A Lady’s Guide to Anti-Aging Cream

by Emily Caporello

True story: You’re getting older. And, OK, your skin isn’t sagging everywhere yet, but you swear to god you can see a fine line when you’re four inches from the mirror and the lighting is right, and now it is just a matter of time. But no biggie because you can just get a facelift or injections when things get bad, right? Nope, not you, because you chose to be the friend who adamantly objects to plastic surgery and judges the crap out of everyone else (stupid former pretty self!). Enter anti-wrinkle cream. If you start now, you can remain perfect forever and ever and no one will know how truly vain you are (you’re very vain).

There are a ton of products claiming to rid you of wrinkles, and it’s hard to tell just by name alone which ones work and which will just give you cancer (because if they give you cancer and take away your wrinkles that’s one thing — kidding! but seriously…). So here’s a list of some ingredients that actually make a difference and some that are total BS.

Collagen and elastin. The good news is these are in fact the very important proteins that are necessary for maintaining smooth, youthful skin. The bad news is slapping them on top of your skin isn’t going to do a GD thing. Your skin is made of several layers, and collagen and elastin are produced in the middle layer, where they’re assembled into fibers and woven into a complex, fabric-like structure that gives your skin firmness and stretch (think lycra jeans). Applying a cream with collagen to your skin is like taking thread, cutting it up into tiny tiny pieces, and then throwing those pieces onto fabric in the hopes that they will repair any holes. They won’t. Even worse, the collagen/elastin layer is protected by an outer layer of skin whose sole purpose is to prevent things from getting through it, so the tiny bits of collagen are just sitting on top of your skin, or chilling in your huge pores, until you wash them off later.

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid, ascorbate). Oh, vitamin C. You show such promise. While essential to collagen synthesis, slutty vitamin C will easily hook up with other molecules (“oxidize” in sci-speak), rendering her useless for collagen production. It’s OK, vitamin C, we all have a friend like you, and we still owe you one for all your hard work preventing scurvy and colds. Derivatives of vitamin C (magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, ascorbyl palmitate) can also be used to make collagen and are a little less, ahem, promiscuous. All of these compounds will turn slightly yellow when they have fully oxidized, so look for white or colorless creams (and be wary of tinted ones, because what are they hiding?), make sure to keep them sealed, buy small amounts, and use them up quick.

Retinoids. These guys are the Angelina Jolies of skin care. Tried. True. Total A-list. But inevitably some of us will find them irritating and intolerable. Retinoids are derived from vitamin A and are only available by prescription (Retin-A, Renova, Accutane, Tazorac, Differin). These retinoic acids play many roles (also like Angelina Jolie, get it?!). First they dissolve the dead skin cells that form the outermost layer of skin — same way acid peels work — then they signal living skin cells to begin synthesizing collagen and elastin, while simultaneously inhibiting enzymes that break these proteins down. Don’t confuse retinoids with forms of vitamin A itself, which include retinol, retinyl palmitate, retinal, and retinaldehyde. These have to be made into retinoic acid inside cells in order to work, which is definitely doable, but you need to apply pretty high concentration in order to be effective, and you aren’t going to see the same results as retinoids. Since, however, you aren’t applying acid directly to your face, these creams will be less irritating. And as a bonus they can double duty as antioxidants! Which brings me to antioxidants.

Antioxidants. Sunshine, alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, and let’s just say puppies and everything else worthwhile in life eff up your skin. They cause chemical reactions that can produce ‘free radicals’, tiny jerks that will go on to steal electrons from your collagen and damage it. Your collagen tries to hide that it is damaged, but oh, your skin knows. And it is not pleased. Once the collagen is damaged, your skin cells destroy it and punish your sins with a wrinkle. Antioxidants are compounds that absorb free radicals, keeping your collagen’s electrons safe and sound and preventing further damage. Now take out your wrinkle cream and turn to the ingredients. If you see any of the following listed: alpha lipoic acid (ALA), dithiolane-3-pentanoic acid (D3PA), Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), Idebenone, lycopene, furfuryladenine (kinetin, kinerase), astaxanthin — congrats! Your anti-wrinkle cream contains antioxidants that have some evidence of efficacy, at least in cultured cells. Generally, researchers feel more studies need to be done to say exactly how effective, etc., but mostly they aren’t irritating and they probably won’t hurt. Each has its own unique personality (ALA reduces inflammation! lycopene can turn you orange!), and some can be very expensive regardless of how well they work.

New kids on the block: The mechanisms aren’t well understood, the research behind them is weak (and almost entirely produced by the manufacturing companies that are selling them, which is, you know, less than ideal), and they aren’t cheap, but they could be the next best things (like the Scarlett Joha- okay okay!).

  • The topical botox: acetyl hexapeptide-3 (Aregireline), is related to botox and is similarly thought to mess up nerve signals to facial muscles, preventing them from tensing up. Like botox, it may improve things temporarily.
  • The no-irritation “retinoids”: Matrixyl (palmitoyl-pentapeptide-4) and Matrixyl 3000 (Palmitoyl-tripeptide and palmitoyl-oligopeptide) were shown by the companies that produce them to be as effective at boosting collagen and elastin production and reducing wrinkles as retinoids, without the irritation, though no one really understands why. All the derm nerds are waiting for some independent research to be done, so keep in mind it may be over-hyped or possibly damaging in the long term, we just don’t know. Then again you could become a gorgeous old woman in the future who is like “oh my secret? I’ve been using palmitoyl-pentapeptide-4 since 2011. Suckers.”
  • The facelift in a jar: Dimethylaminoethanol (Deanol, DMAE) is a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and has been shown to tighten skin (to some degree), but again, no one really understands how it’s doing it. Also, it could potentially be damaging … so … keep that in mind.

Now that you know what’s in your cream, keep in mind that just because something is on the ingredients list doesn’t mean there’s enough of it to make a difference. Do your research, look for creams that report the concentrations of their ingredients, buy from brands you trust, and pay attention to expiration dates. Also, wear sunscreen! For reals! Good luck, and may we all look 22 forever.

Emily Caporello is a very vain scientist in San Diego.