Cosmeceuticals represent a new category of products placed between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals that are intended for the enhancement of both the health and beauty of skin. These new breed of cosmetic products therapeutically affect the structure and function of the skin, providing effects beyond simple cosmetic enhancement. Today, almost 30% to 40% of any dermatologist’s prescription count across the world consists of a cosmeceutical.
The truth is that more and more women are looking for cost-effective non invasive methods to improve the appearance of their skin. Many are turning away from prescription medications and medical procedures and are instead considering over-the-counter treatments.
The scope of cosmeceuticals has been almost exponentially expanding, e.g., with the discovery of alpha-hydroxy acids for exfoliation and skin rejuvenation, different formulations of topical vitamin C, and an overflowing basket of antioxidants, amongst others.
1. So, how can cosmeceuticals help us to prevent premature ageing?
There are many theories about how and why we age. Like most complex processes, ageing is most likely due to a number of factors, some of which we may not be aware of yet, but the free radical theory of ageing has dominated ageing research for decades.
A free radical is simply a molecule with an unpaired electron. These molecules are unstable, so free radicals want an electron to pair with to be stable again. This leads them to break up electron couples on other molecules, creating new radicals or other reactive substances that can be even more destructive than the original radical.
Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are produced as a natural by-product of our metabolism, such when cells burn food for energy or when the body is fighting bacteria or viruses. Free radicals in general are not dangerous, but when our cells are exposed to certain chemicals, pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke and so, this process may create a surplus of unbalanced cells looking to become balanced by scavenging for electrons. If there are no electrons available or the free radical production is in excess, cell damage occurs and creates an environment of oxidative stress.
Once ROS are formed, they can react with cell membrane lipids, proteins, and DNA, causing them to undergo oxidation. Once oxidised, the structure of these components can be adversely affected, leading to a decline in various biological functions as well as mutations in DNA. In the skin, oxidation caused by ROS damages collagen and elastin fibres in the dermis, lowers immune cell function, and mutates DNA, which can lead to premature ageing. In fact, oxidative stress plays a role in the development of many conditions, including macular degeneration, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, emphysema, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ulcers and all inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis and lupus.
Given that radicals are always produced, our bodies are naturally equipped with their own antioxidant network to neutralise them. This network consists of vitamins obtained in the diet, such as vitamin C and E, as well as various antioxidants produced by our bodies such as co-enzyme Q10. These antioxidants protect our bodies from the effects of oxidation by donating one of their electrons to a free radical.
Once an antioxidant becomes a radical itself, it is a much more stable (antioxidant-) radical and doesn’t react randomly with other molecule, so it can handle being single until a suitable electron partner comes along, usually one donated by another antioxidant. Antioxidants can also donate an electron and then, transform into a stable molecule that is not longer an antioxidant. To put it in short, problems occur when antioxidant concentrations are no longer sufficient to control the levels of free radicals and ROS. At this point, oxidative damage to our cell membranes, proteins and DNA begins to accumulate. As we age, our production of antioxidants declines while the creation of ROS increases. So, oxidative damage is accumulated over the years.
Although the exact cause of ageing is still unclear, for many years and to this day, this theory has been the most popular in the area of ageing because it is consistent with many studies. However, new studies have turned many researches to a broader concept: many forms of damage serve as causal factors in the ageing process, with ROS representing some of the major causes, but not the only cause. Nonetheless, free radical damage is widely accepted as a major contributing factor in tissue and cell damage associated with ageing.
2. UV Radiation and photo-ageing.
One of the processes that greatly increases free radicals and ROS in the skin is UV radiation of the sunlight. The effects of sunlight on the skin are profound, and are estimated to account for up to 90% of visible skin ageing.
Sunlight is composed of three different types of radiation: UVC, UVB and UVA. UVC (100–290 nm) is largely blocked by the ozone layer and has little impact on skin. UVB (290–320 nm) penetrates only into the epidermis and is responsible for the erythema associated with a sunburn. UVA requires 1000‐fold higher levels of radiation to cause sunburn, so it was long considered irrelevant to skin damage. It is now known that because it penetrates into the dermis, UVA may be responsible for most of the chronic skin damage associated with photo-ageing.
