- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 21, 2001

Consumers usually know what they are looking for, whether it is something to make eyes less puffy or skin more soft or to provide a shield from the sun's rays.

When they get to the cosmetics department, however, they often have to sift through a dizzying display of scientific-sounding ingredients, some of which are touted as breakthroughs to save their skin.

That is why it is important to go to the cosmetics counter armed with knowledge to understand what it is you are buying, says Paula Begoun, a Seattle consumer advocate and author of the book "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me."

One popular ingredient these days is alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). AHAs are derivatives of fruit acid that are found in many exfoliants, cleansers and moisturizers.

AHAs help get rid of the outer layer of skin cells, unclog pores, improve skin appearance and allow moisturizer to better penetrate the skin, says Dr. Patricia Engasser, a San Francisco dermatologist and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Dermatology.

"Part of the reason AHAs are so popular is because the feedback has been so good," Dr. Engasser says. "There is research that shows that AHAs may cause dermal changes and lighten dark spots. It is a product that has had great consumer research and response."

Ms. Begoun says AHA products are most effective if they have a 5 percent to 8 percent concentration and a pH level of 3 to 4. She says that using an AHA cleanser is a waste because most of it will get washed down the drain. Ms. Begoun also says to avoid using other exfoliating products along with AHA products, as that could stress and irritate skin.

"Liposomes" is another trendy buzzword at the cosmetics counter. Liposomes themselves are not ingredients, but are microscopic spheres that allow for the penetration and slow release of water and moisture into the layers of the skin, Dr. Engasser says.

"They may change how well an ingredient is absorbed into the skin," she says.

Vitamins, particularly vitamins A, C and E, also are popular additions to skin products.

Leading the way is retinol, a vitamin A derivative. Retinol has risen in popularity since the prescription drug Retina-A made headlines more than a decade ago as a remarkable wrinkle cream.

The proof is limited that retinol is effective, Ms. Begoun says. While there is some evidence that retinol in large quantities can show the same sort of benefits as Retin-A, the amounts in over-the-counter cosmetic products are still far less than the 20 percent concentration of the prescription product.

"You may get some of the same effects," Dr. Engasser says, "but what the customer does not know is what percentage of the compound is in the product."

Vitamins C, A and E are anti-oxidants that, when consumed as part of an overall diet, provide protection against cellular breakdown and free-radical damage.

While ad copy for cosmetics touts the addition of anti-oxidants to slow down aging, Dr. Engasser says those claims might be a stretch.

"It is controversial as to whether you can get antioxidants into the skin so they counteract or neutralize the effects of oxygen, particularly sun damage," she says. "The question is, can you get the anti-oxidants where they need to be?"

Ms. Begoun says anti-oxidants won't give immediate results, but they can't hurt in the long run. She advises checking the ingredients list to find a product (ideally, a moisturizer) that has vitamins near the top of the list, not the bottom.

"Targeting the problem for the short term is pointless," she writes in another of her books, "The Beauty Bible." "Oxygen and sunlight are all around us every day of our lives. The world of skin care makes it sound like anti-oxidants are a quick fix, and that is absolutely not true."

Anti-oxidants could help in the long run by slowing down cell oxygenation, Ms. Begoun says, but don't expect to see any instant results.

"You won't see any difference in your skin," she writes. "But if free-radical damage, and thus the destruction of skin structure, can be slowed, or if sun damage can be reduced, then anti-oxidants should help."

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