Our cultural obsession with anti-aging has led us down some strange paths, from face-slapping to placenta facials to injectable fillers. And the beauty industry is oh-so-happy to offer a continuous parade of skin care solutions that promise to be our secret weapon in the battle against visible signs of aging. The scientific rationale that drives this product parade has convinced us that visible signs of aging can be (nay, must be) prevented and corrected only with the help of new-and-improved discoveries in cosmetic science.
In a nutshell, the rationale behind cosmetic science involves 6 steps:
- Investigate the traditional uses and benefits of natural resources in various cultures or herbal folklore
- Isolate specific compounds of the chosen natural resource to study the effects and potential applications
- Efficiently extract just those “important” compounds from the whole (a.k.a. “active” ingredients)
- Process and refine the extracted substance into a shelf-stable, convenient form
- Announce the life-changing “discovery” of the next best thing
- Wash, rinse, repeat
Seems like 5 steps too many, if you ask me.
Let’s get off the anti-aging merry-go-round for a moment and consider our concerns from a wider perspective.
When we talk about anti-aging in any real sense, what we’re actually talking about is health. Providing the body with the elements required to sustain, replenish, and repair itself leads to healthy and therefore vibrant skin, naturally. Much like a whole foods diet is generally healthier than a diet based on processed foods fortified with (often synthetic) vitamins and minerals, leaning towards natural skin care is about acknowledging and respecting the integrity of whole ingredients.
Herbs, oils, clays, and natural extracts are packed with nourishing properties that genuinely care for your skin – it’s not about isolated active ingredients, it’s about synergy. When you opt for truly natural skin care, one of the big advantages is that certain “special” anti-aging ingredients simply become a given. But you may not recognize them in their more natural form, so let’s take a closer look at some familiar anti-aging ingredients…
No doubt about it, antioxidants are important anti-aging ingredients for any natural skin care product. They protect cells from oxidative damage by neutralizing free radicals and reducing inflammation, while helping to prevent the breakdown of the skin’s underlying matrix of collagen and elastin. A lesser-known detail about antioxidants is that they work best in combination. Rather than focusing on the most-hyped antioxidants – we’ve all read those articles listing the “top” or “best” active ingredients in the “fight” against aging – let’s take a calmer, simpler, more holistic approach.
The truth is… get ready for this shocker… all plants contain antioxidants. There are thousands of individual antioxidant chemicals that develop in countless unique combinations, as part of a plant’s own natural defence against oxidative damage. Of course, some plants and their inherent antioxidant profiles are more beneficial for skin care than others, so quality still matters. What I’d like to encourage here is a move away from scouring ingredient lists for that one specific antioxidant touted as the miracle “active” for age-defying skin care, and towards a preference for whole ingredients that offer synergistic antioxidant value in tandem with all sorts of other impressive properties.
This antioxidant compound may include any combination of its 8 chemical forms, usually extracted from soy. In addition to protecting skin from environmental stressors and calming inflammation, vitamin E is a reliable moisturizer that helps to firm and tighten skin with consistent use. Some natural products contain vitamin E as a stand-alone ingredient in the form of mixed tocopherols, but here’s the underlying truth: if you don’t see it listed explicitly on the label, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not there!
Many high quality plant oils contain a decent amount of naturally occurring vitamin E as part of their chemical makeup, most notably jojoba oil and argan oil. For those of us that are hesitant to include highly processed soy products in our diets (link) or skin care routines, jojoba and argan provide a stable (and holistic) source of this crucial vitamin.
ALPHA HYDROXY ACIDS
AHAs are exfoliating acids derived from fruit and milk sugars. They’re wonderful for softening skin texture, brightening skin tone, increasing circulation to help minimize fine lines, and they may even stimulate the production of new skin cells. Most commonly found in exfoliating products, AHAs are also beneficial in cleansers and moisturizers to regularly loosen dead skin cells and help prevent our skin from becoming dry and rough in the first place.
Luckily there are numerous ways to include naturally sourced AHAs in your skin care routine. Fruit powders like acai berry, apple, and pineapple contain high concentrations of exfoliating acids. If you’re mixing up a clay-based mask, add a plain yogurt or pineapple juice for an AHA boost!
BETA HYDROXY ACIDS
BHAs are exfoliating acids extracted from the bark of willow or aspen trees; also known as salicylic acid. They exfoliate both the surface of the skin and deeper within the lining of pores, which makes them especially valuable for managing blackheads and acne. With a chemical composition similar to aspirin, they have anti-inflammatory benefits that help to calm and soothe skin irritations. They also help to strengthen skin, support collagen production, and minimize fine lines.
