So you’ve discovered you’re not immortal. I know, I was surprised too. For my 30th birthday, I decided to start doing right by my skin and take care of it. I went deep down the rabbit hole. I think I saw the Cheshire Cat once.
The Ingredients to Look For
There are lots of different ways to prevent the skin from aging. This blog post explains what causes aging – it’s mostly sun damage, and there are some factors like genetics, but the end results are the same: loss of collagen, loss of elastin, drier skin and thinner skin. We want a list of products that combat those symptoms. This article sums them up pretty well, but I think it still needs a little help. The article lists the following ingredients, in order of most effective to least effective.
- Sunscreen (click here for more details) – the vast majority of skin aging (as much as 80%) is from sun damage, so sunscreen is a must. At least SPF 30, broad spectrum, applied to the face, neck, decolletage and hands.
- Retinol (Vitamin A). The most effective form of this requires a dermatologist prescription, and this also sounds like a pretty harsh skin treatment (for instance, it’s applied topically, but shouldn’t be used while pregnant). So far I’m avoiding retinoids, maybe I’ll reconsider in my 40s or 50s. If you want more information, start here and here – the standard advice is to build up a gentle, moisturizing routine before adding retinoids.
- Vitamin C (click here for more details) – this improves the effectiveness of sunscreen, reverses sun damage, protects the skin from free radicals, evens out skin tone and reduces dark spots. It’s powerful stuff, but the most effective form of it (L-ascorbic acid aka LAA) isn’t stable when mixed with water, and it needs to be at a specific pH. So it’s a little bit of a diva, but it’s worth it.
- Glycolic Acid (click here for more details) – this is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), which is a chemical exfoliant. This removes dead skin cells, and improves the collagen and elasticity in the skin. Loss of collagen is a big contributor to fine lines and thin skin, so it’s important to keep collagen healthy. This is serious stuff though – it’s an acid that exfoliates, so it’s important to start out slow with this because chemical burn is a real thing.
- Sodium Hyaluronate – this is a powerful humectant, which draws water into the skin. Hyaluronic acid is a really common ingredient in skincare so this one isn’t too hard to find. It’s in a few of the products I use right now, including my day moisturizer, my night moisturizer, and my Vitamin C serum. It’s also in a Korean “toner” I use (toner means something different in Asian skincare) called Kikumasamune Sake High Moist Toner.
- Ceramides – help protect the skin and help keep in moisture. They’re also a really common ingredient – they’re in my day moisturizer and my night moisturizer.
- Matrixyl (and also peptides in general) – this is a peptide, I believe it’s the only one that has scientific research showing its anti-aging properties. It stimulates collagen production. I don’t use any products specifically for peptides but I’m considering either getting the Matrixyl 10% or The Buffet from The Ordinary. TO is a new no-BS, ultra cheap skincare company, so I’ll probably mention them a few times – read the raving reviews here.
- Niacinimide (Vitamin B3) – again, this is a common ingredient, I think it’s in both my moisturizers plus the Kiku. It stimulates collagen and elasticity, it calms inflammation, and it evens out skin tone (hyperpigmentation).
- D-alpha-tocopherol (Vitamin E) – this is often combined with Vitamin C because they both improve the effectiveness of sunscreen. Vit E is also moisturizing and has antioxidant properties (antioxidants are important because they attract free radicals, which cause damage). This is a fairly popular ingredient, I know it’s in my Vit C serum and I’ve seen it listed in quite a few sunscreens.
- Resveratrol – what can’t resveratrol do? You probably remember it as the really healthy component in wine, but it has anti-aging properties for topical use as well. I don’t use anything with this ingredient right now, I think it’s so far down the list that it probably isn’t very effective and my time would be better served focusing on more powerful ingredients.
I like this list because it’s more scientific – don’t be swayed by colorful packaging or high price tags, if your skincare doesn’t include these ingredients it’s not going to be effective against aging. Especially sunscreen – if all you take away from this is that you need a good moisturizer with sunscreen in it, you’ll probably look better than 90% of people your age as you get older.
Let’s start with my skin type. My skin prefers absolutely nothing added to it – it’s happy just doing its own thing. I know how fortunate that makes me because I’ve spent a lot of time on skincare forums with a million acne-prone teenagers and young adults. That being said, it gets seriously humid here in the summer and then my T-zone starts to get pretty oily. The humidity is fine if I’ve got nothing on my face, but since I’m wearing sunscreen every day I now need to do some oil control. Summary: skin type is combo, especially oily in the humid summers.
