Does Anti-Aging Cream Work?
If you turn on your TV or open any beauty
magazine, odds are you’ll come across an
ad for the newest anti-aging cream, featuring
models with impossibly smooth faces and long
lists of chemicals.
These ads sound misleading and, don’t get
me wrong, some of these so-called “anti-wrinkle”
chemicals are just marketing buzzwords.
But it turns out that a few of them might
actually help protect your skin from damage.
Your skin is like a layer cake, and the icing
on that cake is a thin layer of cells called
The epidermis is supported by the dermis,
which is where you’ll find nerve endings,
sweat glands, hair follicles, and connective
Connective tissue is made up of a mix of cells
hanging out in an extracellular matrix, which
contains some specific molecules that give
your skin some structure and help with things
like healing wounds.
One is collagen, a really plentiful protein
that helps cells stick together and makes
your skin stronger.
There’s also elastin, a protein that gives
your skin the ability to bounce back when
you stretch it.
Then, there are long chains of sugars called
glycosaminoglycans or GAGs, which act like
sponges and can hold huge amounts of water.
They help resist squishing forces on your
skin and keep it hydrated and healthy-looking.
As you get older, the production of these
extracellular matrix molecules naturally starts
to slow down.
With less structural support from the dermis,
your skin starts to look thinner and build
So we still haven’t discovered a fountain
of youth to fight against biochemical aging,
but the biggest cause of wrinkles isn’t
getting older, it’s environmental damage,
like from the sun.
Sunlight contains three types of UV radiation,
including one that never quite gets through
That leaves two that affect our skin.
Spending time outside is actually good for
your skin, in small doses.
UVB radiation interacts with a molecule in
your skin that gets turned into vitamin D,
which you need to absorb calcium and keep
your bones strong.
But too much UVB causes damage to your cells’
DNA, leading to sunburn and ultimately skin
Lots of UVA radiation is also not great for
you, because it interacts with other molecules
in your skin to create reactive oxygen species.
Reactive oxygen species include things like
hydrogen peroxide, nitric oxides, and unstable
molecules called “free radicals”, the
rebellious teenagers of the molecular world.
Electrons love travelling in pairs and are
most stable that way, but free radicals have
Because of their instability, free radicals
are on the hunt for more electrons and will
take them from things like DNA, proteins,
and fats—reacting with those molecules and
damaging them in the process.
And that includes molecules in the dermis
like elastin and collagen, creating tangled
clumps or breaking them down.
Your body can generally deal with some damage,
but too much, and you might have a wrinkly
There are tons of anti-wrinkle creams on the
market, but the chemicals that have been shown
to work actually deal with skin damage.
Retinol, also known as vitamin A, and chemically
related compounds called retinoids have been
shown to reduce wrinkles and to speed up the
healing of cuts and scrapes—as long as you
follow recommendations by dermatologists.
Using retinoids and then exposing your skin
to sunlight or using them while pregnant,
for instance, can cause more damage because
of how they interact with your cells.
And you don’t want that.
When you slather certain retinoids on your
face, they can interact with different receptors
on skin cells, and with DNA to activate certain
Biochemically, this can tell repair mechanisms
in your skin to speed up, so you get rid of
stuff that was damaged by reactive oxygen
species and make new cells and molecules at
a faster rate.
So retinoids can help maintain the structure
of your dermis and fight off wrinkles by making
your body produce more collagen, elastin,
And they seem to be the most effective ingredient
in anti-aging creams.
A few other compounds have been found to have
similar, but less potent, effects.
Chemicals like salicylic acid, for instance,
might also activate genes that cause cells
to make more collagen, or boost certain repair
And hyaluronic acid is a GAG, and can help
But there are also lots of chemicals in anti-aging
creams that are probably just… junk.
Take anything with peptide in its name, which
just means it’s a smaller building block
It’s true that peptides are involved in
lots of processes in your body, including
making new cells and proteins, which are important
for your skin’s structure.
But many dermatologists think that most of
these anti-aging peptides are just too large
to squeeze in between cells in the epidermis.
So they probably just sit on top of your skin
and do nothing.
And despite all those expensive marketing
campaigns, the best way to fight off wrinkles
might just be blocking UV radiation to protect
your cells from damage in the first place.
So the best anti-aging cream you can buy is
probably just sunscreen!
Thanks to Patreon patron Patrick Gilmore for
asking this question, and thanks to all our
patrons, whose support lets us keep making
If you want to learn more about skin damage,
we have a video where Hank explains why sunburns
And don’t forget to go to youtube.comscishow