Be wary of hyped-up trends.
But with so many choices on shelves already, how do you know what will really work—and what products are simply placebos? We asked two leading dermatologists for help sifting through the noise. Here are a few basic rules to follow:
Familiarize yourself with ingredients that have significant studies proving their efficacy, says Shereene Idriss, M.D., of New York City's Union Square Laser Dermatology. "Key ingredients to look out for are retinols (which promote cell turnover) and hydroquinone (which helps lighten dark spots); alpha hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid and hyaluronic acid (which help exfoliate the skin); antioxidants like vitamin C (which ward off damage from free radicals), and of course, SPF," says Idriss. Top formulas will even combine ingredients for healthier, more younger-looking skin.
That said, even if a cleanser or cream contains a good ingredient, it can be difficult to know how pure and effective it really is, says Arisa Ortiz, M.D., Director of Laser and Cosmetic Dermatology and Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Dermatology at UC San Diego. Do your research and pick products from reputable brands, she advises. "My favorite product lines are Alastin, SkinMedica, Neocutis, and Skinceuticals," says Ortiz, who uses these brands on her own skin.
If you're in doubt about a skin-care product, talk to your dermatologist for recommendations or visit cosmeticsinfo.org, a consumer site from the Personal Care Products Council with extensive information about the safety, testing, and regulation of cosmetics and personal products. You can also check out the recommendations of the American Academy of Dermatology on how to choose an anti-aging product.
Another thing to keep in mind: Anti-aging products that promise results that "affect the structure or function of the body," for example by eliminating wrinkles or increasing collagen production, are technically considered drugs, per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Therefore, they require FDA approval (read: scientific research backing up their claims) before promising users those types of results. Check out the FDA's list of companies that have received warning letters for selling cosmetics with unapproved anti-aging claims to avoid buying something that may not be backed up by science.
If a product miraculously claims to solve all of your anti-aging needs and then some, it's a red flag to think twice before purchasing. "No single product is your answer to anti-aging, in the same way that no single food will keep you healthy," says Idriss. A great anti-aging routine is a balance of incorporating various ingredients that each target different aspects of the aging process in your unique complexion, she says. So, for example, look to a peel to brighten dark spots, a serum to target fine lines and wrinkles, and a moisturizer to hydrate.
You should be skeptical of ultra-trendy anti-aging treatments, such as products with plant stem cells, since many of them haven't been backed by a lot of research. "There is no scientific evidence to show that plant stem cells could have regenerative effects on human skin, so save your money and pass!" says Idriss. In order to be effective, stem cells must be kept alive, and the reality is that they're too fragile to remain intact in skincare formulations—plus they're too large to penetrate skin, she says. "That being said, human stem-cell technologies are making huge advancements and are likely to revolutionize skincare in years to come," adds Idriss.
Meanwhile, Ortiz says to skip products that claim to contain collagen in favor of those with ingredients with growth factors and retinoids that help stimulate collagen production. The collagen molecule itself is too large to penetrate through skin, leaving it to sit on top of your complexion with no truly beneficial function, Ortiz says.
With this info, you should be armed with the confidence (and the knowledge) that will help you find the right anti-aging product for you. If you need more guidance, check out these seven anti-aging products that dermatologists love.