What do these trendy anti-aging ingredients actually do for skin?

Plus, the best anti-aging wrinkle treatments you can’t get in stores

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Curology Team
Jun 24, 2019 · 14 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

On the list of things that get better with age, the beauty industry doesn’t seem to think your skin is up there with fine wine or your favorite jeans. In the media and marketing of endless “anti-aging” skincare products, growing older is framed as something to be avoided and hidden at all costs (literally, if the popularity of $300+ face creams is any indication). We see things differently on two important counts: aging is a privilege, and maintaining your skin over the years doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.

It’s true: most products that claim to reduce fine lines, wrinkles, age spots, etcetera, are mildly effective at most. Tretinoin (a prescription-strength retinoid), as well as other ingredients available in your custom Curology anti-aging cream (or via your local dermatologist), have been shown in studies to work better than even the fanciest, priciest wrinkle creams on drug store (or beauty store) shelves. For example, one study by the Department of Dermatology at the University of Michigan found that retinol is 10 to 20 times less potent than tretinoin! While the retinol you can buy in stores has some effect, prescription ingredients like tretinoin work way better to reduce fine wrinkles, fade unwanted pigmentation such as age spots and sun spots, and improve skin texture.

The truth about anti-aging treatments: good results take time

We’ll always be real with you: there is no magic one-and-done cure for the signs of aging. The reality is that it takes patience and persistent use of prescription-strength ingredients like tretinoin — and, importantly, wearing sunscreen every day — to see results throughout the aging process.

Do the lofty promises that many cosmetics companies make about their products sound unrealistic? As the saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Read the fine print carefully — the actual results may be disappointing! Remember that the beauty industry, like every industry, has its less-than-scrupulous members. Some companies may be out to sell products this month or this season, which isn’t helpful to your goal of maintaining your skin for life.

Read more: 10 face sunscreens for every skin type

The significant and lasting results you want require more powerful ingredients that are only available with a prescription, and it can take months of consistent use of the right prescription ingredients in order to see results. That’s the promise of custom skincare with Curology: you get a formula designed by a dermatology provider just for you, delivered to your door so you never have to miss a day of your routine. Once you see results, keep them coming by wearing sunscreen and maintaining your age-defying skincare routine every night. Think of it this way: it took years for your skin to get to its current state, so it’ll take some time to improve, too.

So, while it’s easier said than done, try to be patient with your skin. It likes to take its sweet time to change. As a skincare company founded by dermatologists, we believe what matters most is delivering on our promises for realistic results and giving each individual the best treatment and advice for their unique skin.

25 trendy (non-prescription) anti-aging skincare ingredients: are they for real?

Person rubbing in skincare cream on her face

Between the Curology community and our ever-growing team of in-house dermatology providers, we’ve heard it all when it comes to skincare trends and “anti-aging” products. While some over-the-counter ingredients can show temporary improvements or help moisturize the skin, they can’t smooth fine lines and wrinkles and fade dark spots like prescription-strength retinoids and other powerful dermatologist-recommended ingredients can.

That being said, we’re not afraid to nerd out over skincare trends. So here are our analyses of the trendiest anti-aging skincare ingredients out there today, with a little scientific background courtesy of Curology’s in-house dermatologists and the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

1. Peptides

Peptides are amino acid molecules that can supposedly encourage collagen production in the skin, and collagen helps gives skin that coveted plumpness, firmness, and smoothness. But to have this effect, peptides have to be formulated just right in order to be able to penetrate the skin, and there isn’t enough research out there to know which formulation works best. So while putting peptides on your face sounds good in theory, it might be a waste of time (and $$$) until more research is done.

2. Caffeine

Besides helping you wake up in the morning, caffeine is apparently good for your skin, too: it’s soothing, anti-inflammatory, and vasoconstrictive (meaning it narrows blood vessels, which helps reduce facial redness). Caffeine is even used in certain eye creams such as Origins GinZing™ Refreshing Eye Cream to reduce under-eye puffiness, redness, and dark circles. It sounds good in theory — like a cup of coffee for your skin! — but these potential effects of topical caffeine haven’t been backed up by studies. It’s possible that there may be some mild temporary benefit to using caffeine on the skin, but more studies are needed before we can say for sure.

