Nourish your skin from the outside in

IF YOU'RE INTENT ON KEEPING YOUR SKIN looking young for as long as possible (and who isn't?), it's time to learn the ABCs — and Es and Ks — of vitamin-based skin care. These key nutrients help prevent and reverse many of the signs of aging caused by sun exposure, pollution, and dryness.

Here's the rub: They are effective only when applied directly to your skin's surface.

Why not take them by mouth? It turns out that no matter how balanced your diet, there's no guarantee the anti-aging benefits of vitamins will actually reach your skin — they may be preoccupied elsewhere in the body. "The needs of our internal organs, especially those of the cardiovascular system, most likely trump the skin's," explains Mary Lupo, M.D., a clinical professor of dermatology at Tulane University in New Orleans. Applied topically, however, properly formulated and stabilized vitamins can penetrate the top layer of skin so their benefits can be directed toward the complexion.

Most of these vitamins act as antioxidants, protecting the skin from free radicals, which are unstable molecules that wreak havoc on healthy cells and are the source of much of the damage that leads to skin aging and cancer. But that's only the start. From improving skin texture and tone to reducing sunspots and under-eye circles, "there is scientific data that shows specific anti-aging benefits of each of the topically applied vitamins," says Lupo, who published a review of topical vitamins in Clinics in Dermatology.

With all the research out there, it can be difficult to understand the effects of each vitamin and to find the best skin-care products containing them. We sorted through the studies and spoke with top experts in the field of anti-aging skin care to compile this guide to the five most complexion-nurturing vitamins.

vitamin a WHAT IT DOES: Improves the look and feel of sun-damaged and aging skin.
HOW IT WORKS: The production of collagen, the protein fiber that plumps skin from the inside out, tends to slow as we age. The sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays can damage and degrade collagen as well.

Retinoids are synthetic derivatives of vitamin A, available by prescription, that can help improve skin's appearance by driving the regeneration (and stopping the breakdown) of collagen. "Retinoids are the most effective topical anti-aging ingredients out there," explains Patricia Farris, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Tulane University School of Medicine. Retinoids also can lighten freckles and dark spots associated with aging and sun damage.

Retinoids' milder cousin retinol is pure vitamin A, available in over-the-counter formulations. Though far less research has been done on retinols, one unpublished industry-sponsored study using a 0.15 percent retinol formula for three months showed 50 percent improvement in surface texture, 30 percent improvement in lines and wrinkles, and 35 percent reduction in brown spots. The downside: Such a high concentration of retinol is usually found only in products sold exclusively in dermatologists' offices.

WHAT TO EXPECT: Prescription retinoids have been found to effectively de-age skin within four to eight weeks. Initially, all forms of vitamin A can be very irritating, causing redness, scaling, and flaking that can last for two weeks or longer. Because retinoids are stronger than retinols, they're more likely to cause irritation. To avoid these side effects, dermatologists often advise that retinoids be used sparingly, with a good moisturizer, every other night or even every third night. (Because retinoids are degraded by sunlight, they should always be used at night.)

For those who can't tolerate the irritation, or who prefer to use an OTC form of vitamin A, retinol — the kinder, gentler member of the "A" team — may be the answer.

PRODUCTS TO TRY: The most frequently used topical retinoids are tretinoin (brand names Retin-A and Renova), tazarotene (Tazorac), and adapalene (Differin); they require a prescription, so you'll need to see your dermatologist to get them. If you're looking for retinol, try one of these over-the-counter products: Dr. Brandt "A" Cream ($65; sephora.com), a night moisturizer with retinol as well as hydrating shea butter and soothing natural extracts of orange and lavender; RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream ($20; at drugstores), which in clinical testing was found to reduce the appearance of wrinkles after 12 weeks of nightly use; and Neutrogena Advanced Solutions Nightly Renewal Cream ($23.99; at drugstores), which was clinically tested and found to improve the look of under-eye wrinkles after four weeks of use and to reduce the appearance of lines on the forehead after one week.

insider tip:
Though they've never been scientifically shown to make skin more sun-sensitive, retinoids should always be used in conjunction with a broad-spectrum sunscreen that contains an SPF of at least 30.

vitamin b WHAT IT DOES: Helps reduce dryness and irritation, fine lines, hyperpigmentation, and sallowness.
HOW IT WORKS: Vitamin B3 (also known as niacinamide or nicotinamide) can trigger an increase in the production of the body's natural moisturizers, allowing skin to retain more moisture and reducing fine lines, irritation, and redness. B3 is also able to restore proper function to skin's protective layer (the stratum corneum) — which can be degraded by environmental stress such as UV exposure — leaving the complexion more hydrated and less vulnerable to the effects of damaging agents such as detergents and soap. Though the specific mechanisms for these benefits aren't known, vitamin B3 is thought to enable coenzymes required for many reactions in the skin to do their work, explains Don Bissett, Ph.D., a research fellow in the skin-care department at Procter & Gamble and author of the chapter on vitamin B in Cosmeceuticals, a textbook due out next year.

According to an article published earlier this year in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science, one study involving a topical product containing niacinamide showed a small but significant reduction in fine lines after eight weeks of twice-daily use — possibly due to a boost in the production of collagen. In another study, subjects saw decreased hyperpigmentation and increased skin lightening after four weeks.

WHAT TO EXPECT: Though vitamin B's effects aren't as dramatic as those delivered by prescription retinoids, noticeable improvements in the look and feel of skin come without side effects such as redness, flaking, or itching. Products that contain niacinamide are mild enough to be tolerated by even those with sensitive skin.

