If you don’t know your AHAs from your antioxidants, read on. We’ve deciphered and translated the ingredients you’ll often find listed on your pots and potions, so you’ll know exactly what they do, why they work and whether you should be slathering them on.
AHAs: for smooth, glowing skin
AHAs, or alpha-hydroxy acids, are the super skin smoothers. When applied to skin they break down dead skin cells at the surface without the need for buffing and scrubbing. They give numerous benefits that include improving oily skin, treating fine lines and wrinkles and perfecting the texture of your complexion through deep exfoliation.
‘The most effective and well-researched AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid,’ says beauty expert Paula Begoun, author of The Original Beauty Bible, £13.29. These are also the two you may have heard of. Glycolic Acid is a common AHA which is derived from the sugar cane plant. It is often administered by professionals during chemical peels as it is the strongest. Lactic Acid is made from sour milk and also hydrates the skin while it exfoliates. It’s often found in cleansers and moisturisers, many say it was Cleopatra’s beauty product of choice.
As AHAs need time to penetrate the skin, react and get to work, moisturisers and masks containing these ingredients are a good choice. Moisturisers can also be useful to keep ingrown hairs in check on bikini lines. If used frequently they keep the area exfoliated, letting the new fine hairs grow through easily.
If your skin is sensitive or prone to eczema take care. AHAs are powerful and can be harsh - it is worth looking out for products which have a low percentage of AHAs, preferably 10% or less. In addition 'their use significantly increases the skin's sensitivity to UV, so caution is the order of the day' warns Dr Saul Alkaitis, renowned scientist and creator of the Dr.Alkaitis Therapeutic Skin Food range.
With this in mind, if you do decide AHAs are for you, make sure you apply an SPF every day.
Salicylic Acid: for breakouts and good exfoliation
Acid, ouch, sounds painful? Not so. According to beauty expert Paula Begoun, this wonder stuff ‘is a multifunctional ingredient that addresses the causes of blemishes.’
Salicylic acid, also referred to as BHA (beta hydroxy acid), naturally occurs in plants and has been used as a skin exfoliant for decades, it’s anti bacterial properties also mean it’s an excellent treatment for spots.
Salicylic acid penetrates much deeper than AHAs, reaching down into the pores of your skin and exfoliating inside the pore as well as on the surface of the skin. This is why this product is effective in reducing blemishes, blackheads and whiteheads. You'll usually find it in safe quantities in products, such as 5-10%.
Dr Tom Mammone, Clinique's Executive Director of Research and Development tells ELLE that Clinique currently use salicylic acid as one of their main exfoliating ingredients, as it's 'known for effective yet gentle exfoliating properties'.
Look out for salicylic acid if you suffer from blemish prone, oily or combination skin.
Clarifying Lotion, £13.70, by Clinique
Overnight Clearing Gel, £33.30, Dermalogica. For stockists call 0800 591 818
Salicylic Acid: for breakouts and good exfoliation
If you thought drinking eight glasses of water a day was the key to hydrated skin then you might want to think again.
‘Drinking water doesn’t help to hydrate the skin,’ says Dr Nick Lowe, dermatologist and author of The Wrinkle Revolution, £14.99. ‘The critical skin barrier – the outermost layer – maintains its moisture levels. If the barrier’s intact, it will trap moisture to stop it being lost. Moisturising from the outside, not the inside, will help your skin look more radiant. Even if you’re very dehydrated, the last place this will show would be your skin. Your skin won’t reveal dehydration until you’re almost dying; the other organs of the body are much more dependent on water.’
This is where hyaluronic acid comes in. Essentially a water-binding agent, it's found naturally in the dermis and helps your skin to retain water (moisture), and quenches dehydrated skin. According to Victoria Smith Partnership Programme Manager at The International Dermal Institute, it ‘binds and retains essential moisture to your skin, reducing fine lines that are often caused by dehydration’.
Although not recommended for oily or combination skin, if you suffer dry patches, especially in the winter months, head for products that list this beauty helper in their ingredients. Hyaluronic acid is better used in leave on products. Look out for serums where the percentage content is quite high and will thus give the skin a noticeable boost.
Derma Genesis Day Cream, £15.99, L’Oreal available nationwide
Biotec Hyaluronic Water, £20 by Biotec. 0203 184 0001
Peptides: for anti-ageing
These hot-right-now ingredients are the ones to watch out for if you’ve started thinking that those laughter lines are no longer funny. Even in your twenties it’s not too soon to consider anti-ageing products to prevent future damage to your skin.
Peptides are proteins made up of chains of amino acids so, according to Victoria Smith, Partnership Programme Manager at The International Dermal Institute, 'as collagen is a protein, peptides can help stimulate and mimic the skin’s natural function of producing collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid, thus plumping the skin. Peptides can help ‘improve the condition of the skin, result in clearer skin, reduced wrinkles around the eyes and mouth and increased moisture in the skin,’ adds Dermatologist Professor Martina Kerscher.
