The science behind today’s 5 most promising ingredients
By Anna Soref
Does it seem as if every time you go shopping for skin-care products, another item with a new and surprising ingredient is staring at you from the shelf? What are ginkgo, soy, and green tea doing in face creams and toners, anyway? Sometimes it feels as though you need a degree in nutrition or herbalism just to keep your skin clean and moisturized. But according to recent research, those plants and vitamins in the latest skin-care products really can make a difference—maybe a big one.
What are cosmeceuticals?
Known in the cosmetics industry as cosmeceuticals, vitamin- and plant-boosted skin products are quickly gaining popularity. In simple terms, cosmeceuticals are cosmetics with druglike effects.
“Cosmeceuticals have a metabolic or chemical effect on the skin but aren’t classified by the FDA,” says David Goldberg, MD, director of laser research and Mohs surgery (a dermatological procedure) at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and author of Light Years Younger (Capital Books, 2003). “We are at the beginning of a revolution in skin care,” he says. “Our ancestors used natural substances successfully, and we’re going back to them. Now we’re just trying to get some science in there.”
Cosmeceuticals typically contain higher levels of active ingredients than regular cosmetics, according to Sheldon Pinnel, MD, professor emeritus of dermatology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. “Cosmeceuticals do more than just ‘feel good’ on the skin,” he says. “They can protect skin from photoaging and maybe skin cancer.”
Although the term cosmeceutical may be new to you, skin creams and lotions enhanced with vitamins A and E, both well-known antioxidants, have been around for more than 30 years. In Europe, botanical- and vitamin-enhanced creams have been de rigueur for decades. Now, as some less-familiar botanicals and nutrients pique the interest and scrutiny of the science community, a flurry of research indicates they can be powerful additions to skin-care products.
So how do they work? Most cosmeceuticals operate as antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals—unstable oxygen molecules that can damage skin cells, break down collagen, and ultimately cause wrinkles. Cosmeceuticals can be an excellent defense, given that the aging process, environmental toxins, and sun exposure can deplete our internal antioxidant supply. “Topical antioxidants, when formulated correctly, can deliver huge amounts of selected antioxidants to the skin,” Pinnel says. Cosmeceuticals aren’t limited to antioxidants, however. Virtually any natural substance that changes the skin’s chemistry and appearance can be classified as a cosmeceutical.
Ingredients make a difference
If you’re ready to try something new on your skin, what should you consider when perusing the shelves? “Consumers need to look for ingredients that have some research behind them,” Goldberg says. “At least then [the products] have a chance of benefiting the skin.” In addition to the antioxidant vitamins A and E, proven skin-care mainstays, many other vitamins and botanicals recently have been shown to reduce sun damage and decrease the signs of aging. The following cosmeceutical ingredients have been scientifically tested and offer promising benefits.
Green tea extract may help protect against UV-induced skin aging and skin cancer. Green tea (Camellia sinensis)
In both animal and human studies, researchers have found that the main active ingredient in green tea, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), works well as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and sunscreen. In one study where subjects applied green tea to their skin before sun exposure, the tea reduced skin inflammation and free radical amounts normally produced by the skin in response to UV rays (Photochemistry and Photobiology, 1999, vol. 69, no. 2). These results suggest that skin products with green tea extract may help protect against UV-induced skin aging and skin cancers. Green tea doesn’t just protect your largest organ, though; a recent study found that the tea may rejuvenate skin and help skin cells live longer (Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 2003, vol. 306, no. 1).
Levels of collagen—a compound essential for healthy, firm skin—decrease as we age, and sun exposure, pollution, health, heredity, and lifestyle factors can accelerate the process. When your body’s collagen levels are low, wrinkles can result. Researchers have found that topical vitamin C can increase the skin’s collagen levels and visibly reduce wrinkles (European Journal of Dermatology, 2001, vol. 11, no. 2). That’s one reason—along with its powerful and proven ability to fight free radicals—ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, is showing up in skin cleansers and moisturizers available at your local natural products store.
This nutrient, found naturally in the human brain and fatty fish, has gained attention recently because it may have a significant firming effect on the skin. In a pilot study (Skin Research and Technology, 2002, vol. 8, no. 3), researchers found that DMAE applied to aging skin reduced sagging eyebrows, neck folds, and droopy cheeks. Although researchers are not yet sure how it works, some speculate that DMAE acts as a cell stabilizer, which explains its skin-firming effects.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
Studies show that ginkgo, a well-known and popular Chinese herb, has significant antioxidant abilities when applied to the skin. In fact, it’s a particularly effective anti-inflammatory and thus may help alleviate puffy, tired eyes. In addition, researchers discovered that the botanical increases skin fibroblast production. Fibroblasts manufacture collagen, which helps keep skin smooth and wrinkle-free (Skin Pharmacology and Applied Skin Physiology, 1997, vol. 10, no. 4 ).
Botanicals and vitamins may be just as beneficial applied topically as taken internally. Soy
Soy extract has positive research support for its antioxidant and chemopreventive powers. In a study on mice, the soy isoflavone genistein increased the production of hyaluronic acid, which cushions and lubricates the skin (Skin Pharmacology and Applied Skin Physiology, 2002, vol. 15, no. 3). Soy isoflavones’ free-radical scavenging abilities may also work to protect the skin from cancer. When applied topically to mice, soy prevented skin-cancer cell formation (Cancer Research, 2001, vol. 61, no. 20). Researchers are also looking into whether soy’s natural estrogen protects the skin from menopause-related thinning and reduced collagen production. Future studies may shed light on soy’s promise for humans.
Psst, did you know?
Cosmetics featuring active natural substances, called cosmeceuticals, may improve your skin’s appearance. Have you had luck using a vitamin- or botanical-boosted product? We want the skinny on your favorite ingredient. E-mail us your success story at email@example.com. The choice is yours
Although much of the research on cosmeceuticals is preliminary, recent studies demonstrate that botanicals and vitamins for skin care may be just as beneficial when applied topically as when taken internally. Armed with the knowledge of how these ingredients work to improve the texture and appearance of your skin, you can feel confident making the best selection for your needs from a shelf full of new products.