2: Effective Ingredients

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The objective for anti-aging skin care products is to increase the presence of collagen, elastin, ceramides and keratin, all of which contribute to skin's firmness and structural integrity.

If topical application of collagen, elastin, ceramides, and keratin increased the amount of these components in your skin cells, skin care would be a breeze. Unfortunately, for the most part, these molecules are ineffective as a topical ingredient because they are too large to penetrate the outer layers of the skin.

Cosmeceuticals promise to fight aging with brilliant lab discoveries of new ingredients and delivery mechanisms. Unfortunately, most ingredients do not penetrate the skin very well. Fatty lipids, smaller sized molecules (nanoparticles) and ingredients suspended in silica shells have the best chance. It is most likely that the ingredients in many of our products simply sit on top of our skin until we wash them off.

The ingredients discussed below, when presented in the proper form, are able to penetrate the dermis and improve skin condition.

Vitamin A

Topically applied, vitamin A can partially reverse structural changes to the skin caused by sun damage and aging. Vitamin A enhances the production of collagen, smooths skin by communicating with the genes involved in epidermal cell turn over, and acts as an antioxidant.

The active form of vitamin A is called retinoic acid. Prescription vitamin A products contain retinoic acid in the form of either tretinoin or synthetic tretinoin (adapalene and tazarotene). Synthetic tretinoin is not as successful as true tretinoin in reversing wrinkles. With adapalene, for example, the acid only binds to 1 out of 3 potential skin receptors. The advantage to this is that the synthetic products have less side effects such as irritation and redness. The disadvantage is less wrinkle reversal.

There are a variety of vitamin A products that contain retinoic acid.

If you don't have a prescription for vitamin A you can buy a product with retinol (rather than with retinoic acid). Retinol is the name for the entire vitamin A molecule. Your skin will incorporate the retinol and convert it into retinoic acid. The conversion process weakens the active ingredients so a retinoid product with .5% active ingredient is comparable with a dose of .05% retinoic acid product.

In cosmetics, the percentage of retinol, the delivery system, packaging and other ingredients present are all important. Retinoids are air and light sensitive. It is best to purchase a product packaged in a tube or a dark pump rather than a clear bottle.

There are several types of retinol found in cosmetic products. These include retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, retinyl propionate (a retinol ester), retinyl retinoate (possibly the most effective form of retinol), retinyl palmitate (the least effective form of retinol, useful for sensitive skin).

Vitamin B

Topically applied B vitamins also enhance skin structure. In skin care products, the most often used vitamin B is niacinamide, a derivate of vitamin B3. Niacinamide can prevent water loss, supports collagen formation, can stimulate the skin's production of ceramides, and can increase keratin in the epidermis.

Using a product with niacinamide will reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Niacinamide also has exfoliating properties, similar to the alpha-hydroxy acids (discussed below). Niacinamide can lighten skin.

Look for a product with a concentration of 5% and use it for twelve weeks to demonstrate effectiveness. Niacinamide and N-acetyle glucosamine are usually combined into a complex. They also work well to hydrate the skin.

Another, although less popular vitamin B, is pantothenic acid, vitamin B5. B5 helps skin retain moisture by acting as a lubricant.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a proven stimulant for the production of collagen and can thicken skin. It is also an antioxidant.

Water soluble vitamin C is called L-ascorbic acid. Some scientists favor the fat-soluble form of vitamin C which can penetrate the skin on its own. Fat soluble vitamin C is known as vitamin C ester (an ester is a chemical compound that combines an acid and an alcohol). Ascorbyl palmitate is the best known vitamin C ester. It is made by combining L-ascorbic acid with palm oil. Products containing vitamin C esters should get better penetration and absorption. Vitamin C esters have a neutral pH and are nonirritating and non-stinging. Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate is a slow release vitamin C ester.

Vitamin C breaks down when exposed to air and oxygen. Only buy vitamin C packaged in a dark bottle. An airless pump bottle is best. In fact, oxidized vitamin C can actually cause free-radical formation (free radicals are toxic oxygen molecules that lead to cell degeneration). Once opened, vitamin C products will lose effectiveness after six months.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is stored in skin cell membranes and makes them smooth and supple. Vitamin E promotes normal keratinization (the turnover of dead skin cells). Vitamin E reduces inflammation and helps wounds heal. There is only so much vitamin E that the cell membranes can take in before they become saturated. At that point, the rest just goes to waste.

Vitamin E is commonly listed in ingredients as tocotrienol, tocopherol, alpha-tocopherol and tocopherol acetate. Tocotrienol is better at preventing free radical damage than traditional vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol).

