Understanding Popular Skin Care Ingredients

Go to any supermarket or mom-and-pop shop and you might find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of skin care products on the shelves. Whether you’re just starting out on a first-time skin care regimen or you’re a longtime user, knowing what specific ingredients do in your most popular products can be beneficial.

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“To avoid burning, you should apply sunscreen in the morning every day,” advises Dr. Bergfeld.

To help avoid skin irritation, start with a product with a maximum concentration of 10% to 15% AHA. To allow your skin to get used to it, you should only initially apply the skin care product every other day, gradually working up to daily application.

“In many cases, salicylic acid can be less irritating than skin care products containing alpha-hydroxy acids,” explains Dr. Bergfeld. “But they provide similar improvement in skin texture and color.”

“Your doctor can also prescribe a cream with a higher concentration of hydroquinone if your skin doesn’t respond to over-the-counter treatments,” says Dr. Bergfeld.

Hydroquinone is also sometimes combined with sunscreen because sun exposure causes skin hyperpigmentation. It’s best to test hydroquinone-containing products in a small area, as some people are allergic to it. If you’re allergic to hydroquinone, you may benefit from the use of products containing kojic acid instead.

Look to retinol to improve acne and acne scarring, mottled pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, skin texture, skin tone and color, and your skin’s hydration levels.

Retinol is derived from vitamin A and is found in many over-the-counter “anti-aging” skin care products. Tretinoin, which is the active ingredient in prescription Retin-A® and Renova® creams, is a stronger version of retinol. If your skin is too sensitive to use Retin-A, over-the-counter retinol is an excellent alternative.

“Vitamin A has a molecular structure that’s tiny enough to get into the lower layers of your skin, where it finds and boosts collagen and elastin, which is a protein that strengthens your skin’s flexibility” explains Dr. Bergfeld.

This is the only form of vitamin C that you should look for in your skin care products.

“There are many skin care products on the market today that boast vitamin C derivatives like magnesium ascorbyl phosphate or ascorbyl palmitate as an ingredient,” says Dr. Bergfeld. “But L-ascorbic acid is the only useful form of vitamin C in skin care products.”

With age and sun exposure, collagen synthesis in your skin decreases, leading to wrinkles. Vitamin C is the only antioxidant proven to stimulate the synthesis of collagen, minimizing fine lines, scars and wrinkles. It may also improve the appearance of sun-damaged skin. Initial use of vitamin C-containing creams can cause stinging or redness, but these side effects generally go away with continued use.

Skin care products containing this substance are often used with vitamin C products to assist in effective penetration. Hyaluronic acid (also known as a glycosaminoglycan) is touted for its ability to “reverse” or stop aging. In news reports, you might have heard of hyaluronic acid as the “key to the fountain of youth.” This is because the substance occurs naturally (and quite abundantly) in humans and animals, and is found in young skin, other tissues and joint fluid.

“Hyaluronic acid is a component of your body’s connective tissues, and it’s known to cushion and lubricate these tissues,” says Dr. Bergfeld. “As you age, however, forces of nature destroy hyaluronic acid. Poor diet and smoking can also affect your body’s level of hyaluronic acid over time.”

Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that helps build keratin and keep your skin firm and healthy. It can help retain moisture and stop skin flushing. If you have rosacea, face masks with this ingredient can help reduce redness and swelling. 

This silicone-based ingredient is the second-most common ingredient in moisturizers. If you’re dealing with dry skin, moisturizers with this ingredient can be beneficial, especially in the winter. This non-toxic ingredient can help with scar tissue and makes your skin feel incredibly soft.

It can also help protect your hair against breakage and create a slick, smooth feeling in your follicles. This is why you’ll find this ingredient in hair products that help reduce frizz and split ends. But it’s important to note that it’s heavy and builds up quickly, sometimes preventing water from getting into your roots. If you use a product with dimethicone, you’ll want to use a clarifying shampoo once a week to help clear up any buildup.

Copper peptide is often referred to as the most effective skin regeneration product, even though it’s only been on the market since 1997. This ingredient promotes collagen and elastin production, acts as an antioxidant and promotes production of glycosaminoglycans like hyaluronic acid. It also increases the benefits of your body’s natural tissue-building processes by firming, smoothing and softening skin — and it does this in less time than most other anti-aging skin care products.

Ingredients in today’s skin care products are wide and varied. But understanding them can help you hone a skin care routine that’s just right for you.