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Active concentrations- how much is enough

July 25, 2011 Reviewed by Marta 14 Comments
Via the Truth In Aging Facebook page, I was recently asked about a product that claimed to have a 20% concentration of apple stem cells. The question was whether I thought the claim to be true. But it put me in mind of a different question: does it even matter? By which I mean, even if we take on trust that a product has a high concentration of an active – such as “25% Matrixyl 3000” – is it necessarily more effective?

Whether more is really more is an intriguing question (at least to me) and I’ve been wondering how to get to the bottom of it. One place to start is the manufacturers of the actives. Once I wrote to Sederma, the makers of Matrixyl 3000 about a specific product that boasted a very high concentration of this collagen boosting active. The reply I received was diplomatic, but referred me to the amounts used in their own clinical trials. The implication was that anything above that was subject to the law of diminishing returns.

Apparently, one of the reasons why chemists love peptides is that very small amounts of are needed. They possess, if correctly chosen and formulated, very high biological potency. That means, according to Special Chem 4 Cosmetics, cosmetic effects can be obtained with very low quantities (only a few ppm compared to a retinol, which is used at 600-700 ppm level). So this makes me a bit suspicious of something that says it has 20% of the peptide combo Matrixyl 3000 in it.

There are several brands that boast 20% Matrixyl 3000. I once compared three of them - Isomers, NCN and Firm Skin. However, Sederma originally tested Matrixyl at only 4%.  I have also found that Sederma conducted a more recent trial on men. Again the concentration of the active was 4% and formulated at 4% was tested in-vivo on two panels of 24 men, with a mean age of 54. After a two month daily application on half-face, Sederma claims (there are no independent trials) visible results were observed of a decrease in the area occupied by deep wrinkles of 29.4%, and a decrease in density 30.4%.

What if you were to multiply that concentration by 5X to 20%, is it conceivable that these results would improve by a commensurate extent? A decrease in wrinkle density of 150%! That indeed would be a miracle cream.

If more is more, wouldn’t it be in Sederma’s interest to up the dose in the trials with the double whammy of 1) better results and 2) selling more quantity of its active. The recommended use level of Matrixyl 3000 is 3-8%.

To see if this is widespread, I decided to take a look at some other actives made by different manufacturers.


The question on the Truth In Aging Facebook page was about a specific product called Emerge that uses a 20% concentration of an apple stem cell active marketed under the name of Phytocelltec. Mibelle, the company that makes Phytocelltec, publishes the results of its clinical trials where it used a 0.01% concentration and a 0.04% concentration.  Now, there is a marked improvement in the results at the higher 0.04% concentration, supposedly achieving an 80% improvement in stem cell “colony-forming”. If this is achieved at less than half a percent, is there really much point in paying $120 for a product that claims to have 20% (incidentally Emerge also claims to use Matrixyl 3000 at a 10% level).


I am right now testing a cream by Hydropeptide called Even Out. It contains a skin lightening ingredient called ChromaBright. I don’t know what concentration Hydropeptide uses, but I can tell you that the manufacturer, Lipotec, tested it at 0.5%.


Also made by Lipotec, the expression inhibiting peptide, has been tested at a concentration of 10% to achieve a 17% reduction in wrinkles. Interestingly, another test achieved 27% improvement over the same time period using only a 5% dose.

Vitamin C

There’s a lot of independent research on vitamin C as a topical anti-aging ingredient. I have seen concentrations of 5% used and up to about 10% for ascorbic acid. There is one that also tests tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate at a 7% concentration.

Sodium hyaluronate

Although some cosmetic companies boast 25% sodium hyaluronate, very little – as little as 01% to 1% - is actually recommended. In fact, as our video shows, using much more than 1% results in a Jell-0 like goo.

At this point, unless I see some evidence to show that more is more, I am not going to be lured by a product just because it boasts a high concentration of an active.
  • July 28, 2011

    by Darrell

    Hi Julie,
    Gram-for-gram, HA is a moderately-costly ingredient. Because it's only needed in very small quantities to reap benefits though, HA's impact on a formula budget is relatively minimal.


  • July 28, 2011

    by Julie Kay

    Is HA one of the expensive ones, Darrell? ~jk

  • July 28, 2011

    by Darrell

    Hi Pat,
    I'm only familiar with hyacare as a brand-name form of HA, but will read up more on it.

    Kinerase lists HA high up in their ingredient list as "hydrolized hyaluronic acid" which would indicate they're using a water solution containing HA. So, that said most likely they are using a solution of HA at 25% in the product and the formula does not actually contain 25% HA.


  • July 28, 2011

    by pat s

    Interesting comments.............I have been reading alot lately that hyacare is better than HA - any thoughts on that?

    And what about Kinerase Hydraboost that brags about 25% HA in their product? Too good to be true?

  • July 28, 2011

    by susan


    My thoughts exactly! I was going to write basically the same thing, but restrained myself. I'm so glad you didn't.

    After reading up on hormones and the role they play in our bodies, the overriding evidence is they should be treated as pharmaceuticals--even the bio-identical or the bio-mimetic.

    If any one decides to use skin care containing hormones, one should have hormone blood serum levels checked at least every six months by a physician knowledgeable in this specialty.

