Do anti-aging creams work?

Anti-aging Cream Ingredients

Is this the fountain of youth?
Is this the fountain of youth?
Nichola Evans/Photodisc/Getty Images

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].