Rick Woodin: ”Everything you’ve been taught about UV protection is pretty much wrong”
The Chief Scientist for ZO Skin Health believes that it’s about time for some myth-busting.
20 Sep 2023

In 2011, Woodin, a chemist by education, met a man by the name of Zein Obagi. The two connected and he wanted Rick to come in and lead his innovation process when following his vision for skin health restoration in the, back then, brand new skincare brand, ZO Skin Health.

In a little bit over a decade, how has the brand changed?

— Pretty dramatically. When I started, we basically weren’t very well-known. What I think we did differently is that we’re going through the ideation process and trying to pioneer, breaking the technological barriers to deliver skin health in a way that’s never been done before. We operate from the firm belief of: ’build it, and they will come’; innovate it in a way that’s going to break the barriers.

— That’s proven itself out. We’ve now become the number one physician dispense brand in Europe, closely approaching being the number one in North America, and making huge inroads as we continue to enter new countries in Asia, now operating in 130+ countries. We have been awarded multiple times for being the most innovative products in the physician dispense market.

It’s very common for brands to build a successful product and then, to use Rick’s own words, ’rest on their laurels’ and just let it keep selling and selling. 

— We’re just as relentless about going back and reengineering existing products because technology is moving today at such a rapid pace. It’s dizzying. So, you have to be willing to go back and revisit the existing products you have and take them to a higher level. The advantage that comes from that is that you keep yourself ahead of the competitive set because they can never catch you — you’re constantly moving forward to the next evolution. 

What have you learned over these years?

— From the scientific standpoint, every good idea is only as good as its ability to be enabled with the help of the emergence of technology. Our product Firming Serum is about rebuilding something called the anchoring fibrils that are structural elements in your skin. When you look at the structure of these anchoring fibrils, it’s like a suspension bridge. You have the base, you have the vertical pillars, and you have the part you drive on. Each one of them is built by different fibral structures of the skin with Collagen 3, Collagen 7, Fibronectin, and such.

— So, to restore the anchoring fibrils system, we had to find a technology that was going to regulate the skin to produce all of them. It took us 7.5 years. We found three out of five and couldn’t figure out the other two. Then, we won’t launch it, because we’re not staying true to what we believe in the innovation of ’build it and they will come’. It could have given a great story to Marketing to go out and sell but the user is gonna come back and say that it’s not doing anything for the skin. Because we fixed the bottom, we fixed the top, but we didn’t fix the pillars to hold it up. It’s not good enough until it can do all that it’s supposed to do, and then, we won’t launch it. And then, we finally cracked the last piece, with our new translational research and cell-targeted therapy, and launched Firming Serum. 

In terms of technologies and science, what are you most curious about now and in the coming years?

— Cell targeted therapy in the near term is gonna be a bigger way to go because you’ll hear that this is what’s going on in cancer research. When you think of things like chemotherapy and radiation, they are effective in certain cancers but you get a lot of off-target effects. When you’re radiating and putting chemo in the body, it’s not just affecting cancer cells but also other things which is why people who have chemotherapy have such problems with their skin. Cell-targeted therapy that has things like a drone with fingers that will only see a mutated cancer cell and pass by everything else is going to be the future. That will be an absolute evolutionary breakthrough.

— The second thing is the concomitant use of products within office procedures, which have taken a major leap in becoming much less invasive. You’re seeing this in the medical community and all these things tend to morph their way down from the medical research into other areas. A lot of the technology that’s being used in things from radio frequency and ultrasound have all come from other applications and also translational research comes from the medical community. You’re now seeing a lot more receptiveness of the patient and the general consumer base — they’re no longer afraid to go to a dermatologist and they’re able to get these non-aggressive, quick ’lunchtime procedures’ with no downtime. There are still limitations on what those can do but when you start combining them with comprehensive topical solutions, energy will push stuff into the skin way faster than it’ll go by itself. That’s a proven fact.

— Think about the advancements that you can get to by combining custom engineer topical applications with specific devices in office to be able to really accelerate the rate of that benefit realisation as well as the magnitude. And then you take products like ours when you get done with those procedures and you may not have to go back and get them again for years.

ZO Skin Health

With two of ZO Skin Health’s latest launches, ZO Sheer Fluid Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 50 and ZO Gel Sunscreen Broad-Spectrum SPF 50, being within the sun protection area, Woodin believes that it’s time for some myth-busting.

— I want to get people away from that when you think of sun protection, it’s about protection from ultraviolet damage. We need to lose that paradigm. I’ve been saying this for decades since photobiology and photochemistry is one of my core area of expertise; It’s about light protection. The sun doesn’t just emit ultraviolet light. It emits other high-energy, visible infrared that are cumulatively damaging to the skin. Everybody thinks about ultraviolet because the onset of that damage is quicker than the others. If we live on this earth for 50, 60, 70, or 80 years, it goes well beyond that. It’s about light protection.

— When the first communication started coming out about blue light protection and high energy visible light protection, that it was all from our devices, I kept telling everybody to stop talking about devices. There’s more visible light hitting your surface than the result of violet. Almost half of the radiation coming into us right now if we walk outside is visible light. Now, is it as high energy as ultraviolet? No. But it’s right next to it. The high-energy visible light is pretty damaging stuff, particularly after, say, 20 years of everyday exposure. Can these things (the devices, Ed’s note) have an impact? Sure, especially when we keep our face in them all the time. But nowhere near as much as HEV, and that’s the story that people should be talking about. Do you know why sunlight, and especially throughout different parts of the season when it’s more intense, gets hot? Heat is infrared. You can buy cooking devices that will cook your meat with infrared light — it’s pretty intense stuff.

— Everybody talks about UV and that UVA is so much worse than UVB. No, it’s not. That’s wrong too. Almost all basal and squamous cell cancers are primarily induced by UVB. They’re way more prevalent than malignant melanoma. Malignant melanoma is worse. People will say, well, that primarily comes from UVA. Wrong again. It’s a combination of the two, UVB and UVA. You just can’t decouple them like that, it doesn’t work that way. People need to step back and get out of the old paradigm. All those paradigms you’ve been told are wrong. And if you could sit down with a photo biologist or whatever, they’ll say that they’ve been saying this for years. But what happens is that the media takes and distils it down to make it really simple for the reader. As soon as you start simplifying it, you start diluting the message. When we go to chemistry class, they don’t simplify. You go to biology, they don’t simplify. Learn the science for what science really is. I would love to get billions of consumers in a room and say that everything you’ve been taught about UV protection is pretty much wrong.

— Infrared can be pretty nasty stuff and so can HEV and UV. To just deal with one is not a comprehensive solution. We do all three to these two new sunscreens. Over the last couple of years, we went back and re-innovated them when technology and test methods are starting to come forward to validate those. So at the end of the day, if you want to be comprehensive, you need triple spectrum protection — UVB, UVA, and Infrared A. 

— And have you ever heard the term or used the term ’chemical sunscreen’? That’s ridiculous. They’re all chemicals! Extremely small particle size distribution is what’s key when you formulate. Zinc oxide is naturally mined from the Earth and so is Titandioxide, then highly purified for our applications and built into these products. You have to get to the right particle size. If you get too small, the light will pass right by it. If too big, it’ll reflect more and you’ll look like a ghost. You have to find just the right one!