In addition, I’m still dialing in my routine – I just got into all of this six months ago so I’m still trying new things. My goal is to find the simplest effective routine.
- Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Hydrating Cleanser
- AHA (currently using Pixi Glow Tonic) – I do this every other night, at most.
- Toner – kikumasamune Sake High Moist – if I’m being totally honest I’m not really sure why I use this. It’s really hydrating but I don’t have dry skin.
- Eye cream – MD Complete Eye Wrinkle Corrector – I got it on clearance at Target because it’s been discontinued.
- Moisturizer – I’m currently using a generic gentle moisturizer, when it runs out I’ll probably switch to CeraVe PM unless I find something else I want to try.
Once a week I’ll do a clay mask to help with oil control – I don’t use the AHA on that night because the mask dries out my skin, and I think the acid would be too much, it might destroy my moisture barrier and leave me with red, irritated skin.
The most amazing thing so far has been the Pixi Glow Tonic – the first time I used it, I could not stop touching my skin because it felt so smooth and soft. The sunscreen feels like a necessary evil; I’m sure it’s extremely effective but I don’t like having it on my face. I’ve got a whole list of sunscreens to try and hopefully I’ll find one that I like, but I doubt anything will compare to the feeling of bare skin. I’ve only been using the Vitamin C serum for a week but I can already tell my skin is even more smooth and soft. The clay mask has also been pretty awesome, but that’s just because my face is oily. I also recently bought a BHA (salicylic acid) which is an acid like the AHA but it’s oil soluble so it should also help with oil control.
Now you’ve got a pretty good idea of what I use and why I use it. If you wanted a cliff notes version, you’ve read far enough, you can quit here. If you’re ready to get into the weeds, keep on reading – we’ll get into the nitty gritty details on my top 3: sunscreen, Vitamin C, and acids.
I’ve gone so far into the depths of sunscreen research that when I finally came up for air, I sketched out an infographic because PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW THIS STUFF! I’ll attempt to keep all this fairly organized but there’s a lot of information out there and some of it is only myth.
UVA vs. UVB
Let’s start with the very basics. There are two types of sun rays that cause damage: UVA and UVB. UVA is Aging, and UVB is Burning – you can block all the UVB rays in the world but if the UVA rays are getting to you, your skin is aging and there are no immediately visible signs of what’s happening. It’s UVB rays that cause redness and burning.
Sun Protection Factor is a measure of how effective the sunscreen is at blocking UVB rays – it doesn’t measure protection from UVA at all. Not only that, but it works on a logarithmic scale, so the SPF numbers don’t compare to each other the way you think they would (ie SPF 30 is not twice as protective as SPF 15).
Because of this, European sunscreens are now only labeled as high as “SPF50+” – anything higher than 50 isn’t really much more effective. In the US you can still find sunscreens labeled “SPF 100” or higher, which the manufacturer might be using as an excuse to charge more for the sunscreen. If they’re the same price, go ahead and buy the SPF 100, but don’t pay a huge premium for something that’s barely giving you more protection.
What about the UVA rays? Well, until the labeling systems change, the best you can do is look for a sunscreen advertised as “Broad Spectrum” – this is the official terminology to mean both UVA and UVB protection. Or, if you’re shopping internationally, you can find Asian sunscreens labeled from PA+ (low UVA blocking) up to PA++++ (high UVA blocking). That doesn’t give you much information, but it’s a start. Things are slightly better in Europe, where they have the PPD system. I’ve seen sunscreens with up to PPD 30, which really shows the limitations of the PA+ system:
In general, PPD numbers are very similar to SPF numbers. PPD X is blocking 1 – 1/X UVA rays (ie PPD 16 is blocking (1 – (1/16)) = 93.75% of UVA rays, and PPD 30 is blocking 96.7%). I couldn’t find a handy chart like the SPF chart above, unfortunately.
But if you’re buying your sunscreen in the US and you want to prevent aging, how do you know which sunscreen options will be the best? Well, now you’re starting to dig into ingredients.
