Life Extension Magazine May 2009
Revitalize Aging Skin with Topical Vitamin C
By Gary Goldfaden, MD
Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation and environmental pollutants can accelerate skin aging by degrading collagen and triggering oxidative stress in the skin. Fortunately, the anti-aging benefits of a time-honored remedy used by ancient civilizations to heal their skin can help overcome these undesirable effects. Vitamin C is an essential component in the body’s production of collagen1,2 and a potent antioxidant that can help rejuvenate aged and photodamaged skin.3-5
While vitamin C is an important nutrient for overall health, little reaches the skin when orally ingested.6 As levels of vitamin C in the skin decline with age,7 replenishing levels directly in the skin can help combat collagen degradation and oxidative stress. Results from clinical trials show that when applied topically, vitamin C promotes collagen formation and mitigates the effects of free radicals, helping to maintain firm and youthful skin.
A Staple of Ancient Beauty
Throughout history, women have always found ways to enjoy the anti-aging effects of vitamin C on their skin.
In Tibet during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), women who wanted to fight the outward signs of premature aging would rub sea buckthorn on their face and hands. The golden-orange berries of the sea buckhorn plant yield a deep-colored oil that is a major source of vitamin C.
Rose hips, the berry-like fruits that are left behind after a rose dies, contain more vitamin C—about 20 times that of an orange.8,9 In fact, it is precisely this high level of vitamin C that gives rose hips, sea buckthorn, and other fruits their potent skin-rejuvenating powers.
It is not surprising that centuries ago, Native Americans made a vitamin C-rich paste out of rose petals to moisten and heal their skin. In fact, cold cream was originally known as “ointment of rose water” because of its two main ingredients: rose oil and rose water.
Modern medicine has come to realize why these herbal remedies were so trusted by ancient civilizations. When topically applied, vitamin C provides a skin-rejuvenating effect by improving collagen synthesis in the skin that slows down with aging, as well as limiting skin damage from free radicals.6,10 Collagen is a structural support protein that is essential for firm, youthful skin. Overall, the amount of collagen in the skin tends to decline with age, an ongoing process that is accelerated by a number of factors like sunlight, smoking, free radicals, and inflammation. As the synthesis of new collagen slows down, topical vitamin C is one of the most effective ways to boost collagen synthesis and slow its degradation.
What makes topical vitamin C preparations so important? Humans and a few other species lack the ability to produce the vitamin C that is so vital for beautiful, healthy skin.6,10 To make things even more challenging, vitamin C is water-soluble. Consequently, a great deal of the vitamin C we ingest gets excreted rapidly.
While oral supplementation with vitamin C is important for maintaining one’s overall health, it is not very effective at increasing skin concentrations of vitamin C because its absorption is limited by active transport mechanisms in the gut.6 The most effective method for replenishing vitamin C in the skin is therefore to go straight to the source, and apply it directly to the skin.
Topical antioxidants produce much higher concentrations in the skin than nutritional supplements. In fact, applying vitamin C to the skin is 20 times more effective than oral ingestion.11 Simply applying vitamin C daily for three days can achieve optimal levels in the skin. It is also known that once a topical antioxidant is absorbed into the skin, it cannot be washed or rubbed off. So, even after stopping application, significant amounts of vitamin C will remain in the skin for up to three days.11
Rejuvenating the skin by constantly replenishing vitamin C stores can therefore help maintain healthy, younger-looking skin, especially as we get older.
Rebuilding Youthful Skin From the Inside Out
Vitamin C’s skin-health benefits are largely attributed to its benefits in supporting healthy collagen. Collagen works hand-in-hand with elastin to support the skin. Basically, it supplies the framework that provides form, firmness, and strength to the skin, while elastin is what gives skin its flexibility.
Collagen is just one of thousands of different proteins in the body. Most proteins occur only in small amounts. But by far the most abundant protein is collagen. In fact, collagen constitutes more than a third of all protein in the body and about 75% of the skin.12 From our bones and teeth to blood vessels and cartilage, collagen is the main connective tissue that holds us together.
Like most proteins, collagen consists of poly-peptide chains. But unlike most proteins, collagen is composed mainly of just three amino acids: glycine, hydroxyproline, and proline.
What makes collagen a kind of supermolecule, however, is its three-dimensional triple helix architecture. Three polypeptide chains alternating with one another are coiled in a left-handed helix to form a helical strand. Three of these helical strands then twist around on one another, like the strands of a rope, in a right-handed superhelix, to make up the complete molecule.
No wonder the tensile strength of collagen is greater than steel wire of the same weight. Understandably, the making of such a complex structure as collagen can only be accomplished in several steps. And vitamin C is involved in every one of them.
First, the body assembles a three-dimensional, stranded structure using the amino acids glycine and proline as its main components. This is not yet collagen, but its predecessor, procollagen. Vitamin C plays a critical role in the formation of procollagen’s polypeptide chains as well as its final conversion into collagen.
This conversion process involves the hydroxylation of proline at certain points in the polypeptide chains, converting it to hydroxyproline, and thus “securing” the chains in collagen’s triple helix arrangement.
Next, another key amino acid in the triple helix, lysine, is also hydroxylated, transforming it into hydroxylysine. This permits the cross-linking of the triple helices into tissue fibers and networks and completes the structure of collagen.
