There are thousands of antiaging products filling our heads with promises, from pricey prestige brands to drugstore options that are more reasonably priced. How can you choose between them, and which ingredients actually might work? Dr. Ellen Marmur, author of Simple Skin Beauty, demystifies the cosmeceutical mystery with these four rules.
Some products state that they prevent and reverse the signs of aging. Others claim to firm, smooth, and lift the skin, and there are plenty that guarantee they stimulate collagen and diminish wrinkles. Anti-aging products do fill our heads with promises. (I completely expect to wake up looking like Gwyneth Paltrow after using one.) There are thousands to pick from, from pricey prestige brands to drugstore options that are more reasonably priced. How can you choose between them, and which ingredients actually might work?
Most of us feel baffled and frustrated, with way too many choices. (Remember my overwhelming shopping trip?) According to the American Academy of Dermatology in Schaumburg, Illinois, 94 percent of women are confused by their anti-aging options. So let’s demystify the cosmeceutical mystery. There are four rules to remember:
1. Prevent aging skin with what you already own: sunscreen.
Sun protection is the best anti-aging product you have and the best investment you can make. Ninety percent of cosmetic skin problems that occur with age (wrinkles, sagging, hyperpigmentation) are caused by sun exposure, according to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Therefore sunscreen is the best honest-to-goodness miracle cream on the market. There is no point in buying a bunch of anti-aging products to repair damage if you don’t prevent it in the first place by wearing sunscreen every day. Most cosmeceutical ingredients try to mimic substances found in the body, such as antioxidants, peptides, growth factors, coenzymes, copper, and vitamins. So protecting what we already have naturally and maintaining optimal skin health with daily sun protection and moisturizer is worth a thousand anti-aging beauty solutions. In fact, I have a collection of sunscreens and I use them all differently — an oil-free, broad-spectrum SPF 15 for daily use; an SPF 30 when I know I’ll be outside more of the day; a body lotion with added sunscreen; and an even stronger broad-spectrum sunscreen spray for the beach. Because your skin type changes and the amount of sun exposure you receive does too, your sun protection needs to be compatible. Owning several formulations of sunscreen also reduces the excuses not to wear it, and sunscreens are a better investment than a bunch of cosmeceuticals. Think about it this way: every time you put on sunscreen, you’re preventing the signs of aging and therefore saving money on expensive products or cosmetic procedures to fix fine lines or sun spots.
2. Read product labels closely.
The label must list ingredients from the highest concentration to the lowest, so if the anti-aging element you’re looking for, be it niacinamide or vitamin C, is near the bottom, there’s not enough in the product to do anything. (Keep in mind; a high concentration of the chemical is one way to get it into the skin). Most often, a cosmeceutical acts primarily as a good moisturizer, which is wonderful, but it won’t have much more than superficial and temporary results. Most of the ingredients on the label — the water, moisturizers, binders, and preservatives that make up the vehicle — are inactive. Often an anti-aging product includes silicone to provide a smooth texture to the product and make the complexion look smoother too. It may also contain a little glycolic acid or lactic acid to exfoliate the skin and provide instant gratification. These elements don’t actually change anything below the surface of your skin. At least make sure that the antioxidant or peptide you’re buying is very near the top of the ingredients list. De- coding the label has limitations, however. Most of the time a product does not state the concentration or percentage of the ingredients (and it doesn’t have to). And too high a concentration of some ingredients, such as vitamin C, can be toxic to the skin. You also can’t tell from the label whether an ingredient, like an antioxidant, is stable or not.
3. Choose your anti-aging ingredients wisely.
Okay, let’s shift gears. Let’s pretend that all these cosmeceuticals work.
With so many new ingredients promising to fix so many problems, how should you decide among them? Do you need an antioxidant or a peptide? And what is a growth factor, anyway? Is a prescription retinoid safe, or should you try an over-the-counter version first? Step back, look at your skin, and consider what products you already own. A moisturizer? A sunscreen? A chemical exfoliant or a scrub? (Check to see if your moisturizer already contains an antioxidant or one of the ingredients I’ll discuss soon. You may have been using an anti-aging product for some time without even knowing it.) Ask yourself what you are trying to achieve with a cosmeceutical. Are you in your twenties and looking for a preventive product? An antioxidant is a good bet. Do you want to fight wrinkles? Then something with retinoic acid will work. If brown spots and uneven skin tone are your problem, you can use retinoic acid or try a product with niacinamide. Narrow down what it is about your complexion you want to improve, and that will help narrow down your options.
Tending to your complexion is like caring for a garden, which needs a certain amount of water, nutrients, soil, and sunshine to grow and be healthy. If you overfeed or overwater it, the garden is destroyed. In the same way, putting too much of a good thing on your skin is not necessarily better or more effective. I’ve had patients come in with red, irritated skin and show me twenty different products that they use on it. How do all these ingredients react with one another? Are they overlapping the same kinds of chemicals, such as acids, over and over again? Try to pick one or two active ingredients — an antioxidant and a retinoid, for instance — and stick with them for at least three months (a fair amount of time to see if you get results). Switching from one ingredient to another within a span of a couple of weeks — a niacinamide product, then a kojic acid, then an azeleic acid to get rid of brown spots, for example — cancreate a cocktail of chemicals on your face that can be extremely irritating.
4. Research products, and learn the difference between miracles and marketing.
Do your homework on ingredients, and think logically about their claims. Frequently what is proclaimed to be a new chemical innovation turns out to be a derivative of something that already exists. For instance, an exciting ingredient (whose name was created and patented by a cosmetic company) claims to stimulate the production of glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) and increase the storage of moisture in the dermis. This chemical has a cool, sci-fi name and sounds like an amazing discovery, yet it’s simply a plant-derived form of xylose (a sugar molecule like the GAGs). Again, the manufacturer’s tests are proprietary, and most products containing the ingredient also include hyaluronic acid, a superior humectant. So it’s hard to say which one is responsible for any water retention results in the skin. A little sleuthing online can tell you what a hot new ingredient actually is and if the clinical studies behind it are for real.
Most of these ingredients aren’t really under the jurisdiction of a dermatologist. Traditional medical training has nothing to do with a popular antioxidant like CoffeeBerry, or an ingredient like rare, Japanese seaweed. As a doctor, I must form a medically educated opinion about whether these things provide substantial results or not. I read the claims and the literature available, put them through my dermatologic understanding of the body, and judge if it’s a reasonable hypothesis or not. So far three things have been proven to work as anti-agers: sunscreen, moisturizer (to maintain the health of the skin’s barrier), and retinoic acid.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ellen Marmur, MD, author of Simple Skin Beauty (Copyright © 2009 by Dr. Ellen Marmur), is the Chief of Dermatologic and Cosmetic Surgery at The Mount Sinai Medical center in New York City and specializes in skin cancer surgery, cosmetic surgery, and women’s health dermatology. She lives in Manhattan with her family.
MORE ARTICLES BY THE AUTHOR
- Read an excerpt from Simple Skin Beauty: Every Woman’s Guide to a Lifetime of Healthy, Gorgeous Skin
- Watch the video: Simple beauty tips from Dr. Ellen Marmur