Want a younger, more perfect-looking you? Over-the-counter anti-aging creams promise to smooth out that prune face and defy gravity. They claim to “reduce the appearance of wrinkles,” give you a “five-minute facelift,” and “turn back the clock.” Looking past the outer layer of dead skin cells, you find an inner layer of living tissue called the dermis.
The fibroblast cells are complex, manufacturing the fibrous proteins, collagen, and elastin. Collagen fibers are like bridge-support cables, holding up the skin to keep it firm and wrinkle-free. Elastin is flexible and stretchy, allowing the skin to stretch and snap back to its original shape. Fibroblasts make less collagen, and elastin loses structure and flexibility.
How do anti-wrinkle creams work?
Anti-wrinkle creams typically work through a combination of moisturization, nourishment, and the inclusion of active ingredients that target specific signs of aging. Here are some common mechanisms by which they may work:
Moisturization: Many anti-wrinkle creams function as moisturizers, helping to hydrate and plump the skin. By increasing skin hydration, these creams temporarily improve the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines, making them less noticeable. Moisturization can also enhance skin elasticity and suppleness.
Nourishment: Some anti-wrinkle creams contain ingredients that provide essential nutrients and antioxidants to the skin. These ingredients, such as vitamins, peptides, or plant extracts, nourish the skin and support its natural repair processes. Antioxidants help neutralize free radicals, which can contribute to skin aging.
Collagen and Elastin Stimulation: Collagen and elastin are proteins that provide structural support to the skin, helping maintain its firmness and elasticity. Certain anti-wrinkle creams may include ingredients, such as retinoids or peptides, that stimulate collagen and elastin production in the skin. By promoting collagen and elastin synthesis, these creams can potentially improve the appearance of wrinkles and enhance skin elasticity over time.
Exfoliation and Cell Renewal: Some anti-wrinkle creams may contain exfoliating agents, such as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). These ingredients help remove dead skin cells and promote cell turnover, revealing fresher, smoother skin. Regular exfoliation can minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and improve overall skin texture.
Sun Protection: Sun exposure is a major contributor to skin aging. Many anti-wrinkle creams incorporate sunscreen or sun protection factors (SPFs) to shield the skin from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. By protecting the skin from sun damage, these creams can help prevent the formation of new wrinkles and sunspots.
Environmental factors include smoking, pollution, and UV radiation from the sun. These factors damage skin cells like fibroblasts, causing them to wink out in ways that produce deeper wrinkles! In response to the desire to reverse time, beauty counters overflow with anti-aging creams based on 4 key ingredients:
- Hydroxy acids.
Retinoids: Retinoids are advertised as vitamin A, but on the label, you will see retinaldehyde, retinol, and retinyl palmitate. But the body doesn’t care what form it comes in! All retinoids are converted to retinoic acid, a form the skin can use.
Retinoic acid triggers skin cells to make more collagen, thicken the outer layer, retain moisture, and shed old cells. After a few months, you’ll look a bit younger, but no one will put you on Teen Vogue’s cover! Effects are modest, and stronger retinoids irritate. So some people abandon treatment before retinoids deliver any results.
Hydroxy acids: Mild hydroxy acids aren’t harsh. In anti-aging creams, they loosen up the intercellular glue holding dead skin cells together, allowing the shedding and revealing of new skin underneath. Alpha hydroxy acids are famous for dry skin because hydroxyl groups attract water and keep skin hydrated. Beta hydroxy acids are popular with oily types, as their love for lipids can break down sebum. Results are minor but immediate.
The bad news: some hydroxy acids make skin more sensitive to the sun, and more effective hydroxy acids have smaller molecules that can cause aggravation. This has people looking to Poly Hydroxy Acids as a less irritating replacement.
Vitamins: Vitamins C and E aren’t only food supplements. Cosmetic companies think they’re also for the face! The same chemical process that causes apple slices to turn brown also happens to the skin. Oxygen used by the body can create unstable atoms called free radicals. These steal electrons and damage DNA, cell membranes, and proteins like collagen.
This damages the chemical structure of the skin in a process called oxidative stress. Antioxidants like vitamins C & E take one for the team, bind with free radicals, and sacrifice themselves before damage is done. However, it doesn’t always work well in practice.
Antioxidants are unstable when exposed to light and air. It’s a pain converting them to a form that gets through the skin. Though antioxidants prevent future damage, they won’t help with those wrinkles you already have. Collagen is created and broken down as part of skin renewal. When the breakdown is greater than production, we start to sag.
Peptides: Some products add short chains of amino acids, called peptides, that product makers claim to replicate part of the larger collagen protein. These supposedly trick the body into believing it broke down too much collagen, cueing the fibroblasts to make more. But it’s not clear if these claims are legit.
Not all peptides in these skin treatments are based on collagen—some mimic snake venom to paralyze the muscles involved in wrinkle formation. There is a lot of excitement about their potential. Peptides have shown promise in the petri dish, but their effectiveness in a product is still up for debate.
Skin is an organ designed to keep foreign antigens out of bodies. It has layers of cells that defend against disease and immune agents. So it is unlikely that large molecules like proteins would penetrate the layers of skin, but small molecules can.
Stem cells are a type of primitive cells that hasn’t decided what kind of tissue it wants to be yet. So it’s easily manipulated by scientists. No literature supports the use of stem cells on your face. They wouldn’t even be able to survive in the bottle.
Frequently asked questions
Can anti-wrinkle creams make you age faster?
Probably not. Scientific evidence says these ingredients will have a modest effect at best. But not all cosmetic companies must prove their products deliver on their promises, so the truth is a bit harder to get to. 80% of visible facial aging is caused by the sun. So the best anti-aging product of all may be this.
How do wrinkles form?
Sunlight contains lots of UVA radiation interacting with skin molecules and creating reactive oxygen species. It includes hydrogen peroxide, nitric oxides, and unstable molecules called “free radicals.”
Free radicals have unpaired electrons because of their instability. They hunt for more electrons and take them from DNA, proteins, and fats, reacting with those molecules. Then it causes damaging them in the process.
Why do wrinkles appear with age?
Face skin has a thin layer of cells called the epidermis. The dermis, sweat glands, hair follicles, and connective tissue support the epidermis. This connective tissue comprises a mix of cells in an extracellular matrix. It contains specific molecules that give the skin structure and help heal wounds.
Glycosaminoglycans, or GAGs, are long chains of sugars that act like sponges and hold vast, irritating amounts of water. They keep skin hydrated and healthy-looking. By increasing age, the production of these extracellular matrix molecules naturally starts to slow down. It starts to look thinner and build up wrinkles.