table of contents
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Crow’s feet, wrinkles, fine lines, dark spots—no matter how old or young you are, you may want to reverse these signs of aging or avoid them altogether. If you go into any drugstore, you’ll see shelves and shelves of anti-aging serums, skinceuticals, and lotions. How do you know what’s worth trying?
While you can’t avoid getting older, some things work better than others to keep your skin looking young.
In this article, we’ll share which anti-aging ingredients are backed by science. We’ll also share tips for other things you can do to avoid skin aging.
What are the best anti-aging serum ingredients?
There’s no magic serum that will instantly make you look ten years younger—at least, not yet. But researchers have seen good results from using certain serums. One study looked at a serum containing a mixture of L-ascorbic acid, ergothioneine, hyaluronic acid, a proteoglycan-stimulating peptide, and fragmented proteoglycans. The study participants reported the serum was hydrating, leaving them with brighter skin and fewer wrinkles (Garre, 2018).
Since this study included a specific formulation, it’s difficult to say which ingredients had the most significant effect.
But let’s take a closer look at the ingredients in a typical anti-aging serum to find out which are the most effective ones, according to research.
L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C)
This antioxidant has some anti-aging effects, as it can slow down the damaging effects of unstable molecules called free radicals (Ganceviciene, 2012). When applied topically, vitamin C can penetrate the skin pretty well, and studies have shown that it can increase collagen production (Al-Niaimi, 2017). L-ascorbic acid works best when combined with vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol). Together, these vitamins have anti-inflammatory effects, which are linked to smoother, younger-looking skin. (Ganceviciene, 2012).
Hyaluronic acid (also called hyaluronan) naturally occurs in our skin and is part of the organ’s system of hydration. With age, hyaluronic acid levels in the skin decrease, leading to skin dryness and increased signs of aging. Topical hyaluronic acid is an excellent addition to an anti-aging serum, as it acts as a moisturizer, smooths wrinkles and fine lines, improves skin elasticity, and brightens the skin (Bukhari, 2018).
Anti-aging serums generally don’t contain sunscreen since serums are usually a clear liquid or gel.
But since UV damage from the sun is one of the biggest culprits of aging skin, make sure that sunscreen is a consistent part of your skincare regimen. Daily SPF sunscreen can protect against sun damage, and it may even reverse some of that damage once it’s happened. One study showed that using daily sunscreen for a year improved skin texture and helped with discoloration (Randhawa, 2016).
Retinoids are medications derived from vitamin A, and they’re effective at decreasing wrinkles, brightening the skin, and smoothing skin texture. The most potent retinoid, called tretinoin (see Important Safety Information), is only available in prescription form. Another retinoid, called retinol, is available over-the-counter. It’s not as potent as tretinoin, but it still comes with decent anti-aging effects. You’ll see retinol in many anti-aging serums on the market (Zasada, 2019).
Other ingredients and considerations
With so many anti-aging products on the market, you will see multiple other ingredients in your eye cream, night serum, or other age-fighting lotions of choice. You might come across ingredients like niacinamide, ceramides, glycolic acid, or ferulic acid. Stem cells seem to be everywhere nowadays. And exfoliating products claim to increase cell turnover, improving your skin tone. All of these different products claim effectiveness at plumping, moisturizing, firming, or overcoming skin dullness, but there’s limited research (if any) behind these ingredients.
Fortunately, it’s not necessary to use every product touted for its anti-aging effects.
What’s more important here is consistency, as research suggests that following a simple routine consistently yields positive results across the board (Messaraa, 2020). So, it’s better to err on the side of simplicity if that means you’ll be more consistent with your routine.
What are other anti-aging strategies?
Besides a face serum to combat the signs of aging, what else can you do to improve your chances of keeping your youthful looks?
Well, you can’t avoid aging altogether. A big factor in how we age is our genes. That includes your race and ethnicity, as well as how your parents and grandparents aged (Makrantonaki, 2012). But there are certain things you can do to stack the cards in your favor, even if you’re genetically predisposed to more rapid aging.
Avoid sun exposure
We mentioned above that daily sunscreen is one of the best things you can do for your skin. Exposing your skin to the sun repeatedly and for prolonged periods leads to mitochondrial damage of the skin cells. This increases the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, causes hyperpigmentation, and decreases the skin’s elasticity (Clatici, 2017).
So, to keep your skin looking young, be sure to avoid sun exposure and use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher every time you step outside (AAD, n.d.).
Limit sugar intake
You’d think with the amount of sugar kids like to eat, sugar is the key to eternal youth. Sadly, that’s not the case. Being on a high-sugar diet keeps your blood glucose levels high, which according to one study, is linked to looking older (Noordam, 2013). A high sugar diet can also negatively impact the skin’s collagen production, elastic fibers, and fibronectin, causing increased signs of aging (Clatici, 2017).
If you’re concerned about skin aging, it’s probably a good idea to cut down on your sugar intake.
Quitting tobacco is one of the best things you can do for your health. It decreases your chances of cardiovascular disease and stroke, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and more (West, 2017). In addition to those health benefits, smoking cessation is also one of the best anti-aging interventions out there.
Smoking is correlated with higher rates of wrinkles (especially around the eye area and mouth area), skin discoloration, dry skin, and skin inflammation. Some of these effects improve almost immediately after quitting smoking (Yazdanparast, 2019).
