The most effective anti-aging skincare works at the cellular level. Unfortunately, that typically means removing cells and even killing them off.  Because when a cell turns over, another one is reproduced, making our skin look shiny and new. Most of us are doing this with our weekly or even daily retinols and glycolics, not to mention the visits to the derm’s office for chemical peels or laser treatments.

I call them “cell scrubbers,” and the problem is that the good results are short-term, while in the long-term, they may be doing more harm than good. That’s why a new crop of anti-aging actives are so interesting and full of promise – they work with cells in a different way.

But before I go into those, let’s look at some of the cell scrubbers (or if you prefer, the big gun exfoliators) and what they are really doing.

Why Retinol is Your Frenemy

Retinol is one of the best known and most prescribed ingredients by dermatologists. Retinol is vitamin A in its whole molecule form. Vitamin A itself does not have a direct effect on skin, but it becomes effective after specialized enzymes in the skin cells convert it into retinoic acid (tretinoin). Retinoic acid facilitates communication between cells, encouraging aging cells to turnover. This repeated shedding of the upper dermal layer forces the skin to produce new cells. These new cells look a lot better than the old ones, but they come at a price.

When the skin is stressed (i.e., by retinol, laser or a chemical peel), it starts to speed up the cell reproduction. Unfortunately, the cells don't regenerate indefinitely. Since there is effectively a cellular clock (50 divisions until the Hayflick Limit is reached), with each peel, time is ticking by.

The Hayflick Limit

In the 1960s, Dr. Leonard Hayflick found that lung tissue appeared to die out after the cells had divided a certain number of times (roughly 50). As the cells approached the end of their division limit, they would take on the appearance of old tissue. This included age pigments (lipofuscin), which are also found in aged hearts and brain cells. With each division, a cell becomes less likely to divide again, until finally, it stops dividing altogether and becomes what is called senescent. Cell senescence is the final step before cell death. Senescent cells are still alive and metabolically active, but they’re no longer capable of dividing. More importantly, though, senescent cells exhibit all of the characteristics of old age, such as wrinkles.

Is Glycolic Really a Better Option?

Even glycolic acid, according to researchers, works by killing cells which are then sloughed off. And to think that we all believed (well, I did) that glycolic and AHAs just removed skin that was already dead.

There has to be a better way, right? There is:

The Cell Activators

One of my favorite ingredients is L-carnosine. An amino acid, carnosine actually extends the Hayflick Limit. As mentioned above, skin cells can only reproduce themselves around 52 times, and then that’s it – they’re gone. Carnosine extends their ability to reproduce to just over 60 times, making it a real anti-ager.

Products with carnosine:

There are some relatively new actives that work on our telomeres. These shorten every time a cell divides. When they become too short, they trigger cell crisis and cell death. As we know, cells can only replicate a limited number of times. So look out for teprenone, also known as Renovage. There's also a natural version found in astragalus. They work by stabilizing the telomeres so that they won’t shorten, and this can extend the life of the cell by one third.

Products with Renovage:

LED light therapy and ultrasound also work at the cellular level. LED increases production of ATP (the energy engine of cells) leading to increased cell proliferation and migration (particularly by fibroblasts). Ultrasound energy causes the movement of fluid waves against the cells. This may result in alterations in ion concentrations and stimulate an intracellular cascade, resulting in increased fibroblastic activity and collagen formation.

Products that utilize LED therapy:

Growth factors are complex – there are many different kinds, and they interact with cells in specific ways. GM-CSF is one of the growth factors in AQ Active Serum, and it stimulates cell proliferation.

Products with growth factors: