The beauty market is awash with anti-aging products, and the lists of ingredients in serums and creams that promise to slow down or reverse that process can be confounding.
Take a look at the fine print and you might encounter Vitamin C or green tea extract or alpha-hydroxy acids. Can anything make a difference?
We checked in with a handful of experts, including Dr. Gregory Henderson, a dermatologist and clinical instructor in dermatology at UCLA, in our search for answers.
By the way, cosmetics companies test their products extensively. The Food and Drug Administration does not test products, but can take action against a manufacturer if it has concerns over product safety.
Activated charcoal, which can absorb some toxins, has been used to treat alcohol and drug poisoning in emergency rooms for decades. But in the last few years, the beauty industry has embraced it, touting its ability to absorb dirt and oil. Can it be effective?
“When used as part of a mask or strip,” Henderson says, “the charcoal may help remove sebum and keratinous debris from skin pores.”
Clay and mud
Mud is sometimes used in masks that are used to hydrate the skin and is acknowledged by many in the medical community for its potential to help with skin issues. “Mud therapy,” says Henderson, “is an ancient tradition and historically has been used for inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.”
Clay is one of the most common ingredients found in beauty products, and experts tend to agree that it can serve a useful purpose, if used according to directions. Clay masks, designed to remove oil, dirt and dead skin cells, can be used as a delivery mechanism for ingredients — oils and emollients, for example — to ease dry skin.
Sodium hyaluronate, which is used in all sorts of wrinkle and skin-repair products, is a “cousin of hyaluronic acid, a naturally occurring substance in the skin which helps hang on to water and helps give the skin a younger appearance,” says UCLA dermatologist Dr. Hayley Goldbach.
“Dermatologists often inject hyaluronic acid fillers into skin, resulting in more volume and a reduction in fine lines.” Sodium hyaluronate, designed to be applied to the skin, “has not been shown to have the same anti-aging or collagen-boosting properties as injectable hyaluronic acid.” But it continues to be included in various medical studies and papers that are focused on the efficacy of various anti-aging products.
Alpha hydroxy acids
According to Medscape, an online reference source used by medical professionals, AHAs (including glycolic and citric acids) “improve skin texture and reduce the signs of aging by promoting cell shedding” in the outer layers of the skin. But “the mechanism of the action is not completely understood.”
Caffeine is used in cosmetics and cosmeceuticals to counter a number of skin conditions, including the appearance of cellulite. It works, in theory, “by stimulating lipolysis — the breaking down of fat — in the skin and by improving the microcirculation,” Henderson says.
Caffeine is also found in some eye creams, promoted by cosmetic lines for its ability to shrink blood vessels under the eyes, although “its role has not been well studied.”
Green tea extract
In the last few years, there's been a surge in the use of green tea extract in beauty products. WebMD reports that “the ingredients in tea can reduce sun damage and may protect you from skin cancer when you put it on your skin.” Henderson says that “a study combining green tree extract, caffeine and resveratrol showed reduced facial redness.”
Vitamin C is one of the most popular ingredients in anti-aging products, promoted as something that can protect cells from free radicals, which can damage cell DNA, increase signs of aging and lead to cancer.
Some experts say the antioxidants found in vitamin C can assist the body's production of collagen. But Henderson cautions: “While limited studies have shown that topical vitamin C may limit photoaging, many current preparations … are not formulated to allow the vitamin C to effectively penetrate the skin. Also unless protected from the air, most preparation became inactive without hours of opening.”
Peptides, formed from amino acids, are “cellular messengers” of sorts and are commonly used in beauty products. According to Henderson, signal peptides may stimulate collagen production. Carrier peptides “may aid in the delivery of copper to the skin and promote smoother skin.” (Copper is said to help develop collagen and elastin.)
Many of us associate algae with unpleasant encounters in the water (seaweed, pond scum, etc.), but algae have been used in traditional diets and folk medicine for centuries.
In the beauty world, you might read about ingredients such as blue marine algae or brown algae extract. You won't find universal agreement on their effectiveness in cosmeceuticals, but an article in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology suggests brown seaweed “could be used as a potential cosmetic ingredient to make skin firmer and smoother.”
The bottom line?
Some of the ingredients listed in the fine print on cosmetics and cosmeceuticals may actually help your skin. But what the experts really hope you'll indulge in are rest, exercise, a healthy diet and sunscreen.