Two different enzymes power the hydroxylation reactions that make all this possible: prolyl-4-hydroxylase and lysyl-hydroxylase. Vitamin C is a necessary cofactor for each enzyme to work.1,2 However, levels of this important vitamin are known to decline with aging, especially in the skin.7 Age-associated damage occurs when the rate of collagen production cannot keep up with its breakdown, a process that is also accelerated by overexposure to sunlight13 and environmental factors.14
A number of in vitro studies have confirmed that treating human skin cells with a topical vitamin C derivative can stimulate collagen synthesis.15-17 In addition to facilitating the hydroxylation reactions involved in collagen formation, vitamin C also stimulates collagen synthesis by enhancing collagen gene transcription.18 Topical vitamin C may also help preserve existing collagen by influencing the enzymes responsible for collagen degradation.19
Connective structures composed of collagen known as dermal papillae that lie in the skin’s dermis become smaller and weaker as collagen levels decline. Researchers have shown that when topically applied, vitamin C can significantly increase both the density and number of dermal papillae.20
Protecting Your Skin From the Effects of Aging
Vitamin C is not only necessary for collagen production and maintenance, but it is also a potent antioxidant that can neutralize free radicals in the skin. Free radicals are atoms or molecules with an unpaired electron. They are very chemically reactive and short-lived. Because of this, their destructive power is limited to the place where they are created, which is mostly in the cells’ mitochondria.
Because nature’s law is to have matching electrons, these free radicals frantically seek opportunities to complete their odd electron. In their headlong haste, free radicals often attack nearby chemical compounds. These chemical compounds can be those involved in important enzymatic reactions, or even a part of a DNA molecule. As a result, the damage left behind can wreak havoc throughout the body, such as in heart muscle cells, nerve cells, and the skin. Unfortunately, free radicals are an unavoidable fact of life that must be dealt with every day. Here is how they damage the skin and cause aging.
When a free radical steals an electron from one of the proteins in a strand of collagen, it causes a change in the chemical structure of the collagen at that point, creating a tiny break in the strand. Once a bundle of collagen has multiple points of damage that occur over the years, it becomes damaged and disorganized. As a result, the skin begins to sag and wrinkle.
Although our skin naturally has cellular enzymes and other metabolic processes to deal with this oxi-dative damage (antioxidants being one of them), aging and environmental stresses like sunlight, smoking, and pollution, can eventually overpower these protective controls.
Applying a low-molecular weight antioxidant like vitamin C is a very effective way to boost the skin’s natural protection against age-causing free radicals. Vitamin C is an electron donor and therefore an excellent free radical scavenger.21
Once absorbed into the skin, this water-soluble vitamin can also help regenerate vitamin E that has been oxidized. Vitamin E is a potent lipid-soluble antioxidant that is important for preventing oxidative damage in the lipid cell membrane.22
Clinical Studies Demonstrate Beautifying Effects of Topical Vitamin C
Several clinical studies have also found that topical vitamin C provides numerous beneficial effects on aged and photodamaged skin.
A placebo-controlled study performed in 25 volunteers showed that those who topically applied a topical formulation of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) experienced a reduction in fine lines and wrinkles in aged skin after a relatively short time period of 12 weeks.23
Several other studies have substantiated these benefits.3-5 A three-month double-blind study in 19 patients with moderately photodamaged facial skin found a significant improvement in fine wrinkling, tactile roughness, skin tone, and sallowness on the side treated with ascorbic acid compared with the control side. Photographic assessment also revealed a 57.9% improvement in the vitamin C-treated patients compared with the control group.3
More recently, a six-month study using topical application of vitamin C cream in photoaged patients also showed reduction of facial wrinkles and improvement in the appearance of photoaged skin compared with a control group.4
Besides its uses in photorejuvenation, vitamin C has also been shown to be of benefit in patients with acne, both helping to prevent and reduce acne lesions.24,25
In addition to all this, topical vitamin C can reverse yet another aspect of skin aging: age spots (or lenti-gines).26 These dark areas are where UV-induced oxidation causes melanin to pool in the upper layers of the skin.
Tea Extracts Combine with Vitamin C to Enhance Radiant Skin
Extracts of red, green, and white tea may complement vitamin C’s benefits for healthy, beautiful skin. Topically applied tea extracts can penetrate deep into the skin to protect it from oxidative stress and inflammation that threaten its youthful appearance and function.27-29 Red tea is an especially powerful source of antioxidants,27 while green tea provides the protection of epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a potent phytochemical that guards skin against the ravages of UV exposure and DNA damage.30
Additionally, tea extracts possess vitamin C activity that may contribute to healthy skin tone and structure by supporting the formation of new collagen.31-33
Topical tea extracts thus support a youthful, radiant appearance by quenching damaging free radicals, counteracting the normal effects of aging, and keeping connective tissues strong and supple.
Vitamin C Plus Tea Extracts Provide All-Day Skin Protection
Vitamin C’s ability to stimulate collagen production does wonders for the skin. Not only does this powerful anti-aging nutrient rebuild collagen, but its potent antioxidant power also protects skin from age-causing free radicals.
It improves firmness and elasticity, visibly tightening saggy areas, and diminishing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Not only is vitamin C a great natural moisturizer, it also enhances the protective barrier function of the skin. This means your skin can retain more water so it stays smoother and younger-looking for a much longer period of time. Topically applied vitamin C can be used in conjunction with your normal skin care program to improve the brightness, tone, and texture of your skin. Applying vitamin C to the skin daily can do wonders for keeping one’s youthful appearance for life.
A lightweight vitamin C serum that aids cellular reconstruction and renewal is perfect for all skin types and can rejuvenate and protect environmentally damaged or stressed skin. The benefits of vitamin C serum are complemented by a special blend of concentrated tea extracts that offer additional antioxidant protection for the skin against free radical damage. For optimal results, gently massage a topical vitamin C serum with concentrated tea extracts into the target area twice daily or as needed.
Life Extension members have enjoyed the benefits of topical vitamin C in Rejuvenex® skin creams for decades. Those who want even more topical vitamin C now have access to specially blended vitamin C serums.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension Health Advisor at 1-800-226-2370.
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