3. Bakuchiol

This one sounds promising, to be sure: some studies suggest bakuchiol could provide similar benefits as topical retinoids, such as improvement in lines and wrinkles, pigmentation, elasticity, firmness and overall reduction in photo-damage (sun damage to the skin). In these early studies, bakuchiol also appeared to be effective against inflammatory acne and even reduced post-acne spots (hyperpigmentation), a result that was particularly striking in those with darker skin tones. We look forward to further studies that will teach us more about this ingredient, but for now, we can’t say for sure how it stacks up against gold-standard prescription retinoid tretinoin.

4. Moringa oil

The oil from moringa oleifera seeds are thought to revitalize the skin and support anti-aging effects because it’s rich in fatty acids, sterols and tocopherols, as well as proteins rich in amino acids. Even though moringa seed oil is commonly used in skincare and traditional medicine, it hasn’t been studied on humans enough for us to say for sure if and how this ingredient works on the skin. It’s one of those ingredients that the skin seems to like, but we’ll reserve judgment until further studies are done.

5. Kiwi fruit extract

Kiwi fruit extract contains a lot of stuff that’s good for the skin: for one, it’s high in vitamin C, a potent antioxidant that can protect the skin from free radicals, stimulate collagen production, and reduce hyperpigmentation. It also contains a proteolytic enzyme known as actinidin, which helps to exfoliate the top layer of dead skin cells, leaving skin looking brighter with a more even tone. This is great for short-term benefits, but don’t expect results comparable to what you’d see with more potent prescription anti-aging ingredients.

6. Broccoli seed extract

Researchers are still investigating the properties of sulforaphane in broccoli extract, but the idea is that it may help prevent skin damage (including skin cancers) that result from ultraviolet radiation. In early studies, applying broccoli extract to the skin caused skin cells to step up production of enzymes that help cells combat the damaging effects of solar radiation. Basically, broccoli extract appears to encourage your body’s own defense system’s function. Pretty amazing, right? More studies are needed, but broccoli seed extract might be the next vitamin C in skincare for sun protection!

7. Thermal water

Thermal spring water has been used in curative practices for eons, but the research out there is lacking. Though it’s been used for chronic inflammatory diseases such as atopic dermatitis (eczema), psoriasis, wound healing, burn scars, and pruritus, as well as rosacea-like dermatoses and ichthyosis, we can’t yet say for sure if and how it helps the skin. Adding to the confusion, there are five major categories of thermal water: bicarbonate, sulfate, sulfide, chloride, and weakly mineralized trace metal, so we’d need studies to show which type(s) of thermal water (if any) help the skin. Meanwhile, we remain skeptical, but hey — whatever feels nice on your skin, feel free to enjoy!

8. Vitamin E

Vitamin E (aka tocopherol) is an antioxidant with a lot of purported (but mostly unproven) benefits for the skin. What we do know is that it can help protect the skin from sun damage when combined with vitamin C before sun exposure! So that’s one way it may help reduce the signs of sun-induced aging: preventing it from happening in the first place. Slather on a serum or cream with these two vitamins in it before you apply sunscreen, and you should be good to go have some fun in the sun.

9. Green tea

Green tea is widely believed to have antioxidant and anticarcinogenic effects in the body, and topically applying green tea polyphenols in the morning — in combination with sunscreen — is thought to potentially enhance skin protection against UV damage. That said, proof of these effects on human skin is lacking, despite much research. It’s possible that you may get more benefit from drinking green tea than from putting it on your skin!

10. Resveratrol

A natural antioxidant compound found in the skin and seeds of grapes, berries, peanuts, red wine, and other foods, resveratrol has a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect. Recent studies suggest this antioxidant protects the skin from the harmful effects of UV radiation. You can find resveratrol in over-the-counter products like Replenix Power of Three Cream by Topix, which also delivers the anti-inflammatory effect of green tea.

