It's true that your skin is your body's best line of defense — against everything, too. If your skin didn't work, you'd fill with water when you showered; sunscreen would reach your innards when you sprayed it on; and your skincare products would penetrate your pores.
Wait a second...shouldn't skincare products be penetrating your pores? That's how they work, right? Well, no. Our pores are the skin's outgoing channels. While it's true that they get clogged — ahem, acne, anyone? — skincare products don't just pool in your pores.
So, nothing really sinks into our skin?
Skincare products are designed to moisturize and protect the skin barrier. Once these formulas are applied, they trap what's already on the skin and the skin begins its own natural processes of self-replenishment (moisturizing), self-regrowth (by restoring the acid mantle, a thin acid layer on the skin's surface) and self-rebirth (the shedding of dead skin cells).
It's true that most of the topical creams and serums we apply eventually get wiped off, swept away by sweat or evaporate. A truly limited amount of what we actually apply stays put, but that's partially intentional — and because science doesn't allow for it.
If a brand implies its skincare product can penetrate your skin's surface, it raises red flags — and the FDA notices. If a product can penetrate the skin's surface, it's molecularly light enough to do so, plus water- and oil-soluble. That means there's potential for it to enter both your body's circulatory and lymphatic systems — aka your bloodstream. But if a product reaches your bloodstream, the FDA quickly classifies it as a drug. Uh-oh.
"The one regulation that the FDA does have is, you cannot make structural or functional claims with a particular ingredient. So let’s just say you have an ingredient in your formula that does penetrate, you would be in violation of FDA regulations if you actually said that," Greg Altman, Ph.D., told The Cut.
It's my understanding that this is why brands use vague terms like "deep down" or "ultra-hydrating," and not "this shit will hit your dermis."
What is Droplette?
So, is Droplette, a new $300 dollar facial mister that promises to deliver ingredients like collagen and retinol deep into the skin's surface, an exception? Well, the science says so. But I'm not 100-percent certain it stands up.
Droplette says its proprietary device, the Droplette Micro-Infuser, "is a physics-powered device that transforms skincare ingredients capsules into a powerful micro-mist, allowing for the delivery of skincare deep into your skin."
It infuses powerful ingredients like retinol, collagen and glycolic acid into water-based formulas that are then pushed through a handheld mister — which houses a piezoelectric transducer and a powerful pump. Electricity is pumped into the piezo, which makes it vibrate. Then, when a fluid passes through, this pressure turns it into a mist. Droplette doesn't say its retinoid capsule is ultra penetrative but rather the device, or the mist, which transports the formula, goes "20 cell layers deep." (I'm sure there's some legal tiptoeing at play here that's above my pay grade.)
The mist, they say, is a more effective delivery system for these impactful ingredients (which are housed in tiny capsules you pop into the device like K-Cups or Nespresso Pods). Studies they funded say so too. Influencers they've paid to promote the product do, too. But dermatologist Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, M.D. FAAD, says she'd need to see more research before she recommended it.
"Overall, I think they need more proof of concept," she says. When looking at Droplette's retinol research, she sees a few flaws. "All testers used retinol for a full four weeks without device then stopped retinol and restarted retinol with the device. That means the 'after photos' are a full 10 weeks after starting nightly retinol with only a two-week break," she explains.
"It's difficult to consider these true comparison photos since almost everyone will show improvement after ten weeks of retinol, even if they skip a total of fourteen days during the seventy-day period. It just takes a while for retinol to kick in with visible improvement. Since everyone had used retinol for a full four weeks they were already getting some new collagen and GAG [Glycosaminoglycans] synthesis from four-week pre-treatment with retinol."
Is the research legitimate?
Droplette's been called out for overstating their product's impact before. Skincare expert Mira Aguirre, who runs a blog and YouTube channel called Skin Science by Mira, uploaded a critical video of the Droplette device before she even tried it, citing contradictory Instagram posts by the brand and faulty claims on its "How It Works" page.
"The majority of commenters on that video understood my intention. Hype and marketing can really influence people and I just wanted to provide a counterpoint to that – so whether you buy or not, it’s an informed decision," she wrote in a blog post about the video. Further along, she said that she too couldn't recommend it, and that, more specifically, she doesn't see a reason to substitute capsuled-ized retinol and glycolic acid for iterations of these same products that are more proven (i.e. topicals).