This section could be a book, but I’ll try to keep it short and sweet. Here’s a link to a really great resource for comparing different UV filters, especially which rays they block and how photostable they are, how they interact with other UV filters, etc. It’s got a lot of information but it’s not easy to do a quick visual comparison. So here’s a better visual image of spectrum protection:
There are two really good US-approved UVA blockers on this chart – Zinc Oxide and Avobenzone. The downside to ZO is that it generally leaves a whitecast, and the downsides to Avobenzone are that it is an eye irritant and can discolor clothing. The rest of the UVA blockers (the last three on the list) have not been approved for use in the US, but they are approved in Europe and Asia. So if you’re looking for UVA protection in the US, these are your options.
This ingredient has scientific studies showing that it contributes to coral reef bleaching. Now, there are a lot of things contributing to coral reef bleaching and this is probably one of the very, very minor ones. I think of it like this: if someone is trying to lose weight but they eat an entire cake and also one cookie every day, does cutting out the cookie help? It doesn’t solve the problem, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. However, if you’re trying to find a chemical sunscreen in the US without oxybenzone…well, it’s not easy. Unless your budget is unlimited.
That brings us to…
Physical vs. Chemical Sunscreens
UV blockers are put into two categories: physical and chemical. The physical blockers are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, the chemical blockers are…pretty much everything else.
It’s often said that the two work differently, that UV rays are reflected off physical blockers, and that UV rays get absorbed by chemical blockers (as opposed to getting absorbed by the skin). The science behind it is more complicated than that, and you can read an in-depth assessment of the science here.
The biggest difference is that the chemical sunscreens degrade in sunlight (and therefore need to be reapplied) while physical sunscreens do not degrade (but reapplication is still necessary, because the sunscreen can get rubbed or washed off). It’s also common for people to not apply enough sunscreen in the first place so reapplication is always a good idea.
A lot of people like spray sunscreen because it’s easy to apply and feels better on the skin. There’s a good reason for that – they often aren’t applying nearly enough, nor are they getting full coverage. It’s better to use a lotion type sunscreen, or if spray is your only option, to spray the sunscreen into your hand and then rub it on. If it’s the only way to make sure your kid has sunscreen on, try to make sure they don’t inhale it while applying.
There’s a lot of information on the internet about whether sunscreen ingredients are “safe” or “toxic.” Many of those articles link back to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which is a site known for fear mongering and sensationalism. Any article that references the EWG should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism.
The internet has no shortage of resources, much of my information comes from the following sites:
Alright, enough of that, let’s move on.
There are over a hundred Vitamin C serums out in the world, but most of them aren’t very effective. The ones that are most effective aren’t very shelf stable. It’s unfortunate, because Vitamin C is a real powerhouse when it comes to anti-aging.
Derivatives of Vitamin C
These are some common derivatives of Vitamin C that are shelf stable but less effective:
- Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP) – this is a gentler form of Vitamin C
- Sodium ascorbyl phosphate (SAP) – this form is known to promote collagen and also is effective at treating acne
- Ascorbyl Palmitate
There are a few other but generally the ingredients will include some form of the word “ascorbyl.” That’s not what I’m looking for though, I’m looking for Ascorbic Acid (or L-Ascorbic Acid), as the purest and most effective form.
Scientific research shows that LAA has many benefits to the skin. I won’t list everything here, but it’s an antioxidant, it’s photoprotective, it increases collagen production, it prevents dark spots and evens out skin tone (here‘s some science!). Remember all those free radicals in high school science? They’re unpaired electrons that wreak havoc. They can be caused by sunlight, smoking, pollution, alcohol, etc. They don’t like be unpaired, so they try to find an electron to pair up with – taking them from normal, healthy cells and causing damage. Vitamin C (and antioxidants in general) offer themselves up as the electron pair, preventing the free radicals from damaging your cells. Part of the reason Vitamin C is so effective is because it’s so reactive, which is also the reason it’s so unstable. It oxidizes when it comes into contact with temperature, air and light, so manufacturers put it in a dark bottle and store it in the fridge.
One company – Skinceuticals – figured out a way to create the most stable and effective version of a Vitamin C serum – they added Vitamin E and ferulic acid. They quickly patented that formula and now sell it for $165/oz. They only patented it within a certain pH range, so other companies can produce it outside that range and sell it (but there’s still a tradeoff – the higher the pH, the less effective it is. The lower the pH, the more irritating it is).
Vitamin C absorption is best at pH 3.5 or below – above a pH of 4 it doesn’t absorb. So even if the ingredients say LAA, the product might not work. You need to know the pH.
