The Science of Skincare Ingredients

If you read the about me portion of this blog you’ll notice a blurb about being a lady of a certain age no matter your marital status. Things have certainly changed for me since my early 20’s and that’s what getwifed is all about.  One of those thing that starts to be a concern when you get to that age is skin care. I got on the skincare bandwagon early due to a lot of contact with dermatologists in my teen years due to some ongoing and in hindsight not that terrible acne. In writing this article over a couple of weeks it was hard to separate the hogwash from the real deal and I’m a biologist with a PhD! Skincare is a multi billion dollar industry and most of it is not doing anything for your skin long term. In 1996 it was an 8 billion dollar industry and sure I could have found more recent numbers but isn’t that enough to know there’s too much to choose from? So what ingredients should you look for and how do the ones that work, work? So that brings us to our next in the science series.

skincare science

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) – overall clarifier and anti-ager

This is a class of ingredients that include glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric acids and these actually work but there are some side effects and things to be careful of when you’re picking out a product. AHA’s help with fine lines, irregular pigmentation and age spots, and may help shrink enlarged pores and are a great first product to add to your regime in your early 20’s. In fact this is the main ingredient I swear by. A dermatologist recommended it to me to help clear my skin and as a side benefit it would help with keeping my skin young. AHA’s are chemical exfoliants and help you shed old skin faster thereby reducing clogged pores in the process which means less pimples. But that also means that you have newer more sensitive skin on the surface and so you’re more prone to damage from the sun and that can speed up aging! The thing is you want to track down a product that clearly states how much of the particular acid is in it. (Ideally that’s true of any skincare product. If they list a specific concentration that’s what they have to put in the bottle by law. Like 2%, 5% or 10%. Language like ‘contains AHA’s or a specific one of the ingredients listed above means yeah there’s some in here but is it enough to be clinically useful, maybe not. If you decide to give these a try there are a few things you should know first.

As these work by lowering cell adhesion this means you might end mighty flakey. At higher concentrations these babies are used for chemical peels. Start with a lower concentration product like 2% or 5% every other day then work up in frequency and concentration. Because of the increased risk for sun damage these are best reserved for night use and you should always wear a sunscreen when using them during the day. Buy the lower level first, start using it every other day, then every day and before you run out start cycling in the next higher concentration every other day. Your skin will eventually shed all those cells and flaking won’t be an issue for long. It might also be a good idea to start out a few days before you go on vacation! I actually do have a product recommendation here and that is thy glycol acid creams within the Neostrata line. There is a 5% and a 10% option which I use every night. If you have drier skin using an AHA product means you’ll need a great morning moisturizer. Beta-hydroxy acid (salicylic acid) is like AHA’s kinder gentler cousin with extra effects on acne if you find AHA’s too harsh try this out.

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I think this is a Canadian company but you can find it online

Hydroquinone, Co-enzyme Q10 or Kojic Acid – whitening

Hydroquinone is a well documented lightening agent helpful in cases of hyper-pigmentation, such as age spots and dark spots related to pregnancy or hormone therapy (melasma or chloasma. It is very effective in treating these conditions but it’s not always available over the counter especially in the USA but it’s still available by prescription. The thing is recently certain concerns have been raised about it being a carcinogen. The jury is pretty much totally still out on that right now it can’t be ruled out but there is limited studies in rats that show some increased activity. Keep in mind though this also increases photosensitivity so that might be the issue too. As always look for products that list the concentration and 2% is generally considered effective. Both Hydroquinone and Co-enzyme q10 work after oxidizing on the skin and that is responsible for the lighting effects. This isn’t something I have personal experience with but science shows that it works. If you find you are allergic to hydroquinone you can try Kojic Acid which works by decreasing production of melanin the brown pigment in your skin.

