Exfoliants and Emollients: Weeding Your Way Through the Marketplace Part II

dr. lisa ginn

My last post was the first of a two-part series where I offer my insight and advice on how to select the right cleansers, exfoliants, humectants, antioxidants, and moisturizer products for your skin and budget. The first post covered cleansers, exfoliants and humectants. In this post I discuss antioxidants and moisturizers and their role in helping your skin slow down the aging process. My goal is to help you understand 1) how to use these products, 2) what to look for in the ingredient labels, and 3) which ingredients are worth your money.

Dermatologists have discovered there are two main processes that keep your skin healthy and youthful: your skin’s ability to shed dead skin cells and production of collagen. In the last post I reviewed the different types of exfoliants in the marketplace as well as explained the essential role exfoliants play in helping your skin slough off dead skin cells more efficiently.

While exfoliants can help your skin appear fresher and minimize discoloration, collagen is responsible for giving it elasticity and suppleness. By your mid- to late-thirties, your skin stops making collagen. Sunlight and smoking are the worst attackers of collagen. They soften collagen’s rigidity, causing the skin to sag. Antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E help your skin’s collagen in two ways. Antioxidants slow down the rate at which your skin breaks down collagen by preventing free oxygen radicals, which are found in our day-to-day environment, from causing damaging effects on your skin. These vitamins help to keep “the collagen production switch” turned on in the skin even after your mid- to-late thirties. By maintaining healthy and abundant collagen in our skin, we can dramatically reduce wrinkles, sagging, and even skin scarring. This, in my opinion, is the true fountain of youth!

Vitamin A is widely recognized by the brand name prescription cream Retin-A (active ingredient being tretinoin) and the over-the-counter ingredient retinol. Tretinoin and retinol are closely related and both belong to the family of compounds called retinoids. While both are recommended for treating fine lines, retinoid is a prescription retinoid and available in three different strengths. It is an extremely effective therapy for the treatment of active acne and clogged pores, acne scars, surgical scars and wrinkles. Since tretinoin is a prescription medication, it should only be prescribed by a doctor. On the other hand, cosmetic products that contain retinol are available over the counter without a prescription. Products containing retinol can do a wonderful job in reducing fine lines, unclogging pores, and even improving the appearance of scars. But if you want the most potent form of treatment, it is best to see a dermatologist so that you can be treated with tretinoin. If you are pregnant or nursing, you should be under the direct guidance of a doctor, as many physicians, including myself, do not recommend the use of retinoids during pregnancy or nursing.

Vitamin C is an antioxidant that is also used as a chemical exfoliant. Vitamin C is an ingredient in many products and will be listed on a product’s label. The current scientific research seems to indicate that the most potent form of vitamin C is L-ascorbic acid. Like many of my colleagues, I believe that L-ascorbic acid is the superior form of vitamin C for use in cosmetics. The trick with vitamin C is that it is very stable as a powder but not as a liquid. Its most popular form of use in cosmetics is that of a serum. When it is formulated properly, a serum can contain a very high and effective concentration of L-ascorbic acid. My advice to you is that you only purchase vitamin C as a serum from a trusted brand. I find that a high-quality vitamin C serum is an excellent treatment for fine lines and improving your skin’s elasticity. If you have a limited budget for your skin care regime, I believe this is where you should spend your money; purchase the best, most refined vitamin C product you can afford.

Vitamin E is an antioxidant that I recommend for my patients with sensitive skin. It is usually listed on product labels as tocopherol. Vitamin E, vitamin C and vitamin A products may be used together to produce the maximum benefit. However, to avoid sensitivity, it is best to seek the guidance of a dermatologist or skin care professional who is familiar with a host of products to design the best skin care regimen for you.

Coenzyme Q10 and ferulic acid are very effective antioxidants but can be quite expensive. Coenzyme Q10 (Co-Q10 or Q10) and ubiquinone are one and the same. You are likely to see it on the label of various creams. Ferulic acid is also popular and is found serums more so than creams.

Moisturizers help your skin by acting as a barrier or a humectant. Barrier moisturizers usually come in the form of a heavy cream or ointment/grease and are used to either lock moisture in or keep it out of the skin. This type of moisturizer is often used with babies or older people. Clogged pores are one drawback to the heavy creams and ointments that are typically used in barrier types of moisturizes. Humectants, on the other hand, are ingredients that hold water. Moisturizer creams and serums that contain humectants work by attracting water to the skin from the air. They literally create a soothing blanket of water on the skin. In general, all ages of skin can benefit from using a moisturizer that contains a humectant.

If you have more mature skin, you might benefit from using a humectant-containing serum as well as a barrier moisturizer. In my opinion hyaluronic acid is the best humectant available on the market, as it is widely available in serum and cream form and is quite inexpensive compared to other humectants. Don’t let the “acid” part of the name concern you as it is very mild and soothing to the skin. Likewise, do not be misled by the product labels that list collagen as an ingredient. Collagen used in over-the-counter cosmetic creams is simply a humectant like hyaluronic acid. However, unlike hyaluronic acid products, cosmetics that contain collagen are often extremely expensive. Collagen in these products does not penetrate deep enough into your skin to supplement your own natural collagen production. Remember, antioxidants, as we just discussed, and laser therapy, which I will discuss in a future post, are truly the most effective tools for building collagen in the skin.

Even after acquiring your ideal combination of products, you need a consistent skin care routine to attain and maintain results. In general, I advise my patients to do the following:

  • Every morning and evening – cleanse, apply a serum, and then apply a moisturizer.
  • In the morning – use a moisturizer that contains an SPF.
  • If you have a retinoid in your moisturizer – apply that in the evening.
  • If you have a vitamin C product – use it during the day so it can protect your skin against free radicals.

You can also think of it this way: the morning routine is about protection, and the evening routine is about rejuvenation. A comprehensive yet simple daily regimen should contain these four steps: cleanse, exfoliate, moisturize, and protect (antioxidants and sun protection).

Armed with this information I hope you feel more knowledgeable about making educated selections in the skin care marketplace and are able to create a regimen that allows you to reap the maximum benefits that cleansers, exfoliants, humectants, antioxidants, and moisturizers offer.

Published on 09/22/2010 | Last updated on 12/20/2016