The fashion and beauty magazines are full of articles about "cosmeceuticals," a new kind of skincare product that they say provides clinically proven improvements for a host of skin conditions, from aging to long term exposure to the sun. But what exactly are cosmeceuticals? Do they really work? And how do you know which kind of cosmeceutical is right for your skincare needs?
A Cosmeceutical , first of all, is a formulation that combines the aesthetic benefits of cosmetics with the proven restorative effects of ingredients isolated by pharmaceutical scientists. And yes, they really are effective at improving a host of skin conditions, including those caused by exposure to the sun and aging. Cosmeceuticals comprise five basic categories: antioxidants, retinoids, lightening agents, hydroxy acids and botanicals. Being familiar with each is the key to knowing which is right for your individual skincare needs.
Antioxidants – Vitamin C, Vitamin E and Niacinamide
You know what happens when metal oxidizes – it rusts. Something similar happens to skin as it ages – it's subject to oxidation from exposure to a host of environmental assaults. That's why using skincare products with antioxidants like Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Niacinamide is so beneficial. Vitamin C is not only a powerful antioxidant but is important in collagen synthesis and as a lightening agent. Vitamin E, another powerful antioxidant, is also known for its photoprotective properties; its ability to protect against UV damage has been the subject of numerous studies. In combination with sunscreen, Vitamin E reduces signs of aging caused by sun exposure. Niacinamide, a B vitamin, is used to treat rosacea as well as sallow, yellowing skin more prevalent in the Asian population. It is very safe and demonstrates a good patient tolerability profile.
Retinoids – Reinaldehyde, Esters, Retinoic Acid
Because of its strength and versatility, retinoic acid is the standard by which all other cosmeceuticals are measured. Retinoic Acid is derived from Vitamin A. You can find a variety of retinol based products on the market. As a group they are called retinoids, and in addition to retinoic acid they include reinaldehyde and esters. Most are topical formulations although oral retinoic acid is used to treat severe acne. Retinoic acid also has anti-aging properties. It can reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and lighten hyperpigmentation associated with sun spots and age spots. Retinoids promote thinning of the outermost layer and increase regeneration of the epidermis. Side effects include skin irritation and redness. Other formulations such as esters do not have these side effects but are not as effective. For daily use, retinaldehyde must be both effective and tolerated. Use of retinoids must be discontinued up to a week prior to any cosmetic procedures such as lasers, chemical peels, or microdermabrasion. However, they can be used in conjunction with these procedures to enhance and prolong their benefits. In fact, retinoids can actually expedite healing.
Lightening Agents – Hydroquinone, Azelaic Acid, Kojic Acid, Vitamin C
One of the most visible signs of skin damage associated with aging and exposure to the sun is localized hyperpigmentation such as sun and age spots. A variety of lightening agents can reduce hyperpigmentation. The gold standard has been hydroquinone. Hydroquinone inhibits the formation of melanin, the pigment that gives color to skin and causes sun and age spots. Hydroquinone is available in multiple strengths, typically in concentrations of 4% in pharmaceutical grade products. However, due to its side effects of skin irritation and contact dermatitis, as well as potential mutagenic effects – the potential to cause genetic mutations – newer agents derived from natural substances have found their way into the limelight. (Hydroquinone has been banned in over the counter preparations in several European countries as well as Japan.)
These newer agents include Azelaic Acid, Kojic Acid, Vitamin C, and even botanicals such as licorice. Though not as powerful as hydroquinone, these agents don't have its side effects and can been used every day. Vitamin C, popular as an antioxidant and for its role in collagen productions, also works as a lightening agent. Vitamin C is not produced by the body, and therefore must be ingested or applied topically. Often, a variety of these lightening agents are combined with retinoids and glycolic acid because they work synergistically to decrease pigmentation.
The largest source of additives in cosmeceutical preparations today are botanicals – extracts from plants, flowers, fruits, berries, twigs, and bark. They can be categorized into three basic groups: anti-inflammatories, antioxidants (see above), and skin soothing agents. Some botanicals also bolster the immune system and facilitate repair. Some commonly utilized botanicals include aloe, soy, green tea, gingko biloba, and witch hazel.
Hydroxy Acids – Alpha, Beta, Poly
You've heard about the corrosive effects of acid. So why do acids play such an important role in cosmeceutical products? Because these are natural hydroxy acids. Some of them – such as glycolic, citric, and tartatic acid – are derived from fruits. Lactic acid is derived from sour milk, and was used by the ancient Egyptians for softer and smoother skin. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that is fat soluble, and thus particularly useful for people with oily skin, as the oil absorbs the acid.
Hydroxy acids work by exfoliating skin – in this case removing the outermost layer. Glycolic acid, in addition to exfoliation, is also known for its moisturizing ability. Glycolic acid also stimulates fibroblast cells in the skin to produce collagen as well as hyaluronic acid. Both collagen and hyaluronic acid form the supporting structure of the skin, but the amount of these naturally occurring acids decreases in the skin as we age. Botanicals – cosmeceuticals such as these derived from natural substances – also work synergistically with other agents such as retinoids to provide anti-aging effects to the skin.
Cosmeceuticals can improve a host of skin conditions that other cosmetics can only cover up. But it's important to consult your healthcare provider when considering cosmeceutical options. That's also a good idea because many professional quality cosmeceutical products are available only through physicians and dermatologists.