We all want radiant glowing skin, but as we get older, those pesky fine lines, wrinkles, and saggy skin show up. Some of us even get dry, rough skin with hyperpigmentation (dark spots) and redness.
This has created a huge demand for a solution. We buy all sorts of anti aging products. Some of them work, but many are just “hope in a jar.”
We wanted to know if any anti aging product, starting with facial cream, has any merit at all. So, we created this Ultimate Buying Guide to help understand the how, why, and where our skin shows signs of aging, what we can do to prevent it, and how to find an anti aging facial cream that really works.
For more, read How to Choose the Best Organic Anti-Aging Skin Care Products.
Causes of Signs of Aging
To get to the bottom of finding the best anti aging facial cream it’s important to think about why we age in the first place. It turns out that only about 10% of aging is intrinsic (meaning things we can’t control) and the other 90% is extrinsic (things we can prevent).
Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Factors of Aging
There are 2 types of factors that cause signs of aging, intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic factors are those things we can’t change, like genetics and hormones. Studies have shown that these factors actually manifest differently than extrinsic factors. Fine lines and sagging skin plus benign growths like seborrheic keratoses and angiomas are caused by intrinsic factors, but not pigment changes or deep wrinkles. These are caused by extrinsic factors.
Extrinsic factors are basically everything we can change, think environmental irritants, smoking, diet, and sun exposure. Extrinsic factors cause deep wrinkles, dryness, pigment changes, sallowness, deep furrows, severe atrophy, premalignant lesions (skin cancers), and a leathery appearance.
But, here’s some good news. Extrinsic factors, responsible for 90% of signs of aging, can be largely prevented or reduced with lifestyle changes (prevention is key!!) and treated with the right skin care products.
Common extrinsic factors which cause signs of aging:
- Photodamage, from UV exposure
- Lifestyle factors, such as pollution, smoking, stress, poor diet, excessive alcohol intake, lack of physical activity, dehydration and poor overall health
UV-radiation, or UV rays, are the invisible part of light spectra that has a wavelength between visible rays and X-rays. UV rays are broken up into UV-A, UV-B, and UV-C rays based on their wavelengths.
- UV-A Reaches the deep dermis layer, plays a significant role in skin cancer and signs of aging
- UV-B Reaches the superficial dermis layer and induces oxidative damage (oxidative stress from an excess of free radicals). Over time, UVB exposure will cause changes in elastin and collagen content and form wrinkles and loss of elasticity
- UV-C Barely penetrates the epidermis and has been known to cause immune-mediated disease and skin cancer in some people, especially those prone to it genetically
UV rays activate a series of events in our skin all aimed at protecting itself from harm.
The first line of defense is melanin, which helps absorb UV rays and dissipate them as heat. Next, certain cells commit suicide (apoptosis) to avoid making cancerous cells and the body forms a “protective tan.” A tan actually gives skin an SPF of 3-4 to defend itself from UV rays. Then something called epidermal hyperplasia happens. This means the epidermal layer actually overproduces cells, to help protect against the sun, increasing it’s risk of skin cancer and the likelihood it will develop pigmentation changes, or hyperpigmentations (dark spots).
The more exposure to UV rays the more this process of damage and defense happens. Over time, this shows up as photoaging and happens when the molecules of DNA in your skin cells become damaged by the sun and free radicals, or reactive oxygen species (ROS), are released.
These free radicals end up causing loads of damage to cells which also creates signs of aging.
Eliminating or limiting exposure to free radical-inducing irritants is the most important thing we can do to prevent and reverse signs of aging. After limiting UV exposure (high quality sunscreens/hats/umbrellas, eta), the next focus is to reduce lifestyle factors that cause inflammation, which also creates damaging free radicals.
Limiting exposure to toxins in our everyday environments is all about identifying where toxins are coming from then reducing or eliminating them. Protection is still the best way to prevent and reverse signs of aging!
