Walk into any supermarket or mom-and-pop store and you may find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer volume of skin care products on the shelves. Whether you’re just starting a skin care regimen for the first time or you’re a long-time user, knowing what specific ingredients in your most popular products do can be beneficial.
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Popular skin care ingredients
If you’re looking for something to help with a specific skin condition, knowing what’s in your skin care products can be important information. Dermatologist Wilma Bergfeld, MD, walks us through some of the most popular skin care ingredients, what they do and how they work.
Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHA)
Over-the-counter skin care products containing alpha-hydroxy acids, or AHAs (glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric acids), have become increasingly popular in recent years. Creams and lotions with alpha-hydroxy acids may help with fine lines and wrinkles, uneven pigmentation, and age spots. It can also help shrink enlarged pores. Side effects of alpha-hydroxy acids include mild irritation and sun sensitivity.
“To avoid burning, you should apply sunscreen in the morning every day,” advises Dr. Bergfeld.
To avoid skin irritation, start with a product with a maximum concentration of 10% to 15% AHA. To allow your skin to get used to it, you should initially apply the skincare product every other day, gradually building up to daily application.
This AHA helps exfoliate your skin and boosts collagen production (the protein that strengthens connective tissue). Not only does it help unclog your pores and smooth fine lines, but it can also help hydrate your skin. Creams and lotions with this ingredient often help improve eczema, while cleansers using this ingredient can help with blackheads.
This AHA is produced in muscle cells and red blood cells. Like glycolic acid, products with this ingredient, such as foot scrubs, can help exfoliate, while others can help hydrate your skin.
Beta hydroxy acids (salicylic acid)
Salicylic acid removes dead skin and can improve the texture and color of sun-damaged skin. It penetrates the oil-filled openings of the hair follicles and hence also helps with acne. There are many skin care products available that contain salicylic acid. Some are available over the counter and others require a prescription.
“In many cases, salicylic acid can be less irritating than skin care products that contain alpha-hydroxy acids,” explains Dr. Bergfeld. “But they provide a similar improvement in skin texture and color.”
Skin care products containing hydroquinone are often called whitening creams or whitening agents. These skin care products are used to reduce hyperpigmentation, such as age spots and dark spots (melasma or chloasma) associated with pregnancy or hormone therapy. Over-the-counter skin care products, such as AMBI® Fade Cream, contain hydroquinone.
“Your doctor may also prescribe a cream with a higher concentration of hydroquinone if your skin doesn’t respond to over-the-counter treatments,” says Dr. Bergfeld.
Hydroquinone is also sometimes combined with sunscreen because sun exposure causes hyperpigmentation of the skin. It is best to test products containing hydroquinone on a small area, as some people are allergic to it. If you are allergic to hydroquinone, you may benefit from using products containing kojic acid.
Kojic acid is also a remedy for treating pigment problems and age spots. Discovered in 1989, kojic acid works similarly to hydroquinone. Kojic acid is derived from a fungus and studies have shown it to be effective as a bleaching agent by slowing the production of melanin (brown pigment). With continued use, kojic acid can make your skin more susceptible to sunburn.
Look to retinol to improve acne and acne scars, spotty pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, skin texture, skin tone and color, and your skin’s hydration levels.
Retinol is derived from vitamin A and is found in many over-the-counter “anti-aging” skin care products. Tretinoin, which is the active ingredient in the prescription creams Retin-A® and Renova®, is a stronger version of retinol. If your skin is too sensitive to use Retin-A, over-the-counter retinol is a great alternative.
“Vitamin A has a molecular structure that is tiny enough to penetrate the lower layers of your skin, where it finds and strengthens collagen and elastin, which is a protein that enhances your skin’s flexibility,” explains Dr. Bergfeld. .
L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C)
This is the only form of vitamin C you should look for in your skin care products.
“There are many skin care products on the market today that have vitamin C derivatives such as magnesium ascorbyl phosphate or ascorbyl palmitate as an ingredient,” says Dr. Bergfeld. “But L-ascorbic acid is the only useful form of vitamin C in skin care products.”
With age and sun exposure, collagen synthesis in your skin decreases, leading to wrinkles. Vitamin C is the only antioxidant proven to stimulate collagen synthesis, minimizing fine lines, scars and wrinkles. It can also improve the appearance of sun-damaged skin. Initial use of creams containing vitamin C may cause stinging or redness, but these side effects generally subside with continued use.
Skin care products containing this substance are often used with vitamin C products to aid in effective penetration. Hyaluronic acid (also known as glycosaminoglycan) is touted for its ability to “reverse” or stop aging. In news reports, you may have heard of hyaluronic acid as the “key to the fountain of youth.” This is because the substance occurs naturally (and quite abundantly) in humans and animals and is found in young skin, other tissues and joint fluid.
“Hyaluronic acid is a component of your body’s connective tissues and is known to reduce and lubricate these tissues,” says Dr. Bergfeld. “As you age, however, the forces of nature break down hyaluronic acid. Poor diet and smoking can also affect your body’s hyaluronic acid levels over time.”
Niacinamide (vitamin B3)
Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that helps create keratin and keeps your skin firm and healthy. It can help retain moisture and stop skin redness. If you have rosacea, face masks with this ingredient can help reduce redness and swelling.
This silicone-based ingredient is the second most common ingredient in moisturizers. If you’re dealing with dry skin, moisturizers with this ingredient can be beneficial, especially in winter. This non-toxic ingredient can help with scar tissue and make your skin feel incredibly soft.
It can also help protect your hair from breakage and create a smooth, sleek feel to your follicles. That’s why you’ll find this ingredient in hair products that help reduce frizz and split ends. But it’s important to note that it’s heavy and builds up quickly, sometimes preventing water from getting to your roots. If you use a product with dimethicone, you’ll want to use a clarifying shampoo once a week to clear away any build-up.
Copper peptide is often cited as the most effective skin resurfacing product, even though it has only been on the market since 1997. This ingredient promotes collagen and elastin production, acts as an antioxidant, and promotes the production of glycosaminoglycans such as hyaluronic acid. It also boosts the benefits of your body’s natural tissue-building processes by tightening, smoothing and softening skin — and it does so in less time than most other anti-aging skin care products.
This natural moisturizer helps repair dry or chapped skin. You will find it in a number of lip balms or face creams. This is a great ingredient for oily skin that can help reduce blackheads, pimples, and acne. Because of its ability to lock in moisture, you can benefit from using products with glycerin at the end of the day to keep your skin hydrated throughout the night.