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March 15, 2017

Infrequently Asked Questions: Which skincare ingredients are actually good for you?

Because they can't all cure your skin problems

Somehow, boutique shelves and TV shopping networks are chock-full of an endless supply of solutions for your bad skin. But, as most of us know, few of them actually do what they promise.

What ingredients do we really need to look for in the product label?

Eager to find out, we reached out to Nazanin Saedi, director of Jefferson Health's Laser Surgery and Cosmetic Dermatology Center, as well as Sherry Yang, director of Jefferson's Inpatient and Consultative Dermatology department, for answers. 

Which ingredients in skincare products are universally accepted as being good for skin health?

  • The world is full of questions we all want answers to, but are either too embarrassed, time-crunched or intimidated to actually ask. With Infrequently Asked Questions, we set out to answer those shared curiosities. Have a question you want answered? Send an email to, and we’ll find an expert who can give you the answer you’re craving.

Saedi: The idea here is to sort through the weeds, since there's just such an abundance of products and purported miracle-worker creams on the market. I usually recommend retinoids. These can be over-the-counter, or prescription strength, which is stronger. Hyaluronic acid is excellent for moisturizing the skin and improving texture and tone.

Is there one ingredient that's especially good for anti-aging?

Saedi: Retinoids are the best for the skin and they have been studied for more than 30 years. They increase the skin cell turnover. It will improve the appearance of brown spots, treat acne and help with the appearance of wrinkles.

What is a retinoid? Hyaluronic acid? How do they work?

Yang: Retinoids are Vitamin A derivatives that have a multitude of beneficial effects on the skin. The two major forms are retinol, found in over-the-counter products, and tretinoin/retinoic acid -- found in prescription creams such as Retin A. Retinol must be converted into tretinoin/retinoic acid in order to be biologically active, which is why prescription formulations are thought to be more effective. Direct effects on the skin include increased collagen production, gentle exfoliation, and decreased pigment production. Over time, this translates to fewer fine lines and wrinkles and a more even skin tone.

Hyaluronic acid is a molecule that is naturally produced by our skin and absorbs water. The amount declines with age, resulting in decreased moisture retention and thinner, crepey-appearing skin. Topical application of hyaluronic acid helps to rehydrate the skin, making it appear plumper and smoother.

How much of a difference is there between men's skin and women's, since these products are generally marketed by gender?

Saedi: Men tend to have more oily skin and they are not as compliant with various creams. I find that with men, you have to keep the plan more simple.

What's happening in a man's body that their skin is more oily?

Yang: Oil production is directly controlled by testosterone. While this hormone is present in both males and females, males have higher levels and therefore tend to be more oily.

How is it that there are so many recipes being patented for skincare? I find it hard to believe every bored celebrity has found the cure for getting older.

Saedi: It is a multimillion dollar market. Everyone is obsessed with staying and looking young. There are so many different creams and products because there is a consumer demand.

Any good rule of thumb for whether to take a product seriously?

Saedi: Yes. Do they have studies and data behind the product? Many products have false claims.

Is there a gold standard -- re: research and data when looking into a product -- in terms of organizations and watchdogs?

Saedi: One of the main pitfalls of “cosmeceuticals” is that they are not regulated by any formal organization. While many of these products claim to have biologically active ingredients, it is important to recognize that they are not prescriptions and therefore are not studied or recognized by the FDA. My advice is to pay close attention to the list of active ingredients on the product label and research user reviews before making a big purchase.

Is there any harm in switching skincare regimens? I've always wondered if my skin gets confused when I try something for a few months and then switch.

Saedi: It is not bad to change regimens. It is bad to use too many products and to use irritating products. As long as you slowly introduce new products, it will be fine and will allow your skin to adapt.

What's the "big thing" in skin health right now? Have there been any breakthroughs?

Saedi: Using products that have growth factors to help promote skin rejuvenation. And also products that have the technology to improve the cellular matrix (Alastin).

Anything to add? Something you think people should know?

Saedi: It is OK to have a simple skincare routine. More is not necessarily better. I suggest using a sunscreen, moisturizer, and retinoid. Those will help maintain the skin's moisture, protect against skin cancer and also help prevent aging.