Common Causes of Inflammation and Aging:
- Pesticide exposure
- Toxins in skin care products
- Pollutants in the air
- Excessive alcohol
- UV rays
- Lack of exercise
- Poor diet
Free radicals, or reactive oxygen species (ROS), are very small and highly reactive molecules that react with and end up damaging our larger molecules, like fats, proteins, or even our DNA. A little bit is not going to do much damage, but over time, and with an excess of free radicals, we get damaged cells. On our skin, we see wrinkles, loss of elasticity, sagging skin, pigment changes, dryness, rough spots, and a general loss of radiance.
The first focus is to prevent free radicals from forming. UV protection and lifestyle changes which reduce exposure to irritants will help. The next focus is to minimize the damage they do cause. We can do this with certain antioxidants, especially combinations of antioxidants, vitamins, AHA/BHA, and retinoids.
Structure of Skin
Before we dive into the products that can help, we need to fully understand how skin ages and how products help. Let’s have a look at what our skin is made of.
The basic components of skin, as far as aging goes, are the epidermis, dermis, collagen, elastin and Glycosaminoglycans (GAGs).
The epidermis is the outermost layer of skin. It’s only about 0.1mm thick and is made mostly of keratinocytes and it has undergone a process called keratinization. Keratinization essentially flattens out all the skin cells, making them dead skin cells, and creates the stratum corneum layer which creates a barrier to the outside world.
Because it’s made of mostly dead skin cells, it doesn’t receive the fantastic blood flow the other layers of skin do. This means we need to use topical products to reach it. Topical Vitamin C and E Serum versus a vitamin C supplement and hyaluronic acid are good examples.
Below the epidermis lives the dermis. It gives skin strength and elasticity and houses blood vessels and the lymph system which carries away toxins, among other things. The dermis receives great blood flow so when you have a healthy diet those antioxidants and vitamins you’re eating are able to reach this layer.
Studies have shown that a weakening bond between the dermis and epidermis contributes to wrinkles from extrinsic factors. This happens because of a significant loss of fibrillin-positive structures (which give the dermis is strength and elasticity), as well as a reduced amount of collagen. The dermis actually houses 75% of skin’s collagen.
Collagen is found in skin, bones, muscles, and tendons and is part of the extracellular matrix that gives skin its structure. It is the most abundant protein found in humans.
Chronic inflammation (because of the release of free radicals) actually destroys the structure of collagen, which is why extrinsic factors of aging cause a loss of elasticity, wrinkles, and sagging skin. Intrinsically, collagen content per unit area of the skin surface, declines about 1% a year. So we can’t help the 1% a year, but we can try to prevent inflammation.
Oral collagen supplements have been tested, especially in Europe, and show an increase in skin elasticity, hydration, and dermal collagen density (reducing saggy skin) and have been found to be generally safe without adverse effects. Since the dermis, unlike the epidermis, receives good blood flow supplements will absorb well and work to combat aging.
Elastin is composed of an extracellular matrix of proteins found in the dermal layer. It gives support to skin, giving it structure and strength.
When elastin is damaged or degrades with aging we see wrinkling, atrophy, and loss of elasticity of the dermis. Chronic degradation of elastin can actually contribute to an increase in inflammation creating a vicious cycle of elastin damage and signs of aging. It’s important to reduce inflammation and protect elastin.
There are 3 elastin fiber types: Oxytalan fibers are fine fibers that make up a part of elastin’s matrix and studies have shown that when these decrease in length, width, and number, wrinkles become more severe. Elaunin fibers are intermediate fibers that help support normal elastogenesis, and Elastic fibers are coarse mature deep fibers in the dermis.
Effective anti aging facial creams and other anti aging skin care products should be focused on repairing and protecting elastin and reducing inflammation. (Dont’ worry, we’ll get into specifics down below!)
Glycosaminoglycans, or GAGs, sit alongside collagen and elastin to form the extracellular matrix of skin and help give skin it’s structure and youthful appearance.
GAGs help skin bind water which keeps it within the tissue. Hyaluronic acid is a type of GAG which helps add to skin’s stiffness and gives it structure by retaining water.
