Anti-aging skincare: practical overview

Skin aging (for now) is a natural part of living a long life. We can't fully prevent or undo it.

But here is the good news. Good skincare, nutrition and active lifestyle can have a huge difference for how our skin looks and works as we age.

The two forces behind skin aging

There are two main forces that drive aging. One is called "intrinsic" (from inside) and the other one "extrinsic" (from outside). The first force is a degradation that happens in our bodies with age - even if we are in perfect conditions. We cannot stop it (at least, yet). The second aging comes from the impact of the environment around us.

It's a very crude metaphor, but it can help to understand the difference between two forces. Take a textile bag. Imagine we place it in a museum, under glass protection. It will stay like new for a very long time, but still, eventually, it will degrade. This is the work of intrinsic aging (in this very crude example).

Now imagine this bag lives a normal bag's life. It gets carried around in sun and and in wind, it gets to bear heavy weight of groceries. It also get washed and dried. This bag will disintegrate way faster than the one in the museum. This would be the work of "extrinsic" aging.

As with the bag, extrinsic aging works way faster than intrinsic one. This is why signs of skin aging can appear quite early in life - way sooner than our biological clock would dictate.

On a positive side, if we control the drivers of the "outside" (extrinsic) aging, we can have a young-looking skin for a long time. For example, deep wrinkles and age spots are a result of the "outside" aging. It is not possible to avoid wrinkles fully, but the ones we get from the "internal" (intrinsic) aging appear way later in life and are milder.

The purpose of anti-aging skincare is to prevent the "tear-and-wear" of life on our skin, and to help it heal the damage that still occurs. (Luckily, our skin is not a bag and can restore itself - at least to a large degree).

So what are the "wear-and-tear" factors?

The strongest of them is sun light.

Sun damage

Sun light is a form of radiation. Of course, it gives us life and good mood, so no sun-hating here:). But sun light comes with serious side effects. Sun (UV) light is a powerful generator of free radicals. These particles affect our skin cells and make them less good in what they do. As the result, skin loses elasticity and can get pigmentation spots. Darker skin has a stronger natural protection from the UV light compared to pale skin, but it still ages it. The first signs of sun-induced aging for people with dark skin tones are usually pigmentation marks (age spots) rather than wrinkles.

Scientists believe that over 80% of facial skin aging is due to low-grade chronic sun exposure. (Meaning the daily exposure to sun light - excluding the episodes of sun burn!).

This is why the holy grail of anti-aging skincare is a daily sunscreen. It needs to be broad-spectrum (protecting from both "burning" UVB rays, as well as UVA light that does not cause sun burn but damages our skin "quietly"). It also needs to have an SPF of 30 or higher.

If you are tired of reading this article, I have good news for you: you've already got the main point. If you want to delay and reduce skin aging, use a broad spectrum sunscreen SPF 30+ every day. No other product on this planet can give you a comparable anti-aging effect. (And things are frankly worse on other planets - you'd need to wear a proper full-body UV shield just to survive on Mars).

Free radicals

Sunscreens do not block the UV rays fully. Also, because we are busy living a life, most of us don't wear sunscreen 100% of the time of sun exposure. As a result, our skin still gets exposed to sun-caused free radicals. In addition, things like air pollution and cigarette smoke, as well as some normal biological processes in the body also generate free radicals. (And free radicals interfere with how our skin cells work causing aging).

Luckily, there are anti-oxidants that can neutralize free radicals and prevent them from harming our skin. The most powerful source of anti-oxidants for our skin is raw plant food. This is why a healthy nutrition is an important part of anti-aging skincare. (If we think about it as "caring for our skin" rather than shopping therapy at Sephora).

We can also apply anti-oxidants to the surface of our skin to help it neutralize more free radicals. It is not as effective as eating them, but can have some effect. The most potent and well-studied topical anti-oxidant is L-Ascorbic Acid (a form of Vitamin C). This is why it makes sense to add a Vitamin C product to your topical skincare regimen. To get results, use a product with 10-25% concentration of Ascorbic Acid once a day. Go for uncolored product. Here is why: Ascorbic Acid loses its anti-oxidant power on contact with air and light. When it happens, it turns orange. If your Ascorbic Acid product changed its color to orange, it's a sign that it lost a big chunk of its effectiveness and it's time to discard it.

There are other topical anti-oxidants like natural chemicals in green tea and many other plant extracts. Like Ascorbic Acid, they are also unstable and lose effectiveness quickly. Also, it is very hard to find them in skincare products in a concentration high enough to have an effect. (And in very high concentrations they are likely to cause skin irritation).

Another compound, Niacinamide (Vitamin B3), holds a separate place in the anti-free-radicals skincare army. It is not an anti-oxidant itself, but it can increase the ability of our skin to produce its own antioxidants. In food, Vitamin B3 is in meat, fish, brown rice, seeds, nuts and legumes.

Not being an antioxidant itself is huge advantage of Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide) in the topical skincare world. It means that it is stable and is less "afraid" of exposure to air and light. This is why it's a great active to have in a moistruizer, serum, or sunscreen. Look for concentrations of between 2% and 5%.

Undoing free radical damage

Unfortunately, even with all anti-oxidants, free radicals still reach our skin and cause trouble. This is why some skincare products aim to repair the damage that has been already done. The most effective actives in the products like that are retinoids.

Retinoids are form of Vitamin A. They are in our body naturally. In skin, they work as "communicators". They "tell" the skin cells to "behave well": produce more collagen & elastin and control the production of skin pigment melanin. There are different forms of retinoids that can have this effect (and it is a little complicated). For practical skincare purposes, it's enough to note the most effective retinoid formats:

The effective concentrations of the non-prescription retinoids start at about 0.02% and can go up to about 1%.