11. Grape seed oil

Grape seed oil is rich in antioxidants vitamin E, linoleic acid, and phenolic compounds, and its phytosterol content can help reduce inflammation. This is all great and makes it a promising ingredient in skincare, but more studies are needed to know for sure if it has any anti-aging benefits.

12. Turmeric (curcuminoids)

Early studies show some evidence that turmeric (aka curcumin) has benefits for skin health both when eaten and applied topically to the skin. Curcuminoids have been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, and antineoplastic properties, and applied topically, it may be an effective ingredient especially for healing skin injuries and inflammation. More studies are necessary, however, before we give it the Curology stamp of approval.

13. Biotin

Biotin (aka vitamin B7) is an overall essential nutrient that’s popular for strengthening the hair and nails, among other health benefits. But most people don’t need to take supplements — biotin can be produced in our intestinal tract by bacteria, and it’s found in many foods such as oatmeal, egg yolk, organ meats, mushrooms, bananas, peanuts and brewer’s yeast, so biotin deficiency is quite rare. The jury is still out as to whether taking biotin supplements alone can directly improve the appearance of your skin, hair, and nails. If your skin is prone to breakouts, you might want to avoid taking biotin supplements altogether! High doses of biotin are connected to acne flare-ups — even low doses could have this effect if you’ve got acne-prone skin.

14. Alpha-lipoic acid

Alpha-lipoic acid is an ultra-potent antioxidant that may help fight future skin damage and repair past damage: it’s believed to help reduce fine lines and wrinkles, help give skin a healthy glow, and boost the levels of other antioxidants such as vitamin C. This is mostly speculation, however — more studies are needed to be certain.

15. Ceramides

Ceramides are one of nine lipids naturally found in our bodies that prevent the epidermis (the top layer of the skin) from losing moisture. Ceramide creams can help replenish skin that’s chronically dry due to environmental factors or damage caused by certain skin conditions, and ceramides can even help with acne, decreasing the negative side effects and enhancing the results of acne treatments. Moisturizers that replace deficient ceramides can repair the lipid layer, restore the natural skin barrier, and allow the skin to retain moisture — so it’s great for your skin, but not necessarily a potent anti-aging ingredient. Our skin does get drier as we get older, however, so replenishing with ceramides is an important step.

16. Aloe vera

Aloe vera contains skin-replenishing vitamins, enzymes, minerals, sugars, fatty acids, and amino acids. It’s known to help heal wounds and moisturize the skin, but studies on its benefits for the skin are too limited to prove for sure how it works. Aloe does have soothing, anti-inflammatory effects, so it’s great for soothing a sunburn and can even help with redness from inflammatory acne. Again, that’s great and all, but that doesn’t mean aloe is an effective anti-aging ingredient — we’ll need to see new studies that back up those claims.

17. Coenzyme Q10 or ubiquinone

CoQ10 (aka ubiquinone) is a compound found in all human cells, and it’s abundant in fish and shellfish, too. When applied to the skin, CoQ10 has been shown to help prevent collagen breakdown after exposure to the sun’s UV rays! However, no long-term anti-aging benefits of CoQ10 products have been established in studies so far.

18. Hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid is a beneficial ingredient that locks moisture in the skin, so it’s helpful against dryness and irritation. This creates a positive, but temporary, effect on the appearance of wrinkles, and on the perceived elasticity of the skin. If you like a moisturizer with hyaluronic acid (like our moisturizer, which comes in the Curology set!), you can use it long-term to enjoy the effects.

19. Jojoba oil

Jojoba oil is commonly used in skincare from sunscreens and moisturizers because it’s an effective carrier oil, and it’s got reparative, replenishing benefits for the skin, as well. Its high content of wax esters makes it a good repair option for people with skin conditions such as seborrheic dermatitis, eczematous dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, and acne, which weaken the skin’s protective barrier. Jojoba oil also has a proven anti-inflammatory effect, so basically, it’s like a superfood that the skin eats right up! As far as age-defying benefits are concerned, however, it’s just another short-term solution — but with regular long-term use, you may see continuous benefits to your skin.