PRODUCTS TO TRY: Olay Total Effects Eye Transforming Cream ($18.99; at drugstores) with niacinamide as well as aloe vera and cucumber extract to soothe puffy skin; and Niadyne NIA 24/7 Day Therapy ($75; niadyne.com), part of a complete line of skin-care products that contain a patented derivative of vitamin B3.

insider tip: using a niacinamide-based product in conjunction with a prescription retinoid helps minimize irritation and results in superior anti-aging benefits, according to research presented at a meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.

vitamin C WHAT IT DOES:
Prevents and treats sun-damaged and inflamed skin.

HOW IT WORKS: "Vitamin C is a multi-tasker," says Los Angeles-based dermatologist Howard Murad, M.D., in his book Wrinkle-Free Forever. First and foremost, it acts as a powerful scavenger of free radicals, seeking out and binding to these potentially dangerous errant molecules created by smoking, exercise, sun and other environmental factors, and even the body's normal chemical reactions. This is key, considering that a study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology last year showed that sunscreens do little to protect against the free radicals produced by UV exposure, particularly aging- and cancer-linked UVA rays.

"In addition to fighting free radicals, topical C has been shown to boost collagen, which is the reason you may notice improved skin texture, firmness, and tone," says Farris, who has written a paper on vitamin C that will be published in an upcoming issue of Dermatologic Surgery.

WHAT TO EXPECT: Because topical vitamin C has known anti-inflammatory properties, it's less likely to irritate the skin than vitamin A. In fact, dermatologists often use it to help treat a variety of inflammatory skin problems, including acne and eczema.

PRODUCTS TO TRY: SkinCeuticals C + E combination antioxidant treatment ($115; skinceuticals.com) with 15 percent L-ascorbic acid (the form of vitamin C that's most active in and best absorbed by the skin) and 1 percent vitamin E; Renée Rouleau Vitamin C & E Complex ($59.50; reneerouleau.com), which contains time-released vitamins C and E for all-day antioxidant protection; and Murad Essential-C Daily Renewal Complex ($80; murad.com), a serum with pure vitamin C as well as E.

insider tip: A study published last year in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that vitamin C appears to provide superior protection from sun damage when used in conjunction with vitamin E. One reason that the two antioxidants work better when applied together is that C helps regenerate E. Neither vitamin C nor E absorbs the sun's harmful rays, so both should always be used in addition to sunscreen, never in place of it.

vitamin e WHAT IT DOES: Prevents oxidative damage, inflammation, and dryness.
HOW IT WORKS: Vitamin E has earned the moniker "the protector" due to its potent ability to guard cells from freeradical damage and to inhibit inflammation. Research conducted over the past 20 years has documented this vitamin's antioxidant abilities. In one study, it reduced by nearly half the number of free radicals created after exposure to cigarette smoke. Other research has shown that when vitamin E is used before sun exposure, there is less redness and swelling, less destruction of lipids, and fewer sunburned cells. Further investigations have found that vitamin E's anti-inflammatory action can kick in to reduce damage after sun exposure. Also, because it's an oily material, vitamin E prevents moisture loss that leads to dryness and irritation.

WHAT TO EXPECT: Pure vitamin E is well tolerated.

PRODUCTS TO TRY: Aveeno Positively Radiant Anti-Wrinkle Cream ($14; at drugstores), which contains vitamin E, vitamin B5, and a soy complex to soften and hydrate skin; and Chanel Hydra Serum Vitamin Moisture Boost ($55; gloss.com), a gel-like cream that boosts skin's moisture with the help of vitamins E and B5.

insider tip:
The types of vitamin E most commonly used in skin-care products are alpha-tocopherol (which is the form most easily used by the skin) and tocopheryl acetate (which is more stable and converts to alphatocopheroi). Peter T. Pugliese, M.D., a skin physiologist and biomedical consultant based in Bernvilie, Pa., recommends using skin-care products that are formulated with at least 2 percent of these Es. (They should be listed within the first five ingredients.)

vitamin k WHAT IT DOES: Reduces bruising and dark under-eye circles.
HOW IT WORKS: "Topical vitamin K slightly reduces the amount of time it takes some patients' bruising to heal," says Leslie Baumann, M.D., chief of the division of cosmetic dermatology at the University of Miami. "But it's ineffectual when used to prevent bruising." A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in 2002 found that using vitamin K for two weeks following laser therapy significantly diminished the severity of bruising, especially in the days immediately after treatment. According to Baumann, this reaction is possibly due to vitamin K's ability to break down hemosiderin, a brownish pigment derived from hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of blood.

WHAT TO EXPECT: There are no known side effects associated with the use of vitamin K, though some dermatologists warn that its benefits have not been thoroughly tested, so results may vary.

PRODUCTS TO TRY: Peter Thomas Roth Power K Eye Rescue ($100; sephora.com) harnesses the power of K to visibly brighten the appearance of dark circles, and includes the antioxidants green tea and vitamin C; and Quintessence Skin Science Clarifying Under-Eye Serum ($67; clickpharmacy.com), which contains both vitamin K and retinol, as well as green tea and vitamins C and E.

insider tip: Looking for a fix for under-eye circles? Find a product that has retinol as welt as vitamin K. In a study published in the journal Cosmetic Dermatology, a cream containing both these nutrients caused a significant reduction in under-eye pigmentation after 16 weeks of daily use. Baumann suspects that the retinol may enhance K's ability to penetrate the skin.

PHOTO (COLOR): RUB IT IN: The best way to get the benefits of vitamins to your skin is to apply them topically.

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By Karyn Repinski

Photograph by Mindee Choi

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