We recommend using products with these retinoids no more than once daily. If your skin is sensitive, use it less often (1-3 times per week). The same goes for when you are in your first 1-2 months of starting a retinoid. (Retinoids often cause skin irritation. It gets better once skin "gets used" to them - hence the recommendation to start with them slowly). Unfortunately, some people cannot tolerate retinoids at all because of the irritation.

We have already talked about Niacianamide as a "sort of" anti-oxidant. Great news is that somewhat similar to retinoids, it can also "talk" to skin cells. Its communication is different from retinoids, but it leads to the same good effects: more collagen production and less pigmentation.

Inflammation and skin aging

Inflammation is a natural skin's response that helps our body fight infection. As part of this process, skin destroys its own collagen and elastin. It makes sense when fighting a disease (so new, healthy tissue can grow). The problem is that if our skin is in the inflamed state a lot, more collagen & elastin gets destroyed than gets renewed. As the result, we get more wrinkles and less tone. Inflammation also leads to melanin production at the site of trouble. This can result in pigmentation spots. The risk is higher for darker skin tones.

What are the triggers of inflammation? The obvious and big ones are physical skin trauma and infection. This is why it is important to avoid physical impact on skin - including physical scrubs and brushes.

UV light also triggers inflammation. (Back to sunscreen!)

Skin irritation and allergies are another major sources of inflammation. This is is why we recommend to avoid unnecessary common irritants in anti-aging skincare (these include fragrance, essential oils, many plant extracts, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives). The trouble is though that effective anti-aging topical actives also can be irritating. This is certainly true for Ascorbic Acid in high concentration and retinoids.

If an anti-aging actives causes irritation, it is likely having a net-negative effect for our skin. (As in the benefit gets undone by the harm caused by the inflammation). This is why it is important to use the anti-aging actives cautiously. The goal is to strike a balance between good actives in effective concentrations and how much your skin can take without irritation. When in doubt, use less actives (fewer actives in total, lower concentrations, less frequent application). Be especially careful if your natural skin tone is olive or darker.

Exfoliating acids and anti-aging

Glycolic, mandelic, lactic acid (called AHAs, or alpha-hydroxy acids), lactobionic acid, gluconalactone (called PHAs, or polyhydroxy acids) can also have an anti-aging effect in topical skincare. Scientists do not fully understand why this effect happen. The most popular explanation is that this effect is due to exfoliation. These acids help to shed the upper-most layer of the skin. This brings literally younger (or newer) skin to the surface. It is especially effective for getting rid of pigmentation marks quicker. This does not explain fully the positive effect on the collagen production. It is possible that the anti-aging effect of the acids is a by-product of exfoliation (it involves calcium ions and gets complicated quickly). But here is a practical conclusion: removing the upper layer of your skin is not particularly anti-aging. Physical scrubs and brushes won't have an anti-aging benefit, only exfoliating acids would.

Exfoliating acids can have a major side effect. They thin the upper layer of the skin, and it can make the skin reactive. It can get irritated easier. And since irritation = inflammation = more aging, we want to avoid it. Again, we recommend to be extra careful with exfoliating acids if you have dark skin.

This is not an exhaustive summary of all anti-aging skincare actives. There are many more, but they are less studied and their effects are less certain.

Hormonal causes of skin aging during and after menopause

Biological women also experience another strong cause of skin aging. It is hormonal, and comes with menopause.

Changes in the female body that lead to menopause also lead to a permanent decline in production of some hormones, including estrogen and testosterone. Estrogen in particular affects our skin a lot. Reduced estrogen level leads to a sharp decrease in collagen content, skin elasticity, thickness and moisture levels. About 30% of collagen content in skin can be lost within the first 5 years following the menopause. 

Topical skincare cannot do much to prevent or reverse most of the changes associated with menopause. The skincare actives we talked about above (sunscreens, anti-oxidants, retinoids & niacinamide) can mitigate the negative effect. There is no need in cosmetic products created specifically for menopausal skin, it is just a marketing trick. 

Hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) is a treatment that is sometimes prescribed by doctors to women suffering from negative effects of menopause. This treatment involves hormonal supplementation. HRT might be able to prevent or even reverse the “hormonal aging” happening in the skin. It can also have side effects. Some of them are of a more tolerable, “cosmetic” nature (for example, acne). Others could be even more serious - potentially including increased cancer risk in some patients. While HRT can be effective for maintaining skin youthfulness post-menopause, it is an extremely complex medical area. Please follow your doctor’s advice if you are considering HRT.

Practical summary

The most important anti-aging product is a daily broad spectrum sunscreen SPF30+. Apply a good amount (more product = more protection) every day you go outside or spend time next to a window, even if it's cloudy.

The other crucial part of anti-aging skincare is good nutrition. Regular movement can also keep our skin younger (the mechanism is not fully understood but the effect is there).

Less powerful, but still effective skincare elements for anti-aging are topical skincare products:

  • Topical anti-oxidants, mainly Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C). Look for concentrations of 10-25%.

  • Niacinamide (Vitamin B3). Can be part of a moisturizing cream, serum or a sunscreen. Look for concentrations between 2% and 5%.

  • Retinoids. For non-prescription retinoids, look for concentrations between 0.02% and 1%.

Other actives like bakuchiol, peptides, adenosine and others can be helpful as well. Their effect for anti-aging is less studied, so it makes sense to think about them as "helpers" rather than the main "work horses" of your anti-aging regimen. Also, we did not discuss cosmetic procedures here. Many of them can work (but some are a total waste of money). Hopefully we can write up an overview of them soon.

Finally, it is important that your anti-aging skincare regimen does not lead to skin irritation. If it does, it can do more harm than good to your skin. It's always better to go for less actives (and procedures), but avoid the aging & "pigmenting" inflammation.