Navigating Through Anti-aging Ingredients

Editor's note: This is the edited version of an article that originally ran in the May 2013 issue of Skin Inc. magazine. All rights reserved.

In today’s culture, both women and men are searching for methods and products to delay the aging process. No one wants their skin to slip the secret of their age or unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as being a sun-worshiper, not getting enough rest or smoking. With so many procedures and skin care products claiming to reverse the signs of aging, it can get confusing for beauty brand owners and marketers to decide which products to create and ingredients to trust. Advertising and marketing claims make it that much more stressful to figure out what’s real and what’s exaggerated.

You must seek out ingredients that have scientific research supporting their claims. With constant advancements in the skin care industry, it’s crucial to understand the results of combining ingredients, which ingredients are the best, and what those top ingredients can realistically offer to the skin. It is also valuable to research what happens to an ingredient if it’s not formulated at the correct percentage or proper pH, as well as becoming aware of a factor that is often overlooked—packaging.

There are many ingredients available to help prevent and diminish the signs of aging. Different categories consist of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), cell communicators, antioxidants and, of course, SPF.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids

All skin types and conditions will benefit from some method of exfoliation, especially as skin ages. As skin cells age, they tend to desquamate less frequently, causing once young, vibrant cells to turn dry and dull. Skin’s natural desquamation process when cells are young and healthy is a turnover of approximately every 28–30 days.

As skin ages, the process decreases to approximately every 45–60 days. When the process becomes less frequent, using a properly formulated AHA will help speed cell turnover and diminish the appearance of hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles. Because there are several AHAs to choose from, become familiar with which ones are better for skin with particular conditions or tolerances. AHAs exfoliate the surface of the skin while working to improve its moisture content. They cannot penetrate to unclog pores, which is why they often aren’t the first choice for acne-prone skin. Following are the most common types of AHAs.

Lactic acid. Lactic acid is extracted from milk, although most forms used in cosmetics are synthetic. It exfoliates cells on the surface of skin by breaking down the material that holds skin cells together. It may irritate mucous membranes and cause irritation.

Glycolic acid. The smallest molecule in the AHA family, glycolic acid is a colorless, odorless, hygroscopic crystalline solid that is highly soluble in water. It is used in various skin care products and is found in some sugar crops.

Mandelic acid. Also known as amygdalic acid, there is research showing mandelic acid to be an effective alternative to other AHAs, though it does have germicidal activity. Unlike glycolic acid, mandelic acid is light-sensitive and should be packaged in an opaque container.

AHAs must be formulated properly to be effective. Percentage and pH will determine what strength the acid will be and just how the ingredient will perform once applied on the skin.


Antioxidants reduce free radical damage—most consumers are already aware of that. Free radical damage occurs on a molecular, unseen, unfelt atomic level, but it is nevertheless one of the most destructive internal processes that causes both the body and the skin to age.

What exactly are free radicals and why are they so destructive? Molecules are made of atoms and a single atom is made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. Electrons need to be in pairs in order to function properly. When oxygen molecules are involved in a chemical reaction, they can lose one of their electrons. Now the oxygen molecule has only one electron and is called a free radical. Free-radical damage causes mutation and damage to the DNA in your cells, and damaged DNA means your skin, now not able to generate healthy new collagen, creates malformed cells and slows the skin’s ability to heal. Antioxidants can stop free-radical damage, but they lose their potency when repeatedly exposed to oxygen and sunlight. Ironic that the two share that weakness, yes, but it’s actually proof of how antioxidants work in the presence of oxygen and light. With this issue, an antioxidant-focused product should be packaged appropriately to deliver at its highest potential. Alpha lipoic acid, beta glucan, coenzyme Q10, grape seed extract, green tea, soybean, vitamins C and E, and pomegranate all have antioxidant ability.


Retinoids are an important topic to discuss when it comes to skin care. “Retinoid” is a general term referring to a vast range of ingredients derived from vitamin A (retinol is the technical name for vitamin A). Topically applied, retinoids are significant for skin because they can positively affect the way cells are formed deep in the dermis. Retinol is a cosmetic ingredient and, when it is absorbed into skin, it can become the more active form of all-trans retinol. All-trans retinols, in descending order of potency in cosmetics, are retinol, retinyaldehyde, retinyl palmitate, retinyl propionate and retinyl acetate.

A misconception about retinoids is that they are exfoliants, which these ingredients are not. Exfoliants, such as AHAs, primarily affect the top layer of skin, improving its appearance and cell production. Retinoids affect the lower layers of skin in the dermis, where new skin cells are produced and are considered to be cell communicators, sending messages to other cells to develop normally instead of as genetically malformed skin cells.

Why do consumers get confused that retinoids are not exfoliants? Primarily, it’s due to the fact that products containing many different percentages of retinoids can cause irritation and inflammation, resulting in flaky, dry skin. The flaking and dryness is not exfoliation, nor is it a desirable result. Retinoids can only be prescribed through a physician. Over-the-counter products use another form of vitamin A—retinol.


Peptides are relatively new up-and-coming ingredients for the skin care industry. The average consumer is consumed with a busy schedule and little time, and peptides are effective with few-to-no side effects compared to other beneficial anti-aging ingredients.

Peptides are short chains of amino acids, which are found in protein fragments, and are cell communicators that send signals to the dermal layers of the skin to perform specific functions. For example, the combination of palmitoyl oligopeptide and palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7 is a popular peptide. It works to mimic the appearance of broken-down collagen, causing skin to react by producing more collagen, as well as elastin (responsible for the skin’s elasticity) and hyaluronic acid (which plumps up the skin and gives it that healthy, full look).

Peptides also do more than build collagen in the skin—there are four different categories and all have functions to help reverse the signs of aging.

  1. Carrier peptides enhance delivery of active ingredients to reach the live layers of the skin.
  2. Signaling peptides help produce collagen.
  3. Neurotransmitter peptides help relax wrinkles.
  4. Enzyme-inhibitor peptides improve under-eye circles and hyperpigmentation.


The most important ingredient to prevent and reverse signs of aging is wearing a properly formulated SPF every day, rain or shine. A large percent of aging occurs from UVA and UVB rays produced from the largest free radical to the skin—the sun. Without protection from the sun’s rays, just a few minutes of exposure each day over the years can cause noticeable changes to the skin. Freckles, age spots, spider veins, rough and leathery texture, fine wrinkles that disappear when stretched, loose skin, a blotchy complexion, actinic keratosis (thick wartlike, rough, reddish patches of skin) and skin cancer can all be traced back to sun exposure. With repeated exposure to the sun, the skin loses the ability to repair itself and the damage accumulates. Repeated UV exposure breaks down collagen and impairs the synthesis of new collagen. Sun-weakened skin also ceases to spring back the way skin protected from UV rays does. It becomes wrinkled and leathery much earlier, as well.

Trial and Error

In the end, remember: Not every anti-aging ingredient will be the right fit for every skin type or aging concern. It will take trial and error to navigate through what product works best to treat a particular skin care concern. Luckily, there is much additional information, from researchers, suppliers and manufacturers, and beyond. And always keep your eyes open for new things on the horizon.

Kristina Valiani is a licensed esthetician and educator for a leading skin care brand, and conducts professional training and continuing education classes for estheticians throughout the United States. She can be reached at [email protected].

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