Traditional treatment: The gold standards in this area have always been vitamin A derivatives (e.g., prescription retinoids and over-the-counter retinol) and antioxidants such as vitamin C. Vitamin A “is the Hercules of anti-aging skin care,” says Ava Shamban, MD, a Beverly Hills dermatologist. That’s because it stimulates collagen production, bolstering the skin’s architecture and plumping up wrinkles. It also sloughs the skin’s surface, softening lines. Antioxidants, meanwhile, fight free radicals, which attack and break down collagen.
Plant-based alternative: “There is nothing superior to prescription retinoids for treating wrinkles,” says Joseph Fowler, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Louisville. But natural ingredients can still make a significant difference in the appearance of lines. Alpha-hydroxy acids, including lactic acid (made from fermented milk) and beta-hydroxy acids (derived from birch and willow bark), increase collagen synthesis and strengthen the skin’s structure, says Fowler. They also address dullness and rough texture. A host of botanicals have powerful antioxidant properties, too. These include green and white teas, shiitakes, pomegranates and resveratrol.
Some to try: Burt’s Bees Naturally Ageless Intensive Repairing Serum ($25; burtsbees.com) with pomegranate; Tata Harper Rejuvenating Serum ($150; tataharperskincare.com) with willow bark and antioxidants derived from witch hazel; and Juice Beauty Green Apple Peel Sensitive ($39; juicebeauty.com), which boasts alpha-hydroxy acid from apples.
Plant-based alternative: This is an area where natural alternatives excel; their effectiveness may even exceed that of synthetics. Shea butter, olive oil, avocado and honey all have powerful moisturizing properties. Same goes for natural oils, such as sea buckthorn, rose hip, chamomile, argan and grapeseed. “These are absorbed into the skin’s surface quickly,” says Ellen Marmur, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Finally, vitamin B3, aka niacinamide, has been shown to stabilize the skin’s natural barrier, increase its moisture content and even boost the body’s own production of hydrating ceramides, says Shamban.
Traditional treatment: Dermatologists have long prescribed hydroquinone to treat hyperpigmentation, from sun-induced spots to post-pregnancy melasma. This powerful compound indeed lightens pigmented areas; however, its potential side effects—there’s a possible link to cancer—caused cosmetics regulatory agencies in Japan and Europe to ban its use. In the United States, it’s still available by prescription but must be administered under a doctor’s direction.
Plant-based alternative: The two top naturals for fading spots are soy and licorice, neither of which has any known negative side effects. “There’s scientific evidence that soy extract halts melanin activity,” says Fowler. Ditto for licorice. Arbutin, a substance found in the leaves of blueberry and bearberry plants, and Bellis perennis extract, from daisies, also look promising, both having been shown to treat hyper-pigmentation. However, the key word here is treat. While all four of these natural ingredients fade dark patches, hydroquinone is still the only topical cream that consistently takes skin to the finish line, erasing unwanted pigment.
To stay natural, try Aveeno Positively Radiant Targeted Tone Corrector ($15; drugstores) with soy, or Burt’s Bees Brightening Even-Tone Moisturizing Cream ($20; drugstores) with Bellis perennis.
Traditional treatment: Experts now believe that inflammation has a profound effect on the way skin ages and can result not only in wrinkles and spots but also in increased sensitivity. Interestingly, there are few synthetic soothers; for the most part, natural ingredients have always been the go-tos for calming complexions.
Plant-based alternative: “Colloidal oatmeal and feverfew both have proven anti-inflammatory effects,” says Fowler. The newest superstar: turmeric. “Its yellow pigment, called curcumin, is a potent inhibitor of an enzyme associated with inflammation,” says Shamban. Other naturals that calm include green tea, vitamin B, almond oil and aloe vera.
Some to try: Pratima Revitalizing Turmeric Cream ($36; pratimaskincare.com); Aveeno Ultra-Calming Daily Moisturizer SPF 15 ($17; drugstores), which contains feverfew; and Yes to Cucumbers Daily Calming Moisturizer SPF 30 ($15; drugstores) with almond oil and aloe vera.
What exactly does natural mean on a label? Not much. The FDA doesn’t regulate the use of the word on cosmetic packaging. So cream that’s made of 95 percent USDA-certified organic ingredients can be described as natural—but so can a lotion that contains only one drop of plant oil. A better way to determine if a product is truly plant based (and gets its ingredients from organic farms) is to check for a seal from one of these certifying organizations: Natural Products Association (NPA), Ecocert or the USDA Organic seal. You can also check the chemical-safety profile of products, natural or not, at the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.