My personal obsession with staving off wrinkles went into overdrive several months ago, when a bartender asked a group of my girlfriends, all around the age of 30, for ID before serving us. I was overjoyed—until I went to hand over my license. The bartender held up her palm as if she were refusing fresh pepper from a waiter and snapped, “I don’t need yours.”
I had long used a rotating cast of expensive skincare creams, which I admit I’d selected primarily for their chic packaging, but now it was time to get serious. Nearly every product these days is labeled “antiaging,” so I asked my dermatologist for the one thing that most doctors and patients seem to regard as the wrinkle-fighting equivalent of the Second Coming: retinoids. I ignored my doctor’s skeptically arched eyebrow as he handed over a prescription for Retin-A Micro and urged me to use it “sparingly.”
Within a week my skin was coming off in flakes, as if my face were made of dried Elmer’s glue. My dismay was allayed by a smug feeling that, at some undetermined point in the future, I would be significantly less wrinkled than my peers. Then one day, when sorting through press releases on new antiaging products, I came across a product touted for its ability to “slow the process” of cell turnover. This was infuriating. I’d thought the whole point of retinoids was to speed up the cell cycle. But now we were supposed to keep our cells alive longer? Was my raging case of face dandruff for naught? I became desperate to understand the science. So many products out there were making different, even contradictory, promises. Which ingredients actually work?
Conversations with dozens of dermatologists and chemists revealed that I was not initially wrong: Prescription retinoids (Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, Renova, etc.) are widely considered a kind of godsend. “Nothing else on the market can get rid of sun damage and reverse aging and thicken collagen like they can,” says Debra Wattenberg, a New York dermatologist. “They are probably the one thing people should use across the board—if you can tolerate it.” Unfortunately, it seems my skin, which is thin, pale and on the dry side, can’t handle even a low concentration of the stuff.
But there are alternatives, and though they may not stimulate collagen as rapidly, they perform retinoids’ primary function—shedding old cells that contribute to dullness and wrinkles—without causing as much peeling or increased sun sensitivity. Says dermatologist and skincare entrepreneur Howard Murad, “Microdermabrasion, alpha hydroxy acids and products containing enzymes derived from papaya and pineapple all get rid of the dead skin.” Many antiaging products include retinols, the less potent cousin of prescription retinoids. And several of my friends and colleagues, even those with sensitive skin, swear by Biologique Recherche’s Lotion P50 toner, which uses lactic acid to gently exfoliate. The line’s president, physician Philippe Allouche, is one expert who believes retinoids are too harsh for most skin types. “The epidermis is a thin structure, and its function is to protect the rest of your skin,” Allouche says. “People are making it thinner and thinner. You want to exfoliate, but not like crazy.”
If constant cell turnover is key, then what’s with all the potions—like Isomers Renovage Sirtuin Telomere Supporting Concentrate, the product that initially sent me into my antiaging tailspin—promising to extend the cell cycle? As it turns out, exfoliation is only one weapon in what experts say should be a multipronged attack against aging. Newer skin needs to be kept firm and voluminous—which explains the plethora of products claiming to repair cells, plump them up, stimulate their collagen production and, yes, lengthen their lives. This also explains the deluge of products now featuring peptides, or short-chain amino acids. “Peptides are small molecules, so they have the potential to get through the stratum corneum”—the top layer of skin—“and exert benefits below,” says New York dermatologist Amy Wechsler.
“Peptides are very exciting,” offers Ben Kaminsky, a chemist and the cofounder of B. Kamins, Chemist skincare. “Different families of peptides have different functions.” His line includes a product called Therapeutic Anti-Aging Wrinkle-Lift, which uses two types of peptides: one that builds new collagen over time and one that immediately tightens the skin, resulting in a temporary “lifted” look. “There’s been a lot of research on the role of peptides in wound healing, and we’re finding they latch onto receptor cells to actually regrow collagen fibers,” says Kaminsky. That’s good news, particularly for those of us with skin too sensitive to take advantage of the collagen-stimulating properties of prescription retinoids. Dermatologist and fellow skincare entrepreneur Fredric Brandt is equally enthusiastic about peptides. “They’re a good option for evening if you don’t want to use retinols, or even used in conjunction with retinols,” he says.
I now had a plan to combat the encroaching wrinkles and deflated skin. But I needed to address one more issue before I could hope to be carded again: tone, the third element of the antiaging triumvirate. “Unevenness, brown spots and red spots can make one look just as old as wrinkles can,” says Wechsler. Both she and Brandt mentioned a study by Procter & Gamble scientists. “The testers gave subjects photos of people to look at,” Brandt explains. “When they kept the wrinkles in the photos and merely erased the pigment spots, subjects thought the skin looked much younger.” Younger women may be able to even out tone with exfoliants, but older women with more sun-damaged skin may need extra help, hence products like Brandt’s new lightening line and Chantecaille’s Vital Essence serum, which contains both lightening agent arbutin and retinol.