The History of Dermatologist-Developed Skin Care

Did you know that most major skincare and cosmetics brands, including Almay, Clinique, and Proactiv, were developed by dermatologists or based on research and testing performed by dermatologists? The history of dermatologist-developed skincare and the biographies of anyone involved is something that personally fascinates me. 

The stories behind some of the most well-known dermatologist-developed skincare brands today are also important (and equally interesting!) for consumers to understand, as the range of skincare product choices continues to grow and become more difficult to parse through. 

Learn about the beginnings of some of your favorite and most trusted dermatologist-developed skincare lines today and the brilliant dermatologists and medical professionals behind them for a better understanding of the science behind why a specific skincare regimen works for your skin.

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Almay: The First Hypoallergenic Skincare Brand

Almay, an amalgamation of the founder’s names Alfred and Fanny May Woititz, was the first hypoallergenic brand, established in 1931. Over a 90-year period, Almay was the first skincare brand to do the following:

  1.  Provide hypoallergenic cosmetics (introduced 90 years ago).
  2. Become available by prescription only, as it was initially.
  3. Fully disclose all individual ingredients in its products, well before this became mandatory in 1976.
  4. Provide totally fragrance-free products.
  5. Provide patch tests and other materials to physicians to diagnose contact allergens.
  6. Provide custom formulations to individuals proven to be allergic to a specific ingredient through their physicians.
  7. Perform a full range of premarket safety testing on all products for allergy and irritation.
  8. Test all of its products for comedogenicity (whether or not they clog pores).
  9. Formulate cosmetics like eyeshadows and eyeliners specifically for contact lens wearers.
  10. Formulate hypoallergenic skincare regimens for specific skin types in the mass market.
  11. Provide a specific cosmetic regimen for acne-prone women, including silicone-based makeup and active ingredients for treatment in cosmetics and skincare.
  12. Develop a hypoallergenic fragrance.

I recently interviewed Stanley B Levy, MD, who now practices in Chapel Hill, NC and specializes in skincare formulation and safety. Dr. Levy was one of the consultants to Almay. He told me that Almay provided patch test materials to dermatologists to help identify contact dermatitis to cosmetic ingredients and described Almay’s relationship with the dermatology field as follows: 

“From the outset, Almay was linked to dermatology. In 1930, a chemist and pharmacist in New York City, Al Woititz, was looking to compound cosmetics for his wife suffering from cosmetic allergies, Fannie May. He enlisted the help of the dermatologic expert in contact dermatitis at the time, Dr. Marion Sulzberger, to suggest ingredients to avoid. Soon, dermatologists around New York City were recommending these formulations. This led to a product line free of the known allergens and a fledgling company trademarked as Almay. For the past 90 years, [the company] has kept a close relationship with dermatologists, well before that was the norm.” 

The Almay research overseen by Dr. Levy and others contributed greatly to our understanding of the allergenicity of skincare today.

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The Founding of Clinique

Dr. Norman Orentreich, MD was a successful New York City dermatologist and the first to perform hair transplants. This new technique brought him fame and notoriety and arguably made him the first “celebrity dermatologist.” Dr. Orentreich was a central figure in the trend to link the clinical aspect of dermatology with cosmetics. 

In August 1967, Vogue published an article on him, titled “Can Great Skin be Created?” This popular article caught the attention of Leonard Lauder, son of the founders of Estee Lauder, who recruited Dr. Orentreich to help create the skincare line Clinique. Clinique was intended to be a brand with a medical look that promoted its products as “allergy tested.” The Clinique packaging still has an antiseptic look and the beauty counter salespeople wear white coats

Dr. Orentreich developed a skin type-based skincare line for Clinique. The four-question questionnaire had an iconic plastic lever that customers slide left or right to instantly provide them with an assessment of their skin type at the beauty counter. The four skin types available in Clinique’s questionnaire were: Very Dry to Dry Skin (Skin Type 1), Dry Combination (Skin Type 2), Combination Oily (Skin Type 3) and Oily (Skin Type 4).

