A Chemistry Lesson For Your Skin

Aged 16 I flunked my chemistry exams. If our lessons had focused on dermatology however, I might be a Nobel prize winning chemist by now. My bathroom cabinet is a veritable skincare laboratory and after years of practice I’ve learnt more about science from my toner than my teachers.

Having said that, the label mumbo jumbo can get a little too much and the term ‘acid’ can be damn scary when applied to skin care. Whether you’re bothered about hydration or hair loss, rosacea or wrinkles, here’s how to tell your acids from your anti-oxidants.

test tubes photo

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs or fruit acids) – These are natural fruit acids which eat away at the top layer of dead skin cells, reducing the appearance of wrinkles. People with normal skin types can use fruit acids every other day, while those with more sensitive skin should drop down to twice per week. Too much AHA can literally peel your skin off, so go easy and use sun protection.

Collagen – This helps support our ligaments and blood vessels, gives our skin its elasticity and strength, and is essential for stimulating hair follicles, thus helping hair growth. As I understand it, without collagen we’d collapse into a bald heap on the floor. Lots of skincare wonder products target wrinkles by supporting collagen production.

Hyaluronic acid – Naturally produced by the body, this fella retains a crazy amount of water (one molecule can hold up to 1000 times its own weight in water). As a cream it can’t actually penetrate deep down, but it attracts water thus acts as a barrier, keeping skin hydrated and supple. Now in my thirties with skin prone to dryness I’m using it in serum form as an anti ageing defence.

The Ordinary Hylamide subq anti age £30

Salicylic acid – This one unclogs pores, reduces inflammation and exfoliates, making it perfect for anyone with acne or oily skin. When first used it can feel a little stringent and as it exfoliates on a deeper level you’ll need to lay off the face scrub and top up with a good sun protection factor and moisturiser.

Origins Super Spot Remover, £15

Matrixyl – This chap can nearly double the amount of collagen in your skin by working from within. This in turn gives skin its elasticity and prevents wrinkles. Now found in a host of serums and moisturisers, it can be used everyday and is safe for all.

Niacinamide – Known on the block as vitamin B3, niacinamide boasts anti-inflammatory properties so is often used to treat acne and rosacea. It also helps skin provide a protective barrier against water loss, keeping it moist and supple, and in high concentrations it also helps lighten age spots, thus making it a stella anti-ageing cream.

Olay Regenerist 3-Point Super Serum, contains both matrixyl and niacinamide. £19.95 at allbeauty.com

Antioxidants – These natural wonders include vitamins and minerals which combat the nasties that damage our skin cells, again preventing wrinkles. Green tea extract, vitamin A, vitamin C and CoEnzyme Q-10 (CoQ-10) are all antioxidants.

Vitamin C – Much more than just a tablet shoved down your throat as a child, vitamin C helps reduce skin inflammation, pigmentation (think spots caused by overexposure to sun), and again promotes collagen production. Alas an orange a day may not be enough to keep the wrinkles at bay – apparently diet alone and even supplements are not enough for the miracle vitamin to really do its stuff; you’ll need a top up courtesy of your serum or moisturiser.


REN Radiance Perfecting Serum, £35

Retinol – aka a form of Vitamin A. This skin care superhero boosts collagen production so can prevent wrinkles, but overuse can cause skin to peel and flake so should be used with caution. Also beware that a retinol product labelled for ‘sensitive’ types may just mean there is a lower concentration of the active ingredient, i.e. you’re getting less for your money. While the skin adapts, tolerating more retinol over time and while some light flakiness or flushing is normal, you may need to reduce to a lower concentration if you’re in discomfort. Final point – while it’s tough on wrinkles it’s a sissy in the sunlight, so it’s best used at night and you’ll need to wait about a minimum of three months to see any results.

La Roche-Posay Redermic R anti-wrinkle treatment, £29.50

Glycolic acid – My darling among the AHAs. Dry skin can cause dullness, and using glycolic acid removes the top, dull layers, promoting the production of collagen and elastin to reveal glowing skin underneath. My first glycolic acid facial left my skin looking a little red, a tad dehydrated and then oh boy!… within minutes it positively tingled with radiance, felt amazingly smooth and the wonder effect lasted for several days afterwards. As this skin care champion is so intense it’s important to follow a gentle skincare regime immediately following and max out the SPF by day.

Alpha H Speciality Solution Liquid Gold £46.95 at allbeauty.com

Azelaic acid – this acid boasts anti inflammatory and antibacterial properties putting it up there in the top ten for anyone with acne. Furthermore, as it inhibits melanin production it can guard against pigmentation so is often incorporated into anti-ageing creams. Generally safe for everyone to use, as it acts as an exfoliant it’s important to use SPF alongside.
Rodial super acids x-treme acid rush peel, £85.

Caffeine – Let’s be clear I’m not suggesting you binge drink martini espressos for a skin care fix. Excessive amounts of coffee feed stress hormones which hamper skin’s production of hyaluronic acid. Used in a cream however, caffeine increases circulation so it works well on cellulite, it stimulates hair growth so can be found in many hair products, and it also helps protect against the effects of UV damage, so is a star ingredient in many eye creams.

Kiehl’s Eye Alert, £23


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