Author Archives: hopandcotton

Using All The Acids But Still Breaking Out?

I’m not just referring to the average glycolic nor salicylic acid. I mean maximum strength niacinamide, zinc, azelaic acid, benzoyl peroxide, sulphur and adapalene – you know, the works.

So why am I still getting blemishes despite already using so many anti-acne ingredients daily?!

Because you are only playing defense against acne as they appear, but not getting the upper hand of prevention. Something is still continually encouraging acne formation, which is why your acne is never quite managed despite a gang of anti-acne actives.

There could be a lot of factors contributing to acne formation, but we’ll highlight 3 main ones that you can (easily) do something about.

Acnegenic Ingredients

They say God is in the details. It is usual for anti-blemish products, even spot treatments, to also contain acnegenic ingredients (yes they are different from comedogenic ingredients) behind the spotlight of anti-acne actives.

Why would anyone add acnegenic ingredients to anti-acne products?

Because they are functional ingredients necessary to impart structure, consistency and/or certain properties (e.g sun protection or fragrance). This is why they are widespread across most products, not just anti-blemish ones. Some examples of acnegenic functional ingredients are – ethylhexyl palmitate, isopropyl myristate, cetyl/cetearyl alcohol, sorbitan olivate and behentrimonium methosulfate.

To this point, I’d like to emphasize skin’s individuality. Every skin is unique and reacts differently to ingredients, which includes both functionals and actives. You might not have a problem with cetyl alcohol, but break out with niacinamide, which often aggravates acne despite its reputation as a skin superhero.

Cleansing Tools

Skin is big part of our immune system. Any type of cleansing tools/brushes/fabric/wipe and hot water has the potential to stimulate our inflammatory system (and sebum production).  Acne is not a skin surface condition – no amount of aggressive deep cleansing or scrubbing removes or prevents it.

Often, these ‘tools’ inadvertently promote excessive abrasion/scrubbing, which end up causing irritation and inflammation, while also spreading unwanted microbes to other uninfected areas.

What is the best thing to use for cleansing? 60 seconds of your conscious attention with your fingers and a good cleanser.


The relationship between types of food and acne has not been conclusively proven, probably because this is difficult to objectively quantify, compounded by the diversity of our digestive biome landscape.

However, certain foods promote acne in certain people, and identifying them may be worthwhile if a lack of progress really bothers you.

Dairy and refined sugar are somewhat conventional, but it can be any food, even ‘good’ ones such as soy, berries, fermented products (e.g yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir) and biotin-rich foods (e.g. almonds, eggs, sweet potatoes, salmon).

Like ingredients, blemish-causing acne is personal and different for different individuals. Eliminate one food type/group at a time for about 3-5 days, and observe how your skin is behaving. Of course, you can choose to not eliminate your ‘trigger foods’ after identification.

Treating persistent acne can be a long, frustrating road. Many of our clients come to us initially confused about why the whole works is not improving their blemish situation, so I hope this has been helpful!

Using more is not the answer, but using the right products for you.


How to Live Foundation-Free

There is so much to love about foundation! Nothing else changes the way skin looks as quickly and drastically, and I loved them for this fast transforming ability. However, when my skin was at its worst, I grew a serious dependency to it. The need to hide the true state of my skin grew, and I could not go out without it.

If you feel the same way, or perhaps are currently trapped in the bad skin-foundation-cycle, literally afraid to be caught without any sort of skin cover up, this is for you.

I know, you know not wearing foundation will improve your skin. But, our addictions are emotional. Forget about logic/reason when we see 3 giant zits that popped up overnight. They’ve never seen me without makeup ever – they will FREAK out at how bad my skin really is! *puts on foundation*

So, first things first. Ending foundation dependency begins with a shift in perception.

1. People focus on themselves

Impressions matter and we have all judged someone based on appearances. But for most, attention on others is short-lived and we quickly go back to thinking about ourselves – how we want to look or be, what we should do, how others perceive us etc.

Just as you mostly focus on you, people mostly focus on themselves. How you look does not change the way people already see you. At least, not to those who matter.

