Sure—the best way to keep your skin looking young is to baby it from the get-go. But few of us were with it enough in our teens and 20s to know—or care—how our habits would affect our complexions when we reached a certain age. Luckily, there are creams, lotions and potions that promise to smooth, plump and polish—and some of them actually deliver. Because there’s little scientific evidence to show which anti-aging ingredients work, and how well, we asked top dermatologists what they trust and why. Here, their 10 favorites.
- Vitamin A: The single-most important ingredient in the fight against skin aging. “It can make absolutely anyone’s skin better when the right formula is used and it’s completely worth putting on every night,” according to New York City dermatologist Dr. Debra Jaliman. Vitamin A derivatives have been proven to lighten dark spots, improve the look of fine lines and wrinkles, even out skin tone and texture and boost skin’s hydration levels. Tretinoin and tazarotene are found in prescription products, while derivatives like retinyl palmitate and retinyl acetate are found OTC creams.
- Alpha lipoic acid (ALA): This super-strong antioxidant appears to have the power to both prevent future aging and repair previous skin damage. The ingredient is both water- and oil-soluble, so it’s thought to reach deep into skin and skin cells, and Jaliman says it’s also able to boost moisture levels.
- Vitamin C: Another powerful antioxidant that has collagen-stimulating properties, vitamin C’s efficacy depends on several factors. Because it quickly breaks down when exposed to light, dermatologists agree that products with L-ascorbic acid (the most potent form of vitamin C) offer the biggest benefit when they come in single-use capsules or powder form, which you mix with your moisturizer. Products purchased from a dermatologist will usually be stronger than OTC versions; make sure ascorbic acid is listed as high in the ingredient list as possible.
- CoEnzyme Q10: While it may not be as effective as some of the other ingredients on this list, CoQ10 has enough of a track record to deserve a spot. An antioxidant that naturally occurs in the body and diminishes as we age, CoQ10 is a “powerful enzyme that defends against damaging free radicals,” according to Jaliman, so replenishing it with topical creams can help ward of some signs of aging. Just be sure to look for creams that also contain vitamins A ore E, as these will help with absorption of CoQ10.
- Coffeeberry: This botanical antioxidant packs quite a punch, according to the dermatologists we spoke with. The fruit of the coffee plant, coffeeberry has one of the highest antioxidant scores out there, according to Mandy, so it shows great potential for fighting free radical damage when applied to the skin.
- Hyaluronic Acid: This naturally occurring substance that diminishes as we age can help bind moisture to the skin. “When put into skincare products, it’s great at plumping lines and wrinkles,” according to Dr. Jeannette Graf, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at New York City’s Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. Its effectiveness is concentration-dependent, though, so make sure it’s listed high on a product’s ingredient list to get the maximum benefit.
- Hydroxy Acids: Alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs) like glycolic, lactic, citric and salicylic acid are great at improving skin texture and getting rid of discoloration and age spots. They can also help diminish fine lines. “Healthy cell turnover is essential to fighting aging cells and these are a must-use to accomplish this,” says Jaliman. Look for OTC peels or ask your dermatologist about an in-office treatment using a product with a higher concentration of acids.
- Kinetin: This up-and-coming ingredient has real potential, according to Graf. The plant hormone is thought to offer benefits similar to those seen with retinols, but without the potential for irritation. Although Graf says she’s starting to see more research on its benefits, it’s still far too early to call it a replacement for vitamin A.
- Niacin: A vitamin B6 derivative, nicotinamide or niacinamide, as the ingredient is also known, appears to be an interesting anti-aging compound. It has anti-inflammatory properties, is a great moisturizer, and shows positive effects on pigmentation, according to Mandy.
- Peptides: There are many different types of peptides currently being used in skincare products, which can make figuring out which are truly useful somewhat tricky. “Matrixyl is probably the most well-known and studied peptide and it has been shown to improve collagen over time,” Jaliman says. For now, dermatologists are keeping their eyes peeled for further research into these synthesized proteins.
Need product suggestions? Read "7 Expert-Recommended Wrinkle Fighters."