This ingredient is safe to use as it is found naturally in foods such as milk, nuts and also plants. But don’t expect overnight miracles, products containing peptides won’t change your complexion immediately - skin takes 28 days to regenerate so the first signs of improvement should become visible after a month.
Antioxidants: good for combating free-radical damage
Not strictly speaking an ingredient (antioxidants include vitamins A, E and C and Coenzyme Q10), antioxidant is the generic name that describes the function or action a specific ingredient can have on your skin, in short, preventing oxidation.
'Anti-oxidants are any molecules that will readily react with oxygen. Their protective effect comes from the fact they will react with oxygen much more readily than other substances available and oxygen will therefore be removed before it can react with these other substances' says Dr.Saul Alkaitis, renowned scientist and creator of the Dr.Alkaitis Therapeutic Skinfood range.
Ingredients with antioxidant properties are essential in combating damage caused to the skin by free radicals, which are destructive molecules that can attack the cells. 'The direct effect of anti-oxidants is to protect the cells from the oxidative damages induced by free radicals' explains Dr Daniel Maes, Senior Vice President, Global Research and Development, Estee Lauder. Free radicals are caused by exposure to the sun or pollution and if allowed, will lead to premature ageing and a possible increased risk of cancer.
Smoking, living in a city where pollution is high, or spending a lot of time in the sun, can accelerate the free radical events taking place in your body at any given time.
'Since the skin is assaulted everyday by free radicals and they are known to cause premature ageing, we think that antioxidents are a necessity in any good skin care regime' says Dr Tom Mammone, Clinique's Executive Director of Research and Development.
Look out for antioxidant moisturisers in particular and remember that they deteriorate with exposure to air and light, so pick one in an opaque bottle with a pump to dispense the product. In general the more antioxident in a product the more protected you will be.
Coenzyme Q10: for diminishing the appearance of wrinkles
It’s never too early to think about anti ageing products and the protection against wrinkles. ‘Coenzyme Q10 is a vitamin-like substance that is thought to have excellent antioxidant free radical quenching properties,’ says Dr Nick Lowe, dermatologist and author. It is also known as ubiquinone and is present in most cells in the body as it is a vital component in generating the body’s energy, while also working to protect the cells. Applying Coenzyme Q10 to your skin will help boost cell turnover and will also help protect the cells against free radicals.
Free radicals are a big cause of lines and wrinkles on your face so slather on lotions containing Q10 to prevent premature ageing.
Visage Q10, £10.19 by Nivea at Superdrug
Q10 Active Fluid SPF15, £17.19, by Eucerin. For stockists call 0845 644 8556
Vitamin B3: for building-up the skin’s moisture levels
Vitamin B3 (also called niacinamide, niacin and nicotinic acid) is a helpful beauty healer as with regular use it will help your skin build a moisture barrier, preventing it from losing water and in turn keeping skin plump and vitalised. It is also an 'anti-inflammatory used a lot for aiding skin, when sensitive skin is an issue especially rosacea', according to Victoria Smith from the International Dermal Institute.
'It helps in the maintenance of healthy skin...symptoms of a shortage of vitamin B3 could be skin eruptions and inflammation' reveals Dr.Saul Alkaitis, scientist.
Found in foods such as apricots, bananas, lemons and figs, vitamin B3 is a natural substance and is kind to skin. Products containing it not only work as moisturisers but also help to exfoliate skin and encourage optimal cell turnover.
Vitamin B5: for shiny hair
If you want to add vibrancy and shine to your hair look out for products containing vitamin B5 - also known as panthenol. This wonder vitamin attracts moisture to your hair and smoothes the surface making it more light reflective, resulting in uber-shiny tresses. You’ll find it in a variety of products including shampoos, conditioners and moisturisers. Often called the ‘beautifying’ vitamin, panthenol also stimulates skin healing and provides deep moisturisation, so look out for it in skin care products too.
Catwalk Thickening Shampoo, £7.50, by Tigi
Bain Apres-Soleil, £11.05, by Kerastase at HQ hair
Pro Vitamin B5 and Rice Bran Mascara, £14, by Korres at HQ hair
Hydrating Light Moisturiser, £2.93 , by Simple. For stockists call 01217 126 523
Vitamin E: for healing sun-damaged skin
‘Vitamin E is an antioxidant superstar’, says beauty expert Paula Begoun. It plays a crucial role in protecting skin cells from environmental damage on an everyday basis, but it is also excellent for calming, stressed, sun-damaged skin. A great skin nourisher and natural moisturiser, if you’re prone to sun burn, keep vitamin E loaded products on hand whilst on holiday to soothe in the event of red, sun-burnt skin.
The Body Shop’s Vitamin E range. The Vitamin E Face Mist, £7, and Vitamin E Body Lotion, £8, are particularly good for taking on holiday.
For a super luxurious treat try the Jo Malone Body Treatment, £125, which uses Vitamin E scrub and body oil.
Of course, it can be a good idea to address your skin concerns on an individual basis, so if you have any specific skin concerns it is worth contacting a registered dermatologist. The British Association of Dermatology can provide you with a list of trained dermatologists: see www.bad.org.uk