2. Small first steps

Now that we’ve established that others are not really looking at you, be bold! Take one small first step of showing your skin as it is.

You don’t have to jump in bare-faced on a full work day packed with presentations (although you absolutely can!). Start with your weekend grocery errand, or Spin class after work on Tuesdays. Wearing your ‘true’ face, even for a short period of time, allows you to experience firsthand, that it is okay for you to be in front of people without makeup. You know this logically, but you need to be convinced experientially.

3. Spot conceal

When you feel more comfortable with showing your less-than-perfect skin (who has perfect skin?), it’s time to make an adjustment to your daily makeup routine.

Most, or in fact all of us, do not need complete coverage of our whole face. Strategic spot concealing on certain areas or even just on blemishes alone will make a significant difference. Find a high coverage concealer that matches your skin and blends well, so that it appears seamless with your skin.

Start with the big areas you want to cover, then take a step back to assess the overall uniformity of your complexion before using more. There is no need for your face be a piece of spotless canvas – it looks unnatural, unbelievable and unapproachable. Who wants that?

4. Good Skin Care

With reduced reliance and usage of foundation, your skin will already show substantial improvement. However, we must address your skin health to extract the root of this dependency.

Good skin care is not using a lot of products, a lot of actives, or a lot of products with maximum actives. It is about consistently using the right products for you. Product compatibility involves more than actives alone. It requires the perfect blend of actives and functional ingredients.

Functional ingredients form the base of the product, and are overlooked because they are not that interesting. However, they are crucial to the product’s success as incompatible functionals are the biggest cause of congestion and irritation. This is why many products still cause breakouts despite having anti-blemish actives in them.

Every skin is unique. Complete bespoke formulation of your entire regime enables the creation 100% compatible products. Precise combination of the right actives and functionals allows you to achieve and maintain clear skin. Farewell foundation forever!

I hope these tips inspire you, and help make your first move towards the freedom to wear your skin just as it is.

Ace of Base – The Power of Complete Customisation II

Products are made out of actives and functionals. Although actives get all the attention, functional ingredients largely affects the overall performance of the product as they make up most of the formula.

The following shows the main types of functionals required to create various products.

Take formulating a cream for example, the chemist has to select the most compatible ingredient from every functional group required to form the product, along with the desired actives. Every single ingredient must be very carefully adjusted into a perfect balance to form an aesthetically pleasing/acceptable, stable and safe product. This formula gets mass-produced, and that’s the development process for all off-the-shelf products.


Complete Custom Formulation vs Customised products

With complete custom formulation, both the formulation and production process have to be done from scratch, one by one, for every single product. This is what we do at hop & cotton to ensure that every ingredient is perfectly chosen according to your skin’s existing condition. We have to take some time to understand your skin before your personal chemist starts formulation, then finally putting the raw materials together in the manufacturing process.

Isn’t it tedious? Yes indeed, which is why some people take a shortcut. Formulating and manufacturing from scratch every single time can be avoided by using readily available standard or stock bases that has been pre-formulated. These stock bases are commonly used in many customized products currently in the market. For a ready-to-go standard base, only selected actives/fragrance/colour need to be added to create a ‘personalised and customised’ product.

Although standard bases simplify the production process significantly, they heavily limit the extent of how fully effective a product can be as most, if not all, of the functional ingredients are already pre-determined in those stock bases.

Why it is all about that base

Why is it so important to have total control over all the functional ingredients present in a formula? Because most product incompatibilities occur as a result of unsuitable functional ingredients. In fact, many of you experience them from your current products*. The following are common examples of product incompatibilities

  • Breakouts and congestion

Breakouts and congestion are mostly due to unsuitable functionals such as emollients (e.g. plant oils/butters/waxes) and oil thickeners (fatty alcohols, fatty acids). They are included in creams/serums/masks to reduce water loss and impart rich, thick textures but can also encourage the growth of acne-causing bacteria and occlude clog-prone skins, perpetuating blemish formation.

  • Too dry! Too oily!

