They say beauty is only skin deep. The well-fed face, it seems, is here to stay. First it was vitamin E for wrinkles. Then vitamins A and C became the next big thing. Now many creams contain actual foods like soy and green tea. According to cosmetics ads, these ingredients deliver a virtual face-lift in a jar—and if you’re old enough to worry about wrinkles, you’re wise enough to have heard that line before.
But is it possible the ads are right? Can using vitamin creams really make your skin look younger? And if the science does exist to back up the claims, can you find the fountain of youth in inexpensive drugstore brands or must you spend a boatload on dermatologists and high-end products?
First, it’s important to understand that skin doesn’t age the way people once assumed. In the past, the number of furrows lining your brow was thought to correspond roughly to the number of candles on your birthday cake. Period. But thanks to the past 30 years of skin care science, we now know there are two types of aging: chronological and environmental.
Chronological aging is controlled by genes and age-related hormone changes. But before you resign yourself to having your mother’s skin, consider this: Genetics accounts for only about 10 percent of the visible signs of aging. The rest are mostly environmental, meaning they are caused primarily by free radicals, nasty unpaired oxygen electrons that can wreak havoc on healthy cells. Free radicals are to the skin what termites are to the framework of a house. They burrow beneath the surface, destroying the collagen scaffolding; discombobulating pig-mentation and causing age spots; and vandalizing cellular DNA, sometimes triggering precancerous lesions.
Here’s where antioxidants come in. Skin creams laced with vitamins A, C, or similar substances send these wonder-workers deep below the skin’s surface to hunt free radicals. Unlike regular moisturizers, which contain smaller amounts of these ingredients, the products identify themselves as “anti-aging creams”—and justifiably so. Used daily, antioxidants build up in the skin and stay on alert, snatching free radicals as they whiz by. Also, specific antioxidants zero in on specific free radicals, so there’s a way to neutralize just about every skin-wrecking villain out there.
The catch is that successfully blending antioxidants into skin care products isn’t so easy. For starters, antioxidants are naturally unstable; keeping them kicking until they get into your skin is like keeping a candle lit in a windstorm. And they favor the gaudy side of the color wheel. (Nice for a fruit bowl but not so appealing on your face.) Finally, antioxidant levels must be high enough that their molecules can elbow their way past the outer layer of skin, the epidermis, and down to the site of the main action in the dermis.
All of this basically means that some products are much better than others, so it’s important to choose wisely. Here’s what you need to know about the individual ingredients.
When it comes to ameliorating wrinkles, vitamin A is still the gold standard. Decades of stellar research shows that smoothing on vitamin A-rich creams can fade age spots, increase collagen, and goose the body’s ability to make new blood vessels, which bring youthful color to the skin’s surface.
The problem is that the most effective vitamin A creams are prescription-only because they contain high concentrations of the vitamin. So while you can buy over-the-counter creams made with a form of A called retinol, it turns out their effectiveness is questionable. “The grapevine consensus is that there aren’t any over-the-counter products that have an appreciable amount of retinol in them,” says Sheldon Pinnell, a professor of dermatology at Duke University.
Vitamin C’s rock-solid reputation as an antioxidant powerhouse is well deserved. Studies show that using topical vitamin C on skin decreases sun damage, inhibits tanning, reduces age spots, and rebuilds collagen. The dilemma for skin care companies is that vitamin C is chemically very fragile; contact with air and light easily depletes its antioxidant power. “Vitamin C degrades so quickly that most creams you buy have already lost 90 percent of their activity,” says Karen Burke, a dermatologist in Manhattan.
To boost a product’s shelf life and still promise antioxidant properties, some companies substitute vitamin C stand-ins, such as magnesium ascorbyl phosphate and ascorbyl palmitate. But science suggests they aren’t nearly as effective as straight-up C.
Even if you shrug off all other antioxidants, consider the case for vitamin E. The body’s most important fat-soluble antioxidant, vitamin E not only protects cell membranes from sun damage caused by UVA rays but also slows tanning, a sure sign of photodamage. Unfortunately, most drugstore vitamin E skin creams contain only a tenth of the amount you need to do the job.
If you don’t have $70 to blow on a teensy bottle of vitamin E cream, try making your own. Just mix a small bottle of tocopherol acetate, a vitamin E oil sold in health food stores, with your favorite bottle of moisturizer; aim for a ratio of one part oil to ten parts lotion. Although the body can’t use tocopherol acetate as easily as alpha-tocopherol, it is more stable and you can recoup your advantages through volume alone. Just be sure to buy oil with a concentration of 10,000 international units (IUs) or more per gram (not per bottle or per ounce) to get the most bang for your buck.
Plants enlist powerful antioxidants called flavonoids to shield them from the sun’s rays. Of the more than 8,000 flavonoids identified thus far, three show the most promise for skin: extract of milk thistle, soy isoflavones, and green tea polyphenols.
While researchers have high hopes for all three, most studies so far are limited to animals, so no one knows if flavonoids will indeed protect people as well as they do plants. Even green tea, the most well-studied of the bunch, isn’t completely understood. “Green tea is fabulous stuff, but no one really knows what it does when you put it on your skin,” says Patricia Farris, a dermatologist and assistant professor at Tulane University School of Medicine. “There’s just not enough information out there about how it works.”