Exfoliating Acids

Exfoliating acids encourage your skin to shed dead skin cells and can also fight wrinkles. You can also shed dead skin cells as effectively with a scrub, but you won't get the anti-wrinkle effect unless you use an acid which can penetrate beyond the surface of the skin.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) are the go-to exfoliating acid. These acids will loosen the outermost layer of dead skin cells, help increase cell turnover, unclog pores, and increase the absorption of moisturizers. AHAs do not cut through oil so they are not the product to use if you have oily skin (see BHAs below).

There are five major types of AHAs: glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, citric acid and tartaric acid. Glycolic acid and lactic acid are the most popular and have the most accumulated scientific research confirming their effectiveness. Glycolic acid can improve the appearance of skin, increase collagen production, and improve pigmentation. Citric acid can slough off brown spots and dull skin. Lactic acid is the mildest and is also hydrating. There are hundreds of published studies on the effectiveness of glycolic and lactic acid in increasing cell turnover.

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) are the oil soluble cousin of AHAs. The main BHA is salicylic acid. Salicylic acid binds to keratin in the skin and helps to soften it. Choose salicylic acid if you have acne prone skin. Unlike AHAs, salicylic acid is oil soluble and is able to penetrate the oil in the pores and exfoliate the built-up skin cells inside the oil glands. It also has anti-inflammatory properties.

A third option are polyhydroxy acids which are similar chemically to AHAs but have a larger molecular structure which limits penetration and therefore can be less irritating.

When choosing an exfoliating acid the two considerations are concentration and pH. AHAs work best in a concentration between 5-8% with a pH of 3 to 4. BHA works best in a 1-2% concentration also in a pH of 3 to 4. A product with 10% acid will sting and burn. If the pH is less than 3.5, the product will likely irritate your skin. It is hard to know the pH of a product unless you contact the manufacturer but the better companies will list the pH on the product page.

According to The Age Fix, you do not need to buy a product to exfoliate with lactic acid. All you need is a wash cloth soaked in plain whole milk, and if you wish you can add apple juice. Leave the milk on your skin for two to four minutes. This will give you a light chemical peel with two bonuses: the fatty proteins in the milk are moisturizing and milk has anti-inflammatory properties.


There are two ways that serums and lotions can moisturize your skin. Lotions provide an occlusive barrier that prevents the moisture already in your skin from evaporating. Ingredients that perform this function include petroleum jelly, mineral oil, and silicones. Lotions can also attract moisture to you skin by including an ingredient that has an affinity for water. These ingredients are called humectants and they bind water to the surface of your skin. Glycerin, sorbitol, and hyaluronic acid are the most common humectants. Hyaluronic acid is the humectant mentioned most often on packaging.

Like collagen and ceramides, hyaluronic acid is natural component of skin tissue. Synthetic forms of hyaluronic acid are an excellent skin care ingredient. Hyaluronic acid boosts cell moisture content and has cell communicating abilities. It can improve the firmness of the skin and its overall tone. Hyaluronic acid also acts as an antioxidant. The salt form of hyaluronic acid, sodium hyaluronate, may better penetrate the skin better than the non-salt form.

Another powerful moisturizer used in many products is dimethicone. Dimethicone is a type of silicone that can immediately plump out fine lines.

Facial moisturizers should be lightweight, non-comedogenic (not leading to blocked pores that cause acne) and wrinkle reducing.

Your hands and your face have different cosmetic needs because the skin on your hands is much thicker and is washed more often. Hand lotions should be heavy barrier creams that protect.


Plant and mineral oils are helpful for boosting skin moisture but do not “repair” your skin. Oils contain Omega 3 and Omega 6. These essential fatty acids (EFAs) can act as antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties. Oils degrade quickly so topical application usually leads to more free radicals attacking your skin. Despite their popularity, there is little direct data to prove that face oils are anti-aging or help with scars, stretch marks, and skin lightening.

Here are some of the most popular oils:


Antioxidants protect your skin's collagen from free radicals, the toxic oxygen molecules generated by pollution, sun damage, and cell renewal. Unfortunately, most antioxidants are delicate and are often ineffective in topical skin care products. The concentrations are too small and the antioxidants in products are probably no longer effective in fighting free radicals. Antioxidant “dusting” is when a manufacturer lists an antioxidant but only includes a tiny amount. Look at the ingredient list and make sure it is toward the top. Buying an antioxidant in jar packaging can be a waste of money. Once exposed to air, the antioxidant will become oxidized and deactivated.

A handful of antioxidants may be topically applied with success. Vitamins C and E are the best options. Here are others commonly found in skin care products:

Other Goodish Ingredients

Common Ingredients That Are Not Very Effective

Ingredient Reference Guide

If you want even more of the science or if you have questions about any particular ingredient, go to the ingredient dictionary on the Paula's Choice website which can be found at www.paulaschoice.com/ingredient-dictionary. Paula Begoun, the cosmetic cop, shares her science-based opinion on the ingredient and often cites scientific studies.