Home Facial Treatments Drugstore skincare: Science-backed anti-aging ingredients that don’t break the bank – Harvard Health Blog

Drugstore skincare: Science-backed anti-aging ingredients that don’t break the bank – Harvard Health Blog

Drugstore skincare: Science-backed anti-aging ingredients that don’t break the bank – Harvard Health Blog


With a sharp increase in working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are noticing age-related skin changes up close on their videoconference calls.

The good news? You don’t need to rush to the dermatologist for your anti-aging needs. The best skincare regimens to combat the cardinal signs of aging, which include uneven skin tone, fine lines, roughness, and dryness, can start from the comfort of your own home. You don’t need a prescription, time to get to a dermatologist, or deep pockets to score quality products.

Here are a few science-backed, dermatologist-favorite ingredients that can help to slow, or even reverse, signs of aging. All of the ingredients listed below can be found over the counter (OTC) and are available in preparations that cost under $30.

The problem? Uneven skin tone. The solution: Topical niacinamide

Niacinamide, or vitamin B3, helps to block extra pigment formation by inhibiting the transfer of melanin (the major pigment in the skin) between skin cells. Applying topical niacinamide (5% concentration) twice a day was shown in a randomized and controlled, split-face trial to reduce freckles and sun spots in as soon as four weeks. The results were maintained throughout the eight-week treatment period. Another clinical study showed improvement of skin redness and sallowness (yellowing of the skin that occurs with age) in people who used topical niacinamide, resulting in a more even complexion. Niacinamide may also improve acne and fine lines.

Topical niacinamide appears to be well tolerated, with no serious side effects.

The problem? Fine lines. The solution: Topical retinoids

Aging can contribute to gradual loss of vitamin A, a retinol, which naturally occurs in the skin. This can be replenished by vitamin A derivatives, known as topical retinoids. Topical retinoids, such as retinol and adapalene, are available over the counter. They have been shown to significantly improve fine wrinkles, likely due to increased skin collagen thickness with prolonged use. Other benefits of retinoids include improvement of dark spots and reduction of atypical skin cells that could lead to skin cancer.

If you have acne or clogged pores, you may want to opt for adapalene, which appears to have more uptake in the follicles where acne starts, and also has anti-inflammatory effects. Both of these factors are important in acne formation. Adapalene may also be less irritating than some other retinoids.

The most common side effects of topical retinoids are dryness, redness, and irritation. This can be mitigated by gradually increasing use (from every third night, to every other night, to nightly), or by avoiding use with other potentially irritating or abrasive products.

Avoid topical retinoids if you are trying to get pregnant, or are currently pregnant or breastfeeding. Also make sure to use an SPF 30+ sunscreen on your face daily, due to increased sun sensitivity with this product.

The problem? Rough or dull skin. The solution: Alpha-hydroxy acids

The very top layers of skin, known as the stratum corneum, may increase in thickness with age, possibly because older cells are less able to renew and turn over. This can lead to skin roughness and can interfere with skin “glow” or luminosity. Alpha-hydroxy acids, such as glycolic acid or lactic acid, are naturally occurring substances that help to break down the bonds between cells in this top layer of skin, which results in smoother skin in as little as 24 hours. Over time, regular use may also improve fine lines, skin yellowing, blotchiness, and dark spots.

Glycolic acid at concentrations of 30% or more is used in the dermatologist’s office as a peel. But there is evidence that OTC preparations at concentrations of around 10% can give you real results and are safe to use at home.

Alpha-hydroxy acids such as lactic acid can also be found in OTC body lotions. They help to smooth the skin from the neck down.

The most common side effect is excess redness, and this can be made worse by using several new, irritating products at once.

The problem? Dry skin. The solution: Hyaluronic acid

An important (but often overlooked) sign of aging skin is dryness. As we age, our skin naturally loses its ability to retain moisture. This is due to decreasing stores of hyaluronic acid, an important component of healthy skin that has the ability to suck in water. Replacing hyaluronic acid through topical serums or moisturizers may help to boost overall skin hydration. Hyaluronic acid can also improve the appearance of wrinkles and skin firmness.

A few parting words

Start slow. If you are new to skincare, you don’t want to start using all of these ingredients at once (this is especially true of using a retinoid and an alpha-hydroxy acid together). Begin in a stepwise fashion, and increase frequency or add additional products only as tolerated. Remember that improvements in skin appearance with any skincare regimen may be subtle and can take time.

Once your skin has become accustomed to these ingredients, consider combination products that combine two or more of the ingredients you’re looking for. Finally, no skincare regimen is complete without good sun protection, so limit sun exposure, wear broad-brimmed hats and sunglasses when outside, and apply daily sunscreen.)

For treatment of deep wrinkles or sagging skin, or for medical skin concerns, seek care from a board-certified dermatologist.


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