Look for these beta hydroxy acids as Populus Tremuloides (Aspen) Bark Extract or Salix Alba / Salix Nigra (Willow) Bark Extract in the ingredients list of natural skin care products, in order to avoid their super-refined or potentially synthetic counterparts.
SQUALENE / SQUALANE
Lately, squalane has been praised as a miracle oil for all skin types. Light and fast-absorbing, it easily penetrates the skin without leaving a barrier. It’s deeply moisturizing, yet non-comedogenic (meaning, it won’t clog pores), and it works to regulate natural oil production in the skin. But before we get too excited, what’s with the variation in spelling? Squalene occurs naturally in our skin cells, and as a component of many vegetable oils. Squalane, on the other hand, is hydrogenated squalene. That’s right, hydrogenated.
See, squalene is highly unsaturated and therefore unstable, so manufacturers use hydrogenation to convert it into a stable saturated oil. Even better (oh wait, I mean worse) is that squalene can be extracted from vegetable oil in one of two ways: supercritical CO2 (clean, but expensive) or with solvents like hexane (potential for toxic residue, but cheap). You can imagine which option the profit-driven squalene manufacturing industry prefers.
Olive oil has the highest percentage of naturally occurring squalene, followed by argan oil. Rice bran and wheat germ have a decent amount of squalene, but if you choose either one of these oils, be sure to get it from a high quality source and take note of the press date or expiry date, since these oils are comparatively less stable than olive or argan oil.
RETINOL (VITAMIN A)
Retinol supports healthy cell turnover to improve skin tone and promote a smooth, even complexion. Along with firming and protecting the underlying structure of the skin, it may help to stimulate the production of collagen and elastin. It’s also known for boosting skin hydration for a more “plump” appearance, which helps to reduce the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, and large pores. The downside of retinol is that can cause redness, burning, flaky dryness, and thinning skin. Yikes.
Technically there is no natural source of pure vitamin A, but there is a great alternative…
Precursors to vitamin A, these are a class of antioxidants that help the skin recover from environmental stressors and the damaging effects of free radicals. Carotenoids are especially helpful in protecting the skin from UV damage. More generally, they support the repair and regeneration of tissues, work to protect collagen and elastin from degradation, and help to reduce water loss to keep skin hydrated.
A whole foods diet full of fruits and vegetables in shades of red, orange, and yellow (think tomatoes, bell peppers, nectarines, papaya) is your best bet, since increasing the level of carotenoids in your skin through nutrition has been shown to be more powerful than the protection offered by topical sources.
That being said, natural ingredients certainly have something to offer! The rich red colour of Sea Buckthorn oil is a sign of its high carotenoid content, among many other skin-nourishing virtues. Rosehip seed oil is another high-carotenoid ingredient, albeit more prone to spoilage than sea buckthorn, so be sure that it’s as fresh as possible and kept refrigerated at all times. Oils infused with calendula flower may contain some carotenoids. And, as you might expect, carrot seed essential oil also contains a high amount of carotenoids.
HYALURONIC ACID (HA)
Technically it’s a polysaccharide that occurs naturally in the body to lubricate joints, protect nerves, and keep skin soft, moisturized, and plump. In the body, hyaluronic acid works to attract and hold water, promote tissue repair, and support the skin’s underlying structure by maintaining the integrity of collagen and elastin. Unfortunately, a skin care product containing hyaluronic acid is unlikely to have any of these effects, since the molecules in the synthetic form of HA used for topical application are too large to pass through the skin’s barrier. It’s the same challenge faced by topical collagen.
Bone broth is the all-star when it comes to truly supporting the health and resilience of our skin. In addition to all the nourishing minerals, amino acids, and Glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) that make it such a nutritional powerhouse, bone broth contains the same forms of collagen and hyaluronic acid found in our bodies. Regularly consuming bone broth made with the healthy joints, cartilage, and tendons from naturally-raised animals will do more to maintain strong, vibrant skin than any topical skin care product. Period.
Hopefully these natural alternatives will inspire you to step off the merry-go-round of overhyped anti-aging ingredients. As you approach skin care more holistically, with a broader focus that considers your environmental impact, how you nourish your body, and your overall wellness practice, I invite you to scratch the term “anti-aging” from your mind. Step back from it. Question it. Dis-identify with it. Or simply ignore it. Rather than taking a defensive stance against aging, focus on taking extraordinary care of yourself. Nourish yourself in all the ways that you can.
And, smile at your lovely reflection, every day.