What Ingredients Are In Skin Creams?

Skin Care Chemical Ingredients
What Are The Ingredients In Skin Care Products?

For anyone interested in what makes today's skin care products more effective than ever, here is a list of the key ingredients in some 'wonder creams'.

Also known as alpha-hydroxy acids, a family of skin care ingredients that includes lactic, citric, malic, glycolic and tartaric acids. These brighten the complexion by loosening the bonds in the skin, helping to get rid of the flaky 'dead' top layer and speeding up cell renewal. The key here is to think 'acid': these are generally too harsh for sensitive complexions.

BHAs (also known as beta-hydroxy acids). First cousins to AHAs, these also brighten the skin by speeding up exfoliation. Many dermatologists say they are gentler on the skin than AHAs.

Blue Copper
So far vitamins have dominated the skin care scene but dermatologists are now looking at the anti-ageing potential of minerals, too. Osmotics were the first company to introduce blue copper (in a moisturizer of the same name), which helps to prevent free radical damage by activating an antioxidant skin enzyme superoxide dismutase - aka SOD! Blue copper also seems to stimulate collagen production and is used in hospitals for healing wounds.

These lipids, made in a laboratory to a natural blueprint (and sometimes genetically engineered) help stabilize skin structure by retaining moisture in the skin - making them a valuable anti-ageing ingredient.

If only skin care was as simple as slapping on collagen to top up your skin's own natural supply. Alas, it doesn't work like that; using a collagen cream certainly won't add to your own supplies. However, collagen is an efficient humectant - it actually attracts water to the skin - so it is a
highly effective moisturizing ingredient.
Related: What is dry skin? and what is a wrinkle?

Like collagen, elastin is a vital part of the skin's connective tissue network but, again, putting elastin in a moisturizer won't top up the skin's reserves although it creates a good barrier for locking in vital moisture.

Emu Oil
Another case of 'watch this space': emu oil- rich in collagen, linolenic and oleic acids - has been used by the Australian Aborigines for centuries and is now being trialed as a skin-rejuvenator. At Boston University Medical Centre, studies on animals found the oil produced a 20 per cent increase in skin production and 80 per cent in hair production. According to Michael Horlick, professor of medicine, physiology and dermatology at Boston University Medical Centre, 'This is the first real evidence to suggest the oil could stimulate skin and hair growth. Skin cell reproduction rose dramatically, which meant the skin became thicker and hair follicles became more robust.'

In washing powder and contact lens cleaners, enzymes are used to break down dirt and oil, but inside every human body there are thousands of these proteins which act as kick- starts to, for instance, digestion of food and the metabolism of stored fat. Recently, the beauty industry has woken up to what enzymes can do for skin. Some skin care actually incorporates botanically derived enzymes, such as ingredients from papaya (papain) and pineapple (bromelian) which exfoliate and brighten skin. Other creams are formulated to have an enzymatic activity. Today, skin care is incorporating enzyme activators designed to quench the production of natural 'bad-guy' enzymes, collagenase and elastase which damage collagen and elastin. According to David Adhoot, technical director of D-D Chemi-co, a supplier of raw materials to the cosmetics industry, 'Influencing enzymes is going to be the next big trend - one with tremendous scope, including everything from skin firming to slimming to protecting.'
Related: What is the best treatment for dry skin?

Valuable ingredients in moisturizers or facial sprays which attract moisture from the air to the surface of the skin. Commonly used humectants includes glycerine, sorbitol, squalene and urea.

High-tech skin care 'rockets' which can be launched into the epidermis to deliver their moisturizing cargo deeper than would otherwise be possible, so helping to fill in the gaps between the intercellular cement.

Coming up fast in the antioxidant stakes, lycopene is an exceptionally strong free-radical scavenger, extracted from tomatoes, pink grapefruit, red guava, watermelon and the skin of red grapes. One study has found that lycopene deficiency is associated with skin changes, including acne and dermatitis. It was first spotted by European pharmacists, who observed that Hungarian girls achieved radiant skin by rubbing tomato pulp on their face and bodies, but it has taken until now for lycopene's potential to be realized by the cosmetic industry as a weapon against photo damage.
Related: What is oily skin?

Milk Proteins
Expect to hear more about ingredients derived from milk. Milk proteins have been discovered to smooth and firm while inhibiting irritation. This is the equivalent to the dermatologist's Holy Grail because many other potentially effective ingredients have been found to cause rashes, redness or irritation in clinical trials.

A scientific term for tiny, rounded particles.

Will oxygen turn out to be the next big thing in saving our skin? We think: don't hold your breath.


This is a term often seen on packaging, denoting acid balance. Your skin is naturally slightly acid, with a pH between 4.5 and 5.5. The correct balance can be disturbed by the use of soaps (most of which are strongly alkaline) and some cosmetics which are not acid-balanced, potentially triggering irritation. If you see the term 'pH-balanced' on packaging, it often denotes that it is designed for sensitive skins.
Related: What is sensitive skin?

Poly-hydroxy Acid (aka Glyconolactone, or G4)
Yet another of the fruit acid family, recently introduced by the same scientist who had the first patent on AHAs, Eugene Van Scott, MD, who says that the ingredient can be tolerated even by people with rosacea or atopic dermatitis (who are extremely poor candidates for other acids). The molecule is smaller than an AHA molecule, so is absorbed into the skin at a slower rate, reducing the potential for tingling or burning on application. Once in the skin, the molecule is converted into acid, which dissolves the 'glue' that attaches dead cells to the skin's surface. Hence its skin-brightening effect.

Grape seed extract, pine bark extract, bilberry extract. These are super-potent antioxidants and are causing a lot of excitement in the beauty world. French researchers started tracking these proanthocyanidins in the 1950s, as they looked at a scurvy cure dating back four centuries, when a crew of landlocked explorers who'd run out of food managed to beat scurvy with a tea made from the needles and bark of nearby pine needles. Applied topically to the skin, they are powerful neutralizers of free radicals; expect these mega-antioxidants to turn up in more and more creams soon.

This French maritime pine bark extract contains antioxidant elements which neutralize the free radicals that attack the body's cells, helping to prevent the breakdown of collagen and elastin. Pycnogenol can also strengthen capillaries.

Ingredients derived from vitamin A are now widely used in anti-ageing products; they can be helpful in enhancing skin radiance and maintaining the complexion's smoothness.

Salicylic Acid
A 'beta-hydroxy acid' (BHA), which was first synthetically produced in 1860 as a treatment to reduce aches and pains, later used as a wart-removing cream - and since the 1980s has been incorporated into anti-ageing skin care.

Tea (black tea, green tea)
The key ingredient in tea is polyphenolic acid, which acts on the skin as a powerful free-radical scavenger - meaning that tea is yet another ingredient in the armory of antioxidants being used in high-tech skin care. Preliminary studies have shown that topical and ingested doses of either green or black tea extracts protect against sunburn and skin cancer induced by sunlight; scientists are currently trying to identify the specific mechanisms that provide this protection. Green tea also acts as a skin-calming ingredient, which is why you may find it teamed with others that have a potentially irritating effect to 'balance' the formulation.

Related Questions and Answers
What is my skin type? Discover your skin type.
When does the skin start to age? Crows feet, when the first lines appear.
What is the best treatment for cellulite? Dimpled orange-peel skin home treatment plan.

• Need more information the skin? See: Skin structure and function.
• Got another question? See: Skin Care Questions

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