Do anti-aging creams work?

aging woman looking in the mirror
Do we spend our golden years too concerned by what we see in the mirror?
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Your local newspaper's obituary page may not seem like a hot spot for scientific research, but in 2009, researchers from Ohio State University published a study that proved otherwise. The researchers evaluated 400 obituaries spanning four decades from the newspaper with the largest circulation in Ohio. They were looking for photographs they deemed "age-inaccurate," meaning that the obituary photo showed the deceased at a point that was at least 15 years prior to the time of death. The researchers found that the number of age-inaccurate photos increased steadily from 1967, when they made up just 17 percent of the photos, to 1997, when they comprised 36 percent of photos [source: Ohio State University]. It was also noted in the study that women were more than twice as likely as men to have an age-inaccurate photograph.

Naturally, we'd all like to be remembered with a beautiful and tasteful photograph that captures our essence. Still, the researchers were amazed at how many more people are now likely to think that their defining photograph was taken years and years ago. Though we're living longer and longer lives, it's clear that we're not happy with the effects of aging. People don't seem to care that wrinkles are merely indicators of past smiles, as Mark Twain once opined. In the United States alone, anti-aging cosmetic products have become a multi-billion dollar industry, and sales will likely only continue to grow as more baby boomers try to get rid of their fine lines and wrinkles.


Makers of anti-aging creams make some pretty enticing promises: They claim to give you a face several decades younger by firming up the skin that has sagged, eliminating the spots that have formed and leaving you with a rejuvenated glow. Such miracles don't come cheap, though, if the prices of some of these creams can be believed. Is a jar of anti-aging cream worth the money, or is it just a lot of empty promises in fancy packaging?

Anti-aging Cream Ingredients

jar of face cream
Is this the fountain of youth?
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Wrinkles occur because as we age, we gradually stop producing collagen, the protein that keeps skin firm. Both sun exposure and smoking accelerate the loss of collagen, so two of the best things you can do for your skin are to keep it covered with sunscreen and away from cigarettes. But once the damage is done, is there any way to reverse it? Let's take a look at some common anti-aging cream ingredients and learn just what we're slathering all over our faces.

  • Antioxidants, such as green tea or vitamin E, aim to halt the sun damage that threatens collagen production, thus preventing new wrinkles from forming.
  • Hyaluronic acid soaks in moisture, which plumps the tissue under a wrinkle.
  • Hydroxy acids serve as exfoliants, removing the old skin so that the new and improved skin can shine forth.
  • Peptides came to the cosmetic industry's attention due to their ability to heal wounds by increasing production of collagen. They go by many names, but pentapeptides and copper peptides are two that you might commonly see touted on an anti-aging cream label.
  • Retinol is the over-the-counter version of Retin-A, a vitamin A compound. Retin-A is available in several prescription strength compounds in addition to retinol; these retinoids prevent the compounds that break down collagen from even forming, and with continued use, retinoids can spur new collagen production. However, vitamin A compounds should be avoided while pregnant.

While the list above is in alphabetical order, the placement of retinol is coincidentally an example of saving the best for last. Dermatologists frequently recommend the use of retinol to prevent and reverse the signs of aging, and this is the only non-prescription ingredient with scientific research to back it up. People who use retinol report significant reductions in the appearance of wrinkles and brown spots [source: Wadyka].


A 2008 study by the University of Michigan found that topical retinol application was one of only three proven treatments for aging skin; the other two were carbon dioxide laser treatments and hyaluronic acid injections [source: Singer]. Don't confuse hyaluronic acid injections with a cream that contains the hyaluronic acid listed above; research indicates that the ingredient is most effective when it's injected under the skin. Indeed, many of the ingredients in anti-aging creams only work when they're inserted under the skin, as opposed to on top of it. In a 2006 interview with the New York Times, one dermatologist compared applying an anti-aging cream to placing blood on top of a patient who needs a blood transfusion [source: Geraghty].


Anti-aging Cream Claims

Based on the research discussed on the last page, you may think that all you need to do is find an anti-aging cream that's heavy on the retinol, with maybe a mishmash of other helpful ingredients thrown in. However, while anti-aging cream labels may tout the presence of any or all of these ingredients, they likely won't tell you how much of each ingredient is inside. The concentration of active ingredients makes a huge difference in efficacy.

Simply pumping up the amount of retinol isn't going to do the trick, though. Increasing the amounts of some of these ingredients brings with it an increase in unwanted side effects, such as a rash or a higher risk for sunburn. Many users are prone to slathering their brand new product all over their face, which causes irritation and leads them to abandon the product before it can have an effect. If a product is going to work for you, it will need at least eight weeks to work its magic [source: Geraghty].


As for that magic, be wary of what the label promises you. While the label may be full of words that sound complex and scientific, you're likely just buying some excellent copyediting. When the terms are put into plain language, even the priciest products offer nothing more than moisturizing and exfoliating. Since the terminology sounds technical, consumers can be forgiven for thinking they're buying something close to medicine, but if these creams actually did change the fundamental structure of your skin tissue, they'd have to be classified as a drug. Such a classification requires years of expensive testing and approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Anything you can buy without a doctor's note lives in a regulatory gray area, evaluated for safety but not effectiveness. Its claims have been carefully worded so it can remain on the cosmetics aisle.

Then how to explain a smug friend who claims that her $200 moisturizer brings her wondrous results? The truth is, any moisturizer, whether it costs $10 or $1,000, will temporarily plump the skin for a few hours by infusing it with moisture. If your friend were to stop using the cream, she'd see her skin return to its original appearance, meaning she's made a very expensive commitment. The cheaper creams work just as well, so don't feel bad about sticking with sunscreen and an affordably priced moisturizer. And until there's a real way to turn back time, you may just want to accept that beauty is more than skin deep.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Allen, Jane E. "Fine Lines Between Hype and Hope." Los Angeles Times. Feb. 19, 2001. (June 8, 2009)
  • Bakalar, Nicholas. "Wrinkle Removers, Backed by Science." New York Times. Aug. 19, 2008. (June 8, 2009)
  • Boncompagni, Tatiana. "What price youth?" Financial Times. June 21, 2003.
  • Bouchez, Colette. "Hope in a Jar: Do Skin Creams Work?" WebMD. March 7, 2007. (June 8, 2009)
  • Cook, Nicola. "Here comes the scienceā€¦" BBC News. March 27, 2007. (June 8, 2009)
  • Deutsch, Claudia H. "Scientific Solution to Save Your Skin." New York Times. July 13, 2003. (June 8, 2009)
  • Duenwald, Mary. "New Creams Smooth Wrinkles, But They're Not Botox." New York Times. June 22, 2004. (June 8, 2009)
  • Geraghty, Laurel Naversen. "Are Night Creams' Benefits Just a Dream?" New York Times. Sept. 21, 2006. (June 8, 2009)
  • Obagi, Suzan. "Why does skin wrinkle with age? How can you slow or prevent this process?" Scientific American. January 2006.
  • Ohio State University. "Obituary Photos Suggest Growing Bias Against Aging Faces." ScienceDaily. May 18, 2009. (June 8, 2009)
  • Righton, Barbara. "Rip Van Winkle to the rescue." Maclean's. Jan. 23, 2006.
  • Saint Louis, Catherine. "Applying a Balm to the Years." New York Times. May 13, 2008. (June 8, 2009)
  • Singer, Natasha. "Anti-Aging Makeup: Multitasker in a Jar." New York Times. Aug. 18, 2005. (June 8, 2009)
  • Singer, Natasha. "Buying Face Cream? Grab a Glossary." New York Times. Oct. 2, 2008. (June 8, 2009)
  • Trench, Brooke Le Poer. "Anti-Aging Challenge." Allure. April 2008. (June 8, 2009)
  • Wadyka, Sally. "The Thing About Retin-A: It Works." New York Times. Nov. 30, 2006. (June 8, 2009)
  • "Wrinkle creams: Your guide to younger looking skin." Mayo Clinic. Oct. 11, 2008. (June 8, 2009)