If you've ever used anti-aging cosmetic products, you've likely heard of retinol - the gold standard for building collagen and thickening the skin. But if you've tried retinol for extended periods, you might have noticed redness or sensitivity like we did. Why do these symptoms happen?
Though the name "retinol" sounds fancy, we learned last time that it is actually just a form of Vitamin A. Retinol reduces the appearance of wrinkles by causing skin cells to renew faster and produce more collagen - surface cells die and shed, making way for fresh new skin cells. Sounds great, right? The truth is: this accelerated cell turnover process benefits skin appearance in the short term, but may be doing so at the cost of long-term skin youth.
Even so, many dermatologists and beauty editors still swear by retinol due to its visible anti-aging effects (1,2). If retinol indeed provides short-term beauty benefits, why hasn't everyone jumped on the bandwagon? That's because of retinol's infamously harsh symptoms, including skin sensitivity, redness, peeling, and flaking. In fact, retinol is so notorious for its side effects that these symptoms have been nicknamed the "retinol uglies" (3). Some users brave the harshness; other users have to dial down the dose. Either way, retinol certainly has a couple huge drawbacks:
Damaging skin barrier function
Because retinol is accelerating your skin cell turnover, some of the new, rapidly produced cells are not able to function normally (4). Healthy skin cells create a barrier at the surface layer, sealing moisture in and protecting your skin from outside stressors. However, studies show that using retinol may cause issues with skin cell cohesion and barrier function, meaning that your skin might be abnormally losing moisture and become ultra-sensitive or irritated (5). This likely explains the "retinol uglies."
Another pitfall of retinol is that the ingredient is sensitive to sunlight and breaks down rapidly when in contact with UV rays (6,7). Retailers are glossing over this issue as they increasingly add retinol into daytime products, often rendering the ingredient useless. Retinol will only remain active when used in a night product or if packaged in an opaque container to prevent sun exposure (8).
With these significant drawbacks in mind, savvy consumers are beginning to realize that retinol is out. So what's in? Like you, we can't help but wonder if there are ingredients that can truly promote healthy skin aging without accumulating long-term damage nor coming with the price tag of irritation. Here are a few that we have our eyes on:
1. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is one of the rare multi-talented cosmetic ingredients; it not only provides your skin with antioxidant and anti-inflammation benefits (9), but also builds collagen and reduces pigmentation (10,11). Easy win, right? However, brands often fail to tell consumers that pure vitamin C can actually degrade under heat and sunlight. Look out for formulas with a higher percentage of Vitamin C or products that use a more stable form of Vitamin C to make sure you're reaping the full benefits. Whether we should be eating Vitamin C or applying it to our skin is another important distinction - check out this article for more answers.
2. Hyaluronic Acid
Hyaluronic Acid might be hard to pronounce, but HA has caught people's attention for its unique ability to retain water and plump the skin (12). In fact, HA can hold over 1000 times its weight in water (13)! You might find this ingredient in your daily creams and serums, but some plastic surgeons actually inject HA directly into the skin as a filler (14).
Curious to hear more about the science behind HA? Find out which long-living animal species has tons of HA in its body here.
Newest on the market are peptides - a class of tiny proteins and molecules that are becoming stars in the healthy-aging cosmetic scene. Various peptides work differently and are comprised of multiple components, and some peptides penetrate into our skin cells and support vital functions such as collagen production or cell turnover. Another nice thing about them is that they are usually multifunctional, promoting skin health in different ways at the same time! But be aware that not all peptides penetrate the skin, so it's important to check whether companies which commercialize peptide-based skincare products have actually tested their penetration in the skin and whether they show that the peptide of interest reaches effective concentrations in the skin.
And remember: not all peptides are created equal! Stay tuned for more information on the types of peptides and how they work.