"The research just isn’t there for me at this point. I chatted with a dermatologist live in our group recently and something we covered is what to look for when analyzing research. Independent, double-blind, controlled studies are important. As well as subject size, long term research, replicating that research with multiple studies, and how they analyze the results to determine what’s occurring in the skin," she wrote.
The brand reached out to her after the fact to offer clarification — and to counter the points she made. Specifically, they explained the origin of the Droplette device, which is the medical industry. Currently, the Droplette device is pending approval for medical drug delivery, but the brand wanted to "make use of the technology in the meantime."
Why is it so expensive?
The technology is incredible. There's no doubting that. It was developed by MIT chemical engineering graduates Madhavi Gavini and Rathi Srinivas for use in medical settings. It's currently in test runs at Walter Reed Medical Center. NASA is funding their research. But it's still questionable, arguably overkill, in this context.
Is it more effective? A few experts argue no. Dr. Ciraldo even said a few weeks with it appeared to make at least one "before and after" subject (#22) look worse. If the Droplette device is such an innovative advancement, why isn't it more popular? More talked about? More effective?
Well, it's probably because the device is so damn expensive (and because Droplette has patented the internal technology). Sure, skincare products in general are not cheap, but the Droplette device is $300 dollars for the device alone. At the very least, you're using two capsules a day, and it costs $39 dollars for a pack of 12.
"The pricing seems super high," Dr. Ciraldo says. "If I'm reading this correctly, 12 capsules, which I think are single use, cost $39 dollars each. This would mean that if you use three of the capsules every night for a month [retinol, collagen, glycolic acid], your cost of product would be $120 dollars for each product multiplied by three, or $360 dollars a month for a three-product regimen. And this would not include products that should be used twice daily."
Plus, the capsules are not recyclable. They come in a scientific egg carton ensemble that forces you to either store the used and new capsules together or find a space in your bathroom to store this overstock of used plastic until you can ship it back to the brand when they claim they'll recycle them for you — as Nespresso says about its pods.
Here's what I think
To be fair, if the device were free, I'd probably use it — and maybe even buy the pods. The mist feels nice. And knowing — or at least thinking — I'm actually absorbing these ingredients is nice, too. The product made me a little irritated at first, but my skin warmed up to the sensation. The connected app was easy to use.
But as is, it's far too expensive, and I'm not certain my skins looked much different after a month of testing. I was someone who'd been applying these ingredients — collagen, retinol, glycolic acid — long before I picked up the Droplette. So, I might've had a head start, causing the device to make little difference.
But I'm particularly hesitant to restock the pods because of the points experts far more knowledgeable than I have made. Droplette clarified to Skin Science by Mira that "Droplette gets ingredients 1600 microns deep from the surface of the skin," but that's the dermis' depth, where ingredients soluble enough to pass through our skin's oils, the acid mantle, the stratum corneum and the epidermis pose potential to be absorbed into other systems. And that's why I'm unsure, because who knows what internal exposure to rose essential oils (a vitamin-rich additive in both the collagen and retinol capsules) can do over time. I'd guess not much, but I'd like to know that for sure — from someone outside Droplette's organization.
In a digital Q&A session Srinivas worked to calm customers' concerns over bloodstream penetration, stating it's such a low amount (and a rare possibility to begin with), so no one should really worry.
"Once we break past the stratum corneum, the molecules just diffuse through. At the same time, we know from some of our previous studies that it doesn't get all the way; a high concentration of it doesn't get into your bloodstream, but even if it does, it's not really a big deal, because all of these ingredients we're using are all approved by the FDA for being safe as 'cosmetic' ingredients. There's nothing in there that someone hasn't tested at some point, and know that it's safe if it's absorbed inside your bloodstream. That being said, our goal is to deliver in the layers of your skin, not to get it inside your blood."
Their idea is that a higher amount delivered locally to your cells means more absorption, and absorption, in this sense, equals efficacy. But another expert, Perry Romanowski, revealed in an interview with The Cut that while approved, that's just approval for application. Longer-term studies haven't been done yet, to my knowledge, or his. Especially so because, "In truth, this is not an area in which scientists have done much research. The topic of the life cycle of ingredients … has not been investigated."