8 Skin-Care Ingredients That Actually Work

There’s no magic bullet, but these should do the trick

by Allison Schmidt

As a 20-something, anti-aging skin care has been off and on my mind for a little while now. Not enough to make a big deal about it, but enough to pick up a new hydrating serum and start to actually wear sunscreen. But the thing I've learned from paying attention to all the new products out there is that anti-aging skin care is tricky. Every year there is a hot new ingredient that is supposed to make you look 10 years younger. But those magic ingredients can’t always work, right? Just like caring for the rest of your body, your skin needs a more well-rounded approach—there's no magic bullet—especially when the goal is to turn back time.

Just so everyone can be clear on anti-aging ingredients that actually work, I had a chat with a few dermatologists. They all had pretty strong feelings on exactly what ingredients you should incorporate into your routine. Here are their top eight.

SPF: Oh, sunscreen. Everyone’s least favorite, yet arguably the most important, anti-aging step. If you start early (or, like, right now), you can prevent sun spots, worsening wrinkles, and that not-so-sexy leathery skin look. Dr. Brian Zelickson, founder of MD Complete Skincare, says, “SPF is the ultimate anti-aging ingredient.” Agreed. He adds that when you’re looking for a good SPF, keep in mind it should have broad-spectrum protection for both UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreen has come so far since the greasy white goop of the ‘90s. You can find all kinds of new formulas that actually layer well under makeup, and don’t make you break out. Once you find your perfect sunscreen, your skin will thank you. Keep in mind: You’ll also want to find a sunscreen for your neck, chest, and hands. All three—plus your face, obviously—show signs of aging first. 

Green Tea Extract: If you’ve taken your sweet time getting in on the daily sunscreen action, take a look at adding green tea extract and other antioxidants to your routine ASAP. Dr. Dendy E. Engelman, a dermatological surgeon at Manhattan Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery, says this antioxidant is one of the most researched. She adds that the compounds that make up green tea are strong antioxidants, yet super soothing. And, they “show significant promise for improving the appearance of sun-damaged skin.” Dr. Engelman also says this:

Think of antioxidants as your stable, wealthy, and very generous sibling, friend, or cousin. Antioxidants are stable molecules in themselves, but they have an extra electron to offer, free of charge. An antioxidant helps protect skin against free radical assaults by neutralizing oxidative stress that can cause cell damage—and, in excess and over time, result in signs of aging.

Which is why we could all use antioxidants in our lives. 

Vitamin CAnother ingredient that is a must-have for those with sun damage is Vitamin C. It’s also an antioxidant and helps to protect your skin against free radicals. Free radicals can get all up in your skin cells from environmental triggers, like sun exposure, pollution, and the smoke from cigarettes. So, basically, if you ever go outside, you’ll want some sort of antioxidant like vitamin C in your skin-care routine. Dr. Engelman says:

The more antioxidants present in skin, the less damage free radicals can inflict, the better for skin health and a more youthful appearance. Vitamin C helps protect against UVA/UVB exposure, lightens pigmentation, brightens skin tone, and boosts collagen production for firmer, smoother, more even-looking skin.

But be careful what Vitamin C product you go for. Dr. Carl Thornfeldt, dermatologist and founder of Epionce Skincare, warns that some products can become “pro-oxidant” if they aren’t formulated correctly. He explains:

Two types of vitamin C are needed by skin cells: d-hydro and l-ascorbic. Iron is also needed to then help shuttle the energy between the two types of vitamin C in order to not become pro-oxidant. If a vitamin C product only has l-ascorbic, it can become pro-oxidant.

Which means you’ll need to break out those reading glasses and take a look at labels before buying. 

Hyaluronic Acid: If your skin gets noticeably dry, you’ll want to add in a moisturizing product that contains hyaluronic acid. This powerhouse of an acid doesn’t exfoliate the skin; instead, it works to increase hydration. So much so that hyaluronic acid holds 1000x its weight in water (!!!) to make your skin nice and plump. Dr. Engelman says that hyaluronic acid is so beneficial because it penetrates down to the second layer of your skin and helps to boost elasticity and hydration. Also, “the protective barrier on the skin locks in moisture, which gives the skin a youthful appearance.” 

Copper: Who knew that copper was such a multitasker? This metal, when it’s not used for the piping hidden in your walls, is a powerful disinfectant and skin stimulant. “The ancient Greeks were the first to discover the disinfecting power of copper thousands of years ago, ” says Dr. Engelman. Not only can copper help to kill bacteria growth, which is great for acne prone skin, but it’s also a stimulant. Normally skin stimulants can cause irritation, but Dr. Engelman says that “some studies have shown that copper stimulates the production of capillaries, collagen, and other key proteins producing healthier and softer skin.”

Coenzyme Q 10: As you might remember from high school, the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell that has Coenzyme Q 10 stored inside. Also known as vitamin Q, ubiquinone, CoQ10, or simply Q10, this oil-based antioxidant is critical in keeping your skin healthy and those pesky free radicals neutralized. “Unfortunately, as we age, our CoQ10 levels decrease, so that is why you will see skin-care products targeted at people in their 30s and beyond containing this ingredient,” says Dr. Engelman. She adds that lowered levels of this antioxidant, in particular, make it harder to produce collagen and elastin. Simply put, “Without collagen and elastin, your skin becomes wrinkly and saggy.” 

Peptides: If you want the bouncy, full-looking skin of a baby, you’ll want to make sure you can keep those collagen levels up. Another way of stimulating collagen? Look to peptides. Dr. Marina Peredo, MD, says that peptides are critical for rejuvenating your skin. "Peptides signal cells to produce more collagen," she says. "With the vast range of peptides available, it is now possible to target more types of collagen for a more complete approach to collagen building.”

Retinoids/Retinols: Once you start getting serious about anti-aging skin care, you’ll fall into the world of retinoids. Board-certified dermatologist S. Manjula Jegasothy, MD, the CEO and founder of Miami Skin Institute, says they are her personal favorite for anti-aging. Dr. Jegasothy is so dedicated to retinoids because they have been thoroughly studied and are proven to smooth the cells on the outer layer of the skin. She says retinoids help to prevent and correct wrinkles because those cells become “even and parallel to the surface of the skin, instead of bunching up to cause fine lines and bumpy skin. It also stimulates collagen growth in the dermis, the second layer of the skin.” Adding in a retinoid type product is like bringing out the big guns in your skin-care routine. To note: They are typically a prescription product and can cause some redness and flaky skin when you first start to use it. 

So, now that you know all this, how do you utilize it?

Dr. Peredo says that for your bare bones anti-aging routine, you’ll need a good sunscreen, antioxidants, peptides, and a retinoid product. “These essential ingredients combine preventative and corrective measures to keep skin youthful and radiant.” 

As for when, Dr. Engelman says:

It is never too early to start anti-aging, but based on age, we would recommend products and ingredients to target the issue of that age group. For example, in your teens, you’re looking at antioxidants and sunscreen; in your 20s, you want to add hyaluronic acid; in your 30s, you want to add retinol/retinoids; in your 40s, you want to add ceramides into your regimen as there is a significant drop, approximately 63 percent, so skin becomes drier; in your 50sm you want to target dull skin.

And just remember, it's not about staying young forever, but about feeling like your best self, no matter what age you are.