Choosing Skin Care Products: Know Your Ingredients

You've heard they can turn back the clock on aging skin -- products made with things like acai, alpha-lipoic acid, and alpha hydroxy acid.

But do they work? Can they actually erase wrinkles, repair sun damage, or fade age spots?

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You'll want to do your homework first, so you're informed. A dermatologist can also help you sort out what works, what's hype, and what might help your skin.

Antioxidants for Sun Damage and Wrinkles

These nutrients are found in most plants in varying amounts. They can counter "free radicals" that harm DNA. Damaged skin cells can speed up aging with wrinkles, dry skin, dark circles under eyes, dull skin, and more.

It's key to eat foods rich in these natural chemicals, not just for your skin but for your overall health. You can also use antioxidants on your skin. Those with the most that have been shown to repair damage and slow the aging process include:

Other plant-based or natural treatments for aging skin found in skin-care products include:

Alpha-Lipoic Acid

Your body makes this, and it’s in every cell you have. As an antioxidant, it attacks free radicals throughout the body. Alpha-lipoic acid is touted commercially as a substance that can erase fine lines and wrinkles, diminish pores, and give skin a healthy glow.

Green Tea Extract

Tea is loaded with nutrients called polyphenols, which have been shown to fight free radicals.

Early studies have found the ingredients in tea can reduce sun damage and may protect you from skin cancer when you put it on your skin. Use green tea extract under sunscreen to double the protection. Polyphenols in creams and lotions may also slow signs of aging and reduce sagging skin and wrinkles.

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Retinol

This is made from vitamin A and is added to creams to go on your skin. It boosts collagen production and plumps out skin, reducing fine lines and wrinkles. It also improves skin tone and color, and reduces mottled patches.

Many dermatologists prescribe retinol's stronger counterpart, tretinoin, or similar products, to slow skin aging, improve irregular pigmentation, and clear up acne. Over-the-counter products containing retinols may be weaker, but they can still improve skin appearance.

Using a retinol-based product may cause your skin's top layer (the epidermis) to become dry and flaky. Be sure to wear moisturizer and sunscreen in the morning after you use it, or ask your dermatologist about alternatives.

Vitamin C

As you age, your body slows down making collagen and elastin, which keep skin strong, flexible, and resilient. The antioxidants found in vitamin C may boost the production of collagen and minimize fine lines, wrinkles, and scars.

Vitamin C is in some skin care products such as creams and lotions. If you want to try one, ask your dermatologist for some options.

Coenzyme Q-10 (CoQ-10)

Your body naturally makes this to zap free radicals in cells. As you age, you make less, though. That may make skin cells more vulnerable to damage by free radicals. That's the reasoning behind the use of the antioxidant in skin care products such as toners, gels, and creams to be used alone or with a moisturizer. One study shows that CoQ-10 helps reduce “crow’s feet,” the wrinkles around the eyes.

Caffeine

It's also an antioxidant, but experts don't know whether it can be used on the skin to reverse. Still, skin care companies have added it to lotions and creams based on evidence that shows caffeine could be useful in preventing the growth of skin cancer and, when applied to the skin, may make wrinkles less deep, especially ''crow's feet'' around the eyes.

Other Popular Ingredients

When you shop for skin care and makeup products, you may see these other things:

Alpha-hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

This group of natural-based acids includes glycolic, lactic, citric, and tartaric acids. They’re in many products.

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Glycolic acid was the original AHA and remains popular for its ability to remove dead skin cells and leave skin smoother, softer, and more radiant.

AHAs exfoliate the skin, reducing fine lines, age spots, acne scars, and uneven skin color. Peels with high concentrations of AHAs are usually given by a beauty specialist (esthetician) or dermatologist, but you can use lower concentrations -- between 5% and 10% -- in creams or lotions on a daily basis.

Start with a low concentration and apply every other day to avoid irritating your skin. Over time, you can gradually start to use it more often, working up to every day.

Even at lower doses, though, the acids may irritate and dry skin, and make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Doctors recommend using moisturizer and sunscreen when using any products that contain AHAs.

Salicylic Acid

You’ll see this ingredient in many over-the-counter and prescription products that treat acne. It penetrates pores and reduces blackheads and whiteheads with less irritation than what you might get from alpha-hydroxy acids. Like AHAs, salicylic acid exfoliates the skin, which can reduce signs of aging.

You shouldn't use salicylic acid if you are allergic to salicylates (found in aspirin). Ask your doctor before using any product with salicylic acid if you're pregnant or nursing. Also, be aware of symptoms of rare but serious allergic reactions. Get emergency medical help if you have throat tightness, trouble breathing, are feeling faint, or you have swelling of your face or tongue. Stop using the product if you develop hives or itching.

Hyaluronic Acid

This is included in skin care products to reduce the signs of aging. Your body makes hyaluronic acid naturally, keeping tissues cushioned and lubricated. It's found in skin, joint fluid, and connective tissues. Age, smoking, and an unhealthy diet can cause you to make less of it over time.

Products containing hyaluronic acid may help smooth out skin. It works especially well when combined with vitamin C products.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on October 26, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Acai.”

Marilyn Berzin, MD, dermatologist, DC Derm Docs, Washington, D.C.

WebMD Health News: "Caffeine May Prevent Skin Cancer."

Hoppe, U. Biofactors, 1999.

Blatt, T. European Journal of Geriatrics, 1999.

University of Maryland Medical Center: ''Alpha-lipoic acid.''

Kawasumi, M. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 16, 2011.

Kaczvinsky, J. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, September, 2009.

Blatt T. Zeitschrift für Gerontologie und Geriatrie, April 1999.

News release, FDA.

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