Signs of aging crop up when GAGs, like hyaluronic acid, are unable to function effectively because they only have abnormal materials to use as building blocks. This happens because of damage from inflammation and free radicals. Plus, intrinsic aging (factors we can’t control) have been shown to decrease epidermal hyaluronic acid levels over time.
Best Ways to Prevent and Slow Aging
So far, we’ve learned a lot about the what and where of aging. Now, let’s move to what everyone is really after, the best ways to prevent aging and slow it down.
Studies show that, first and foremost, protecting yourself from UV rays will prevent most of what causes aging: cell damage, inflammation, and excessive free radical release which end up causing wrinkles, loss of elasticity, sallow skin, and hyperpigmentation.
Effective anti aging skin care regimens include:
- Sun Protection
- Non-toxic skin care products
- Effective ingredients
Protection from UV rays is vital to prevent extrinsic signs of aging. As we discussed, UVA and UVB rays are the most damaging so the absolute best protection is using a sunscreen that protects against both types of UV rays.
Using a high quality mineral or chemical sunsceen every single day is literally the most important thing you can do to protect yourself from photodamage. Even when you’re not sunbathing or it’s a cloudy day, UV rays can still cause photodamage.
Mineral sunscreen is arguably healthier and more effective than chemical sunscreens because they do not get absorbed into the bloodstream and tax the liver. Mineral sunscreens are literally made of natural minerals (like zinc oxide) which naturally absorbs UV rays. For this reason, they should be worn on top of other skin care products so they’re closer to the sun. Along with sunscreen, wearing a hat, using a beach umbrella, and covering skin during prolonged exposure (like a lovely day at the beach) will help protect your skin.
Sadly, even with the very best sunscreens and a strict regimen, we may still be at risk for photodamage. To combat the effects (and reverse damage already done), experts agree a combination of sunscreen, retinoids, and antioxidants will help reduce and neutralize damaging free radicals that cause inflammation and therefore cause even more damage.
Studies have shown that a non-toxic skin care routine with sunscreen, antioxidants, and retinol helps to:
- Increase skin regeneration
- Increase elasticity
- Improve smoothness
- Temporarily improve the condition of skin
- Stops the degradation of collagen and elastin
- Prevents the formation of wrinkles
- Reduces inflammation
Non-Toxic Skin Care Products
A non-toxic high quality daily skin care routine helps skin build a strong barrier and reduce the risk of causing irritation and cell damage via free radicals, along with protecting against dry skin, microorganisms, allergens, and photodamage.
Why Non-Toxic Products Are Better
The biggest reason to use non-toxic products is to reduce irritation potential. Think red, itchy, flaky skin.
You want to find products that don’t have an ingredient list with irritants or sensitizing agents. These are often used as fillers and binders or simply cheap ingredients. Chronic exposure to toxins in skin care make us more likely to not only have lack-luster skin, but develop certain cancers, reproductive harm, autoimmune disorders, skin irritation, organ toxicity, inflammation, and endocrine disruption.
These are the worst of the 28 known toxins you need to avoid:
- Phthalates & DBP & DEHP
- BHT and BHA
- Triclosan & Triclocarban & Microban
Click here for the full list of 28 known toxins in skin care.
Research agrees that reversing cell damage (especially photodamage) is best accomplished through using antioxidants and cell regulators.Antioxidants include vitamins, polyphenols and flavonoids and cell regulators include retinoids, polypeptides, and growth factors.
Antioxidants work by finding and destroying free radicals which are released when cells are damaged and cause massive destruction to healthy cells. The most effective antioxidants for anti aging are Vitamins C, E, B3, and CoQ10.
Vitamins C and E and B3
Vitamins C, E, and B3 (Niacinamide or Niacin) are the most important antioxidants for anti aging skin care because of their ability to penetrate the skin through their small molecular weight and get to work on protecting cells from free radicals and repairing damage.
