingredients and only costs $2! Download Skinno for iOS to try it out yourself and follow Skinno on Instagram to keep up with their progress.