The 5 Best and 5 Worst Topical Ingredients for Anti-aging

As a practicing esthetician for over 20 years, I find many of my clients are overwhelmed by the infinite amount of skin care products available on the market today.  In this book I will share a simple list to assist you in putting together your own home care ritual by identifying what I believe are the 5 most important active ingredients to use on your skin to age well.  Next, we will take a brief look at the 5 most toxic additives found in over 90% of the products that you have to choose from and their associated risks.

#1 Retinol

Retinol, a vitamin A derivative, is one of the most multi-faceted products for anti-aging on the market today as it increases the rate of skin cell turnover and reduces sebum production.  This is why retinol was first used for the topical treatment of acne dating back to the early 70’s, as it was determined that cellular debris clogging the pores mixed with excess sebum were precursors for acne.  This vitamin A power ingredient also increases collagen and elastin renewal by forcing a cellular renewal, resulting in diminished fine lines and wrinkles.  “Can’t my skin renew itself on its own?” So many of my clients have asked me this question over the years and the answer is yes, but only up to a certain age.  Cell turnover slows from about every 28 days to every 45 days by the time we are 30 and continues its degradation down to every 60 days, to as much as every 60-90 days as the aging process continues. In short, all work and no retinol makes you a dull and weathered person!

What to look for in a product:

~Concentration- 0.25-1%.  Keep in mind when selecting a retinol that you want to start with a low concentration and gradually increase the percentage as your skin adapts, as it will cause an initial shedding of cell buildup and possibly some irritation.  Check to make sure that you are getting a fair amount of this active ingredient by checking the index on the back of the bottle.  If it is far down on the list, you are likely not getting enough of this ingredient to produce the radical improvements that retinol can make in your skin. 

~Frequency- Your skin type, age, and the concentration of the product will determine the frequency in which you will apply retinol – ranging anywhere from every 1-3 nights.

~Time of day- Retinol increases sun sensitivity and should be used in the PM only.

#2 Vitamin C

Vitamin C is the most plentiful antioxidant in human skin and is largely responsible for protecting us from UV damage.  As we age, these levels decline and so does our skin’s ability to protect itself from oxidative stress. This is not as simple as drinking more orange juice or even taking oral vitamin C,  in fact, topical vitamin C delivers about 20 times the amount of its oral counterpart! This anti-inflammatory, free radical scavenger prevents redness after sun exposure and addresses skin pigmentation –  making skin brighter, evening tone and texture, thickening the epidermis, and enhancing skin vibrancy in general.

What to look for in a product:

~Concentration- 10 to 20%. 

Frequency- once daily; PM

*Vitamin C is unstable with UV exposure, so use this nightly and keep in mind that an application can remain active up to 72 hours, so no worries, you will be protected the next day and quite possibly for days to come!

~Form of vitamin C- L-ascorbic acid, is the purest form of vitamin C that can be fully absorbed by the skin.  The downside is that this type of C is highly unstable so, in order to ensure potency, purchase a dissolvable powder that you can mix with other serums prior to your moisturizer.

#3 Hyaluronic acid

One of the most common buzzwords in skin care today: hydration. This compound is responsible for absorbing the water that nourishes collagen, consequently, as youthful levels of HA diminish, our cells can no longer hold enough water, and collagen diminishes.  This leads to a loss of skin elasticity much like the process of a grape becoming a raisin, which is why a 60-year-old has lost approximately 75% of her innate HA levels!  It is also important to make the distinction between hydration and moisture.  If your skin is dehydrated, it is lacking in water, but if your skin is dry, it is lacking in oil.

What to look for in a product:

Concentration- up to 1%

Frequency- twice daily

#4 Niacinamide 

This B vitamin, specifically B3, acts as a potent anti-inflammatory and microcirculation enhancer.  Benefits include reduction in pore size, oil regulation and barrier function repair. This nutrient also acts as an antibacterial and oil-production regulator, making it an essential acne abolishing agent, yet niacinamide is not limited to acne treatment alone. Due to its ability to accelerate skin repair via enhanced cellular function, B3 assists your skin to repair almost any inflammatory skin condition, including dermatitis, rosacea, and it also helps to prevent non-melanoma skin cancer as well as improves skin texture and discoloration in general.

What to look for in a product:

Concentration- 2-10%

Frequency- Twice daily

#5 Pure mineral sunscreen

While many sunscreens block both UVA (aging rays) and UVB (burning rays), they fall into two categories: physical and chemical sunscreen. Chemical sunscreens can aggravate sensitive skin conditions as well as burden your body with unnecessary chemicals. Nature provides all of the skin protection that we require in the form of two physical light blocking and absorbing minerals: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.  These minerals reflect and absorb UV rays and unlike chemical sunscreens that can cause irritation, minerals have skin calming and non-comedogenic properties.  In addition to the skin-saving benefits of mineral SPF formulas, you will also be doing your part by not contributing to the bleaching of our ocean’s coral reefs.  Mineral spf has you covered on the outside, but be sure to eat a diet rich in antioxidants and avoid hydrogenated oils, aka trans fatty acids, that actually increase sun damage in your skin.

What to look for in a product:

Concentration- Up to SPF 30

Frequency- Daily; As Needed

*Please note that “as needed” does not mean when you are in direct sunlight only.  Fluorescent lighting used in most office settings also emits UV radiation, so use daily and reapply when necessary.

Now let’s look at ingredients to avoid.

#1 Parabens

Parabens are widely used in products that contain water due to their ability to prevent bacterial growth.  Parabens are endocrine disruptors which mean that they mimic estrogen in the body, leading to hormone imbalance. There is a link between parabens and breast cancer, in fact, a disturbing 99% of breast tumors contain parabens.

#2 Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

These are foaming agents widely used in skincare products.  They are surfactants that cause skin irritation and can trigger allergic reactions.  Additionally, “nitrosamines” are a byproduct of the sulfation process and 90% of nitrosamines are considered to be carcinogenic.

#3 Phthalates

Phthalates are endocrine disruptors that cause hormonal and reproductive problems as well as birth defects.

#4 Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)

This ingredient is used in many types of cosmetics as a thickener.  PEG is often contaminated with both ethylene oxide (a known carcinogen] and 1,4-Dioxane which can cause respiratory problems.

#5 Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a preservative found in some skin care products. It is a carcinogen and is also linked to respiratory problems, neurotoxicity and developmental toxicity. Formaldehyde releasers are disguised under the following names: methylene glycol, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, quaternium 15, bronopol, 5-bromo-5-nitro-1,3 dioxane, and hydroxymethylglycinate.

Remember this: “natural” is not always organic. Be informed and make conscious purchases. You are what you eat, so feed your skin with the intelligence of nature!

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