When a cleanser makes you uncomfortably tight after washing, it’s due to its surfactants not being properly balanced with emollients for your skin, making its overall cleansing action too strong as it removes much of your skin’s natural oils along with the unwanted oil.

When moisturisers are not hydrating enough or too greasy, their humectants/emollients are insufficient or too much for you.

  • Irritation

Other than fragrances**, preservatives are the most common cause of skin irritation. Preservatives that are very strong (e.g. methylisothiazolinone, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea) are great in preventing unwanted microbial growth, but their robust anti-microbial action can inflict rashes, stinging or acne-like lesions in sensitive and reactive individuals.

Of course, reactions can also occur from actives such as AHAs, Vitamin C and Vitamin A. Even though such actives are generally considered ‘good’, if their potency is at a level your skin cannot tolerate, that product then becomes inappropriate for you. This reiterates the power of custom formulation as it allows precise inclusion of the right type and amount of actives to be used.

Why complete custom formulation

I know that I’m laboring this point, but it is imperative to understand that skin complications cannot be resolved until the right actives are combined with the right functionals. Otherwise, it will be a never-ending vicious cycle of issues triggered by products which should theoretically work because they have the right actives, but do not because of their functionals’ incompatibility for you.

No matter how arduous complete custom formulation is, we will not have it any other way, as creating something entirely from scratch is the only way to deliver 100% compatible formulas, and the best possible results for you.

* from your hop & cotton skin tests.
** artificial or natural from essential oils; both are composed of fragrance components such as linalool, citral, limonene, cinnamaldehyde etc


Ace of Base – The Power of Complete Customisation I

Customisation has become quite a trend in retail and is also taking a firm hold in the beauty industry, including skincare.

Is custom skincare fad or fab? To some, it may seem a fleeting craze, but customisation can be truly transformative if all the right ingredients are selected and added at the right proportions for the individual. I don’t mean just the actives or ‘special extracts’, but every single ingredient.


Breakdown of any product

All cosmetic ingredients can be broadly categorised into 2 groups, active and functional ingredients.

Actives are usually the main talking point of the product. They are either well-recognised ingredients with defined benefits or have fascinating stories behind them.
On the other hand, functional ingredients form the ‘backbone’ of the formula. They do not sound as appealing as actives as they do not have impressive features such as anti-aging or brightening, But what most people don’t know is that functional ingredients collectively form and contribute to the product’s main physical properties such as appearance, thickness, skin feel, shelf-life etc.

Now let’s look deeper into each of these categories.


Actives are often selected depending on skin concerns. There are many options for different concerns, but at hop & cotton we always prefer actives backed by clinical studies as there are thousands of them out there claiming all sorts of things. Below are examples of common skin concerns and corresponding actives that address them.

  • Acne: benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, glycolic acid
  • Sensitivity/Redness: allantoin, oat extract, bisabolol
  • Hyperpigmentation: tranexamic acid, peptide, vitamin C
  • Fine lines & wrinkles: retinol, ubiquinone, niacinamide


Getting the active right is just half the story. It needs to be added in the right amount (too little is inconsequential, too much could be detrimental) and in the appropriate product type. For example, putting glycolic acid in your cleanser is not going to give it enough time to work properly while having it in your moisturiser will likely cause over-exfoliation. This is also the reason why we have different steps in our skin care regime, but is another topic for another day.



If Actives were the meatballs in a pasta, then Functionals would be the sauce and spaghetti. I’m sure you agree that the sauce-spaghetti duo makes or breaks the dish, which is exactly how much functional ingredients can impact the entire formula. In fact, your immediate experience with any product is highly dependent on its functionals as they directly affect how a product looks, applies and feels.

Functionals can be further subdivided into their chemical functions. The table below elaborates further.

Most functionals also have direct skin benefits, which is how and why they also play a role in product performance. Some functional ingredients can also be considered ‘actives’, such as marula oil (emollient) and hyaluronic acid (humectant).


Functional ingredients literally form the foundation of any product. Since there are proportionally more functionals compared to actives in a formula, it is a grave mistake to overlook their importance. We’ll explore just how they important they are in detail next, check back real soon!

