Natural Ingredients to Look Your Best
by Dr. Rob Ayoup ND
1970 Brock Road
Age-defying serum to reduce wrinkles? Under-eye cream to eradicate puffiness? Deep-cleansing mask to abolish acne? Welcome to the world of cosmeceuticals—a unique and relatively new term it is. Essentially, a cosmeceutical can be any cosmetic product with active, and often naturally derived, ingredients used for a medical, dermatological, or cosmetic purpose. General uses for most cosmeceuticals include skin barrier and complexion support to help manage concerns like acne, eczema, psoriasis, or dry or oily skin; to reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, darkness, or puffiness below the eyes; and to reduce facial redness, blotchiness, and pigment concerns. Any stroll through the cosmetics section of a department store will showcase how skin-care companies are under constant pressure to develop and release products containing the “latest innovation” ingredients. Although there are some interesting and new product ingredients, which will be the focus of a future article, keeping up with the plethora of cosmetic contents can be overwhelming. This article will examine four unique, and somewhat lesser-known yet well-established, natural ingredients found in current topical cosmeceuticals. The reader is encouraged to consider exploring these ingredients, while first reviewing their appropriateness with their skin-health professional.
Niacinamide (Vitamin B3)
While the nutritional benefits of various B vitamins have been determined for some time, much research has now focused on the effects of topical B3 and provitamin B5. Common forms of B3 found in cosmeceuticals include niacinamide, nicotinic acid, and nicotinate “esters” such as tocopheryl nicotinate. Of further benefit, niacinamide has also been shown to easily penetrate through the stratum corneum, our skins’ uppermost barrier layer. 
A variety of cosmetic effects have been determined for niacinamide to date. These include improved skin-barrier integrity (thus moisturization and protection from irritation); anti–fine line and antiwrinkle effects; reduced skin-pore size, leading to smoother texture; reduced acne, as a result of reduced sebum production; reduced facial redness/blotchiness; reduced appearance of hyperpigmented spots; and reduced skin yellowing/sallowness. Most studies testing topical niacinamide have utilized concentrations of 2–5%. Topical niacinamide is typically very well tolerated.
Delving further into its cosmetic effect on wrinkle reduction, it is thought that topical niacinamide achieves this by increasing production of collagen, combined with reducing overproduction of glycosaminoglycans (GAG) in the skin. While GAGs are essential for skin health and youthfulness, excess GAGs are believed to contribute to poorer skin appearance.
Facial redness and blotching can be due to any number of skin concerns, including rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, and various types of dermatitis (skin inflammation). One key approach to reducing facial redness is to strengthen the skin’s barrier function. An improved barrier will increase resistance to agents which may trigger the redness, such as sunlight, heat, temperature change, exercise, stress, and certain foods. Niacinamide seems to help here in a few ways. First, it is believed to help increase barrier layer fats, such as ceramides (see below), and barrier-layer proteins, which act as structural components. It also possesses its own anti-inflammatory properties, which further help minimize facial redness.
To best appreciate this moisturizing powerhouse, it is first important to briefly review skin anatomy. The uppermost layer of our skin is called the stratum corneum. The cells here are organized much like bricks and mortar protecting the outer layer of a house. The bricks are representative of nondividing cells called corneocytes. The mortar filling the spaces in-between, and binding together, these bricks are a combination of protein links called corneodesmosomes, and most essentially, a lipid (fat) matrix. This matrix is made up of ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol (keep this combo in mind for later). Taken together, these brick-and-mortar components allow the stratum corneum to protect us from environmental stresses, maintain skin hydration, and act as a key first-line defense for our immune system.
Our skin barrier itself needs maintenance; however, factors such as hot water (think shower), detergents, friction from clothing, pollution, aging, certain medications, and even air conditioning can impact the lipid matrix and lead to, for example, dry skin. Dry skin itself can increase the risk of allergic and irritant dermatitis (skin inflammation), as the impaired barrier is less effective at keeping irritants and allergens out of the skin. What better way to repair the barrier than by “restocking” it with the raw materials it needs: ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol. Many ceramide-based moisturizing products contain a combination of fatty acids (such as palmitic or stearic acid) and cholesterol, which is key since all three are important for matrix repair.
