Packaging aside, there seems to be hardly any difference between moisturizing creams labeled for day and those made for nighttime use. Their textures often look the same; they might even feel similar on your skin. So why use a special p.m. potion? The answer lies below the surface. While you sleep, skin gets a break from outside stressors such as sun, pollution, and cosmetics and has a chance to repair itself, says Dr. Anna Ragaz, a holistic dermatologist and founder of the Anna Ragaz Institute for Anti-Aging in Seattle.
"At night, your body works to build collagen and elastic tissues, which help skin stay plump and supple." Night creams tend to supply more vital nutrients and active ingredients than daytime hydrators, helping to support the healing process. The antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E (and extracts of plants that contain them) are especially beneficial, Ragaz notes, because they not only foster the recovery of damaged cells but also combat future damage by neutralizing wrinkle-causing free radicals. Chamomile and calendula help calm inflammation, while aloe, olive oil, and jojoba oil prevent excess moisture loss.
Even if a cream contains many of these key ingredients, though, its efficacy will ultimately depend on its formulation. "Concentration is very important," says Ragaz, so a product with just a drop of vitamin C won't cut it. To gain some insight, check out the list of ingredients. If it's dominated by simple moisturizers (like water, oil, aloe, and glycerin), and active ingredients don't appear until the bottom of the list, the product isn't likely to offer many benefits beyond those of a basic hydrating lotion.
Finally, Ragaz advises starting with a clear canvas so that the ingredients can penetrate effectively. Gentle, nightly exfoliation helps remove dead cells and stimulate cell regeneration. "Removing dead cells encourages healthy new ones to develop," she explains. "If you want roses to grow, you prune them -- skin works the same way." Here are some of our favorite night creams:
While You Were Sleeping Overnight Moisture Cream by Grassroots
Fragrant vanilla and bergamot appear alongside redness-reducing aloe, oat extract, and vitamin E in this intensive hydrator. grassrootslife.com
Time Line Age-Defying All-Night Nourishment by Ahava
This moisturizer uses vitamin-rich algae and minerals from the Dead Sea to promote cell growth at night. ahavaus.com
Brilliance Restorative Night Creme by Zia
Peptides and antioxidant-rich fruit extracts (pomegranate, strawberry, lime) help fight wrinkles, while licorice root and mulberry bark tackle uneven skin tone. zianatural.com
Oh What a Night by Nature's Gate Organics
The aloe extract in this buttery cream helps calm irritated skin; its antioxidants offer protection from free radicals. natures-gate.com
Overnight Stress Repair by Plantogen
This cream's honey and chamomile soothe sensitive skin. Vitamins C, E, and retinol help to repair sun damage. plantogen.com
Text by Cheryl Alkon; photographs by Rick Lew
© 2014 Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. All rights reserved.