Are you deep-cleaning or over-cleaning?

If getting rid of blackheads, pimples and oiliness are at the top of your skin list, I’m certain you’ll have a regular deep cleansing ritual to pull the oils and gunk out from the murky depths of your pores.

There is, however, some danger in such cleansing sessions if made too extreme. Instead of deep-cleaning, many end up over-cleaning. This throws the skin off its happy balance and start a viscous bad skin cycle.


When cleansing becomes stripping

Surfactants in cleansers remove excess oil residue from our skin surface, which would also contain the ‘good’ oils needed to maintain a heathly barrier. As surfactants do not discriminate between ‘wanted’ or ‘unwanted’ oils, they have the potential to strip our skin if the surfactants’ cleansing action is too strong. When that happens, we are left feeling dry with a tightness sensation.

The same applies to clays with strong oil-absorbing properties such as bentonite, kaolin, rhassoul, especially so if the product (usually mask or cleanser) does not contain enough protective oils or humectants to counteract the powerfully drying effect of the clay.


The viscous cycle

What happens when we excessively remove skin oil? Our physical skin barrier weakens, making us less protected against infection from acne-causing microbes which leads to breakouts and less capable of retaining water, causing a whole array of skin problems.

Eventually, your skin produces sebum again, but is then faced with the whole stripping process over again without getting the change of repairing its own barrier. If grainy scrubs are also involved in this routine, this damage is easily amplified.


How to deep clean without over-cleaning

You can of course hunt for various deep cleansing masks/cleansers that do not over-clean. But if you rather have a sure fire method, here’s a simple but effective way to deep clean without over-cleaning. Suitable for all skins even the very dry/sensitive, it can be done once to three times a week, depending on how your skin is feeling.


1. Start with dry skin that is free of waterproof makeup.

2. Wet 2 cotton pads with warm water. Squeeze as much water out as possible.

3. Apply a regular amount of your daily cleanser (that is right for your skin type/condition) to the cotton pads, rubbing them together to distribute the cleanser evenly across both pads.

4. Rub cotton pads on skin in gentle, circular motion for 1 minute. Go over every area of your face, focusing on oily/congested areas.

5. Flip the cotton pads to the other side, repeat for another minute.

6. Rinse cleanser off completely with plenty of warm water.

7. Finish cleansing with a few splashes of cold water.

8. Follow up with an appropriate chemical exfoliant and moisturiser.


Rethinking daily cleansing

While deep cleansing is all good and important, let’s not neglect proper daily cleansing. This is just like a home being maintained with daily cleaning instead of leaving it until layers of dirt accumulates. Thorough daily cleansing maintains skin clarity better than the occasional deep clean. You also won’t risk disturbing your barrier balance.

Looking for a cleanser you can count on for both your daily and deep clean? We can custom formulate your Foam Party to do the job for you. Our chemists will make sure it has just the right amount of cleansing power for you, to give an immaculate clean without over-stripping every time.

How to get rid of winter skin

Spring is almost here! But it seems your skin still stuck in the thick of winter mode – parched and lacklustre.

With the worst of the dry season over, now is the perfect time to start getting your glow back on. But the key to getting rid of winter skin isn’t in religious application of heavy-duty creams; it’s about exfoliation.


Why skin suffers in winter

‘Winter skin’ is mainly a result of dehydration i.e. lack of skin water. Not only is there far less moisture in the air for skin to draw water from, more evaporation also occurs from long hours of being exposed heating and our daily warm or hot showers/baths. These conditions thoroughly dry skin out, causing its outermost layers (stratum corneum) to desiccate and harden. This makes skin appear rough, flaky and dull.


How exfoliation helps

This toughened surface makes it difficult for moisturising ingredients to get past and hydrate effectively. Think of a piece of new/dry kitchen sponge, where getting it soaked with water is difficult even though water is pooling at its surface.

So before proper skin hydration can happen, we first need to remove the hardest and driest layers, and we do this by exfoliation!


