By Mary Hall, MD
Mary Hall, MD, is codirector of Hall and Hall Dermatology Associates in Morgantown, West Virginia. She attended medical school at West Virginia University, completing her dermatology residency in 2002. Dr. Hall is a fellowof the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Society for Dermatologic
Q. What products truly promote anti-aging? Can any ingredients help undo the sun damage I’ve sustained?
A. Today, vitamins are incorporated into many topical anti-aging products. Vitamins A, C, and E in particular play an important role: as antioxidants, they inhibit oxidation, the process that produces harmful “free radicals” that can lead to skin aging and skin cancers. Vitamins C (often listed on labels as ascorbic acid or ascorbyl glucosamine) and E (sometimes known as alpha or beta tocopherol) can decrease sun damage and improve skin texture. Vitamin A derivatives, known as retinoids, help soften fine lines and correct uneven skin tone by stimulating production of collagen, a protein required for healthy skin, and hyaluronic acid, a major component of skin and connective tissue. Vitamin A derivatives include over-the-counter retinyl palmitate and the prescription retinoids Renova (tretinoin) and Tazorac® (tazarotene) (which should all be avoided during pregnancy). Retinoid users must be vigilant about sun protection, since these products make the skin especially sun-sensitive.
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs, which also increase sun sensitivity) are another important topical anti-aging ingredient. Glycolic acid is the most beneficial, since it enhances dead skin shedding and helps correct skin discoloration. Proteins like growth factors and peptides also show promise. Growth factors play a role in cell division, new cell and vessel growth, and production of collagen and elastin, a connective tissue protein. Peptides stimulate collagen growth.
For a product to be truly anti-aging, however, it must also protect the skin from the sun’s ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which not only can lead to skin cancer, but cause more than 90 percent of the skin changes we commonly attribute to aging, including wrinkles, sagging skin, and brown spots. I recommend products containing a broad-spectrum (UVA /UVB) “physical” sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30+. Physical (mineral) sunscreens, primarily zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, reflect UV radiation away from the skin. (In contrast, “chemical” sunscreens absorb UV rays before they reach the skin.)
Make sure any anti-aging product you choose is packaged in an opaque container with a pump or wand dispenser. This helps protect the ingredients from exposure to light and air, which can prompt their breakdown. Topical products are not the only route to anti-aging. Vitamins A, B, C, D, E, and K; essential fatty acids (alpha-linolenic and linoleic acids); folic acid (a.k.a. olate, or vitamin B9), and the minerals zinc and selenium, all important for healthy skin, can be obtained through diet.
Supplements are a safe and inexpensive way to obtain nutrients that are difficult to acquire solely from food, like vitamin D. There are also more invasive options:
lasers, radiofrequency, facelifts, chemical peels, Botox, and soft tissue fillers (e.g., Restylane®) can all help reverse the signs of aging (some can even eliminate
precancerous cells), but must be repeated periodically to maintain benefits. For an effective anti-aging (and skin cancer prevention) regimen, see The Skin Cancer Foundation’s Prevention Guidelines.