There are more products than ever tagged with the attractive but ambiguous term anti-aging. Labels on skin creams, from the ones in your corner drugstore to the fancy varieties at department store beauty counters, make many claims like “fight free radicals leaving skin tighter and more supple” or “Infused with antioxidants for more youthful looking skin,” or “Packed with peptides and collagen boosters to fight wrinkles.” But what are all those ingredients? What exactly are they fighting and boosting? What do they really do? With the help of Birmingham, Alabama-based dermatologist, Kate Flanagan of Shades Valley Dermatology, we’re cutting through the sales pitch and getting down to the substance of the real beauty of the business. Here, we’re defining all the major words you need to know when it comes to anti-aging to help you decode cryptic descriptions.
Collagen & Elastic. These two terms are proteins that help make up your skin. “Collagen is the main building block of our skin,” says Dr. Flanagan and goes on to explain that breakdown of those building blocks brings on fine lines and wrinkles. “Elastin is a stretchy protein that gives our skin the ability to literally ‘snap back’ from movements,” she says, which explains how wrinkles start to develop on areas of our face where we show expressions—think crow’s feet, smile lines, and the furrow of the brow. While there isn’t much to know about protecting or regenerating elastin, keeping collagen intact is huge for anti-aging.
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Free Radicals. “UV rays generate free radicals in your skin, which are atoms that have lost an electron, and in turn causes them to take electrons from collagen, leading to small tears in collagen strands. This weakening of collagen leads to wrinkles and fine lines, and skin laxity,” says Dr. Flanagan. But unfortunately, sun exposure isn’t the only thing that can release these collagen-damaging atoms. Cigarette smoke, alcohol, pesticides, air pollution, and even fried foods can also be to blame. “In addition to a daily sunscreen in the morning, I recommend topical antioxidant products with Vitamin C and E to protect collagen,” says Dr. Flanagan.
Antioxidants. Antioxidants are the biggest known enemy of collagen-damaging free radicals, and they don’t come in just one form. One of our favorites is Vitamin C, which can be called by many names including the commonly used L-ascorbic acid. Other antioxidants commonly used in skin care products include: Vitamins A, and E, folic acid, beta-carotene and niacinamide with some common sources of those antioxidants being green tea, white tea, and acai berry.
Retinol. Likely the term you’ve heard most frequently when it comes to anti-aging products, retinol (also commonly referred to as Retin-A, a branded version of the ingredient) is the “it” element for wrinkle creams. “Retinol remains the gold standard for anti-aging—it helps by promoting collagen production, exfoliating, and with the production of new healthy skin cells,” says Dr. Flanagan. Plus, beauty companies everywhere are featuring it in their best wrinkle-fighting products. “My favorite retinol product is the one that people will use consistently; the mild-moderate irritation that can accompany adding a retinol to one’s skin care can defeat a lot of people, and they give up quickly. It’s critical that people understand that retinol is for long term use, not a short-term gain,” explains Dr. Flanagan. Many of the more modern formulas incorporate ingredients that help keep skin hydrated so you can avoid flaking.
Peptides. “Another option for daily wrinkle fighting are peptide-containing products. Peptides are made of small amino acids and when applied to skin, stimulate increased collagen production,” says Dr. Flanagan. While peptides can appear in a variety of forms from Pentapeptide to Palmitoyl Tripeptide to Acetyl hexapeptide-8 and so on, you should be able to detect the base word somewhere in the name if you are searching for it on a beauty product label.
Hyaluronic Acid. It’s an acid that naturally occurs in the body, and is very effective for hydration, explains Dr. Flanagan: “Hyaluronic acid has a remarkable ability to hold onto large amounts of water: a single molecule can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water. As we age, we lose hyaluronic acid and this makes our skin more susceptible to dryness and also makes the skin appear older, more wrinkled, less supple, etc. Topical products that contain the ingredient make the skin look temporarily better moisturized and younger.”
Alpha Hydroxy Acids. These are natural acids found in foods, with the most common one in cosmetics being glycolic acid. It comes from sugar cane and because it has the smallest molecules of the Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) group, it can most easily and deeply penetrate the skin. It’s an effective treatment for fine lines, blackheads, and acne. “Since AHAs cause exfoliation of dead skin, they are used in products to treat acne. Through this exfoliative activity, they can also improve the appearance and texture of fine lines and sun-damaged skin,” says Dr. Flanagan.
Ceramides. Ceramides are naturally occurring and help with water retention, so they are added to skin care products to help skin retain moisture. Dr. Flanagan explains, “Ceramides help comprise the fatty lipid layer of the skin that essentially helps trap moisture and help maintain the skin’s healthy barrier function. When the skin’s barrier function is compromised by eczema or dry skin, then the skin cannot hold onto its moisture and a vicious cycle of dryness can develop.”