When UV radiation hits your skin, some gets absorbed and some is reflected or scattered back. In the skin, UV is absorbed by a variety of molecules, including melanin, DNA, cell membrane lipids, collagen and elastin, and vitamins A and E. When UV radiation is absorbed by a molecule in your skin, that molecule enters a higher energy state and must get rid of this excess energy in some way, such as dissipating it as heat, forming radicals, or transferring the oxygen to form ROS. Absorption of UVA by molecules in your skin most often results in the latter.
Photo-ageing is because of a combination of short wavelength (UVB) injury to the outer layers of the skin (epidermis) and long wavelength (UVA) injury to the middle layers (dermis). The key feature of photo-aged skin is the accumulation of formless elastin-containing material that resides beneath the epidermal-dermal junction. Impairment of collagen and elastin is typically more severe in photo-aged skin compared with chronologically aged skin.
The severity of photo-ageing is proportional to accumulated sun exposure an inversely related to degree of skin pigmentation. Individuals with fair skin are more susceptible to solar UV-induced skin damaged than darker-skinned individuals. Exposure to the sun induces the generation of ROS. Studies have shown that in less than 30 minutes following UV irradiation, the level of a potent ROS more than doubles in human skin.
In the dermis and the epidermis, ROS cause the activation of enzymes which degrade collagen and other proteins, impairing the structural integrity of the dermis. In addition, UV exposure disrupts ongoing collagen synthesis, leading to acute collagen loss in the skin.
Skin damage can definitely be minimised before it accumulates. And even if you have badly photo-aged skin, you can start protecting it now and experience big benefits in the future. Fortunately, it is also possible to reverse a certain amount of skin ageing. But the first step to protect your skin form UV radiation, avoiding unnecessary sun exposure or using a broad spectrum sunscreen (UVA and UVB coverage) and protective clothing.
3. What other benefits do cosmeceuticals have in store for us?
Sunscreen will never stop 100% of UV from reaching your skin, so the addition of cosmeceuticals to your skin regime is the other key factor in protecting and improving the appearance of your skin.
The layers of the skin (epidermis, dermis and hypodermis) are in communication with one another. When we use products containing ingredients that penetrate into the skin and exert some type of biological effect, a series of events involving signalling and communication between the skin’s layers begin.
Cosmeceuticals contain ingredients that do influence the biological function of the skin. They improve appearance, but they do by delivering nutrients necessary for healthy skin, or by having a function that changes the health or state of the skin somehow. There is a fine line between a cosmetic and a drug, and many are viewed as drugs by the regulatory authorities.
Some cosmeceutical ingredients can increase the synthesis of collagen and elastin in the dermis, helping to reduce wrinkle depth, while others lighten pigmentation or exfoliate to reveal smoother looking skin. They may have different functions but something many cosmeceuticals have in common is antioxidant activity. Compounds such as vitamins C and E, alpha hydroxyl acids, and kojic acid are excellent antioxidants, as well as having properties that help reverse skin ageing. Many are exclusively used for their antioxidant activity. Using antioxidant cosmeceutical products will help neutralise free radicals and ROS, so less skin damage occurs.
There are hundreds of ingredients that are used in the world of organic high performance cosmetics. They could be divided according to their benefits into 16 groups:
- Moisturising agents.
- Barrier repair agents.
- Antioxidants (Polyphenols).
- Hydroxy Acids.
- Skin Lightening agents.
- Anti-inflamatory ingredients.
- Anti-fungal ingredients.
- Anti-acne ingredients.
- Photo-protecting ingredients.
- Anti-ageing ingredients.
- Penetration enhancers.
- Anti-cellulite ingredients.
- Hair loss agents.
- Scar + Stretchmark treatment agents.
- Astringent ingredients.
Now, let’s have a look at some of them and how they can help us to retard or reverse ageing signs.
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