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You are here: Anti-Aging Skin Treatments > Topical Actives >

Alpha lipoic acid skin care: What is all the fuss about?

Many if not most skin care conscious people have heard about alpha lipoic acid (often called lipoic acid for short). These days the number of skin care products with lipoic acid is growing as rapidly as its media coverage. However, as many consumers know from personal experience, neither media coverage nor acceptance by skin care companies guarantees effectiveness or even safety. So, what do we really know about lipoic acid in general, and its purported skin care benefits in particular.

Lipoic acid is a well-known natural substance found in certain foods and also produced in the human body. It has an impressive array of potentially beneficial mechanisms of action:

  • Lipoic acid is a potent and versatile antioxidant.
  • It is a co-factor in a key biochemical pathway responsible for energy production in the cells (citric acid cycle).
  • It inhibits cross-linking which is the formation of chemical bridges between proteins or other large molecules. Cross-linking contributed to the aging process by causing hardening of arteries, wrinkling of the skin and stiffening of joints.
  • It has moderate anti-inflammatory effect.
  • Finally, it has a capacity, albeit a modest one, to neutralize and remove from the body a variety of toxic metals.

Lipoic acid supplements have been repeatedly demonstrated to benefit a number of health conditions, including the neurological complications of diabetes, arterial sclerosis and others.

In theory, all of the above effects of lipoic acid may benefit skin cells and, therefore, improve skin texture and wrinkles. However, many substances that were deemed "theoretically" effective against wrinkles, proved to be of little or no value when actually tested. (Topical collagen, aloe vera, topical amino acids to name a few.) Furthermore, even if a substance has been demonstrated to protect skin cells or stimulate collagen production in a test tube, this is no guarantee of its effectiveness when applied to real human faces in a cream. The only reliable indicators are clinical studies, preferably performed by several independent teams of researchers.

How does topical lipoic acid fare in clinical studies department? Well, at this point it holds a junior position. In one small-scale study, high potency lipoic acid reduced mild-to-moderate wrinkles by up to 50 percent, whereas fine lines have almost disappeared. In another study, lipoic acid significantly improved the appearance of certain types of scars. In both studies the effectiveness varied among participants, from little effect to a marked improvement. However, this shouldn't disqualify lipoic acid as a "wrinkle cure" contender. Even well established wrinkle treatments tend to produce widely varied results in different people. If further studies corroborate skin benefits of lipoic acid, it may become one of the mainstays of today's anti-aging skin care. In fact, lipoic acid will be especially welcome in the family of proven wrinkle fighters because it is less irritating than tretinoin (Retin A, Renova) and hydroxy acids. (Therefore it can be used, albeit in lower concentrations, in delicate and wrinkle prone area around the eyes.)

But don't get too excited just yet. Unfortunately, most studies of topical lipoic acid have been performed by the same researcher, a Yale dermatologist Nicholas Perricone. Doctor Perricone has pioneered the use of lipoic acid for skin rejuvenation, and later on promoted it in his popular book "The Wrinkle Cure." As impressive as Dr. Perricone's credentials and studies may be, the research that comes largely from a single source cannot be fully relied upon until independently corroborated. Also, note that Dr. Perricone's studies employed a rather high concentration of lipoic acid, whereas most commercial preparations are less concentrated. Finally, lipoic acid is a cornerstone of Dr. Perricone's own skin care line. I do not think that he would intentionally exaggerate the benefits of lipoic acid just to boost sales. However, a potential conflict of interest is there. Serious scientific research is a complicated business. When there is a conflict of interest (e.g. income or prestige is affected by the outcome of the experiment), a researcher may misinterpret the data without even realizing it. This is known to have happened to some of the history's greatest scientific minds, not to mention rank and file scientists and physicians.

So, should you give lipoic acid a try or rather wait until more studies have been performed? On one hand, to wait for more research is always prudent. On the other hand, additional clinical studies may not materialize for another five or ten years. In the mean time you may be missing out on an effective wrinkle treatment with a good safety profile. (Although almost any treatment can produce negative effect in a some people, adverse reactions to lipoic acid are less common than to such agents as Retin A, vitamin C or glycolic acid.)

With that in mind, the dilemma for most people is whether it is worth spending money on a 2-3 month supply of lipoic acid cream to give it a fair try. Unfortunately, even though topical lipoic acid products are proliferating, they remain somewhat costly. The prices include what I call a "hype premium" because lipoic acid itself is an inexpensive, widely available chemical. If you like taking matters in your own hands, you can easily make a lipoic acid cream yourself. The benefits of this approach include very substantial cost-savings, freshness and the ability to optimize the concentration of lipoic acid to fit your needs. There is yet another important advantage of the do-it-yourself approach in this particular case. Most lipoic acid products contain a mixture of its two variants, so-called S and R forms. (For the scientifically inclined, these are two different optical isomers of lipoic acid.) While both S and R forms are potent antioxidants, only R-lipoic acid improves cellular energy production and reduces inflammation. Furthermore, the presence of the S form appears to reduce the effectiveness of the R-form. Other conditions being equal, R-form alone is more likely to bring results than the commonly used S & R mixture. Lipoic acid creams I've seen so far all use the mixture of the R and S forms. (Assume that the cream contains a mixture unless the label explicitly says "R-lipoic acid".) Pure R-form is available as a powder, however, and is suitable for making your own R-lipoic acid cream.

For more information on making your own skincare preparations, including an alpha lipoic acid cream, see the article Do-It-Yourself Anti-Aging Skin Care.


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