Skin consists of the epidermis (outer layer), and the dermis (inner layer.) Two major structural proteins, keratin and collagen, make up the skin. As we age, these two proteins decrease in number and quality. Eating well, sleeping enough, not smoking, and staying out of the sun all protect our skin against aging. Still, it may not be enough.
The desire for beautiful skin is the driving force behind the growing skin care industry. It has sparked a new skin care area called ‘cosmeceuticals.’ Like cosmetics, these products are applied to the skin. They contain pharmaceuticals, ingredients that may improve the skin’s condition biologically.
Walking down the personal care aisle, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the large variety of skin care products. Daily skin care routines usually include a cleanser, moisturizer and possibly a toner. To choose the right product, you must know your skin type – dry, oily or combination.
In general, dry skin should be washed once daily with a creamy or foamy cleanser. Toners may be used, but avoid alcohol-based versions since they overly dry the skin. Finally, use a heavy or rich moisturizer. For oily skin, use a lighter cleanser, alcohol-based toner, and a water-based moisturizer. Wash more than once daily. Those with combination skin can find products labelled especially for this skin type. Apply moisturizer more frequently, but only to dry areas.
Product ingredients may now include vitamins, herbs, natural medicines, and other substances you may never have heard of. Many questions come to mind. Which one is right for me? What ingredients are actually proven to benefit skin? Will a more expensive product give better results than a cheaper one?
One essential ingredient in any moisturizer is a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more to protect against UV rays. UV rays are known to cause premature aging and skin cancer. Even on a cloudy day, these rays can penetrate and harm skin.
Other ingredients commonly found in the new cosmeceuticals may be good for skin. Unfortunately, some may not help at all.
Two ingredients frequently appearing on skin care product labels and advertised in commercials are alpha hydroxy (AHA) and beta hydroxy (BHA) acids. How do they benefit the skin and how do they differ?
For starters, both are used to remove the top layer of the skin, which is made up of damaged and dead skin cells. This process, called exfoliation, unclogs skin pores. New, healthy cells underneath are exposed, so skin color and texture look better.
AHAs include glycolic, lactic, malic, citric, and tartaric acids. They are also called fruit or milk acids. Salicylic acid is the only type of BHA.
The main difference between the hydroxy acids is that BHA can better penetrate oil glands than AHAs. BHA is more suitable for acne-prone skin, while AHAs can be used for dry or sun-damaged skin. Remember to shield skin from the sun when using any product containing hydroxy acids. Both types increase the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight.
The effectiveness of AHAs and BHA has been established. However, hydroxy acids must be used continuously, as results do not last once you stop.
Some skin care products contain both alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy acids. These may be marketed as ‘multiple hydroxy acids’ or ‘optimized hydroxy acids’ products. However, they are not any more useful than a product using only one kind. AHAs and salicylic acid work better at different pH levels. (The pH measures how acidic or alkaline a given solution might be.) When a skin care product is made, the chosen pH level works effectively with either the AHA or the salicylic acid, but not for both.
Vitamins including A, C, E and pro-vitamin B are often found in skin care products. However, the effectiveness of some of these vitamins is questionable. Carefully examine ingredient lists when choosing products containing added vitamins. It is easy to choose a product with many vitamins, and this may seem more natural and appealing. But do all of the listed vitamins actually help your skin? Remember, ingredient listings only list what was included in the product, not whether it retains an effect. Certain conditions or mixtures make an ingredient inactive.
Vitamin A has a long track record of improving skin. Retinoic acid is one form of vitamin A. Some wrinkle-treatment products containing retinoic acid are now available by prescription in the United States. Over-the-counter (OTC) products containing vitamin A can be bought in Canada without a prescription. These products are similar to prescription versions, but less effective since they are not as concentrated. The skin must convert the vitamin A into the active retinoic acid form, and can only do so in small amounts. Vitamin A is not stable in the presence of acids. Products combining it with hydroxy acids do not benefit from the vitamin, since vitamin A becomes inactive. More research is needed on OTC vitamin A products to know how much they actually do.
