The alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) in apples, oranges—even milk—not only nourish us inside, they are crucial to keeping our outer layer looking refreshed and young.
Let’s face it—when it comes to maintaining a youthful complexion, time is not on your side. From the moment of birth, your skin works round the clock to eliminate toxins and replace dead skin cells with new ones. But somewhere down the pike, this system of recycling begins to break down. In fact, by the time you’ve reached 30- or 40-something, tiny laugh lines (never call them crow’s feet, please) may begin to creep around the edges of your eyes and mouth. Your once rosy cheeks may be reduced to a pallid patina. And, if you’ve been a sun worshiper at any stage in your life, age spots and leather-like skin are likely to be your reward.
Of course, one doesn’t awaken to “mature” skin overnight or with the lighting of candles on any particular birthday cake. Aging of the skin is a long process that occurs over time and largely depends on lifestyle and environmental factors. But it’s possible to slow down the progression of skin aging, or even help reverse skin damage, by taking advantage of Mother Nature’s best anti-aging cosmetic ingredient—fruit acids. In fact, fruit acids can help restore your visage and reveal a youthful (but ripe) new you more safely and better than many chemical procedures.
We are all affected to some degree by intrinsic, or chronological, aging. As we climb in years, our skin’s ability to remove impurities and exfoliate itself begins to decline. In short, your birthday suit delays taking the rubbish to the curb and results in a buildup of debris on the surface of your skin. Also, the functioning of sweat and oil glands begins to fade and contributes to drying skin. Visible signs of aging skin, such as dryness, fine lines and wrinkles, can actually begin to appear at the tender age of 25.
After 40, however, hormonal changes inhibit collagen production and collagen stores begin to break down. This natural occurrence leads to a thinning of the skin, making the underlying blood-vessel structure more visible at the surface. The thinning leads to a host of other problems as well, such as fragility and increased wound healing time, increased sensitivity to allergens and a loss of elasticity. The skin also loses fat, making it appear less plump and smooth, and suffers, too, a loss of color due to fewer blood vessels in the skin. If that’s not enough working against your countenance, dare we mention gravity?
Then there’s photoaging, the premature aging of the skin caused by sunlight. The term photoaging originates from the fact that only a high-tech UV camera can reveal the damage caused by UV radiation, which is generally invisible to the naked eye. It is estimated that up to 90% of wrinkles are due to excessive exposure to the sun. And this is scary: 80% of photoaging has already occurred by age 18. It just takes a few decades to be able to read the evidence on your face.
Before you dash off to plant your mug into the cavity of a grapefruit to regain your youthful glow, you should know exactly where fruit-derived alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) come from. They are found in such edibles as pineapple (sorbic acid), grapes (tartaric acid), apples (maltic acid) and even milk (lactic acid). But the applications of these AHAs come from a bottle or tube, not from your refrigerator. When applied to skin, AHAs penetrate the upper layer to “unglue” dead cells that have become stuck together over time. The skin then sloughs off this layer to reveal new, healthy cells that have been, in effect, held hostage underneath. With regular use of AHA products, you can teach your old skin a new trick by helping it to re-establish the natural exfoliation and cell renewal process it once knew so well.
But here’s the bottom line: AHAs not only stimulate skin cell renewal, they are also responsible for long-term benefits such as the reduction of spots and mottling caused by sun damage. What’s more, AHAs enhance moisture retention by enabling the skin’s most important molecules, glycosoaminoglycans and proteoglycans, to absorb water on the skin faster and more effectively. And, in deeper layers of skin, AHAs appear to increase the deposition of collagen, leading to better structural support.
Papaya and pineapple are two of the most popular fruits used in natural peels, since they are both a rich source of AHAs. Each fruit contains a protein-dissolving enzyme, papain and bromelain respectively, that promotes cell renewal and stimulates collagen production. Not all AHAs are derived from fruit, though. Glycolic acid, obtained from sugar cane, is the best-known member of the alpha-hydroxy acid family and has been found to be useful in treating age spots, superficial scars, acne, fine lines and (sometimes) even deeper wrinkles.
