Dr. Bowe Q&A

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Dr. Whitney Bowe graduated top of her class from Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Now a board-certified dermatologist and author, she has a best-selling book, countless scientific publications and press articles, and thousands of happy patients to her name. Here, she breaks down the science of Naturopathica.
Naturopathica​: Synthetic ingredients have caused quite the stir in the skincare world. Can you help dispel some of the controversy around them? Can they be used safely?
Dr. Bowe: Many synthetic ingredients, like retinol, retinol esters such as retinyl retinoate, and synthetic forms of vitamin C such as L-ascorbic acid have excellent safety profiles and are recognized as effective powerhouses. Safe synthetics are ingredients that are created in a laboratory setting but considered safe and effective. Controversial synthetics are ones that might cause irritation, or worse, might have detrimental effects on our health or the health of our environment. 

Naturopathica​: As a dermatologist, what is your opinion on synthetic ingredients vs. natural?
Dr. Bowe: Just because an ingredient is synthetic does not mean that it’s harmful, and just because an ingredient is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe. Poison ivy is natural and plant-based, but I certainly wouldn’t rub it on my skin! The line between natural and synthetic is hardly black and white. You can use clean, safe products that harness the power of natural ingredients while incorporating some lab-made ingredients that are proven to be more effective.

Naturopathica​: Many skincare brands use “active ingredients” in their formulas. What is your definition of an active?
Dr. Bowe: Active ingredients deliver results you can see and results you can measure. I’m a scientist at heart, and studies and evidence are very important to me when it comes to recommending ingredients. Some ingredients might feel nice on the skin, temporarily smooth or plump your fine lines, or improve your texture. Actives reverse signs of aging, strengthen fragile, crepey skin, and give you a glow that persists long after application.

Naturopathica​: Can you expound on actives that are derived from nature?
Dr. Bowe: I believe that nature is an incredible source of powerful active ingredients with tremendous potential for the skin. However, many natural ingredients require tweaking in a laboratory to truly enhance their beneficial properties while keeping them active, stable, and able to deliver results without irritation. One of the benefits of using ingredients derived directly from nature is that you occasionally get a benefit from the synergy of several natural molecules working together. Other times, you get more of a benefit by isolating one specific molecule and recreating it in a lab so that it is pure and more potent. 

Naturopathica​: When it comes to certain actives like vitamin C or retinol, the lab-created forms are currently more powerful than what’s found in nature. Why is that?
Dr. Bowe: If you are looking for a vitamin C serum that is reliably going to deliver optimum results without irritation, I would opt for a vitamin C created in the lab for a few reasons: 
  1. The vitamin C created in a lab is designed to be more gentle on the skin, even at high concentrations. I have had patients complain of stinging and burning if they are using a completely natural form of vitamin C.
  2. Antioxidants like vitamin C are very unstable by nature, and things like too much heat or too much light can break them down and render them useless on the skin. 
  3. Not all forms are compatible with other ingredients and those ingredients can interact in a way that inactivates the vitamin C
  4. For vitamin C to boost new collagen, it has to penetrate through the surface layers to the deeper layer of skin, called the dermis. Most natural forms of vitamin C have not been shown to do this. 
In the case of retinol, natural alternatives just haven’t caught up to the safe, consistently effective, synthetic versions formulated in a lab. You might see some products containing rosehip seed oil, or beta carotene, with claims that the product has “natural retinol alternatives.” While these ingredients do have some nice benefits for the skin, they aren’t going to deliver comparable results to a synthetic retinol.

Naturopathica​: Vitamin C is one of the most potent skincare ingredients that effects real change in complexions. What does it actually do to the skin?
Dr. Bowe: Vitamin C has reached hero status in the world of skincare because of three proven benefits for the skin:
  1. It’s a potent antioxidant that helps reduce visible signs of aging by combating the free radical damage arising from sun exposure, heat exposure, and other environmental stressors (like pollution). 
  2. It promotes new collagen which firms the skin, minimizes the appearance of pores, and smooths out fine lines. 
  3. It’s one of our most effective brightening ingredients, lightening dark spots on the skin to create a more even skin tone and complexion.

Naturopathica​: Retinol is seen as an important skincare ingredient, but what is it exactly? How does it benefit the skin and how should you use it?
Dr. Bowe: Retinol is probably the most powerful anti-aging ingredient on the market today, provided that you stick with it over time. Retinol is a vitamin A derivative which is often added to topical skincare products to diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, promote skin renewal, reduce acne, and boost your skin’s collagen production. I often recommend that my patients who are starting to notice fine lines and wrinkles incorporate an OTC retinol into their nightly skincare routine. Retinol helps to diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, improves your overall skin tone and appearance, and can even help to reverse some of the side effects of sun damage. When applying it, don’t neglect your neck, chest, and eye area. 

Naturopathica​: Retinol has gotten a bad rap because many believe it makes their skin more sensitive. Is that the case?
Dr. Bowe: In early studies, people reported photosensitivity when using retinoids because they found that their skin turned red when walking out into the sun. In retrospect, several years and several more sophisticated studies later, it is more likely that this was due to heat exposure and flushing than immediate burning due to photosensitivity. As a general rule, I recommend that my patients use their skin renewing retinoid products at night to ensure they remain active and potent. (and always wear an SPF during the day).

Naturopathica​: There’s plenty of buzz about peptides in skincare products. What are peptides and how do they impact skin health?
Dr. Bowe: Peptides are strings of amino acids, and amino acids are the building blocks that make up proteins, including collagen. Think of amino acids like links on a chain. If you string a few of these amino acids together into a short chain, that’s a peptide. However, if you string very long chains of hundreds of amino acids together, and then wrap 3 of those chains into a complicated rope, that’s when you get a structure like collagen. These long, thick peptide ropes live in our dermal layer and keep our skin plump, elastic, and smooth. When you introduce certain peptides onto the skin in the form of a moisturizer or serum, they can trick the skin into thinking there’s been an injury or wound, and it stimulates our collagen-boosting processes. 

Naturopathica​: What criteria are most important when choosing products for yourself?
Dr. Bowe: I'm constantly trying new products and keeping abreast of the most cutting-edge science as it relates to topical products and ingredients.  First, I look at the ingredients to ensure they are backed by science. Next, I focus on what I do NOT want in my products. I make sure that there are no potentially harmful ingredients or ingredients that might cause irritation. Then, I think carefully about how each product complements the others – I keep my regimen simple, but effective. I'll often hop on the phone with the scientists, chemists, or brand founders to better understand how each product was formulated, where the ingredients were sourced from, and if any studies were done on a particular product.

Naturopathica​: How do you define clean beauty?
Dr. Bowe: Clean beauty, to me, is about nourishing your skin with ingredients that help optimize its health, function, and beauty while avoiding any ingredients that are potentially dangerous to your health or the health of our beautiful world. I would never recommend an ingredient that I suspected to have carcinogenic or endocrinologic effects, or ones that I thought would compromise our microbiome. 

Naturopathica​: Your skin glows and looks flawless. What’s the secret?
Dr. Bowe: Thank you!! There is no trick! I honestly live by the 21-day plan that I share in my book, The Beauty of Dirty Skin. My diet, exercise, lifestyle choices that dial down stress, and my skincare routine are all specifically designed to nurture and nourish my skin from the inside out and the outside in.  
Learn more about Dr. Whitney Bowe.

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