Common Skin Care Ingredients

Here is a short set of definitions of the primary categories of skin care ingredients by their function/use.

Antioxidants: These are substances that neutralize free radicals. Free radical damage is one of the main catalysts of the aging process. Free radicals also instigate multiples kinds of inflammation. Antioxidants can be used to reduce the skin's vulnerability to free radicals. Antioxidants have much different makeup's including solubility in both oil and water, range of activity and other properties. Binding Agents: are ingredients that bind products together and impede the separation of water and lipids. Emulsifiers are the main binding ingredients used in skin care products.

Bioactive Agents: A loosely defined group of ingredients that have an effect on the biological processes. They generally play a role in growth and hormone production working on the molecular level by activating or slowing specific biological functions at a cellular level.

Delivery Enhancers/Systems: These are ingredients that enhance the absorption of the other ingredients into the skin or inner skin cells.

Emulsifiers: When you blend water and oil together you get a smooth substance known as an emulsifier. Because the majority of skin care products contain both oil and water soluble ingredients, emulsions are a commonly found ingredient in skin care products. Creams and lotions are generally emulsions. The problem with emulsions is that they separate easily and are generally unstable. Emulsifiers are the ingredients that keep the components of emulsions from separating.

Emollients: These are compounds that make the skin smoother and softer. There are a large variety of emollients available on the market. Each one has a slightly different effect.

Humectants: There are substances that extract moisture from the air. They are also all moisturizers. Good moisturizers will contain strong humectants.

Lubricants: Theses are compounds that make the skin feel softer and smoother to the touch, they also often reduce friction. They are most commonly found in hand cream.

Preservatives: These are compounds that destroy harmful bacteria, yeast and or moulds, thereby keeping the product from going off. Some preservatives can cause irritation to the skin; the use of products that have been spoiled by microorganisms can be even more dangerous. Antioxidants and stabilizers can also be called preservatives since they slow the chemical breakdown of the ingredients in a skin care product.

Solvents: These are compounds such as alcohol or water that can dissolve other ingredients.

Surfactants: Otherwise known as wetting agents. These compounds are able to lower the surface tension of a liquid. Skin care products use surfactants to make a topical product easy to apply.

Vehicle: This is the base that contains the active ingredients.

Vitamins, nutrients, metabolites: This the varied group of ingredients that are need for good nutrition, metabolism and other functions in the skin cells. Some of them have clinically proven benefits. Others are untested with regards to use in skin care products.

Conceivably harmful ingredients

It is difficult to arrive at an objective and well balanced understanding of the potential of toxicity of skin care ingredients. Conventional skin care companies generally promote the safety of the ingredients that they use in their products. Yet at the same time, alternative, organic skin care companies cast doubt on the use of synthetic ingredients. Most independent scientific studies on the subject look at the acute toxicity of high concentrations/doses instead of looking at what the chronic low level damage would be from long term use. Below you will read about some theories that look at the potential harm that skin care ingredients can cause.

Systemic toxicity

If a topically applied ingredient is toxic there is a good chance that it will get into the bloodstream and then spread throughout the body causing damage to organs other than just the skin. The good news is that there are no products on the market (over the counter) that are systemically toxic. There are however, some topical prescription drugs that if not used correctly, such as certain hormonal creams that can be systemically toxic if not used correctly. You should check with your physician about potential side effects when using such creams.

Natural v. Synthetic

People who promote an all natural version of skin care believe that any organic substance is more effective than its synthetic counterpart and that all synthetic chemicals are potentially toxic. The real story is considerably more complicated than that. Science has shown us that the biological effects of a specific chemical are the same whether it is in its natural (isolated) form or if it is synthetic. Theoretically this is always true. In reality, the difference of the purity of the substance is more dependent on the contaminants it might contain rather than how it was created. Dangerous contaminants are more likely to be present int synthetic substances than in natural ones although the natural ones can also contain contaminants in certain circumstances. This means that while using organic ingredients can reduce the risk of toxic contamination it does not alleviate it completely. The quality and integrity of the manufacturer is equally important. It is also important to keep in mind the fact that natural products spoil more easily.

Certain synthetic ingredients have no natural counterparts or cannot be made by isolating them from within a natural source. Agents like this are both a good thing and a bad thing. Some have positive effects that are much greater than those of natural agents while others can have a harmful effect on the skin.

There is no set rule as to whether using natural or synthetic products is best. It is most sensible to make the choice on a case by case basis. An example would be that of vitamin E. The natural version of vitamin E is more effective as it contains only the D form of the vitamin while the synthetic version is a combination of D and L which are less effective. On the other side of the coin, tretinoin which is a popular anti-wrinkle treatment (found in Retin A and Renova) is only available in the synthetic form. This means that if you only use natural products you will have to skip using this proved formula.

Low level skin damage

Very few over the counter skin care products have ingredients in them that can cause skin damage (except for in those with extremely sensitive skin). The real question about skin care products is what the long term effects are on the aging of the skin when there is a low level of irritation, dehydration and other minor damage. So far, most ingredients used in skin care products have not been studied for these long term cumulative effects. This means that effectiveness of a skin care products is often not as clear as it might seem as you need to weigh out the difference between the beneficial effects of the active ingredients and the possible low level damage from stabilizers, preservatives, synthetic fragrances and other inactive ingredients. It is often impossible to make an accurate judgment on whether or not the effects are worth it or not. The more you understand about the ingredients, both active and inactive - the more likely you are to be able to choose a product that will work well for you. It is also possible to make skin care products for yourself. (See DIY Anti aging Skin Care Info pack) This will give you the ability to get rid of synthetic colors, fragrances and also reduce the need for stabilizers and preservatives as you can make it on an as needed basis.

It is a good idea to understand as much as you can about what a person eats or puts on their body. There are a number of different things that will determine if a skin care product that is applied directly to the skin will have an anti-aging effect:
Most skin care products have a full listing of ingredients on the label or box. This labeling is required by the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act which mandates that all ingredients be listed.
On this page, you will find a list of some ingredients that may cause skin damage from prolonged use or which are simply unnecessary.
Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE) is a popular skin care ingredient that is used by a large number of manufacturers. It is very popular because it is one of a small number of agents (maybe even the only agent) that has been proved to produce skin tightening and to reduce facial sag (to a low level).