20. Kojic acid

Kojic acid is an antioxidant that helps lighten post-acne spots, age spots, and skin pigmentation from sun damage. It works by breaking down melanin and preventing its production in the skin — it’s a double threat against hyperpigmentation! Most people’s skin tolerates kojic acid just fine, but in rare cases, kojic acid can be irritating or cause an allergic reaction, so we recommend doing a small patch test on your skin before applying it all over your face to make sure you won’t have an unpleasant itchy reaction.

21. Lactic acid

Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that dissolves the “cement” that holds the dead skin cells on the skin’s surface, which helps unclog pores and get rid of dull, dry, or flaky skin. Exfoliating the surface layers of the skin can also help reduce dark spots and discoloration (aka hyperpigmentation) and increase collagen production, too — all great age-defying benefits for the skin. Lactic acid is considered the mildest of AHAs, and it’s used in various topical formulations to exfoliate the skin and also to provide anti-aging properties. Because it’s the gentlest AHA, don’t expect massive results. That said, its gentleness makes it safer to try on sensitive skin.

22. Malic acid

Made from the acid found in apples, malic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that works well together with its cousins lactic acid and glycolic acid to exfoliate the skin, and improve its firmness and tone. Applying malic acid (and other AHAs) in a lotion, cream, or serum can help smooth the appearance of wrinkles and other signs of sun-damaged skin. Too much of this good thing can irritate the skin, potentially, so proceed with caution. Check out our blog post on AHAs and other acids in skincare for product recommendations and more need-to-know info.

23. Plant stem cells

Advances in plant stem cell technology mean scientists can extract antioxidants from plants in their purest and most stable form, which can help products more successfully treat the signs of aging. Wow, right? Stem cell derived products have shown promise in laboratory tests, but it’s too early to know whether these truly deliver their promised benefit. According to the AAD, “future research will help further determine which botanical antioxidants provide maximum anti-aging benefits and set the foundation for the next generation of skin care products.” The verdict? It’s promising, but we’re going to reserve judgment until science can back up all these claims.

24. Vitamin K

Vitamin K is the “blood clotting” vitamin, a nutrient that the body uses to pull proteins together to encourage blood clotting. Vitamin K cream is commonly used after cosmetic facial surgery, since it may help encourage faster healing through quicker cell regeneration. Though vitamin K creams are widely used for prevention and treatment of bruising, to our knowledge, is it an effective anti-aging ingredient? Not as far as we know.

25. Rosehip oil

Rich in polyphenols, vitamins C, E, carotenoids, and essential fatty and unsaturated acids, rosehip oil has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It can soothe the skin and may improve the elasticity and hyperpigmentation of post-surgical scars, although the evidence is limited. Rosehip oil is typically fine to use for people treating acne and other skin conditions, but further research may shed light on specific benefits.

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The #curologyjourney is all about your results

Of course, aging gracefully is about more than how you look, but we understand how important it is (to all of us!) that we feel good about how we look. True confidence comes from within, and giving your skin the care it needs with the stuff that actually works is a great place to start. Don’t get us wrong — these ingredients are usually fine to use, if you like the short-term glow or extra boost of hydration. But if you’re looking for permanent results for healthy aging and glowing skin, prescription ingredients and in-office dermatologist treatments such as lasers or injections are the way to go. Whatever feels right for you, we say ignore the ageism and unrealistic expectations that some in the beauty industry put out into the world, and stay true to who you are. Because you and your skin are unique, and we love that about you.

We believe that prescription ingredients should be affordable and conveniently accessible to all, which is why we’re devoted to keeping our prices as low as possible for the highest possible quality ingredients — all while taking care to make sure all of the ingredients in your custom face cream will work with your unique skin. See for yourself! Sign up for a free trial of Curology and complete your quick online questionnaire to get your own custom age-defying formula.

And don’t forget to join the Curology community on social media, where real (and really supportive!) Curology members share their results, from clearing up acne to reducing signs of sun damage to smoothing their complexion. You can join the conversation and even share your selfies using the #curologyjourney hashtag on Instagram, or just check out the ever-growing gallery for inspiration and motivation.

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