In the world of skincare, trendy new anti-aging ingredients come and go at a rapid-fire pace. (We’ve seen everything from breast milk to snail mucus touted as the latest and greatest wrinkle fighters. Seriously.) And sure, they may gain a lot of buzz and attention, but when it comes to tried and true anti-aging ingredients—the heavy-hitters that really get the job done—it’s a pretty finite list of effective options that experts will tell you actually work. Each of the top ingredients gives skin a youth boost in slightly different ways, and each has its own set of pros and, sometimes, cons. To help you navigate the skincare space, we asked dermatologists to weigh in on the 10 essential anti-aging ingredients.
1. Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen
We know, this technically is a product and not an ingredient, but stay with us here. If you’re not using sunscreen religiously, there’s just no point in wasting your time or money on any other anti-aging ingredients. It’s a certifiable fact that sun exposure is one of the primary causes of all the signs of aging, from spots to wrinkles and everything in between. That makes adequate, daily sun protection a MUST, which is exactly why broad-spectrum sunscreen is on this list.
“A broad-spectrum sunscreen blocks both UVA rays, which cause aging, and UVB rays, which cause burning,” explains dermatologist Rita Linkner, M.D., of Spring Street Dermatology in New York City. The recommended daily value is SPF 30, and it’s important to remember that reapplication is also essential. You can find both mineral and chemical broad-spectrum sunscreens; the former work by sitting on top of the skin and deflecting the sun’s rays, the latter absorb into the skin to prevent the rays from damaging the cells. It’s a matter of personal preference, though mineral options are less likely to irritate sensitive skin, says Linkner. And, per some of the latest FDA findings, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, two of the most commonly used mineral sunscreen ingredients, have been found to be both safe and effective.
The outermost layer of your skin is known as the skin barrier, and its primary role is keeping the good stuff (hydration) in and all the bad stuff (irritants) out. “Ceramides are lipids that keep this barrier strong and healthy, sealing moisture into the skin,” says Chicago dermatologist Jordan Carqueville, M.D. In terms of anti-aging, the more hydrated your skin is, the more youthful it will look. Because ceramides are great for helping keep irritants out, they’re are also a good ingredient to seek out if you’re prone to eczema, notes Linkner. And since ceramides have basically no drawbacks, they’re an effective ingredient for any skin type.
Collagen is one of the most important proteins in your skin, the foundation for keeping it strong and firm, like the box spring underneath a mattress. The problem is that our natural collagen production slows down as we age, and adding insult to injury, all kinds of external factors (ahem, sun exposure) also contribute to the breakdown of collagen.
While it makes sense that collagen would be a great anti-aging ingredient, it’s not quite so simple. Topically, it’s not an active that can make a big difference, Linkner says, largely due to the fact that it’s a big molecule that is challenging to get into the skin. You may also have seen lots of ingestible collagen lately; various pills and powders have flooded the market, touting all kinds of skin, hair, and nail benefits. Still, “it’s difficult for oral collagen to make it to the level in the skin where it would make a difference,” cautions Linkner. The bottom line: Take this collagen craze with a grain of salt, but if you want to try it, go for it, since it really can’t hurt.
4. Glycolic Acid
Part of a group of acids known as alpha-hydroxy acids, this one is distinct in having the smallest molecular size, so it can penetrate deepest into the skin, Linkner says. Glycolic acid features the traditional exfoliating benefits of any AHA, gently dissolving the bonds between dead skin cells to improve skin texture, tone, and pore size, adds Carqueville. But glycolic acid also has another unique anti-aging benefit: “It boosts levels of both collagen and elastin in the skin,” says Linkner, so it can help ward off wrinkles, too. The caveat? Glycolic acid can be irritating for some people, especially those with super sensitive skin or when used in high concentrations, so start using it gradually in order to give your skin enough time to get used to it. For a gentle introduction to glycolic acid.
5. Lactic Acid
Another type of AHA, this is usually derived from milk and is generally gentler and less irritating than glycolic acid, says Linkner. It’s a common anti-aging ingredient in both mild in-office peels and many at-home exfoliating products, helping to leave skin more even and radiant. Plus, unlike many other exfoliating ingredients, which can be drying if not used properly, “lactic acid has been shown to increase the natural moisturizing factors in the skin,” says Carqueville. Just keep in mind that it will make your skin more sensitive to the sun, warns Linkner, so you want to be extra diligent and on top of your sunscreen game when lactic acid is a part of your anti-aging arsenal.
6. Hyaluronic Acid
A fan-favorite in the hydrating ingredient world, “hyaluronic acid acts like a sponge, drawing water to and then trapping it in the skin,” explains Linkner. This means that it not only moisturizes but can also help plump up your skin and fill in fine lines since it can hold up to a thousand times its own weight in water, Carqueville says. (Though sadly, those benefits are only temporary.) Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring sugar in our body—we produce it on our own up until about the age of 20—so it’s very inert and unlikely to cause any kind of skin complications. Just remember that in order for this anti-aging ingredient to work most effectively, there needs to be moisture present, Linkner says. In other words, if you slather it on parched skin while sitting in the middle of the desert, it’s not going to work. Your best bet is to apply hyaluronic acid on either slightly damp skin, or to layer it with another moisturizer.
7. Jojoba Oil
As popular as face oils have become, the concept can still be off-putting to some. But jojoba oil is one of the best skincare oils of the bunch. Derived from a nut-like pod of a plant, jojoba oil is biomimetic, meaning it acts like the oil naturally found in skin. “It’s non-comedogenic, so it won’t clog pores, is moisturizing, and also soothing to dry, irritated, skin,” Carqueville says. Translation: There’s no need to worry about breakouts. Jojoba oil contains vitamin E as well, which means it may have some antioxidant properties, Carqueville adds, and is anti-inflammatory, too. Bonus: It works equally well to hydrate your hair and scalp.
If you’re dealing with any kind of redness or irritation, or a condition such as rosacea, niacinimide is a good pick. “A form of vitamin B3, niacinamide helps calm inflamed skin,” says Carqueville, who adds that it’s generally well tolerated for all skin types. Plus, it has the added benefit of helping to brighten skin and target unwanted pigmentation.
“Also known as vitamin A, this is one of the most effective skin-transforming ingredients,” Linkner says. It’s part of a larger group known as retinoids, of which there are many prescription and over-the-counter options, though to keep things simple, they all work essentially the same way.
Related: Everything You Need to Know About Tretinoin—The Anti-Aging Ingredient Derms Swear By.
Because it increases the rate at which your cells turnover—aka speeding up the exfoliation process—retinol is a great anti-aging ingredient for targeting fine lines and sun damage. For the same reasons, it’s also good for combating blemishes, says Linkner, so if you’re dealing with adult acne, that oh-so-fun double whammy of wrinkles and pimples, this one is for you.