Antioxidants protect against and repair signs of aging by being Free Radical Scavengers:
- Directly neutralize free radicals
- Reduce damaging peroxide concentrations and repair oxidized cell membranes
- Decrease free radical production by reducing the iron they need to survive
- Neutralize free radicals through lipid metabolism
For deep layers of skin, mainly the dermis, a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables and/or taking high quality supplements can be a fantastic source of antioxidants. This works great for nourishing the dermal layer, which contains the extracellular matrix (collagen, elastin, and GAGs) which gives skin it’s healthy strong structure and where wrinkles form.
But the epidermal layer, which doesn’t receive enough blood flow to be properly protected by supplemental antioxidants, makes topical skin care products a must.
Vitamin C, or L-ascorbic acid, is a well known skin brightening and hyperpigmentation-fighting antioxidant. It’s been found to be most effective when combined with Vitamin E and Ferulic Acid along with sunscreen.
The main benefits of Vitamin C are:
- Stimulates collagen synthesis
- Wound healing
- Reduces raised scars
- Protecting and repairing damaged skin cells
- Helps the stratum corneum build a protective lipid layer
- Reduces bruising
- Reduces inflammation and swelling
- Is a potent tyrosinase inhibitor which stops the overproduction of melanin to diminish dark spots and brighten skin
Topical Vitamin C (serums, creams, etc) in concentrations of 5-15% have been proven to have an anti-aging effect because they induce collagen production and the enzymes collagen needs to build, plus it it inhibits the enzyme that destroys collagen. Combinations of Vitamins C and E or Vitamins C, E, and Ferulic Acid have been shown to work better than using Vitamin C alone.
Vitamin E, or tocopherol, lipid soluble antioxidant. Studies have shown that using Vitamin E alone is not as strong as Vitamins C and B3, but works for anti-aging in concentrations of 2-20%.
In concentrations of 2-20%, Vitamin E is:
- Smooths skin
- Increases ability of stratum corneum to maintain moisture
- Protect the skin from UV damage
- Boosts new cell growth
- Reduces fine lines and wrinkles
Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide)
Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide, Niacin, and Nicotinamide) is a water-soluble antioxidant.
Studies have shown that after 3 months of using a topical 5% concentration of Niacinamide it:
- Regulates cell metabolism and promotes regeneration
- Improves skin elasticity
- Reduces redness and blotchy skin
- Fades hyperpigmentation
- Improves fine lines and wrinkles
- Reduces sallow skin (yellowing)
- Increases collagen and ceramide production
- Stimulates keratinocyte differentiation which improves skin’s barrier and appearance
CoQ10 is an antioxidant vital to making and keeping cells healthy. It is a part of the mitochondrial respiratory chain, which is the cell’s powerhouse, so it’s essential for the cell to create and release the energy it needs to be healthy. So, CoQ10 helps to combat signs of aging through the cellular metabolism of the cell.
Studies have shown that using topical CoQ10 helps skin:
- Preserve cell integrity by helping it keep a proper energy level
- Seek and destroy those damaging free radicals to protect cells from photoaging
- Protects collagen by building key proteins which reduce the amount of collagenase, a collagen-destroying enzyme
More Powerful Anti-Aging Ingredients
Green tea polyphenols have been shown to reduce photodamage and reduce redness when used prior to the going out in the sun.
Hyaluronic Acid is what gives skin that plump, glowing, radiant appearance we associate with younger looking skin. To get plump, radiant, skin, a topical product with Hyaluronic Acid is a must.
The epidermis doesn’t receive the same nutrients as the dermal layer of skin due to reduced blood flow. And research has shown that as we age, the total amount of Hyaluronic Acid in the epidermis diminishes substantially, but remains stable in the dermis.
AHAs and BHAs
Alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs, and Beta hydroxy acids, or BHAs, are acids that help skin renew itself and create younger-looking cells through exfoliation.
Researchers are not totally clear on how, exactly, AHAs work, but the accepted theory is that they remove calcium ions from epidermal cell adhesion through chelation (shedding of cells). This makes adhesions between cells weaker which allows them to shed and flake off. This allows new cells to grow and slows down cell differentiation ,which means the cells are closer to what they are meant to be, without a lot of opportunity for mutations. AHAs have also been found to promote collagen and hyaluronic acid in the dermis and epidermis, which gives skin it’s youthful plump appearance.