Vitamin C is an anti-oxidant. Anti-oxidants counteract free radicals in our surroundings that may harm our bodies and affect our skin’s appearance. Some are even suspected of causing cancer. Although vitamin C in skin care products might help improve skin condition, more research is needed. For instance, vitamin C is not very stable and becomes inactive when exposed to light, moisture, or oxygen. More research must
be done to create products that protect the vitamin while allowing it to
Vitamin E is used in skin care products to moisturize and improve smoothness and softness in skin. It is usually in the form of tocopheryl acetate, which acts as a preservative for the skin care product itself. It is also a very good skin conditioner. Vitamin E was once used for scar therapy, but is no longer recommended for this purpose.
Provitamin Bs include panthenol (a form of vitamin B5), and niacinamide (vitamin B3). Panthenol is a humectant, which means it traps and holds water. This makes it very useful in moisturizers. Like vitamin A, panthenol is not stable in the presence of acids, such as AHAs and BHA. Niacinamide is an exfoliant, which may help clear up some types of acne. It is very stable in many conditions, and is easy to put into products.
You can now find herbs and natural medicines in many skin care products. Since they have been used for thousands of years, it only seems logical to include them in many products. Many people now prefer organic or natural products. Having these ingredients on a product label may certainly convince the consumer to buy it. However, you should know which herbs and natural medicines are effective and which are not.
Aloe is a common houseplant. The gel found in its leaves is used to heal burns and wounds. It is also used for its soothing properties. However, Aloe is also a common sensitizer and in some people its use can result in contact dermatitis. Aloe can be found in moisturizing products, but most research has been done on pure aloe gel alone.
Coenzyme Q10 is made naturally by the body. It has had a lot of positive press on its benefits when taken orally for congestive heart failure, angina (chest pain), diabetes, and high blood pressure. However, when used on the surface of the body, it may only be effective in treating periodontal (gum) diseases. More research is needed to prove that coenzyme Q10 can help when applied to the skin. Most of the previous research was done on the oral form.
Grape seed extract is usually taken orally as a supplement for essential fatty acids and tocopherols (forms of vitamin E), and for ailments such as blood vessel or circulation disorders. It can also be used for hemorrhoids, inflammation, and to protect against collagen breakdown. However, there is not enough evidence to prove it is effective for these conditions. More research is necessary.
Green tea is enjoyed as a drink. Many people also use it as a wash to ease sunburn, and as a poultice to soothe swollen eyes. Green tea has antioxidant properties that may help to improve skin condition. Although many promising results suggest that green tea is helpful when applied to the skin, more research in humans is needed.
Pomegranate is thought to be useful for topically treating hemorrhoids and as a gargle for sore throat. Pomegranates contain tannins, substances that have an astringent (drying) effect that may help treat acne. However, like many other herbal substances, more research is needed to show that pomegranate is effective for any of its listed uses.
Hydroquinone is used to lighten darkened areas of the skin, such as age spots and freckles. Four to six weeks of continuous use is usually necessary before any change is noticed. The lightening effects are not permanent. Exposure to sunlight should be avoided since this will reverse the lightening effects on the skin. Sunscreens of SPF 15 or more should be used along with it. Common side effects include burning, itching, and irritation. The higher the concentration of hydroquinone, the more possible side effects. If no improvements are seen in six months, stop using it. Heavier concentrations, especially in an emollient base containing hydrocortisone (which reduces irritability) should only be used on the advice of a physician.
Collagen is the key fibre in the elasticity of human skin. Due to its molecular structure, it cannot be topically absorbed. The only immediate way to improve skin with collagen is to have it injected by a medical professional. Although no topical treatment can actually deliver collagen to the skin, many anti-wrinkle creams and collagen-promoting products can help enhance overall collagen production. Using them may defend against oxidants that reduce the skin’s collagen levels.
Although many skin care products contain added ingredients, keep in mind that more research needs to be done into the benefits. However, they may still be effective. Many personal stories, and in some cases a long history of use, support their use. Learning more about ingredients and using your best judgement regarding price can help you to find the right product for your skin.