With a slew of anti-aging ingredients claiming to be the Holy Grail of eternal youth, choosing skincare products is overwhelming! But you can shop smart, if you do your research. We've done the work for you and broken down the key players in this handy cheat sheet.
Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, making it a milder version of retinoids (a prescription-only wrinkle fighter). While it takes several weeks to see results, retinol is the most effective over-the-counter anti-aging ingredient when it comes to "smoothing wrinkles, unclogging pores, lightening superficial brown spots, and improving the texture of the skin," says Amy Wechsler, New York City dermatologist. Because of retinol's potency, skin irritation is common, especially in direct sunlight. Apply retinol-based products at night on dry skin to avoid sensitivity and be sure to apply a moisturizer with SPF every morning.
If you have dark spots resulting from acne scars, sun damage, or old age, lighten them with niacinamade, a vitamin-B3 derivative that prevents melanin, or pigmentation, from rising to the surface. “It may help to improve the skin’s moisture barrier and collagen production, all of which reverses the appearance of sun damage,” says Wechsler. Plus, it’s known to reduce inflammation, and even acne.
Though you probably associate the word “acid” with harsh and abrasive, hyaluronic acid is the exact opposite. It’s a humectant, meaning that it draws out water from the air and dermis (the skin that lies below the surface). Look for a lotion that contains hyaluronic acid, “which can add to the moisturizer’s hydrating qualities, and may even spur new collagen production,” says Wechsler.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids
Unlike hyaluronic acid, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs for short) are exfoliators that gently dissolve the "glue" that holds surface skin cells together, letting the dead ones slough away to reveal youthful looking skin. This process encourages cell turnover, which typically slows with age. Getting rid of dead skin also lets moisturizers, serums, and skin treatments penetrate the skin and work more effectively. But look for products with no more than 8 percent AHAs. "In high concentrations, AHAs can help fade brown spots and fine wrinkles, but they make skin extra sensitive to the sun," says Wechsler.
L-ascorbic acid is just a fancy word for "vitamin C." Though vitamin C is a good-for-you ingredient that helps boost the immune system, it's a little more complex when skincare is involved. Think of vitamin C as a wild card — extremely volatile and unstable. "When exposed to air, it undergoes oxidation and becomes ineffective," says Wechsler. When vitamin C is stable and good, it's really good. It's an important antioxidant that helps build collagen, reduce inflammation, and promote elasticity to plump up skin. But how can you tell if vitamin C in a product is stable? Look for "L-ascorbic acid" in the ingredient list.