Although this skin typing system was not scientifically accurate (there is no scientific definition of combination skin), it was reminiscent of the system developed by cosmetic company tycoon Helena Rubinstein in the 1940s that classified people into four skin types: oily, dry, combination, and sensitive. Clinique became a blockbuster brand and was one of the first dermatologist-developed skincare brands – although Dr. Orentreich did not put his name on it.

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The Birth of the Cosmeceutical Industry 

The turning point for the intertwining of dermatology with the cosmetic industry was the shift from a safety-based approach (hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic) to an emphasis on efficacy claims in the 1980s. At the helm of this change was Dr. Klingman’s observation that retinoids could improve photoaging.

A well-known dermatologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Klingman had originally set out to show that retinoids were an effective treatment for acne. However, during Dr. Kligman’s research on acne, he noticed that wrinkles improved after treatment with tretinoin. Then in 1986, he and several other authors published the first article about tretinoin’s use for photoaged skin. 

Many more studies led by various other researchers followed. In fact, so many studies were published on the subject that Dr. Klingman was (and maybe still is!) the most widely-published dermatologist in the United States.

These studies showed that not only did prescription tretinoin improve the appearance of wrinkles, but so did over-the-counter retinol. Today, retinoids remain the most efficacious prescription and cosmeceutical ingredients to treat wrinkled skin.

With these studies showing that retinoids improved wrinkles, suddenly a major shift from safety claims to efficacy claims occurred in the skincare industry.

With this shift in the 1980s, as non-drug active ingredients like retinol were shown to have biological effects, the lines between the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) definition of a drug versus a cosmetic became blurred. In 1984, Dr. Kligman suggested a new classification for the ingredients that fell in the middle, proposing the term “cosmeceutical.” 

To this day, “cosmeceutical” is not an official definition, and the FDA has yet to set regulations for this category. FDA regulations as to what constitutes a drug versus a cosmetic date back to the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

However, the FDA started to issue warning letters to some companies during the late 1980s, as many companies began to make outrageous claims about what their products could achieve for consumers’ skin.

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Dr. Eugene Van Scott, NeoStrata, and AHAs

Dermatologist Dr. Van Scott and dermatopharmacologist Ruey Yu, PhD filed a patent in 1973 on the effectiveness of alpha hydroxy acids to treat ichthyosis (dry, flaking skin) in 1974. They invented the abbreviation “AHA” and have continued their work on organic acids to this day. They now have over 125 patents, which they have licensed to 60 companies in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries.

In 1988, 14 years after their initial publication, they founded the company Polystrata, which grew into today’s NeoStrata. Over the years, they’ve had to defend their patents because many personal care companies used their technologies without licensing them. In 2007, Drs. Van Scott and Yu won a $41 million settlement in a patent infringement suit against Mary Kay filed in March 2005. 

They have both been very philanthropic in the dermatology world and are highly respected in the field. Among many other honors, Dr. Van Scott was named a Master Dermatologist by the American Academy of Dermatology in 1998 and received the Dermatology Foundation’s Distinguished Service Medallion in 2004.

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Rodan and Fields and Proactiv

Dr. Fields and Dr. Rodan met at Stanford University School of Medicine. In the 1980s, these entrepreneurial dermatologists realized that patients did not understand the role of preventing acne rather than just treating it. As dermatologists, they knew that a consistent daily routine to prevent acne was much more effective than waiting for an outbreak and spot-treating lesions.

They took an already available over-the-counter medication – benzoyl peroxide – and educated consumers through infomercials that they needed to stay ahead of acne instead of waiting for a breakout. To do this, Drs. Rodan and Fields chose a brand name to make their educational point: Proactiv. 

After being turned down by Neutrogena, the duo decided to use infomercials to not only sell their simple three-step acne kit, but to also educate and encourage patients to be proactive about their acne. The first Proactiv infomercial appeared on TV in 1995 and quickly became one of the best-selling skincare lines of all time. 

In 2002, Drs. Rodan and Fields started a new skincare line called Rodan and Fields, which was originally sold in department stores. In 2007, the brand switched to a direct sales model similar to  Mary Kay and Avon and still sees success today.