LAA also absorbs best at a concentration of 20%. The best absorption range is 15 – 25%, but the higher the concentration the more irritating it is. Even at 20% it may tingle when applied.
So we’re looking for a very specific product – LAA form of Vitamin C, in a concentration of 20%, with a pH of 3.5 or less, ideally paired with Vitamin E and ferulic acid. And I don’t know about you, but $165 per ounce isn’t a sustainable price.
There are a couple products out there that fit the bill:
- The Ordinary makes an anhydrous version (no water, which makes it more stable) at 23% LAA, for under $6. Users report that it feels a little gritty (because there’s no water for the LAA to dissolve in) but that is solved by putting a water-based moisturizer on directly after the Vit C.
- Timeless makes a version nearly identical to the Skinceuticals Vit C, they avoid patent infringement by lowering the pH to just below the patented range. They offer a 20% LAA solution with Vit E and ferulic acid for $25 (it sells for cheaper on Amazon but users report that when buying from Amazon it frequently arrives already oxidized and unusable). Use code HF5OFF for a $5 discount on the Timeless site.
- Drunk Elephant makes a 15% LAA solution with Vitamin C and ferulic for $80.
- There’s also a 15% LAA serum with Vit E and ferulic from Paula’s Choice that clocks in at $75/oz.
I haven’t read about very many effective solutions beyond those options. I’d be willing to try The Ordinary’s version but it doesn’t have the Vit E or ferulic acid. I’ve just purchased the Timeless Vit C to test how I feel about the inclusion of Vit E – since Vit C is effective against the sun it makes it more effective to use it in the morning, but I don’t want to add too much oil to my face in the morning because it produces enough oil already.
After I sort out my feelings on Vit E, I’m probably going to start making my own. Lotioncrafters sells a CE+Ferulic kit for $60, which will make 6.85 oz of serum. I’ve determined you can also buy all the kit ingredients for about $60 and it will make at least 10 oz. There’s also a blogger-turned-skincare-company that has a recipe on her website that I might use. It’s still not cheap to go this route, but at least I know what I’m getting when I make it myself.
I would consider this to be one of the more expensive splurges in my routine, but I also think the long term benefit justify the hassle. There’s no way to know how effective it will ever be (ie I’ll never see how my face would have aged if I’d used no products), but I do enjoy the process so I don’t mind.
A lot of the info in this section comes from Reddit: here, here, and here, and here. Also more (scientific) information here and here.
I’m mostly adding this section because we’re talking about real acids here, which have the capability of burning the skin. So consider this the disclaimer / warning.
First off, why would you want to use an acid on your face? The acids loosen and remove dead skin cells, leaving your face baby smooth and brighter. It can reduce the appearance of fine lines. Glycolic acid also helps increase collagen production. On our list at the top, remember #5, hyaluronic acid? Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) increase the skin’s natural production of hyaluronic acid.
Since you’re clearing out dead skin cells, your skin loses a little bit of protection – AHAs make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. So it’s super important to use sunscreen regularly with AHAs (this is also why AHA is a better product for your nighttime routine). And again, these are acids, which can be really irritating. It’s important to start small – use low concentrations every three days when starting out. Then as your skin adjusts, you can increase the concentration and the frequency.
There are different kinds of AHAs! I use glycolic acid because it’s the most effective and my skin is very hardy. If your skin is more sensitive, you might want to explore some other options. That page also explains Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) which are oil soluble aka better for oily-skinned people. A lot of people use both, but generally on alternating nights because too much acid can wreck your moisture barrier. This means your skin is stripped of some of its protective layers, leading to skin that is very dry, sometimes very oily, and easily irritated.
Right now I use Pixi Glow Tonic from Target ($15). It’s 5% glycolic acid, which means it’s on the low end. I consider this to be kind of pricey for such a small bottle, but I only use it ~3x per week so the bottle will probably last me about a year. When it runs out, I plan on replacing it with the 7% toning solution from The Ordinary. It’s only 2% higher than the Pixi, but the pH is much lower which makes the acid more effective. With acids you can have a greater concentration of acid (aka a greater percentage) but if the pH is too high then it might be less effective than a lower concentration of acid. Companies won’t always tell you what the pH is but with AHAs it’s an important detail.
You want to take care of your skin as you get older? Here’s some information to get you started.