Just when I think I have my footing in the world of skincare (I know my AHAs from my BHAs, my vitamin ABCs are down pat) I blink and everyone’s talking about a whole slew of new ingredients. Am I getting old, or is skincare research getting faster? No matter the answer, new ingredients usually come with new research to do (on my end and brands’s), products to try, and another sliver of a chance that whatever one product I’ve been looking for might actually exist. Exciting stuff! And when it turns out that real life testing lines up with professional, clinical research—we have a winner, folks. You may have noticed the following five ingredients in everything from toners to serums to moisturizers, and with good reason. They actually work! Meet the freshman class of skincare ingredients—here’s everything you’ll need to know.
The Overnight Healer: Centella
What it is: Its full name is centella asiatica, but it’ll sometimes introduce itself as Asiatic pennywort, gotu kola, jalbrahmi, or even just cica for short. And it’s actually not new at all—the plant is native to parts of Asia and Africa, and has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years. These days in Western usage, centella treats picked-at zits (it's a wound-healer), stimulates collagen synthesis for plumper skin, and soothes redness and inflammation. It’s an antioxidant, and studies have shown it to relieve symptoms of eczema. It might help with psoriasis, but more research is needed on that front. It’s best for the acne-prone or skin with a compromised barrier function.
What you should know: There are four main chemical compounds in centella that give it those soothing, plumping, healing properties: asiaticoside, madecassoside, asiatic acid and madecassic acid. Centella extract or centella leaf water contains these active compounds, but it’s not clear how much—so you’re better off looking for them listed individually on an ingredient list for a more potent product. Another thing to note: just because centella is used for healing and redness-reducing doesn’t mean you’re totally safe from a bad reaction. Since it’s a plant, you could totally be allergic to centella—you’ll know if it has a burning effect on your skin.
How you can try it: Centella is found in toners, serums, creams, and SPF, so it’s easy to work it into your routine. Pick the formulation that speaks to you!
The Gentler Acids: LHA + PHA
What it is: LHA stands for lipohydroxy acid, but it’s not its own category of acids like AHAs and BHAs. Actually, LHA is a BHA—it’s a derivative of salicylic acid. Like salicylic, LHA is oil-soluble, meaning it can penetrate into oil-clogged pores and break up blockages. And while salicylic acid has a pH around 3, LHA’s hovers around 5—much closer to the natural pH of healthy skin. This means it’s less harsh to use, and even suitable for sensitive skin. Apart from preventing and treating existing breakouts, LHA can also stimulate collagen and elastin production—perfect for keeping skin plump and exfoliated when it’s also the most sensitive, like during transitional weather or deep in winter.
PHA, on the other hand, is a specific kind of alpha hydroxy acid. Like other AHAs, Polyhydroxy acid is water-soluble, and works on the skin's surface to smooth texture and lighten dark spots. But, unlike other AHAs, PHA molecules are big and can’t penetrate skin. That’s one reason why it’s a gentler acid. Another is that PHA can also act as a humectant, drawing moisture to the surface of skin and preventing that post-acid dry out. It’s best for sensitive skin that needs a little help with evening tone.
How you can try it: Probably in a toner. There are a few good options—a couple of them mix the gentler acids with more intense ones (like glycolic), thereby dilluting the more potent acid so it can be used regularly by all skin types.
The Retinol Alternative: Bakuchiol
What it is: Well, it’s not retinol, for starters. A quick refresher on retinol: a derivative of vitamin A, retinol works on the cellular level to encourage cell turnover. It’s not an exfoliant, but behaves somewhat like one. It’s great for treating acne and, because it also stimulates collagen production, it does double duty on fine lines. But—and this is a big but—some people find retinol too irritating for their skin, and pregnant or breastfeeding women can’t use it at all. Now, let’s talk about bakuchiol. Similarly to centella, bakuchiol has roots in ancient Chinese and Aruyvedic medicine, and is derived from a plant—Psoralea corylifolia, in bakuchiol’s case. New studies show that bakuchiol performs similarly to retinol on skin’s cellular level, but without any of the nasty reactions like peeling and redness usually associated with retinol use. One study compared a solution of .5-percent bakuchiol to .5-percent retinol—no statistical difference between the two was noted at the end of the trial. Pretty cool!
What you should know: If you can tolerate retinol or tretinoin, there’s no need to switch to bakuchiol—there’s nothing inherently better for you about it just because it’s derived from a plant. But, if you’ve never been able to use retinol either due to extreme sensitivity or allergy, bakuchiol is worth a shot.
How you can try it: In a serum that you use at night… or in the morning. Unlike retinol, bakuchiol isn’t sun-sensitizing, so you’re cool to use it at whatever time you please.
The One For Hyperpigmentation: Arbutin
What it is: Basically hydroquinone—but let me explain. Arbutin is a naturally occuring compound in certain plant leaves, like cranberry and blueberry. After it’s applied to skin, it breaks down into hydroquinone. Despite rumors that hydroquinone is dangerous, research tells us that not only is it safe, but it’s the gold standard in treating melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Hydroquinone works because it stops tyrosinase, an enzyme that helps your skin produce melanin. And since it breaks down into hydroquinone, arbutin does that too. Maybe you’re thinking, why not skip a step and jump straight to hydroquinone? The answer is that arbutin is gentler than hydroquinone—it works to inhibit tyrosinase slowly, sort of like your go-to time release allergy pill. And while you can only use hydroquinone safely for a couple months at a time, arbutin is safe for daily use.
What you should know: As this study notes, while arbutin might be more effective at higher percentages, what comes with that is a greater chance of hyperpigmentation getting worse. You also shouldn’t start using it if you’re pregnant—there’s not enough research to support that it’s totally safe, and since it does convert to hydroquinone (which you shouldn’t use when pregnant) it’s best to err on the side of caution.
How you can try it: You’re most likely to find arbutin in a serum. Some are straight arbutin—others mix it with brightening agents like kojic acid, anti-acne tools like niacinamide, and hydrating elements like hyaluronic acid. Choose the one that best fits your needs.
The One That Smells Like Kombucha: Galactomyces Ferment Filtrate
What it is: Galactomyces Ferment Filtrate, or GFF, is a product of fermented yeast. There’s some promising research about it—this study shows positive results in treating acne with it. Another study looked at GFF’s antioxidant capabilities, which seem pretty solid. But GFF’s most impressive funtion is repairing a compromised moisture barrier. Studies like this one note that GFF not only repairs damage, but also prevents it. It’s great for sensitive skin, and pairs well with other moisture barrier building blocks, like ceramides and facial oils. And it gets extra points for being fun to say!
What you should know: Because it’s fermented, GFF is a postbiotic. A combination of amino acids and antioxidants freed up by the fermentation product feeds the good bacteria already living on your skin. Basically, it’s Popeye spinach for skin, helping it grow stronger and clearer on its own.
How you can try it: In an essence. The classic version is SK-II, but lots of newer brands have their own versions that are arguably just as effective.
Photo via ITG