  • July 27, 2011

    by LIna Jacobson

    Marta, I appreciate you bringing up questions surrounding skincare products that are usually never addressed! I'm compelled to address the question about estrogen. I would direct you to the website Dr. Neal Rouzier is a pioneer about 18yrs of prescribing bio-identical hormones. Lets be clear bio-identical verses synthetic. The delivery of the different hormones, some are applied topically in a cream, i.e estrogen and testosterone. In doing homework on the hormones yes women you need testosterone, not only for building bone density, but it is a huge contributor in anti-aging, as in smooth skin. So I personally would not use a skincare product that is marketing with the use of hormones. I would be getting my bio-identical hormones prescribed after I've seen my doctor and had my blood levels checked. Another marketing hook, but I believe in a territory they have no business being in.

  • July 27, 2011

    by Pam

    Wouldn't the effectiveness of the product's delivery "system" also have an impact? Some company's products seem to just lay on the skin, while others (such as Osmosis products) are absorbed more deeply.

  • July 26, 2011

    by susan


    Thanks for your response. Since reading and viewing the video you made on mixing HA, this question has crossed my mind more than once, as I often see a lot of fantastic actives listed behind HA. Of course, in light of your information sharing, Darrell, these percentages might still be enough. Oh, around and around I go. A sense of humor is a requirement in my quest for superior skin care products.

    Great to hear from you, Darrell! I've missed your contributions and so appreciate you sharing your knowledge with us. I learn much from you, along with TIA others.

  • July 26, 2011

    by Marta

    That's a good idea Arandjel. Copley did a post ages ago and we've mentioned pro-estrogen plants such as black cohosh in Kaplan MD's line. I'll work on pulling something more definitive together. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • July 26, 2011

    by Arandjel

    Speaking of active ingredients, Marta, one that has been on my mind for a while now is estrogen. As far as I can tell, it has, in the capacity of an anti-ager, never been discussed on this blog, just the dangers of it. Being that there are studies on its skin regenerating properties, it would be interesting to hear your take on it. Jan Marini uses progesterone and estradiol is one of her products, and she might, to my knowledge, be the only one. But she is also famous for blurring the line between drugs and cosmetic ingredients.

  • July 25, 2011

    by Darrell

    Hi Susan, Julie and Marta,
    Indeed -- if the formula is represented accurately, keeping in mind that most legitimate formulas boasting HA are using that ingredient at a rate of around 0.1% to perhaps 4% max, then yes, as long as HA is used at a rate of at least 1%, any ingredient following in their list is going to be present in the product in a lesser quantity.

    With HA, generally once you start getting close to 4% and up in the formula, the product would not be physically functional. There may always be exceptions where a higher concentration of HA becomes useful, but most claims of HA concentrations at 10%, 25%, 50% and 100% are bogus and based off solutions containing a VERY small portion of HA.

    For example, dissolving .25g of HA in 100g of water and using that solution at a rate of 75% in a formula does not equate to the formula being "75% Pure HA" as some products would have us believe (in this example, an accurate statement of HA content would be 0.18% and not 75%).

    As for other active ingredients, the answer about following use guidelines is -- well, it depends -- and sometimes has more to do with cost and budget and less to do with benefits (and Julie, you're touching perfectly on that)...

    When a new ingredient, such as a peptide, is developed the manufacturer has a target audience and selling strategy in mind that will result in the best sales possible of that ingredient. This strategy will often times drive what's presented in study data and use rates. The result is that ingredient manufacturers tend to provide data centered around what will most likely lead to that ingredient being used in the widest range of consumer products possible.

    Providing data supporting higher use rates has potential to price an ingredient out of reach in products intended to be affordably-priced and make it unappealing to those middle-of-the-road, mass audience, manufacturers.

    There are always exceptions...
    Some ingredients do indeed plateau their benefit beyond use at a certain percent. Likewise, some ingredients would cause damage if used in excess. Other ingredients would possibly provide exponential increase in benefit, to a point, but are simply too cost prohibitive.

    I hope some of this is useful -- the big takeaway is always if an ingredient concentration claim seems to good to be true, it probably is and/or could do you more harm than good.


  • July 25, 2011

    by Julie Kay

    I really appreciate this article, Marta, and have wondered this issue for a couple years. My feelings go to cost, as well. If they offer (the brands) offer a higher concentration of their magic sauce, they can charge more for their product. For pure common sense: If you go to any of the Lab Company websites for DIY ingredients (Lotioncrafter is a good one) they recommend a lower quantity of these actives, which I believe is indicative of wise usage. That's my personal opinion, of course. At any rate, I'm always skeptical of a high rate of any active in a potion. I believe in balance in all things. ~jk

  • July 25, 2011

    by Marta

    Yes Susan, I think it would. I do hope some formulators will chime in too as I would love to learn more from them about concentrations.

    Also, I have just started "Ask the TIA community" where anyone can start a thread to ask questions and get a discussion going without having to worry if they are commenting on a relevant article. It can be accessed in the grey nav bar at the top of every page. You do need to be registered though.

  • July 25, 2011

    by susan

    Perhaps this is the forum to post my question. Keeping the above information in mind, if a product contains sodium hyaluronate, and the product is not goo-like, would it be reasonable to believe any ingredient following the sodium hyaluronate in said product would be at concentrations of 1% or less?

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