Manage your stress and sleep
Stress and sleep go hand-in-hand—when you’re under a lot of stress, you’re more likely to sleep poorly (Kalmbach, 2018). High levels of stress and poor sleep can both make the skin look older. Fine lines, wrinkles, discoloration of the skin, and rough skin tone are more common in people with high stress and poor sleep (Clatici, 2017).
There are many strategies out there to lower stress levels and improve sleep. One strategy with good research behind it is a technique called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which combines gentle movement, breathing exercises, and meditation (Worthen, 2020).
Consistency is crucial for anti-aging results
No matter what anti-aging serum you try, remember that anti-aging results don’t happen overnight. The key to fighting the effects of aging is to be consistent in your efforts. When you find something that your skin responds to well, keep at it consistently, and those results will add up over time.
Any skincare product you use shouldn’t irritate your skin or cause breakouts (if it does or if you have sensitive skin, speak with your dermatologist or healthcare provider for recommendations). You may need to go through some trial and error to find the right products for your particular skin type and skin concerns.
- Al-Niaimi, F., & Chiang, N. (2017). Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 10(7), 14–17. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5605218/
- American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD). (2021). Sunscreen FAQs. Retrieved March 21, 2021 from https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/sun-protection/sunscreen-patients/sunscreen-faqs
- Bukhari, S., Roswandi, N. L., Waqas, M., Habib, H., Hussain, F., Khan, S., Sohail, M., Ramli, N. A., Thu, H. E., & Hussain, Z. (2018). Hyaluronic acid, a promising skin rejuvenating biomedicine: A review of recent updates and pre-clinical and clinical investigations on cosmetic and nutricosmetic effects. International Journal of Biological Macromolecules, 120(Pt B), 1682–1695. doi: 10.1016/j.ijbiomac.2018.09.188. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30287361/
- Clatici, V. G., Racoceanu, D., Dalle, C., Voicu, C., Tomas-Aragones, L., Marron, S. E., Wollina, U., & Fica, S. (2017). Perceived Age and Life Style. The Specific Contributions of Seven Factors Involved in Health and Beauty. Maedica, 12(3), 191–201. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5706759/
- Ganceviciene, R., Liakou, A. I., Theodoridis, A., Makrantonaki, E., & Zouboulis, C. C. (2012). Skin anti-aging strategies. Dermato-Endocrinology, 4(3), 308–319. Doi: 10.4161/derm.22804. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3583892/
- Garre, A., Narda, M., Valderas-Martinez, P., Piquero, J., & Granger, C. (2018). Antiaging effects of a novel facial serum containing L-Ascorbic acid, proteoglycans, and proteoglycan-stimulating tripeptide: ex vivo skin explant studies and in vivo clinical studies in women. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, 11, 253–263. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S161352. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5985795/
- Kalmbach, D. A., Anderson, J. R., & Drake, C. L. (2018). The impact of stress on sleep: Pathogenic sleep reactivity as a vulnerability to insomnia and circadian disorders. Journal of Sleep Research, 27(6), e12710. doi: 10.1111/jsr.12710. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29797753/
- Makrantonaki, E., Bekou, V., & Zouboulis, C. C. (2012). Genetics and skin aging. Dermato-Endocrinology, 4(3), 280–284. doi: 10.4161/derm.22372. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3583889/
- Messaraa, C., Robertson, N., Walsh, M., Hurley, S., Doyle, L., Mansfield, A., Daly, L., Tansey, C., & Macon, A. (2020). Clinical evidences of benefits from an advanced skin care routine in comparison with a simple routine. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 19(8), 1993–1999. doi: 10.1111/jocd.13252. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31840424/
- Noordam, R., Gunn, D. A., Tomlin, C. C., Maier, A. B., Mooijaart, S. P., Slagboom, P. E., Westendorp, R. G. J., de Craen, A. J. M., van Heemst, D., & Leiden Longevity Study Group. (2013). High serum glucose levels are associated with a higher perceived age. Age (Dordrecht, Netherlands), 35(1), 189–195. Doi: 10.1007/s11357-011-9339-9. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22102339/
- Randhawa, M., Wang, S., Leyden, J. J., Cula, G. O., Pagnoni, A., & Southall, M. D. (2016). Daily Use of a Facial Broad Spectrum Sunscreen Over One-Year Significantly Improves Clinical Evaluation of Photoaging. Dermatologic Surgery : Official Publication for American Society for Dermatologic Surgery [et al.], 42(12), 1354–1361. Doi: 10.1097/DSS.0000000000000879. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27749441/
- West, R. (2017). Tobacco smoking: Health impact, prevalence, correlates and interventions. Psychology & health, 32(8), 1018–1036. doi: 10.1080/08870446.2017.1325890. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5490618/
- Worthen, M. & Cash, E. (2020). Stress Management. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513300/
- Yazdanparast, T., Hassanzadeh, H., Nasrollahi, S. A., Seyedmehdi, S. M., Jamaati, H., Naimian, A., Karimi, M., Roozbahani, R., & Firooz, A. (2019). Cigarettes Smoking and Skin: A Comparison Study of the Biophysical Properties of Skin in Smokers and Non-Smokers. Tanaffos, 18(2), 163–168. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7230126/
- Zasada, M., & Budzisz, E. (2019). Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatologii i Alergologii, 36(4), 392–397. doi: 10.5114/ada.2019.87443. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6791161/
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.