An increasing number of dermatology patients are looking for a way to improve the appearance of their skin. As a result, more and more products have become available to treat skin wrinkles and blemishes. From vitamins and supplements to exfoliants and chemical peels -- the options can be overwhelming. In some cases, more than one approach may be needed.
Antioxidant Creams, Lotions, and Ointments
Antioxidants are substances that neutralize oxygen-free radicals, the unstable particles that can damage cells. Free radicals may also contribute to sun damage and even skin cancers. Exposure to sunlight depletes antioxidants in the skin, but these antioxidants can be replaced.
Antioxidant ointments, creams, and lotions ("topical products") may help reduce the risk of wrinkles and protect against sun damage. Unlike sunscreens, they build up in the skin and are not washed away, so the protection may last longer. Selenium, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), and alpha-lipoic acid are types of antioxidants that come in topical form. Evidence of their benefit is limited however, and more human studies are needed.
Vitamin A. Vitamin A is important for skin health. UV radiation leads to vitamin A deficiencies in the skin. Topical products containing natural forms of vitamin A (retinol, retinaldehyde) or vitamin A-related products called retinoids (tretinoin, tazarotene) may help repair skin damage due to sunburn and natural aging.
- Tretinoin (Retin-A). Tretinoin (known commercially as Retin-A) is the only topical medication approved for treating photoaging. It is available in prescription form (Avita, Renova, and Differin). This drug produces a rosy glow and reduces fine and large wrinkles, liver spots, and surface roughness. It reduces the signs of aging by stimulating collagen production. Tretinoin also may help prevent more serious effects of ultraviolet radiation. Patients may apply tretinoin to the face, neck, chest, hands, and forearms, and should do so at least twice a week. Noticeable improvement takes 2 - 6 months. Because Retin-A increases a person's sensitivity to the sun, patients should apply just a tiny amount at bedtime, and wear sunblock during the day. Patients should also avoid overexposure to the sun. Almost all patients experience redness, scaling, burning, and itching after 2 or 3 days that can last up to 3 months. In women who experience irritation, a daytime moisturizer or low-dose corticosteroid cream, such as 1% hydrocortisone, may help. There is some concern that overuse of high-dose tretinoin may cause excessive skin thinness over time. Studies now suggest that low concentrations (as low as .02%) of tretinoin can produce significant improvements in wrinkles and skin color, with less irritation than higher doses.
- Retinol. Retinol, a natural form of vitamin A, could not, until recently, be used in skin products because it was unstable and easily broken down by UV radiation. Stable preparations are now sold over the counter. In the right concentrations, retinol may be as effective as tretinoin, and studies indicate that it has fewer side effects. Adding antioxidant creams (such as those containing vitamins C or E) may offer added protection against the degradation of retinol. The Food and Drug Administration warns that over-the-counter retinol skin products are unregulated. The amount of active ingredients is unknown, and some preparations may contain almost no retinol.
- Tazarotene. Tazarotene (Tazorac, Zorac, Avage) is a retinoid used for acne and psoriasis. It has now been approved for treating wrinkles, skin discoloration, and blemishes due to photoaging. At high doses, however, it can cause very severe irritation. Redness and peeling may be reduced by administering tretinoin first to get the skin acclimated. More research is needed to determine whether tazarotene produces any long-lasting significant benefits.
Warning: Pregnant women and those who may become pregnant should avoid any vitamin A derivative (a product related to vitamin A). Oral tretinoin is known to cause birth defects. Topical (applied to the skin) tretinoin may also cause birth defects.
Vitamin C. Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is a very potent antioxidant. Most studies on the effects of antioxidants on the skin have used this vitamin. In laboratory studies, large amounts of vitamin C reduced skin swelling and protected immune factors from sunlight. Vitamin C may even promote collagen production. Vitamin C by itself is unstable, but products that solve the delivery problem are now available (such as Cellex-C, Avon's Anew Formula C Treatment Capsules, Physician Elite, and others). Currently their benefits are unproven, and more research is needed.
Review Date: 10/15/2010
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, In-Depth Reports; Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.