How you exfoliate matters

This is, however, not a call to gather your strongest scrubs. Abrasives, or physical exfoliants in the form of fruit kernels, sugar/salt, microdermabrasion or crystal powders, inflicts invisible micro cuts on delicate skin surface, especially when skin is extra dry and fragile. The scrubbing action also exacerbates broken capillaries and facilitate spread of bacteria.

A gentler approach is chemical exfoliation using alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). Unlike physical exfoliants, AHAs do not rely on force to slough off skin layers. Instead, they work by gradually dissolving the bonds holding the skin cells together so that the skin layers eventually detach. AHAs also allow for a more even exfoliation over your entire skin surface.


Which AHA?

You probably know of several AHAs, so which should you choose? There is no ‘best’ one as it depends on which is most compatible for you. Generally, the smaller its molecular size, the more intense its exfoliation but this can more likely irritate as well. Conversely, the bigger the size, the less exfoliating it is but also less likely to cause any unwanted reactions. Below are common examples of AHAs listed in descending order of potency.


Glycolic acid > Lactic acid > Mandelic acid > Lactobionic acid


Getting the type right is only half the story; the other depends the formula i.e. everything else in the product. There is a fine line between effective and over-exfoliation. While we want to remove the unwanted dry outer layers, we don’t want to go too far and end up compromising the barrier function. This means avoiding chemical exfoliants containing potential irritants like alcohol, acetone, witch hazel (its astringency is amplified in the presence of AHAs), colouring, fragrance, essential oils or high concentrations of acid (> 10%) at a very low pH (< pH 3.2).


Are you ready to shed that winter skin? Skip the irritation and get your spring skin glow with your custom formulated Smooth Operator!

Through thick & thin III: Why different product textures exist

Recap: Thickeners (or rheology modifiers) give products their thickness.

Combining different types and amounts results in products of varying consistencies. Why create different textures?


For that luxurious feel

Heavy creams have long been associated with luxury. Playing on this psychology many of us have, lots of signature products from high-end brands are purposefully formulated to be thick and rich.


Prevent evaporation to retain moisture

Thick moisturisers have a high content of thickeners (particularly fatty alcohols and waxes), giving a high degree of occlusivity to reduce moisture lost and retain suppleness long after application. This is particularly great for chronically dry or dermatitis-prone individuals.


For product layering

An increasing number of brands (and people) have become advocates of layering of multiple products (i.e. toners, essences, gels, serums, facial oils) to reap benefit from several actives in their daily regimes. These products are generally designed to be thin as their fluidity allows consecutive layering of one another easily, without ‘suffocating’ the skin.


So now you know thickness doesn’t necessarily reflect quality nor performance. However, it is still an important feature for defining product category/function and affecting our overall experience with any product.

This marks our series finale! Unsure of what textures best suit you? That’s what we’re here for, so feel free to get in touch!

Through thick & thin II: What gives products consistency?

Recap: Product thickness does not reflect effectiveness.


What actually contributes to the thickness of a product? They are a specific group of ingredients called rheology modifiers or known to most as ‘thickeners’.

Nearly all formulated products will contain rheology modifiers. They can be categorised into 2 groups, depending on what they can thicken.


Oil thickeners

Oil thickeners thicken the oil component of any lotions/creams (which can exist as cleansers, moisturisers or masks) and waterless-balms. They are typically solid, waxy substances at room temperatures.

Oil thickeners are generally occlusive; they moisturise passively by limiting water loss from skin. Following as some examples; they are all relatively efficient except plant butters which generally require a high concentration (i.e. 10% and above) to thicken significantly.

  • Fatty acids: stearic acid, myristic acid, oleic acid
  • Fatty alcohols & derivatives: cetearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, cetyl palmitate
  • Waxes: beeswax, carnauba wax, microcrystalline wax
  • Plant butters: shea butter, mango butter, cocoa butter


Water thickeners

Water thickeners give body to the water component of any lotions/creams as well as water-only products such as toners, essences, and serums.

