Recently on ABC TV the program Catalyst featured a dermatologist that claimed retinoic acid (vitamin A derivative) was the only effective anti-ageing skin care treatment. This is in contrast with the constant bombardment of anti-ageing skin care advertising we face every time we open a women’s magazine or switch on the TV. Do a quick internet search and you will find literally hundreds of topical treatments on the market that claim to reduce wrinkles, lift skin and help us to look 5 years younger in 5 days. Is there any evidence to back up these claims or is it all marketing hype? Or are we just taking a too narrow look at the idea of ageing skin and should we actually take a more holistic look at skin care and ageing in general?
This article will look at ingredients that have shown to be of benefit both clinical and in trials for skin anti-ageing. It is however important to keep in mind that topical anti-ageing ingredients are only one aspect of skin care. Hydration, nourishment, minimising free radical production and inflammation and sun protection also come into play when taking a more holistic view of skin ageing. As indeed does the idea of ageing gracefully.
When researching anti-ageing skin ingredients it becomes quickly clear that there isn’t a lot of evidence available. Consequently there are only a small number of topical ingredients that have been shown to clinically improve signs of skin ageing and wrinkles. One thing we can be sure of is that most of the skin care creams that claims to have “miracle” effects don’t have the research to back them up. So let’s look at the ingredients that have been researched.
While often called vitamin A, retinoic acid while related is actually a distinct substance. The effects of retinoic acid on the process of skin ageing have been well documented and include increase synthesis of collagen, reducing fine wrinkles, improve skin texture and increase skin thickness. The downside with retinoic acid is the common side effects such as irritation, dryness and sun sensitivity. The other important thing to note is that retinoic acid is only available by prescription.
Over the counter products generally use retinoids. Retinoids have shown anti-ageing benefits, however higher concentrations are generally needed and the hight the concentration the high the risk of side effects similar to retinoic acid. Low dose retinoids may or may not have anti-ageing effects on the skin. The effects depend on an individual’s skin cell responsiveness to retinoids. Vitamin A is a precursor to retinoids however it requires conversion before it can be active. So again, it may or may not have specific anti-ageing effects.
Alpha Lipoic Acid
As an antioxidant, Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) is both water and fat soluble, which means it is able to reach and protect both water and lipid portions of skin. This is particularly relevant to our skin as fats play a vital role in maintaining healthy skin. One of the roles ALA plays in the health of the skin is to inhibit cross-linking which is the formation of chemical bridges between proteins or other large molecules. Cross-linking contributes to the ageing process by causing hardening of arteries, stiffening of the joints and wrinkling of the skin.
Topically ALA acts as a skin antioxidant, penetrating skin cell membranes, where it neutralizes free radicals and increases the effectiveness of other antioxidants such as vitamins C and E. By reducing free radical damage it potentially slows the effects of ageing. In studies ALA has shown strong potential as an anti-wrinkle agent. In one small-scale study, high potency lipoic acid reduced mild-to-moderate wrinkles by up to 50 percent, whereas fine lines almost disappeared. In another study, lipoic acid significantly improved the appearance of certain types of scars. From a clinical perspective, ALA has received a lot of hype. Its role as an anti-ageing nutrient is largely due to its free-radical quenching effects which is an attribute shared by a number of other ingredients including CoQ10, green tea and vitamin C.
CoEnzyme Q 10
CoQ10 is naturally found in all cells of the body. It has dual functions acting as a potent antioxidant as well as increasing cellular energy production (specifically mitochondrial activity). As we age, the levels of CoQ10 reduce, particularly in our skin which leads to less skin cell energy production. The net result is a reduction in our skin’s ability to produce skin molecules such as collagen and elastin. In addition, skin cells low in antioxidants such as CoQ10, have reduced ability to stop free radical production. Specifically the topical application of CoQ10 restores mitochondrial activity which increases cellular energy production thereby improving the cells ability to produce new collagen. It also increases the ability of the cell to minimise damage from free radical production.
Vitamin C is one ingredient that has well researched topical anti-ageing benefits. As mentioned above it is an important skin antioxidant. It is also essential for the synthesis of collagen. The downside of this ingredient in skin care is that it is very unstable and easily oxidises rendering it ineffective. The second consideration is that it is required in quite high concentrations (10% of more) to be effective. Look for fat soluble forms that are the only forms absorbed by the skin effectively such as ascorbyl palmitate and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate.
Not only good to drink, green tea has also shown promise for skin care. Studies using green tea have concentrated on its ability to reduce sun damage (a key factor in skin ageing). It works by reducing free radicals and inflammation that result from exposure to UV rays. Apart from free radical damage, inflammation is a potential driver of premature skin ageing. One study also showed significant improvement in elasticity of skin tissue after applying a 10% concentration of green tea daily for 8 weeks. Another small study showed benefit for papulopustular rosacea using a polyphenone rich green tea extract.
In this author’s opinion, topical active ingredients aren’t the be all and end all of skin care or even anti-ageing treatments. A holistic perspective towards skin care will see healthier skin condition and minimise ageing. However, as part of a holistic plan, topical anti-ageing ingredients can be of significant benefit. If you want to work on a specific skin issue choose ingredients that have been researched or that have had good clinical results. Be discerning about marketing claims and “miracles” in a jar. Lastly, if you do want to try a product, give it 3 months. Any less and you may not be giving the product a reasonable chance to work. However, if you don’t see results in that time period it is likely that it isn’t helping.