The benefits of AHAs have been known for centuries. Cleopatra used to bathe in sour milk to get the benefits of AHA’s with lactic acid. Thankfully, in this modern age, we can just use skin care products.
Hydroxy acids, both AHAs and BHAs, work by synthesizing serin which is an amino acid that builds proteins essential for healthy cells. The most commonly used AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid, although malic acid (yes, from apples!), citric acid, pyruvic acid, and tartaric acid are gaining in popularity and work similarly.
Over the last 40 years, AHAs have been studied extensively for anti-aging benefits and have been proven to:
- Reverse effects of photoaging
- Reduce wrinkles
- Improve elasticity
- Tone and balance skin
- Hydrate and plump skin cells reducing dryness
- Treat and prevent acne
- Reduce hyperpigmentations, acne scars, age spots
Using a combination of AHAs and vitamins has been shown to significantly improve the biomechanical parameters of skin which reduces wrinkles, improves skin’s texture, and elasticity without any significant adverse effects.
Beta hydroxy acids, or BHAs, work in a similar way to AHAs. The only major difference is that BHAs are lipid-soluable (fat-soluble) whereas AHAs are water-soluble. This makes them penetrate skin in a different way, through the sebaceous follicle, or hair follicle. So for oily or acne prone skin, BHAs tend to penetrate pores deeper than AHAs.
Salicylic acid is a popular BHA and studies have shown that this, and other BHAs, are less irritating than AHAs.
Retinol and Polypeptides
Retinol, or Vitamin A, is a well known and very well loved anti aging miracle worker. It works as an antioxidant as well as collagen stimulator, and more. Polypeptides also help stimulate collagen production and some studies show that they reduce the damaging effects of photoaging. These are sometimes called Cell Regulators.
Cell regulators work directly on collagen metabolism and stimulate collagen and elastin production. Vitamin A derivatives, or retinoids and retinol, have been proven to be the most effective type of cell regulator.
Retinol, or Vitamin A, retinoids, and it’s derivatives, like tretinoin and retinaldehyde, have been proven to have antioxidant effects (free radical scaveging), promote collagen synthesis, and reduce collagenase, the enzyme that destroys collagen. It has been shown to reduce signs of photoaging, like wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and loss of elasticity by restoring damaged elastin fibers.
Retinol causes less irritation than tretinoin. Tretinoin is prescription only whereas retinol may be purchased over the counter.
Buyer Beware with Retinoids
It turns out that not all retinoids are created equal. A product with “Vitamin A” on the label doesn’t necessarily mean it will work as well as another product with “Vitamin A” on the label. It depends on the type of retinoid in the product.
The most effective retinoids are:
- Tretinoin (Retinoic Acid or Vitamin A Acid)
- Synthetic Retinyl-N-formyl Aspartame
The most ineffective retinoids are:
- Retinyl Esters, such as Retinyl Palmitate and Retinyl Propionate
Polypeptides, or oligopeptides, are made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Studies have shown they actually imitate a sequence of molecules, like collagen or elastin, which stimulates them and activates dermal metabolism.
Polypeptides have been proven to:
- Combat damage from photoaging
- Restore collagen
- Reduce wrinkles
- Improve elasticity
- Reduce sallow skin
To Sum it Up
Photodamage, and other irritants, wreak havoc on cells by initiating a vicious cycle of cell damage, free radical release, and inflammation. Over time, the signs of aging get more out of control. To prevent and reverse common signs of aging, like wrinkles, loss of elasticity and hyperpigmentation, experts agree sun protection, antioxidants, and cell regulators, like retinoids, are the most effective methods.
Using sunscreen and finding an anti aging facial cream with antioxidants plus using AHAs or BHAs, and retinoids or polypeptides are the best methods for combating and preventing wrinkles, loss of elasticity, and hyperpigmentation.
Anti aging facial creams should be non-toxic and have the recommended concentrations of antioxidants or retinoids. Since not all retinoids are created equal, be sure to only buy retinoids that have been proven to work.