There are just so many skincare products that have anti-aging benefits or, at least, claim they have them. They promise to lift your skin, smooth wrinkles, and erase blemishes, and some even say you’ll look years younger after applying. It sounds part magic, part scam, but a lot of us want to believe that because we’d do anything to keep our skin preserved in time.
I’m not saying all of these products don’t work—some actually do and are worth it. But there are so many out there that cost so much money and leave a lot of unanswered questions. Will it work on my specific skin type? Does it really do what it says? Is it a total waste?
The trick to not being tricked is to do your research. Since the most common anti-aging product people use in their skincare routines is likely a cream, I went to expert dermatologists to get their advice on how to choose one, what to be wary of, and their own brand recommendations.
It’s a tall order for any one product, says Robyn Gmyrek, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Park View Laser Dermatology, but here are some concerns an anti-aging cream should target:
Stimulate new collagen and elastic tissue: Gmyrek says that as we age the production of collagen and elastin decreases, which can lead to fine lines, wrinkles, and texture changes.
Exfoliate the dead skin layer: “In older skin, the top dead skin layer does not slough off as it did in youth, leading to a dry, dull appearance,” Gmyrek explains. “Exfoliating products help to brighten the skin, and removing the dead skin cells helps penetration of other active ingredients in the creams.”
Decrease excess and unwanted pigmentation: Sun exposure could lead to excess pigmentation, so a product will ideally rejuvenate the skin by removing unwanted pigmentation.
Prevent ongoing and further damage and aging: “If we are trying to reverse damage, we also have to stop ongoing damage and give our skin a chance to repair and make progress,” Gmyrek says. Some products and ingredients that help with this include antioxidants, vitamin C, SPF 30 or higher (to prevent UVB damage), broad-spectrum sunscreen (to prevent UVA damage), and tinted makeup or sunscreen with iron oxide to prevent blue light damage.
When shopping for creams and other products, there are specific ingredients to keep an eye out for, depending on what your skincare needs are. Just remember that on the label the ingredients listed first are the most predominant in the product. The most common ones you’ll need are the following:
Hyaluronic Acid and Ceramides: Board-certified dermatologist Brooke Jackson, MD, says dry skin comes with age and hormonal shifts/menopause. She suggests looking for moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, which attracts and holds moisture, and ceramides, which repair the skin barrier.
Retinoids: These vitamin A derivatives reduce collagen breakdown and stimulate collagen synthesis. “It is available as a retinol (over the counter), tretinoin (prescription), adapalene (over the counter), and tazarotene (prescription),” Gmyrek says. “Always use these products at nighttime, as retinoids and retinols are inactivated by ultraviolet light.”
Board-certified dermatologist Roberta Del Campo, MD, says retinoid strength should be matched to your skin type. Oily skin needs a stronger version while dry skin needs a milder, less concentrated option.
Bakuchiol: “Bakuchiol is a naturally derived plant compound that is not a vitamin A but acts on the retinoid receptors in the same way as the retinols,” Gmyrek explains. “It has been shown to be less irritating.” This ingredient is good for people with dry or sensitive skin.
Vitamins C and E: Because you might experience discoloration from sun exposure and hormonal shifts, Jackson says vitamins C and E can help. They can brighten the skin and help to repair damage.
Peptides: “They are short chains of amino acids that serve as building blocks for proteins needed by the skin, like collagen, elastin, and keratin,” Gmyrek explains. “Peptides are essentially fragmented portions of complete or whole proteins. When applied topically to the skin, peptides act as little messengers, triggering skin cells to perform specific functions such as building collagen and elastin, reducing inflammation, and locking in skin hydration.”
Niacinamide: Also called nicotinamide, it’s a form of vitamin B3, which is an antioxidant and collagen stimulator. Gmyrek says niacinamide increases collagen production and decreases the cross-linking of collagen, which makes it hard and rigid. It can help improve fine lines and wrinkles.
Other antioxidants: Antioxidants like polyphenols, ferulic acid, and ubiquinone (coenzyme Q10) work to protect the skin against free radicals.
It sure does! Jackson says post-menopausal skin is drier and needs more moisture, so you’ll want to choose hydrating products. For dry skin, opt for bakuchiol instead of retinols, cream with peptide complexes, or niacinamide to promote collagen. Other hydrating and nourishing ingredients include ceramides, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and dimethicone—these repair the skin barrier, too.
For oily skin, Gmyrek cautions that some antioxidants are oils (like vitamin E oil), which can occlude pores and cause breakouts. Look for oil-free products and prioritize serums and lotions over creams.
And if you have sensitive skin, Jackson recommends avoiding products with fragrance. Niacinamide can calm and soothe skin. When first using the product, apply in small amounts to limited areas of the face to gauge sensitivity.
How and when you apply the product also makes a big difference:
1. Use different products at different times of the day. “I recommend using different products in morning and night so that you can stimulate collagen and prevent damage by using different mechanisms, like an antioxidant in the morning and a retinoid at night or a peptide product in the morning and an AlphaRet at night or a discoloration product in the morning and a collagen-stimulating product at night,” Gmyrek says. “Use them at different times of day—morning and night as opposed to layering them, which might cause them to be inactive, give a contact dermatitis, or limit the penetration of the second product.”
2. It’s never too early to start. Del Campo recommends people start using an anti-aging cream when collagen production starts to decrease, which is in the mid-to-late 20s: “It’s not just about correction—it’s about prevention.”
3. Don’t layer with reckless abandon. “I see on social media and print everywhere that you should layer multiple products to get all the benefits, but what I want people to understand is that these active ingredients—retinoids, vitamin C, polyphenols, peptides, etc.—are all very unstable and must be formulated and stored in proper packaging,” Gmyrek says. “If they are exposed to light or air, they will denature and become inactive. So if you layer them, they may also (likely) become inactive and ineffective! Also, they are tested as a single product on the skin. If you hope to achieve the results promised by the company, use them directed, as a single product.” Unless an anti-aging product comes as a multiple-step program, she recommends not combining products. Sunscreen and makeup aren’t included in this, though.
4. Sunscreen is important. Jackson says the best anti-aging cream is sunscreen. “Start early and reap the benefits,” she recommends. “By the time you see the issue, you are in corrective mode rather than the preventative mode.”
5. Use products regularly. You need to keep at it in order to see the benefits. Gmyrek says, no matter the product, to see results you need to use it for 12 to 16 weeks, which is the amount of time it takes to build collagen. You may see the hydrating and brightening effects sooner, though.
6. Vary products if you need to. You might need to vary your products based on your needs and seasonal changes. But Del Campo says if you like a particular product and it works for you, stick to it. You don’t want to fix something that’s not broken.