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Dr. Sheldon Pinnell, Skinceuticals, and Antioxidants

Dr. Pinnell completed his dermatology residency at Harvard University School of Medicine, then spent two years studying collagen chemistry at the Max Planck Institute in Munich, Germany. In 1973, he returned to Duke University where he had earned his undergraduate degree before attending Yale University School of Medicine. 

Early in his career, Dr. Pinnell focused on the role of vitamin C in collagen biosynthesis and discovered some of the mechanisms by which sun exposure causes photoaging. He described the use of the first (and most popular) topically applied L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to prevent and treat skin aging.

Dr. Pinnell’s many discoveries include showing that L-ascorbic acid increases collagen production and that topically applied L-ascorbic acid penetrates into the skin best at a pH of 2 to 2.5. Dr. Pinnell changed the way the world uses topical antioxidants today, publishing over 200 scientific articles and holding 10 patents. In 1997, Dr. Pinnell started the skincare company Skinceuticals based on his antioxidant technologies, which was acquired by L’Oreal in 2005.

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Dr. Richard Fitzpatrick, SkinMedica, and Growth Factors

The dermatologist affectionately known as “Fitz” was the first to use lasers for skin resurfacing. He went to medical school at Emory University and completed his dermatology residency at the University of California, Los Angeles. He authored over 130 publications and was one of the first doctors to specialize in cosmetic dermatology. 

Dr. Fitzpatrick realized that fibroblast cell cultures used to produce the collagen filler CosmoPlast (no longer on the market) generated many growth factors that could rejuvenate the skin, and in 1999, he launched the skin care brand SkinMedica. In 2000, he received a patent for fibroblast-derived growth factors used topically for antiaging – a formula he called Tissue Nutrient Solution. In 2001, the popular product TNS Recovery Complex was launched based on his patented growth factor technology. TNS Recovery Complex is still the most popular growth factor technology on the market.

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Dr. Peter Elias, EpiCeram and Dry Skin

Dr. Elias is currently a professor in the department of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco. In 1996, Dr. Elias published a landmark paper in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology demonstrating that a 1:1:1 ratio of ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol is required to repair a damaged skin barrier. He filed multiple patents for using these lipids in moisturizers as early as 1992. 

Since then, Dr. Elias has authored over 500 peer-reviewed articles on the skin barrier, has edited or co-authored three books on skin barrier science, and developed EpiCeram, a product that utilizes ceramide, the fatty acid linoleic acid, and cholesterol. EpiCeram is the only barrier repair moisturizer approved by the Food and Drug Administration and is available by prescription only.

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Dr. Heather Woolery Lloyd and Specific Beauty

Dr. Woolery Lloyd went to the University of Miami School of Medicine, where she also completed her dermatology residency. Her interest in skin of color led to her appointment as director of Ethnic Skin Care at the University of Miami, the country’s first cosmetic ethnic skincare department at a major university. She spent years lecturing around the world on skin of color issues and performing clinical trials before she developed the Specific Beauty skincare line for melanin-rich skin types. Specific Beauty was acquired by Guthy Renker and is available online. It is the most popular dermatologist-developed skincare line for skin of color.

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Why Dermatologist-Developed Skin Care Matters

Dermatologists are experts who back up claims about the effectiveness and safety of skincare ingredients and treatments with scientific data. As the cosmeceutical market continues to grow, with new active ingredients being promoted seemingly every day, it becomes more and more difficult for consumers to make the best product decisions for their specific skincare needs.

Look to your dermatologist for knowledgeable and credible information about the best skin care routines and products for your skin issues, and trust your dermatologist for medical advice on skincare. Dermatologists have completed a minimum of 14 years of training: 4 years of undergraduate school, 4 years of medical school, four years of residency, and many go on to do 1 to 2 years of fellowship.

Additionally, over 100 dermatologists and another 200 medical providers around the country have had specialized skincare training by Skin Type Solutions. To find a dermatologist or other medical provider specially trained in giving medical advice on skincare use the Find a Physician feature on the SkinType Solutions website.

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