We get it, sometimes reading the ingredient label on a skin care product can seem to require an advanced scientific degree. SO. MANY. (COMPLICATED). WORDS. But the thing is, even a quick scan of what's in that cream or serum can pay off in a big way, especially when you know what to look for. We're talking specifically about these seven ingredients that derms love. Here, the lowdown on what's so great about each of them, plus top product picks where you can get a dose of each.
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AKA alpha-hydroxy acids, these include glycolic, lactic and citric acids, all of which gently exfoliate by dissolving dead skin cells for a smoother, brighter, more even complexion, says NYC cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Sejal Shah, founder of SmarterSkin Dermatology. An added boon: Using AHAs also help improve the penetration—and efficacy—of other ingredients you're using, adds Chicago dermatologist Dr. Jordan Carqueville, MD.
Parched skin's BFF, this molecule draws in moisture and can retain up to 1000 times its weight in water, instantly hydrating your complexion and making it appear plumper and smoother, points out Shah. Plus, unlike other heavy-hitting hydrators, this feels featherweight (never greasy or heavy), making it a great choice for a morning moisturizer or to use under makeup.
Dealing with dry, stressed, irritated skin? Ceramides are a must. Picture your skin as a layer of bricks and mortar; ceramides are part of the mortar, ensuring everything stays strong and healthy. "They're lipids that strengthen the skin barrier and seal in moisture," explains Carqueville. An intact skin barrier also keeps outside irritants from getting in, making ceramides choice for conditions like eczema, adds Shah.
The over-the-counter version of prescription retinoids, pretty much every single dermatologist we've ever talked to names all of these vitamin A derivatives as the number one anti-aging ingredient. "Retinol is a well-established anti-aging powerhouse," says Shah. "Besides improving skin texture and firmness, it also evens out skin tone and reduces the appearance of pores." Oh, and did we mention that it can also treat acne too? While this retinol is the most common OTC option, there are also other versions (retinyl palmitate, retinaldehyde) which deliver similar benefits, though are slightly less potent. Whichever one you choose, keep in mind that it will take your skin some time to get used to this strong stuff, so start by using it every other night for two weeks, then gradually increasing to nightly use.