Ceramides: Ceramides are intercellular lipids, meaning they fill in the spaces between your skin cells in the stratum corneum (the outer protective layer of skin). Your skin already makes ceramides on its own—without them, your skin won’t be able to effectively hold moisture in or keep irritants out. Topical ceramides may be present in both prescription treatments for eczema and over-the-counter products.
Niacinamide: This is a form of vitamin B3 (niacin) that can be applied to the skin. There is some research to suggest that it can be helpful for managing acne, rosacea, and signs of aging including hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and wrinkles.1
Peptides: Peptides are known as the building blocks of proteins. They’re made up of short chains of amino acids. In the realm of skin care, we mostly talk about peptides as building up collagen, a protein your skin needs to keep its structure. Different types of peptides might do the job of bolstering your collagen in different ways, but the most common ones are signal peptides, which can both stimulate the skin’s collagen production, especially overnight, and slow down the natural breakdown of collagen.
Retinoids: These compounds—retinol, retinal (or retinaldehyde), retinoic acid, and synthetic retinoids like Adapalene and Tazerac—are one of only two proven ways to prevent the signs of aging. (The other is sunscreen!) Retinoids, which are forms of vitamin A, work by stimulating the skin-cell-shedding process from below, leading to smoother skin and a reduction in both signs of aging and acne.
These come in both prescription and over-the-counter products, typically with a concentration of 1%, so if you aren’t satisfied with the results of an over-the-counter option, check with a dermatologist about getting a prescription version. If you’re using it to address signs of aging like fine lines, Dr. Skotnicki recommends starting to use retinol products around age 30 to get ahead of the game. Retinoids are also notorious for causing irritation when you first start using them, so it’s crucial to apply them just a few days a week to start with and to apply a moisturizer right after using them.
Sunscreen: You’ve likely used a sunscreen before to prevent sunburns, which are one form of UV damage. But did you know that UV rays can also contribute to other kinds of damage? And that damage can cause dark spots, wrinkles, and other signs of aging? It’s true. Preventing that—and skin cancer, of course—is a major reason to use sunscreen every single day. Be sure to use a sunscreen that’s at least SPF 30 and provides broad-spectrum protection, meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Although the sunscreen in your makeup doesn’t count as your daily SPF, the sunscreen in your moisturizer can—as long as you use it on your ears and neck as well as your face.
Vitamin C: Yes, that vitamin C! This vitamin is essential for producing collagen and other important compounds in the body. And when it’s applied topically it can function as an antioxidant, thus preventing UV-related damage. It can also inhibit the production of melanin (pigment) in the skin, making it a good option for lightening dark spots due to photoaging or other kinds of damage. But beware that all forms of vitamin C are not created equal—some are more or less effective or stable than others. You should incorporate vitamin C at a concentration of about 10% in order for it to be effective at fighting sun damage, Dr. Skotnicki says. Also know that vitamin C often appears on the label as these derivatives: look for ingredients such as magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, ascorbyl 6-palmitate, ascorbic acid sulfate, or L-ascorbic acid (also referred to simply as ascorbic acid).