By Jennifer Warner
Reviewed By Gary Vogin
Paying extra for exotic vitamins in skin creams that promise to erase fine lines and prevent wrinkles will get you little more than an empty wallet, according to dermatologists. Although many face creams contain vitamins known as antioxidants, very few are actually effective in preventing or reversing skin damage.
"Despite advertising claims, almost all available topical formulations contain very low concentrations of antioxidants that are not well absorbed by the skin," said Karen E. Burke, MD, in a presentation to the American Academy of Dermatology's annual meeting this week in New Orleans. "There are three antioxidants that have been proven to decrease the effect of the sun on the skin and actually prevent further damage: selenium, vitamin E, and vitamin C."
Antioxidants are known to prevent agents called free radicals from damaging cells in the body and the skin. Free radicals are a result of normal body processes, but they can also be created by exposure to various environmental factors such as smoking or ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and can speed up the aging process.
Burke says the problem with applying antioxidants to the skin to fight aging is that they aren't very well absorbed or only have short-term effects. But new research presented at the dermatology conference suggests more effective formulations to deliver two of these antioxidants directly to the skin that needs it may soon be available.
The mineral selenium helps protect the body from cancers, including skin cancer caused by sun exposure. It also preserves tissue elasticity and slows down the aging and hardening of tissues associated with oxidation. Dietary sources of the mineral include whole grain cereals, seafood, garlic, and eggs.
Recent animal studies have found that when selenium is taken orally or through the skin in the form of L-selenomethionine, it provided protection against both everyday and excessive UV damage. A study also showed selenium also delayed the development of skin cancer in the animals.
Burke says those results are promising, but studies are still needed in humans.
Experts consider vitamin E to be the most important antioxidant because it protects cell membranes and prevents damages to enzymes associated with them. Natural sources of vitamin E include vegetable oils such as sunflower oil, grains, oats, nuts, and dairy products.
New laboratory studies suggest vitamin E helps inactivate free radicals, making them less likely to cause damage. Several other studies have shown applying vitamin E to the skin can reduce damage caused by sun exposure and limit the production of cancer-causing cells.
"For additional sun protection, individuals may consider taking vitamin E supplements," said Burke, in a release. "Supplementation with vitamin E in 400 milligrams a day has been noted to reduce photodamage, wrinkles and improve skin texture."
Vitamin C is the most common antioxidant found in the skin. It's also found in vegetables and citrus fruits. Like vitamin E, vitamin C is considered important in repairing free radicals and preventing them from becoming cancerous or accelerating the aging process.
Since vitamin C is most prevalent in the skin, the skin is the organ that suffers most from environmental stressors. Smoking, sun exposure, and pollution rob the nutrient from our bodies, says Burke.
"Even minimal UV exposure can decrease the vitamin C levels in the skin by 30 percent, while exposure from the ozone of city pollution can decrease the level by 55 percent," said Burke in a release.
Creating a skin cream that carries a useful dose of vitamin C is difficult because it reacts immediately when exposed to oxygen. Several clinical trials examining more stable, effective formulations are currently under way.
Originally published Feb. 26, 2002.
Medically updated July 25, 2003.
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Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005