By Chantel Guertin
The big difference between your garden-variety moisturizer and powerhouse anti-aging creams is this: moisturizers provide moisture to the surface of the skin, acting as a sealant to keep moisture in. “You skin looks hydrated and smooth,” says Dr. Janice Liao, associate clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Alberta, “but moisturizers don’t penetrate through the epidermis-the top layers of the skin-to effect change within your skin’s composition.”
Unlike regular moisturizers, anti-aging products contain extra ingredients such as alpha-hydroxy acid (AHAs), beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) or retinol. These rejuvenation agents have been scientifically proven to prevent and repair the signs of aging. Because these ingredients actually alter the structure of skin cells (more about that later), they’re called cosmeceuticals-a blend of cosmetic and pharmaceutical-that has become the buzzword in modern skin care. “They’ve been proven to stimulate new collagen formation and rejuvenate the cellular process to improve the appearance of the skin,” says Dr. Tom Woo, a dermatologist at the Laser Rejuvenation Clinic & Spa in Calgary.
Young skin is full of naturally occurring antioxidants that fight off free radicals caused by sun exposure, pollution, smoking and stress. Free radicals are skin’s enemy because they break down collagen and elastin in the dermis, or lower layer of you skin, and make skin thin, dry and wrinkled. As we age, the production of antioxidants slows while the production of free radicals accelerates-a bad combo if you want your skin to look as fresh as a Georgia peach.
Each of the anti-aging ingredients tackles wrinkle prevention in a different way. Vitamin A thickens the skin at the dermis by restoring order to the collagen and elastin fibres that have dispersed. The repaired fibres are then in better shape to fight off those nasty free radicals. BHAs, such as salicylic acid, reduce wrinkles by loosening the damaged skin proteins from the dermis so they don’t attack the collagen and elastin fibres. AHAs, such as citric acid, slough away the top layers of dry skin. This doesn’t prevent wrinkles, but it prevents the appearance of wrinkles since they show up more when skin is dry. And finally, there’s retinol-a weak form of retinoic acid or tretinoin that speeds up the metabolism of skin cells so they repair themselves faster.
For a cream to be truly effective, you need the right concentrations of these key ingredients. “If the percentage is shown on the label in Canada, it’s probably an effective amount,” says Dr. Liao. A cream that contains retinoic acid needs at least 0.1 percent to be effective. BHA, which is less irritating to the skin than AHAs, needs a minimum of 1.5 to two percent, while an AHA needs at least five percent. But seven or eight percent AHA, while still safe, can cause a stinging sensation, and people with rosacea or sensitive skin may find it irritating. For this reason, some AHA creams will contain a neutralizer like sodium hydroxide. “This lowers the percentage of AHA, however, often to less than five percent, so the acid has little or no effect on your skin,” says Dr. Liao. (If the cream doesn’t list the percentage, you can still find out by asking your dermatologist or calling the manufacturer directly.)
Because these compounds can wreak havoc on sensitive skin, many dermatologists are now touting the benefits of “growth factors” as the new frontier in anti-aging formulas. Vitamin A-free, these creams are supposed to be more effective than their competition, according to cosmetic companies’ internal studies.
Growth factors are proteins that naturally occur in the body and that stimulate cell production. The theory behind adding growth factors to anti-aging products is that they’ll help cells work together to repair themselves. Cult creams, such as Crème de la Mer and Cellcosmet, contain plant- or animal-derived cells in the theory that they’ll be absorbed into the skin, replace lost cells and aid in the repair process.
“I’m not convinced that the skin will absorb these cells,” says Dr. Liao. “AHAs and BHAs are very small molecules that are easily absorbed, but human, plant and animal cells are much larger. If you applied the cream faithfully every day for months, the skin may improve because of the base of the cream. But there’s just not enough proof. And if the skin doesn’t absorb the cell, it can’t mend damaged fibres.”
Another category of anti-aging creams uses natural “plumpers,” such as albumin from egg whites, vitamins B,C,E, F and K, and citrus plant extracts, such as pineapple and shea butter, to temporarily tighten pores or to slightly irritate the top layer of the skin so that it swells and looks smoother for hours, explains Dr. Lisa Kellett, dermatologist and medical director of the Infinite Vitality Clinic at SpaMedica in Toronto. These vitamins become unstable and ineffective once added to a topical cream. To help them penetrate into the skin, liposomes, which are microscopic delivery capsules, or alpha-lipoic acids, which are natural water-soluble antioxidants, are often added. “It’s a controversial theory,” says Dr. David Zloty, dermatologist at University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “Even scientists who study liposomes are unsure of their effectiveness.”
Fragrance is another weapon in the anti-aging arsenal. Dr. Kellett says, “scents like lavender, orange blossom, sandalwood and bergamot have a proven relaxing effect on your skin and your mood.” The rationale is: feeling mellow translates into fewer frown lines. Most dermatologists agree that if you continually apply a cream you love to your skin, there is the possibility you’ll feel better simply because you’re taking a proactive stance. That alone could reduce stress and cause you to frown less often. “If a cream smells and feels good, and makes you feel better when you use it, you might use it more often,” says Dr. Nowell Solish, dermatologist at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. “Every little bit helps.”
Another recent advance is age erasing cream technology that impairs the skin fibres that create wrinkles. Resolution, recently launched by Lancome, uses the mineral manganese gluconate to help skin cells stay relaxed, as well as an ingredient that prevents future collagen deterioration. Although the company denies that it’s like Botox for the needle-phobic, there’s no doubt that this product is taking over-the-counter creams in a new direction.
Dermatologists agree that, despite the scientific innovations available today in skin creams, still one of the best anti-aging tools is regular use of sunscreen with at least SPF 15. Solar exposure still accounts for the majority of premature aging. “My first recommendation for preventing wrinkles is to use an SPF sunscreen every day and a cream that makes you feel good about yourself,” says Dr. Liao.