They are typically water-soluble powders which absorb a large amount of water after its dissolution, causing the water to gel up and thicken. They are chosen based on the chemical compatibility with the other ingredients in the same formula. Examples are

  • Natural gums: xanthan gum, acacia gum, sclerotium gum
  • Cellulose derivatives: hydroxyethylcellulose, hydroxypropylcellulose
  • Acrylates derivatives: carbomer, acrylates/c10-30 alkyl acrylate crosspolymer


Rheology and variety

Although thickeners do not contribute much to skin benefits (other than occlusivity), they are a vital group of ingredients.

Combining different rheology modifiers will result in a vast range of light to heavy textures. If you are wondering why we need so many different product consistencies, we’ll be discussing more of that in the final instalment, so watch this space!

Through thick & thin I: Are thicker products better?

Premium skincare products are often portrayed as thick and lavish. These physical characteristics therefore become psychologically associated with quality, which is probably one of the reasons why many people tend to prefer thick and heavy creams.

However, this is not necessarily the case. Let me explain why.


Actives and Viscosity

The first thing to realise is that most actives do not add ‘body’ to products. Let’s take a look at some actives that we are familiar with.

  • AHAs, amino acids, niacinamide: water-soluble
  • vitamin A, coQ10: oil-soluble
  • argan oil, squalane: oil-based liquids
  • glycerine, panthenol, peptides: water-based liquids

The above actives are either oil/water-soluble or exist in liquid forms, yielding homogeneous solutions after dissolving.

This is like how adding lots of sugar in water does not actually thicken the water (but instead, the sugar stops dissolving after a certain point).


Myth 1 – Thin products are diluted

Since a liquid can be packed with lots of ingredients and still appear water-thin, it is not exactly right to think that thick products are concentrated and thin products are diluted.


Myth 2 – Thick products moisturise better

Okay, this is not completely a myth. Thick creams are generally good at helping with dry skins as they are occlusive, meaning they reduce water evaporation from skin.

However, this is not to say that light ones are unable to do the job adequately. Effective moisturisation is about both increasing the water content (through humectants) and reducing water loss (through oils). As we have seen earlier, humectants and oils do not contribute to the thickness of a product. As long as a moisturiser contains sufficient oils and humectants, it will be adequately hydrating whether it is thick or thin.


Now we know thickness does not translate to performance, and that active ingredients do not contribute to product thickness. So what exactly makes a product thick? Stay tuned to the following parts of this series to find out!

Getting serious with serums

Serums are misunderstood.

They are made out to be high-performance products, must-haves for anyone serious about skin care. However, they’re not always potent nor necessary.

Let’s start with breaking down common misconceptions about serums.


Serums contain the highest amounts of actives

Contrary to popular belief, serums do not always have highest concentrations of actives compared to other types of skin care products. There are no formulary requirements for serums to be high in actives, so just because something is labelled as a serum does not make it more effective than other types of product.


Serums penetrate deeply into skin

Serums are typically light-textured, hence they sink into skin much faster than a thicker product (e.g a moisturiser). Quick absorption does not mean deep penetration. Think about prescription-grade retinoic acid and steroid creams. They don’t exist in serum form, yet they are absolutely potent.

The degree of product penetration is rather complicated, involving multiple factors like ingredients’ polarity (electrical charge), molecular size and degree of occlusivity, which can be optimised in any product type, not just serums.


Defining characteristics of serums

So if neither high potency nor penetrability are characteristics exclusive to serums, then what are?

Truth is, serums do not have definitive set of formulary or functional qualities, with the exception of having rather fluid textures. This is because serums are meant to be worn under moisturisers as they do not typically provide enough moisturisation alone.


Do I even need a serum?

That depends! If your basic regime already contains the necessary ingredients to address all your skin concerns, you don’t need it. Otherwise, you might want to add an appropriate one to your regime.

Those prone to blemishes or sensitivity will do much better with one product that ticks all the boxes (i.e. treats and moisturises), instead of layering multiple products consistently day and night. The more products we use, the more we subject skin to congestion and irritation.


You don’t need a serum for results. It is a term that reflects product category, not efficacy!