Taken together, ceramides provide us with a unique and clinically effective skin moisturizer, which acts differently from most other moisturizers on the market. However, to simply call ceramides a great moisturizer would be short-changing its role. Due to its ability to directly replenish the lipid matrix, ceramide-containing products help strengthen the physiological integrity of our skin barrier. This is where the floodgates open regarding its applicability. As we saw above with niacinamide, a strong barrier is essential in reducing skin sensitivity to environmental, and other, triggering factors. This allows ceramides to be helpful in the management of various skin concerns, such as redness/blotchiness, eczema, psoriasis, skin aging/wrinkles, rosacea, and acne.
One nutrient that likely needs no introduction, vitamin C has become a popular addition to many cosmeceuticals. Like the B vitamins discussed, vitamin C is well established from a nutritional perspective, yet its full applicability and benefits from its topical form are only now being realized. You will notice vitamin C in various forms on ingredients labels. Common among these include ascorbic acid, ascorbyl phosphate, and ascorbyl palmitate.
Research has show benefits of topical vitamin C in key areas of skin health. These include reducing skin damage from UV light exposure, promoting the production of collagen, skin-lightening effects for pigmentation spots, and as an anti-inflammatory to help manage acne. Vitamin C is likely best known for its role as an antioxidant. In short, this means that it can neutralize the tissue-damaging effects of biochemicals known as free radicals. UV-light exposure from the sun is the principal generator of free radicals in the skin, leading to damage of skin-cell structures and DNA. This is why UV protection plays such an important role health-wise, in the prevention of skin cancer, and cosmetic-wise, in the slowing of the development of fine lines and wrinkles. Although sunscreens are needed to absorb the UV-light spectrum, antioxidants like vitamin C are now being added by some sunscreen companies to provide a complementary antioxidant effect. Part of the cosmetic impact of UV light is related to impairing collagen production. Vitamin C itself both stimulates collagen production, while also being needed for its structural integrity. As such, studies have shown benefits of topical vitamin C for antiaging effects like wrinkle reduction (both fine and coarse), improved skin texture/roughness, improved skin tone, and reduced sallowness. Most studies have used vitamin C preparations at a concentration ranging from 3% to 17%.
Panthenol (Provitamin B5)
Panthenol is a common cosmeceutical, found not only in skin-care products, but in hair-care products as well. Common forms include pantothenol and pantothenyl alcohol. Once applied, it is converted into pantothenic acid (vitamin B5). This is key, as vitamin B5 plays a role in the biosynthesis of the fatty acids needed for the stratum corneum’s lipid matrix, and thus the skin barrier integrity. Topical panthenol is also very well tolerated; so much so, that it is often attributed to have skin-soothing effects. This has led to panthenol being incorporated into cosmetic products simply to help negate the negative skin effects of other ingredients in the same product, such as preservatives, fragrances, sunscreen components, and retinol/vitamin A. Evidence shows that adding panthenol to these formulas can reduce the potential for redness, burning, stinging, and itching.
Panthenol can be beneficial for various skin-health and cosmetic concerns. It is an effective hydrator of the skin, especially when combined with glycerol (glycerin), another common moisturizing ingredient. It has been used topically to treat wounds, bruises, and various skin ulcers and burns. In cases of eczema, contact dermatitis, and psoriasis, it seems to improve skin dryness, scaling, itching, and redness. As mentioned earlier, hair-care products often include provitamin B5, due to its ability to enhance the hair’s elasticity, softness, and ease of combing.
Cosmeceuticals represent an area of intense and growing popularity. Whether to help keep one’s complexion clear and acne-free, or simply to slow the signs of aging, cosmeceuticals can provide an effective avenue to attain our skin-health goals. Vitamin B3, provitamin B5, ceramides, and vitamin C are just some of the well-established ingredients studied thus far. Given that most cosmeceuticals centre their effects around naturally derived compounds, this opens the door to a world I like to call “naturopathic aesthetics”: the bridging between natural medicines and skin health and beauty.