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Stephen Ko, AKA Reddit’s Cosmetic Chemist, Shares the Biggest Skin Care Mistake You’re Making

Get the inside skin care scoop from the cosmetic chemist of Reddit, Stephen Ko, AKA “Kindofstephen”!

Stephen Ko is not your average beauty influencer. For the last seven years he has been helping people all over the world with their biggest skin care concerns through his Reddit AMAs, in addition to keeping his readers updated on the latest buzz and ingredients in the beauty sphere with his blog kindofstephen. While he’s made a name for himself in the Reddit world, this is clearly only the beginning for this skin care guru.
We got a chance to sit down with Stephen and discuss how he first became a cosmetic chemist, his role in the Reddit community, as well as some of the biggest ingredient misconceptions and DIY don’ts out there.
How did you become a cosmetic chemist, and more specifically, the cosmetic chemist of Reddit?
I had acne about two years before any of my friends did in grade school, so I kind of became known as the kid with acne in my grade. It was to the point where when my skin cleared my friends would ask me about acne and skin care. It’s nice, but at some point, I didn’t want to just be the “kid with acne” anymore.
During that time, I also started pouring over ingredient lists, trying to figure out which ingredients worked for me and which didn’t. And for whatever reason I was looking at one of these lists and thought “Oh, maybe I could do this myself!” So, I Googled a local chemical supply company, and they must have thought I was with a company, because they ended up sending samples.
I started making products in my kitchen as soon as I received them; it was a hobby and for fun. As I got older I went to university for neuroscience and I think at some point during my second year I realized that I could do cosmetic chemistry as a career – and I switched into chemistry. From there I’ve worked as a consultant and formulator. My goal has always been to have my own products, but I want them to be best I can possibly make.
When it comes to Reddit, I’ve always loved discussing beauty science and sharing what I learned. I saw a lot of skin care questions and just started responding. And from there it just kind of grew!

What are some common skin care misconceptions people tend to have?
I think people have come to realize that makeup rules can be bent and you don’t need to be so stringent with them, and I think that sense is starting to come over to the skin care world as well, which is fine.
The only thing that I would be concerned about in terms of “rules” or guidance to follow is those around sunscreen.
It’s important to understand that sunscreen is tested on clean skin, and on a panel of people. So, if you want to get as close to the protection on the label as possible you should be applying it on clean skin, giving it 10-15 minutes to dry, and not using anything else on top.
Now that’s not really feasible to do for everyone, and I get a lot of questions like “How will X product affect my sunscreen?” And the truthful answer is that I don’t know. I could make a guess, but to know for sure you would need to run another sunscreen test with the sunscreen and that product.

This is why reapplying your sunscreen throughout the day is so important—it can make up for a lack of applying enough sunscreen in the first place, and it also makes up for sunscreen that has rubbed off throughout the day.

What do you think people are doing wrong in general with their skin care routines? What do you notice is a common mistake?
Generally, I think people put too much emphasis on achieving the perfect skin routine. I’m sure The Klog gets a lot of questions like “What’s the perfect order of these products?” and there really is no true answer for that. Let’s say there’s seven products…that’s 5,040 permutations…and you would have to test and compare each one to know. Obviously, you can apply some logic and reasoning to it, but no one’s opinion is necessarily the truth. You should hold on to people’s advice as advice…not gospel.
What about any DIYs that you wish people would stop doing?
People should not be DIYing sunscreen. And another note on making DIY products: I think DIY is a great way to get people interested in science, formulation, and chemistry, but there’s a difference between producing products for yourself and then selling those products for other people. You can take agency for your own body, but you really should understand the risks of putting another person’s body at harm.
What’s your advice to people on how to make informed decisions when purchasing products?

It can be really hard to decipher what is true and what is false, especially when the source of that information is often behind a paywall.

Look for people and brands that transparently and systematically use scientific sources. Look for people and brands that are explicit when they are sharing an opinion and not a fact or evidence based on research.

What are your favorite ingredients?

They’re probably a bit boring. Vitamin C as ascorbic acid, niacinamide, and linoleic acid.

In terms of functional ingredients, I’ve been working with these interesting oil-gelling ingredients. They create these beautiful transparent oil-gels which turn back into oils when you shake them. Once you let them sit for a bit they turn back into gels. I’m not sure what I want to do with the texture, but they’re pretty cool to play with.

Are there any common ingredients that don’t do exactly what people may think they do?
People should be aware of what it means when a product contains hyaluronic acid. I’ve seen branding say that a product is made from, or contains 100% hyaluronic acid. That doesn’t always mean that the product is 100% hyaluronic acid, but that a 100% hyaluronic acid solution was used as an ingredient in the product. The actual concentration might be much lower. “Pure” hyaluronic acid is a powder.
What do you think are some of the most exciting breakthroughs in the skin care research?
I was at a convention recently and a company was demoing a newer type of spectroscopy device. You could basically see the layers of your skin in real time. You can zoom through the layers of your skin, and see the cell structures, then collagen fibers, and finally blood cells moving—it was really cool!
A sister to that device was one that could zoom through the layers of your skin and measure the quantities of a chemical. So, for example, you could move through the layers of your skin and measure how much of an active ingredient had penetrated.
It’s not an innovation I think the customer will directly benefit from, but it does make dermatological and cosmetic research a lot easier and less invasive.
How would you recommend doing skin care research if you’re just a regular consumer and you don’t have your knowledge? 
Unfortunately, as a consumer you don’t have many options. A lot of research is pay walled, and a lot of it isn’t written for a consumer audience.
Something I’ve dreamed of doing is funding research that answers some of the basic questions that consumers have, but may not be useful or profitable for brand.
But right now my best answer is to just try things, and if possible, not worry too much about being a perfectionist. If your budget is limited and you really want results then use a sunscreen, use a retinoid, use Vitamin C, and kind of just stick to that routine. But if you have a larger budget and are a little more adventurous then go ahead and try new products, especially if that’s something you enjoy. Not everything is going to work for you but that’s just the reality of it. Even if something is well researched, it may just not work for you. There’s no guarantees and once you digest that and it becomes part of the way you view skin care, I think it’s a lot less stressful and more enjoyable. 

What is your current line up of products?

I had a very regimented skin care routine when I was younger, and then I went through this slow few-years long realization that I was no longer a person with acne.

I tend to keep my routine quite minimalist, so I can introduce prototypes that I am working on. I’ll cleanse, sometimes with an oil cleanser or a micellar water soaked cotton pad. I generally rinse off my micellar water as the surfactants they contain can sometimes irritate the skin. I use sunscreen daily and try to reapply at least once throughout the day. If I’m going to be active, like biking, I’ll use a sunscreen stick as those tend to be a bit more water resistant.

Right now, I’m using a hyaluronic acid based serum, a retinoid based oil, and an ascorbic acid serum.

Read some of Stephen’s highly informative Klog posts here!

+ Have you learned a lot from “kindofstephen”? What mistakes have you been making in your routine that you learned how to fix?  Let us know in the comments!
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