The one potential drawback to the use of AHAs is that for some people, they can be irritating. To that end, beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) have come on the scene in recent years. BHAs are less irritating and seem to have a synergistic effect used in combination with AHAs. The most common source of BHA is salicin, a constituent of salicylic acid (aspirin) obtained from the inner white pith of willow bark.
AHAs Don’t Have to Face It Alone
Both sunlight and normal bodily processes foster the formation of free radicals, rogue molecules that harass skin cells. So it makes sense that the addition of certain antioxidants (free-radical fighters) to AHA products is helpful in winning the battle against the signs of aging. When a vitamin C-based topical cream is applied in the form of L-ascorbic acid, the skin is protected from the sun’s UVA rays, which target the deeper layers of skin and destroy the collagen matrix. When combined with vitamin E, L-ascorbic acid also shields against the burning rays (or UVB rays), which actually break down DNA and RNA causing free-radical damage and cell mutation. This form of vitamin C has also demonstrated the ability to stimulate collagen creation by regulating three pro-collagen genes and, when used in a natural face peel, can have a synergistic effect on reversing the evidence of sun damage.
The addition of other ingredients—such as extracts of green tea, chamomile, aloe vera, comfrey and rose hip—help to buffer the burning sensation sometimes experienced when first using AHA products. These added ingredients also offer excellent antioxidant benefits of their own. For instance, Rutgers University conducted a series of studies on the effect of green tea on skin cancer. In one study, skin tumors were spawned in mice by exposing them to ultraviolet-B light and a cancer-causing chemical known as dimethylbenzanthracene. Of the tea-treated group, 65% to 93% evidenced fewer carcinomas, and 60% to 90% had fewer precancerous skin lesions. And, in one lab trial, green tea offered antioxidant protection more than 200 times that of vitamin E.
The Acid Test
Over-the-counter AHA products with a concentration of 5%-20% glycolic acid can be safely used at home. (Concentrations of AHAs below 4% are only slightly hydrating—that’s about all.) Concentrations of 5%-7% help to exfoliate the skin and produce a soft smooth feeling, while regular treatment with 8%-15% concentrations will render significant improvement in skin texture.
But, it’s the pH of the product that really counts. A product containing glycolic acid with a pH of less than 2.0 is very acidic and can actually result in peeling deeper layers of skin, even if the product has a low concentration of acid. For best results, the product should have a concentration of 4%-8% percent glycolic acid and a pH between 3.0 and 4.0, making it more alkaline. Because some manufacturers put this information on labels and others don’t, the best guideline is to choose a product formulated for your specific skin type.
Dry skin responds well to products containing either glycolic or lactic acid, or a combination of both. Both acids are water-binding and act as moisturizers. People with combination and normal skin types should use a glycolic peel every one to two weeks, or a daily AHA lotion of 4%-8% concentration. Those with blemish-prone skin may prefer to use a BHA product to avoid undue irritation; a salicylic acid-based product breaks up and clears away excess oil without over-drying the skin. Oily skin benefits most from a water-based formula that combines AHAs and BHAs to best promote a high degree of initial cell shedding since this skin type is prone to clogged pores.
There is one caveat to using over-the-counter (OTC) alpha-hydroxy products. As Nadine Toriello, esthetician (and owner of All About You Salon and Day Spa in Key West, Florida), cautions: “The best OTC AHAs can do is moisturize, which can temporarily reduce signs of aging by filling the outermost cells with fluid.” Legal restrictions prevent to the sale of OTC alpha-hydroxy products in concentrations of more than 6%, so if it’s intensive treatment you seek, you’ll need to consult with a licensed practitioner.
Since photoaging is by far the major contributor to aging skin, it would be wise to include a SPF (Sun Protection Factor) in all of your cosmetic applications—from lotions to makeup—year round and not just during jaunts to the beach in summer. Also, trust in the adage that less is more. In as little as two weeks’ time, you’ll begin to see marked improvement in the texture and tone of your skin after introducing AHA products. However, don’t become so enthusiastic that you’ll start thinking that more product will yield more and better results. AHA products are not created equal. It’s important to follow the manufacturer’s directions. Should any skin irritation persist with a product, discontinue its use and seek the advice of a practitioner or skin care consultant.
So, if your skin looks older than you feel, feed it fruit to get back that glow.