Learn About Delivery Systems & Your Skin Will Thank You

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Lately, "delivery system" has become a major buzzword in the beauty world. Because basically, if your skin-care product doesn't have a good one, it's not going to work. “You can buy an $800 product, but if it’s not getting down there [into the dermis] it’s not going to be effective,” says Barbara Broas, national aesthetician for Le Métier de Beauté. “Many products just hit the surface of your face, but when you get deep down you’re going to actually correct what’s going on before it surfaces."

Essentially, delivery systems are what gets the active ingredients in your skin care deep into the dermis, so that they can actually penetrate and work their magic. “An ingredient may be active in a test tube, but in the real world it needs to be applied to the skin without causing irritation, penetrate through the outer skin layer, and remain stable and active when it reaches its target,” explains Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. “Just as important as the active ingredient is the technology involved in stabilizing that active and allowing it to do its job in the skin.”

We know this may be a little hard to wrap your head around, so if you're still a little fuzzy, Dr. Rocio Rivera, the director of scientific communications for L’Oréal Paris Skincare, breaks it down: “Think of the delivery system as a food-delivery service trying to deliver ice cream from Central Park to Union Square at 5 p.m. on a Monday," she says. "The vehicle (taxi, bus, motorcycle, subway) and route taken (FDR, Fifth Avenue) are all crucial to ensure proper arrival at the destination, but so is the temperature in the car so the ice cream is not liquid by the time it reaches (if it ever does) its destination. This is a very good example of how the vehicle and the conditions at which the active is delivered (temperature, pH, how much time does it take to arrive at the correct component of the skin) are key to ensure maximal efficacy.”

The skin is designed to keep out everything, as its job is to protect our body from outside irritants, so this can make it tough for delivery systems. But there are a few efficient ones you can keep an eye out for. “Phospholipids, liposomes, microcapsules, and hydrogels are all different molecules that allow active ingredients to bypass the outermost layers of the skin to allow for better penetration,” says Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, founder and director of Capital Laser & Skin Care in Washington, D.C. “They have been used for years to increase penetration of both topical drugs and cosmetic products.”

Scanning labels to try to figure out what really works when it comes to delivery systems can be tricky, so we did the work for you. Ahead, 10 products that really deliver.
1 of 11
Marula is a "carrier oil," meaning it delivers active ingredients from your serums — which you should apply first — deeper into the skin. “Marula oil is hydrating and rich in vitamins E and C, as well as antioxidant flavonoids,” says Dr. Zeichner. “It easily absorbs into the skin, and may be used along with other ingredients to enhance their delivery to the skin.” This version is 100% pure and unrefined, with no added ingredients.

Drunk Elephant Virgin Marula Luxury Facial Oil, $72, available at Drunk Elephant.
2 of 11
Wake up with clearer skin in the morning courtesy of the OmniSome Delivery System, which takes a higher amount — specifically 0.5% — of stable retinol down into the skin and boasts continued release for ten hours. “Retinol can dry you out,” cautions Broas. “But a proper delivery system makes retinol more effective, and products penetrate better.” And since it’s not sitting on the surface of the skin, there’s less chance of irritation.

PCA Skin Intensive Clarity Treatment, $106, available at PCA Skin.
3 of 11
Anti-aging peptides are the secret weapon in this delivery system, which goes exactly where you need it most to reduce fine lines and wrinkles in just two weeks. “Peptides are called the Trojan Horse, as they are shorter and more effective to reach deeper targets in the epidermal layers,” says Dr. Rivera. Peptides act as a delivery system using phospholipids and polymers to penetrate the living-tissue layer of the skin. This lightweight gel serum targets the cells responsible for the production of collagen and elastin, leaving skin plumper and boosting its protective barrier to retain hydration.

