Anti aging skin care is in a state of constant development. With huge profits being ploughed into more and more research, cosmetic companies and dermatologists are continually taking the quest for the ultimate anti aging ingredient up to the next level.
So how do you pick your way through the science if you’re not a scientist?
What should you be looking for in a cream to avoid wasting your money on ingredients that simply don’t do what they claim?
Skin care manufacturers sell their anti aging products on the basis of comparatively small amounts of active ingredients.
What are ‘active’ ingredients?
Product formulations contain a mind boggling number of ingredients with names that don’t trip off the tongue – but few of them actually do anything to rejuvenate your skin.
Much of the ingredients list will be made up of things like emulsifiers that bind a cream together, preservatives that stop it going off, or humectants that lock in moisture.
The ingredients that do have an anti aging effect are called “active” ingredients and it is these that you need to be aware of when searching for a product that has even the remotest possibility of working on your wrinkles.
Our problem as consumers is that ingredient lists on skin care products make no distinction between active ingredients and inactive ingredients so finding the information you want isn’t as simple as it should be.
Questions to ask
There are two key questions to ask about any anti aging ingredient.
1. How do I know it will work in a cream? – you need to know whether there is independent research evidence to show that the ingredient works when topically applied. Some skin care brands jump on the latest band wagon from the industry and take anti aging ingredients that have been shown to be effective orally and add them to a skin care product.
That’s fine but you need evidence that the active ingredient can be absorbed through the skin and has an anti aging effect when used in a cream or lotion.
2. Is there enough in there to be active? – you need to know how much of the active ingredient is present in the face cream or serum you want to buy. A common approach in anti aging skin care – particularly at the lower end of the market – is to use the latest ingredient in a product at minute levels in a skin care formulation – allowing the marketing department to go to town with product ads based on the effectiveness of the ingredient.
Of course you are unlikely to find a skin care ad claiming miraculous result for an ingredient with the disclaimer – “when used at levels above x%”. So many anti aging products take the general results from clinical research on a particular ingredient and ignore the inconvenient truth that it has only been shown to have any effect at all above a minimum level.
Clinical test or independent research?
The best anti aging skin care is often produced by dermatologist led brands and these companies spend a lot of money on research and development before a product is launched on the market. But – buyer beware – these are not independent studies of effectiveness.
Many times skin care companies use in-house facilities to test products or pay for outside labs to do the work for them. Results are used in marketing the skin care line – as in: “50% of women found a reduction in wrinkles over 4 weeks use”.
Whilst results from this kind of clinical testing show us something – the research is set up and paid for so that the makers can market their product and the results will be expressed in the best possible light.
If there is any kind of financial connection between the maker and the tester of the cream – the results cannot be called ‘independent’.
What ‘independent’ research means is when scientists (from Universities, Schools of Medicine or other independent institutions) set up studies of ingredients and test for efficacy in a lab or with human volunteers. The results of these studies are ‘peer reviewed’ which means other scientists look at the research and give it their approval or point out its weaknesses.
Testing of this sort is then published in learned academic journals. This is the kind of clinical study that truly shows an ingredient works to reduce the signs of aging.
And there’s the problem right there – money. You need a lot of it to run a research study and most of it is being spent by skin care companies who have an interest in the results. So independent results are harder to come by.
Anti aging ingredients – the top six
Not surprisingly – there are precious few active ingredients that have been shown by independent research to improve the symptoms of skin aging – here’s my list of the ones that have:
1. Retinoic acid or other retinoids which are the acid form of vitamin A and clinically proven to be effective in the treatment of fine lines, wrinkles, hyper pigmentation and acne. Usually available as prescription creams and lotions only. Can produce moderate to severe skin reactions: inflammation, redness, peeling – which is why you might need medical supervision. Find out more about retinoic acid and how it differs from retinol here.
2. Retinol and retinyl palmitate – precursors to retinoic acid and therefore not as effective as retinoids since they require conversion in the body before they can have any impact. Freely available in skin care formulations – see my article on retinol products for some suggestions of which to go for. Less prone to produce bad skin reactions.
3. Peptides – copper peptides were originally validated as a means of treating chronic wounds and it was their tissue healing properties that led to their use in anti aging skin care. Peptides are tiny protein fragments that have anti inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Peptide compounds are widely available in anti aging creams and serums and are also successfully used in hair growth formulations.
4. Vitamin C – essential to the formulation of collagen which gives skin its underlying flexibility and suppleness – vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant protecting skin from free radical damage. Scientifically validated as an anti aging ingredient for wrinkle reduction and skin rejuvenation. The problem with vitamin C is oxidisation or exposure to air which causes degradation – oxidised vitamin C can cause rather than treat inflammation and make wrinkles worse. Only vitamin C which is fresh and untainted (stabilised) or in microencapsulated form is capable of achieving anti aging effects. Vitamin C also has to be present at high levels – around 10% – in the formulation to be effective. Vitamin C can provoke bad skin reactions and needs other skin calming ingredients in the formulation. For information about vitamin C in anti aging serums see here.
5. Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) – they have been around in anti aging treatments for at least 20 years and there are a number of studies showing their effectiveness when used as lactic acid, glycolic acid or citric acid peels. The effect is to thicken and strengthen skin and regenerate collagen. In over the counter skin care effects are less compelling and at under 8% they will be useless. Best results come from creams with a concentration of 10-15% and over this would be even more effective but would require the help of a dermatologist because of the potential irritation. Interestingly – AHA’s are an inexpensive anti aging ingredient costing only a tiny fraction of a dollar even at high levels. You don’t need to pay a lot if AHA is all the cream is offering.
6. Estrogen – the skin rejuvenating effects of estrogen were documented by scientists studying the effects of hormone replacement therapy on post menopausal women. An Austrian clinical study showed that topical bio-identical estrogen added to creams in the form of estriol or estradiol significantly improved skin fragility, flexibility and firmness with marked increase in collagen synthesis. The HRT cancer scare has inhibited large scale developments of estriol in skin creams which is a shame as it does appear to work and have a low risk profile.
Other ingredients to consider
Of course there are a lot of other ingredients that cosmetic scientists claim have anti aging effects – new products are being developed around them all the time. Many are ingredients with health benefits or rejuvenating effect when taken orally but with little clinical date on topical application.
what they lack is proper independent research to show their effectiveness – but if you want to blaze a trail you could do a lot worse. Among the ones to watch out for: Alpha Lipoic Acid, CoQ10, Idebone, Lycopene, Astaxanthin, Green Tea, Hyalauronic Acid, Kinetin and there are others emerging all the time.
Whatever type of cream you choose – in the end sticking with a few tried and trusted anti aging ingredients at least makes the choice a bit easier.