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We’ve heard the promises of anti-aging creams and serums—elixirs with claims to “turn back the clock” by diminishing the appearance of wrinkles and sun damage and restoring a youthful glow. But what’s behind the pledges of radiant, supple skin? Can they really work, and, if so, what ingredients support these special formulas?

Debra Wattenberg, MD, a New York City dermatologist, walks us through several of the most popular ingredients in anti-aging solutions to explain how they work and how they may prevent or counteract certain signs of aging. You’ll be happy to learn that, according to Dr. Wattenberg, when used correctly, many of these ingredients may in fact improve your skin’s appearance.


Many anti-aging moisturizers and other products are rich in antioxidants. These may include vitamin C, vitamin E, and coffee berry. Dr. Wattenberg explains that these agents “are usually used to protect the skin against inflammation, and they do that by protecting against free-radical formation.” Free radicals are produced when the skin is stressed, such as with smoking, sun exposure, or any other damage. Prevention of free-radical formation, says Dr. Wattenberg, is a key component in reducing the signs of aging: “As a result of inhibiting free-radical formation, the skin breakdown process is slowed down and you lose less collagen [an important connective tissue] and less elastin” (a fiber that aids skin elasticity). As a result, a more youthful appearance is maintained.


Retinoids, including retinal, are derivatives of vitamin A. They are available in prescription and over-the-counter strength and work to diminish signs of photoaging (retinoids are also used to treat acne). “These work by improving skin texture, helping with discoloration and fine wrinkles,” says Dr. Wattenberg. Retinoids increase cell turnover, improve collagen synthesis (the creation of collagen), and help the skin retain more water. The effects of retinoids, Dr. Wattenberg says, have been extensively studied.


“Sunscreens are key to effective health for the skin,” says Dr. Wattenberg, explaining that without sunscreen other products in your skin care regimen become significantly less effective. “If you use other products and don’t use sunscreen, it’s kind of a waste,” she says, and in effect “you’re taking two steps forward and one step back.”

Hydroxy Acids

Hydroxy acids—including alpha hydroxy, beta hydroxy, glycolic, and salicylic acids—are acid exfoliants. These work, explains Dr. Wattenberg, by removing the upper layers of dead skin and stimulating the growth of new skin underneath. Though she says that hydroxy acids can create a modest improvement in lines and wrinkles, their real purpose is to allow “new, fresh skin to come through.” Acid exfoliants can be a good alternative to retinoids, which may cause dryness and irritation in some people.

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Tea Extracts

Tea extracts, like those from green tea for example, contain a high concentration of polyphenols. Polyphenols, says Dr. Wattenberg, have an anti-aging effect associated with decreased inflammation and decreased free-radical formation. “They basically help prevent the damage that would normally occur in the skin,” she says, “and by doing that, they help to improve color, texture, and tone.”

Using a Combination of Anti-aging Products

“Combination is definitely beneficial,” says Dr. Wattenberg of using multiple products containing different key ingredients. For example, a product with a high antioxidant concentration may be used in the morning, followed by a sunscreen, and a retinol-containing cream may be applied at night. Another example is the combination of antioxidants with hydroxy acids or green tea. Though Dr. Wattenberg says that many products can be combined, she doesn’t recommend layering too many in one application; instead, she advises, “if you use one in the morning and one at night, it usually works quite well.”

Before You Apply, Consider This

Safety. “Any product can cause allergic reactions,” says Dr. Wattenberg. Anti-aging products can also cause irritation and make skin itchy or more sun-sensitive. Products with vitamins A and E and retinoids are particularly sun-sensitizing, so always wear sun protection when you’re using these. Furthermore, test new products on a small patch of skin before complete application, and add products to your regimen gradually.

Value. “I think that there are great products at any price point,” says Dr. Wattenberg, whether you shop at drugstores, department stores, or specialty stores. “What’s key is to know what your goals are and then look for the ingredients that are going to address that particular issue.” This approach, she explains, may be more effective than simply choosing expensive products.

Realistic goals. “You need to realize that there is no miracle cream out there,” Dr. Wattenberg advises. She says there are, however, products that will help improve your skin. Many of these take some time before you see a difference, so be patient and don’t expect results overnight. “It’s a commitment, and you have to stick with it and use it every day.”


The American Academy of Dermatology