Retinol – the heavy hitter

Retin-A is only available by prescription but you can find less intense versions over the counter as well in the form of retinol. Both are vitamin A derivatives which are small enough to penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin where it actually increases collagen production in the dermis. This is actually an off label use for retin-a as a skin cream it’s approved use is for acne. Many people tolerate retin-a poorly and it causes redness and flaking long term. Most people that have this reaction can tolerate the weaker retinol. Now this is not the same thing as vitamin a which does help skin in the diet it has no effect if topically applied. I do have a product recommendation in this category too and that is Neutrogena’s Rapid wrinkle repair with retinol, I wear it everyday (with SPF 100) because it also seems to have a bit of a primer effect. I might ask my doctor about the prescription form next time I’m there because why not, but I’m not in any rush. Either retin-a or retinol does dramatically increase your risk of skin damage so make sure you wear an SPF everyday.

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Moisturizers – that’s nice

Just so you know we’re done with the ingredients that actually are proven to improve the long term look and health of your skin but there are still two classes to go over and one is that great big group call moisturizers. Moisturizers are great and they do have a place in a skin care regime maybe even daily for most people. The thing is they do nothing to slow or stop the signs of aging. Most of the skin care products out there are nothing more than ‘just a moisturizer’. They can be divided into two categories those that prevent water loss and those that attract water to the skin. Either way they can lead to an improvement in skin’s appearance but it’s temporary and ‘just water weight’. Wearing a moisturizer can make you look younger but the effect is gone when you wash it off. For this reason find one that works for you during the day and use ‘better’ skin care at night. There’s no point for simply plumper skin while your sleeping right? Hyaluronic Acid is currently the skin care darling often in combination with vitamin c which helps it to absorb into the outer layers of skin. Once there it attracts water molecules to the skin for a plumper appearance which might even help your fine lines and wrinkles. But once it’s washed off it’s doing no good. I do have a product with Hyaluronic Acid in it but I don’t love it enough to recommend it even though it works. Here’s how I use it and moisturizers in general. If I want to look especially cute for a dinner, a wedding or race pictures when I’m dehydrated I’ll skip my retinol product or use it in combination with Hyaluronic Acid for an in the moment nice healthy look. But day to day I want to use the products that will actually benefit my skin longer term. Same idea with moisture loss preventing humectants. If I’ve done something to my skin to dry it out like a clay mask, swimming in the salt water or I just notice my skin needs a good drink I’ll use my CeraVe night cream to give it a boost or a head start on replacing that water. I’m more toward the oily side so that’s not terribly often. If you have dry skin you might find you need to use a moisturizer every day and that’s fine but either way don’t be fooled into thinking thee products are doing any long term good.

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When I need to I tend to moisturize at night to cut down on day time shine.

Sunscreen – The number one thing you can do for your skin EVERYDAY

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about solving issues like age spots, fine lines and wrinkles. You get those things from damage mainly sun damage. Toxins like smoking, drinking and terrible diets do contribute, so stop it, but sun damage is by far the biggest issue you can do something about. I wear a SPF 100 sunscreen EVERY SINGLE DAY. It’s nothing fancy, not even for the face specifically, hypoallergenic and a store brand. However my skin likes it, it seems to help keep my grease at bay and as long as I’m exfoliated my makeup sits will on top of it. Sure it looks smells and sort of feels like white glue but it’s cheap and it works wonders. You might have noticed that a lot of the ingredients discussed and that I use make you more sensitive to the sun and it’s damaging rays. Which does mean that it’s you’re using these products your throwing your money away if you’re not using a strong sunscreen too. You might be putting on your expensive 10% glycolic acid cream reversing some damage and then getting more sun damage than average during the day if you’re skipping the SPF and end up playing a zero sum game. I don’t like getting a body tan and I wear the same sunscreen there too but playing, working and all around living in the sun all day long means it happens most years. But my face never does. No big deal just change your foundation to match through the year. Damage is damage even if it’s tan. The cheapest, best, easiest thing you can do to look 50 when you’re 70 is to start wearing a high SPF everyday at 20.

I hope that you’ve found this helpful and learned that all products are not created equal. Read the labels, look for concentrations when you can find them and realizes that the vast majority are pointless. Did you learn something new? How many of you’re bottles fall into the moisturizer only category? and did you know that before?

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