Cosmeceuticals are loosely defined as products combining the benefits of a cosmetic and a pharmaceutical. The term is used by many skin-care companies, especially those sold or endorsed by dermatologists, to give the impression the products have more effective or more biologically active ingredients than just ordinary cosmetics. As more and more doctors get into selling or endorsing skin-care products, you will hear more and more about cosmeceuticals. Dr. Tina Alster is the spokesperson for Lancome; Dr. Karyn Grossman is the spokesperson for Prescriptives; Dr. Patricia Wexler’s namesake products, Patricia Wexler M.D. Dermatology, launched this fall; Skin Effects by Dr. Jeffrey Dover is at CVS; Dr. Sheldon Pinnell’s SkinCeuticals line has been purchased by L’Oreal; and, of course, there’s N.V. Perricone, M.D. Upping the ante in this group is Dr. Howard Sobel, who added the outrageously priced RMX Maximum—$1,000 for a 28-day supply—to his DDF skin-care line.
Despite all this medical pedigree, the term cosmeceutical is not in any way regulated or controlled, and anyone can slap that label on their products to promote them as being more “medical.” Cosmeceuticals are nothing more than a marketing term with illusions of grandeur. Even the FDA says cosmeceuticals don’t exist, and considers these products to be merely cosmetics with clever marketing language attached.
Do cosmeceuticals really differ from any other cosmetics? The answer is both yes and no, because no matter how a product is labeled and marketed, many skin-care treatments contain ingredients that affect the biological function of skin. The biologically active ingredients to look for include antioxidants (most of which have anti-inflammatory properties), cell-communicating ingredients, exfoliants, skin-lightening ingredients, and intercellular substances (ingredients that mimic skin structure).
Antioxidants, applied topically, reduce free-radical damage, thus helping prevent cellular damage, collagen destruction due to inflammation, and immune suppression. These actions are incredibly valuable for skin. But aside from the insistent claims by those who say their product lines have the best antioxidants, the research is clear: There is no single best antioxidant, just lots and lots of potent options and lots and lots of research showing benefit for skin from everything from pomegranate, curcumin, superoxide dismutase, grape-seed extract, green tea, lycopene, vitamin E, vitamin C, DMAE, glutathione, uric acid, carnosine (beta-alanyl-L-histidine), and glucopyranosides (resveratrol) to niacinamide, polyphenols (epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), genistein, pycnogenol, and more.
One other point: Many researchers believe that a single antioxidant, no matter how stable or potent, is not as effective for skin as a group of antioxidants, because antioxidants in combination can exert a synergistic cumulative action on the skin.
Cell-communicating ingredients interact with skin cells via receptor sites or cellular pathways that essentially allow these substances to tell a cell to behave or function better. That is, they instruct the cell to repair itself and act normally (or for the sake of baby boomers, act more “youthfully”) by reducing inflammation, encouraging production of healthy skin substances, inhibiting substances that cause collagen to break down, and on and on. Without question, this is the most promising area in current skin-care research. The most well-researched ingredient in this category is by far the retinoids (vitamin A), specifically the prescription version tretinoin, which is found in Retin-A and Renova (tretinoin is also available generically). In cosmetics, retinol and retinaldehyde are known to have efficacy similar to that of tretinoin. Other cell-communicating ingredients that are still the subject of research are a wide variety of peptides and niacinamide. At the moment, however, there is no independent research showing that peptides can perform as claimed on the labels of products containing them.
Exfoliants help surface skin cells shed in a more normal, “younger” way, which allows skin to function and look more radiant and healthy. There are many reasons why skin cells build up on the surface, but the primary one is sun damage. Normalizing cell turnover does improve the feel and appearance of the skin’s surface, but research also indicates that it can improve collagen production. Topical scrubs are one way to exfoliate, but such mechanical exfoliation can be harsh on skin and there is little research showing any benefit. On the other hand, certain substances definitely can exfoliate skin, including glycolic acid, lactic acid, polyhydroxy acids (gluconolactone and lactobionic acid), and salicylic acid.
Skin-lightening ingredients inhibit melanin formation, thus reducing the appearance of brown discolorations. Skin-lightening ingredients include hydroquinone, arbutin, azelaic acid, some forms of vitamin C, and glycyrrhetinic acid.
Intercellular substances, which I often refer to as “ingredients that mimic skin structure,” should be the backbone of every moisturizer. Intercellular substances are those ingredients that exist naturally in skin, and that work to hold skin cells together. A dry environment, sun damage, irritation, inflammation, and age can all greatly reduce the presence of these substances in skin. Adding intercellular substances to a moisturizer helps keep the layers of skin whole, resilient, and in good physical shape by providing the materials the skin needs to defend against the environment. Ingredients such as ceramides, cholesterol, fatty acids (linoleic acid, triglycerides, glycerin, phospholipids, and lecithin), and glycosaminoglycans (hyaluronic acid and sodium PCA) are essential for helping skin function normally.
Regardless of the name, cosmeceutical or otherwise—a skin-care product is only as good as what it contains and how those ingredients can help your skin function better, or in the vernacular, to act younger. In fact, moisturizers (or any skin-care product claiming to have an effect on wrinkles or sagging skin) should absolutely contain an elegant mix of antioxidants, cell-communicating ingredients, and intercellular substances as they help skin keep a normal level of hydration, build collagen, reduce skin discolorations, and prevent cellular damage.
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