La Prairie Anti-Aging Rapid Response Booster, $300, available at La Prairie.
4 of 11
Peptides, specifically phospholipids and tetrapeptide-7, also make an appearance in this brightening, tightening toner. “Peptides are messengers that stimulate skin cells to behave in a certain way,” says Dr. Zeichner. “The most commonly used peptides work to stimulate collagen production to improve the appearance of crepe-y skin and wrinkles.” Glycolic acid removes dead cells, exfoliating dark pigment found in the second layer of the skin, plus boosts collagen and elastin for plump, firmer skin.

Bodyography Brightening and Balancing Toner, $26, available at Bodyography.
5 of 11
“The technology in our delivery system — TPM technology — is what Le Métier de Beauté is known for,” Broas says. “Multicomponent and multifunctional, TPM can deliver small and large molecules without irritation with maximum absorption. It allows us to deliver potent formulations by penetrating deep down into skin, triggering the cells to correct the surface of the skin.” Derived from vitamin E phosphates, it’s proven to have four times the absorption of key ingredients — including vitamin C, jojoba oil, and grape-seed oil — so you’ll see instant results.

Le Métier de Beauté Instant Lifting and Firming Face Serum, $350, available at Neiman Marcus.
6 of 11
At-home devices like the Tria Age-Defying Lasers not only smooth skin and reduce wrinkles, but can be considered a type of delivery system because they increase the absorption of skin-care products when they’re applied immediately after treatment. “These can be helpful, but realize that there can be a lot of irritation with the combination of device and topical product,” cautions Dr. Tanzi. “Take it slowly until you see how the skin will react.”

Tria Beauty Age-Defying Laser, $495, available at Tria Beauty.
7 of 11
It took five years for Ahava scientists to concoct this delivery system, which infuses crystallized mineral waters with Dead Sea jojoba oil, resulting in a natural lipid-based serum that penetrates to boost firmness and brightness as well as fight deep wrinkles. “Mineral water is rich in natural minerals that help support healthy skin-cell function,” explains Dr. Zeichner.

Ahava Dead Sea Crystal Osmoter X6 Facial Serum, $74, available at Ahava.
8 of 11
Consider this the at-home version of mesotherapy, a.k.a. the process of injecting hyaluronic acid directly into the skin using needles to increase volume and hydration. Dr. Yannis Alexandrides developed the self-dissolving micro-needle mask technology, which administers hyaluronic acid and vitamin C deep into the skin via 1,200 needles on the mask surface.

The mask is ergonomically designed for four crucial areas: crow’s feet, undereyes, frown lines, and nasolabial folds. “Micro-needles are starting to be utilized in the dermatology field to allow better delivery of actives,” says Dr. Rivera. “They work in two ways: by ‘wounding’ the skin, you activate the natural healing process, which in turn stimulates collagen production. And you have created a micro-channel, so that you can deliver antioxidants to deeper layers of the skin.”

111SKIN Meso Infusion Micro Mask, $160, available May 1 at SpaceNK.
9 of 11
Think lip balm times infinity — these lip gels deliver essentials with Hydrasurge 5 technology to plump, reduce lines, and contour. Peptides make sure these ingredients go exactly where they need to; antioxidants green-tea extract and niacinamide also make their mark. “Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3, [which] helps soothe the skin, promotes collagen production, and can brighten and improve the appearance of dark spots,” says Dr. Zeichner.

Patchology FlashPatch Lip Gels, $50 for 25 treatments, available at Neiman Marcus.
10 of 11
Japanese brightening skin-care line Equitance boasts a patented delivery system that releases its active ingredient linoleic acid over time. “Linoleic acid is a colorless, unsaturated fatty acid that is essential to the human diet,” says Dr. Rivera. Naturally found in our skin's oil, the effective calming agent also helps protect and maintain the proper functioning of our skin cells.

Equitance Brightening Foaming Cleanser, $30, available at Equitance.
11 of 11
Like this post? There's more. Get tons of beauty tips, tutorials, and news on the Refinery29 Beauty Facebook page. Like us on Facebook — we'll see you there!