Who doesn’t love a moisturizer with a luxurious feel? And wouldn’t it be great if it also made your skin look clearer or younger? That’s the promise of cosmeceuticals.
“Cosmeceuticals try to bridge the gap between what you can get at the cosmetic counter and what you can get at a pharmacy,” says Suzan Obagi, MD, president of the Cosmetic Surgery Foundation and associate professor of dermatology and director of the Cosmetic Surgery and Skin Health Center at the University of Pittsburgh.
Prescription medications are designed to work very effectively, but often they don’t have the elegance or feel of over-the-counter moisturizers. They’re also not typically tailored to different skin types, Dr. Obagi says. But cosmeceuticals are good quality products that effectively make your skin look younger while being tailored for dry, oily, or combination skin.
Here are some common ingredients in cosmeceuticals and what you can expect from them.
Moisturizers that contain hydroxy acids, such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), help to exfoliate the outer layer of dead skin cells, Obagi says.
The most common AHAs are glycolic and lactic acid, but others include citric acid, hydroxycaprylic acid, and hydroxycapric acid. Salicylic acid is the most commonly available BHA, adds Obagi. Some cosmeceuticals combine both AHAs and BHAs.
You can find these types of cosmeceuticals at the drugstore. Obagi suggests choosing a brand that has a large research and development department to back up the quality of the product, such as Neutrogena, Revlon, Aveeno, and Oil of Olay.
Pros: Hydroxy acids help keep the surface of skin smooth and unclog pores, which helps improve acne. And when you use a moisturizer with a hydroxy acid in the morning, it enables other products you put on throughout the day, such as anti-aging creams and serums, to better penetrate your skin, Obagi says. Salicylic acid, in particular, is very good at penetrating the skin and improving acne.
Cons: AHAs can be irritating because they’re more acidic than salicylic acid, Obagi explains. For that reason, you may experience stinging when you use them. People who have rosacea tend to do better with salicylic acid, she adds. Hydroxy acids also make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it’s important to wear sunscreen if you’re using this cosmeceutical. People who have photosensitive disorders such as lupus should avoid hydroxy acids altogether, Obagi says.
Antioxidants and Vitamins
There are a host of moisturizers on the market with added vitamins and antioxidants. Antioxidants help your skin by counteracting the effect of free radicals, which cause inflammation and can lead to prematurely aging skin and skin cancer. These products may contain C, D, E, and B-complex vitamins.
Pros: Vitamin C serum is part of a good anti-aging regimen and can effectively prevent wrinkles and age spots. However, Obagi recommends buying a serum sold in your dermatologist’s office because less expensive drugstore brands may not work as well.
Cons: Vitamin C is the only vitamin that’s known to benefit the skin when it’s applied topically, Obagi says, so it’s not necessary to buy other moisturizers with vitamins or antioxidants. It’s better to get those antioxidant vitamins in your diet and through supplements. In addition, vitamin E is a known allergen, so there is a risk of an allergic reaction if you use a product that contains it, she says.
Retinoids, which are derivatives of vitamin A, have been shown to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, smooth out the skin, and help to fade age spots.
Pros: The prescription formula based on the retinoid called tretinoin (Retin-A) is one of the best anti-aging regimens you can follow, Obagi says. However, tretinoin is only available by prescription and isn’t available as a cosmeceutical.
Cons: True cosmeceuticals that contain retinoids aren’t as effective as the prescription drug, Obagi says. If you’re looking for help with anti-aging, this is one cosmeceutical to leave on the shelf in favor of the prescription.
Copper peptides, which are building blocks for cell renewal, are a new trend in cosmeceuticals. They’re touted as a powerful anti-aging ingredient that can help your skin produce more collagen, making it look younger and plumper.
Pros: Peptides have more of an allure because they promise what other products don’t, Obagi says.
Cons: However, there’s no research that has shown that peptides work. “The problem is that skin is a good barrier,” Obagi says so the copper peptides in an expensive cream may not even be able to penetrate the surface.
The good news: Cosmeceuticals, such as the ones that contain hydroxy acids and vitamin C, are great choices for your skin, Obagi says. Keep in mind that moisturizers don’t perform miracles, but tried and true cosmeceuticals can offer the benefits of healthier, younger-looking skin with the feel of a luxurious cream.