- Alpha lipoic acid (ALA) is a vitamin-like antioxidant that helps fight free radicals in the body.
- Studies have shown that ALA creams are effective in the treatment of photodamaged skin.
- Lipoic acid supplements can also be taken to ward off chronic, age-related diseases.
Researching different skin care ingredients can feel like going back to chemistry class. There are so many complex words to make sense of, and without a PhD it’s almost impossible to know which ingredients do what for your skin.
Alpha lipoic acid, otherwise known as lipoic acid, thioctic acid, or ALA, is one mysterious ingredient said to rejuvenate the skin on a cellular level and help erase age-related skin issues like fine lines, wrinkles, and loss of elasticity.
We’re here, with the help of top dermatologists, to demystify this powerful anti-aging additive.
What is alpha lipoic acid?
Sometimes called the “universal antioxidant,” alpha lipoic acid is used for more than just its skin benefits. It’s also known for its anti-inflammatory properties, and has been extensively studied as a therapeutic agent for many chronic diseases.
“Alpha lipoic acid is a potent antioxidant that neutralizes free radical damage,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. As such, many specialists recommend it as a dietary supplement to ward off diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, and even some types of cancer.
In topical form, ALA is said to improve the way the skin looks and feels, and has found it’s way into a huge assortment of skin care products—serums, creams, mists, and more. Proponents liken it to vitamins E and C, but note that it’s significantly more potent than either one.
However, the topical use of lipoic acid is a relatively new advancement, and one that remains controversial.
“I don’t commonly see alpha lipoic acid in professional skin lines I have worked with over the years,” says skin expert and industry consultant René Serbon. “As of late, it is gaining popularity in the media, and I can see how it could have a general benefit to the skin. But the jury is still out at this point.”
How alpha lipoic acid works
“Lipoic acid is considered a universal antioxidant because it is both water and oil soluble,” says aesthetician Deelisa Sacco of Palm Beach Wax Studio. “This differentiates it from beta hydroxy acid, which is only oil soluble, and alpha hydroxy acid, which is water soluble.”
In the body, ALA aids in energy production by breaking down carbohydrates. Additionally, it has the power to inhibit cross-linking, the formation of chemical bridges that cause age-related concerns such as wrinkles and stiff joints.
But perhaps the most important job of this acid lies in its antioxidant properties; it has the ability to fight free radicals in the cell plasma membrane, which is promising for the health of the skin and the body overall.
Other benefits include alpha lipoic acid’s ability to boost the skin’s capacity to exfoliate and regenerate itself. This can help improve dry skin and make skin tone more even.
It also has a mild ability to fight inflammation, which may provide some benefits to those who suffer from acne and help reverse long-term damage caused by sun exposure.
There is evidence to suggest that alpha lipoic acid has the ability to do what many claim it does.
In one study published by dermatologist Nicholas V. Perricone (who, we should note, has his own line of skin care products containing ALA), it was found that applying a topical 5% alpha lipoic acid cream reduced the appearance of fine lines associated with photoaging, the premature aging of the skin caused by repeated exposure to ultraviolet radiation. In addition, subjects used the cream twice a day for 12 weeks and reported no adverse side effects.
In another study, scientists confirmed that alpha lipoic acid creams exhibited anti-inflammatory properties and had the ability to improve characteristics associated with photoaging.
What remains to be proven is whether alpha lipoic acid provides the same benefits in oral supplements as it does in topical form. There just isn’t enough evidence yet to suggest that the human body can effectively metabolize and distribute antioxidants to those crucial layers of the skin.
As states Dr. Zeichner, “you can increase your body’s levels of ALA by ingesting foods like green leafy vegetables, although it is unclear how effective oral ingestion is in improving skin health.”
The best alpha lipoic acid products
You’re probably thinking that you should be piling on the ALA. So let’s look at some of the best available alpha lipoic acid treatments.
Dr. Perricone has performed in-depth research on ALA, and offers an extensive line of anti-aging skin care products that feature this ingredient. We recommend the High-Potency Face Firming Activator. In addition to ALA, it contains DMAE to lift and tighten.
This power-packed eye treatment contains thioctic acid, DMAE, goji berry extract, and other natural ingredients to help provide an instant lift beneath the eyes. It also contains advanced peptides, which are said to soften facial muscles and improve collagen production.
This gold-infused cream uses firming ALA and DMAE to tone and tighten skin. It also employs beneficial hyaluronic acid, peptides, algae extracts, and yes — 24-karat gold.
Speak to your dermatologist
Take note that since ALA plays a critical role in cellular metabolism, and because it’s often coupled with other ingredients that encourage a faster cell turnover rate, it could initially cause breakouts and skin purging.
Because of this, it may not be the best option for irritated or sensitive skin.
» Need expert advice on alpha lipoic acid for your skin type? Use Zwivel’s online directory to connect with a board-certified dermatologist in your area.