Can a cream make you look younger?
The cosmetic industry is constantly striving to produce the most innovative and effective skin-care products on the market, enticing us to purchase a miracle in a jar.
Since all are designed to make us look younger for longer, the consumer is faced with a bewildering array of beautifully packaged products that prompt many questions. Below is a guide to help you choose.
Why is there so much choice?
Cosmetic companies need to sell products. So they are interested in the latest, most saleable ingredient. Not only do ingredients go in and out of fashion (think cocoa butter, tea tree oil etc), but enormous resources are used to develop new ones to make skin products more effective.
Research can give a company an initial advantage by creating a new product, but if it’s popular, the innovation is copied, adapted, repackaged and reproduced in a wide range of qualities and prices for the general cosmetic market (eg tan-building moisturisers).
As well as discovering new ingredients, cosmetic companies look for more effective ways of getting ingredients into the skin. For example, liposomes are now commonly used in face products.
Liposomes are tiny hollow spheres filled with active ingredients that are absorbed into the skin. They release their contents precisely where they are most needed – under the surface into the deeper layers of the skin.
Value for money
With most things in life, you get what you pay for. Cheap skin-care products will use cheap ingredients.
In the more expensive brands, you usually pay for the new ingredient or formula that is supposed to deliver the anti-ageing, anti-wrinkle, skin firming benefit.
But don’t let price be your only guide. In a test this year for Consumer Reports (a US consumer association similar to Which? magazine), the most expensive anti-ageing brands (eg La Prairie Cellular £200+ for 30ml) worked less well than their cheaper counterparts (eg Olay Regenerist £16 for 30ml).
And it found even the best creams only had an effect on wrinkles that was ‘barely visible to the naked eye’.
What about the claims of these products?
Dermatologists (medical doctors who specialise in skin) argue that cosmetics can achieve little except temporary moisturisation. By definition, a cosmetic is not allowed to alter the structure or function of the skin.
Many companies imply that their products do alter the skin. Such products are entering the grey area between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
Pharmaceutical products are subject to tighter controls and tests than cosmetics because they are more potent. Their benefits must be proved and side-effects reported.
The regulatory bodies are not always as active as they should be in monitoring these situations, which leaves the public ill-informed and confused.
Are they safe?
By law store-bought cosmetics and their ingredients must be safe for use. This means if you try them and they don’t work, the only thing they will have damaged is your wallet.
In some cases a lotion may cause skin irritation, but this will resolve when you stop using the product.
Standard ingredients in face creams
- Preservatives prevent the growth of bacteria in cosmetics to extend the shelf-life of your cream. Examples are essential oils or synthetic parabens, including ethyls, propyls and butyls. Parabens are non-toxic and approved by the regulatory authorities.
- Emulsifiers ensure a smooth mixture and consistency. An example is linoelic acid.
- Humectants are commonly used derivatives of mineral oil. They act as a moisturiser by drawing water from the air to the skin’s surface. They also prevent the product from losing water and drying out. Examples are glycerin and glycol.
- Silicone gives the cream a pleasing texture and makes application easier.
- Sunscreens to protect the skin are also added. Examples are octyl methoxycinnamate, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
What is an active ingredient?
In addition to these general ingredients for skin-care products, specific substances are added in small quantities to give a desired effect – for example AHA for anti-ageing.
Listed below are some common ‘active’ ingredients, but the evidence for the effectiveness of many of these substances is not proven.
Scientifically speaking, a survey asking women whether they feel a product reduces facial lines does not prove the treatment works in the same way that a clinical study would.
This is because a clinical study would examine the skin of women after using the product for a number of weeks, and compare their skin to a group of women who didn’t know they were using a dummy treatment.
Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA)
AHAs, or fruit acids, include citric acid from citrus fruits, malic acid from apples and lactic acid from milk. As a group, no other cosmetic ingredients have been more thoroughly investigated.
Glycolic acid derived from sugar cane is by far the most frequently used AHA.
AHAs have revolutionised the effectiveness of many skin-care products.
The benefits have been known since the Roman era, and the first scientific papers on AHAs were published in 1974.
In low concentrations, they act as exfoliators and cause little skin irritation.
In higher concentration, AHAs have shown to be effective at:
- reducing the visible signs of ageing
- treating acne
- treating increased pigmentation.
Higher strength AHAs are available through beauty salons and cosmetic clinics. They must be used under professional guidance and with a sunscreen.
Amino acids (peptides)
The body’s building blocks, amino acids make up proteins that are present in our skin and hair.
Claims that they can be absorbed by the skin to rehydrate and provide nutrients are not well-supported by evidence.
Every breath we take leads to the formation of ‘free radicals’ that damage healthy cells. In the skin this leads to lines, wrinkles and loss of skin tone.
Antioxidants can reduce the activity of these free radicals, so in theory antioxidants can help the body to repair itself.
At present there is limited evidence to back this theory, especially in topical (cream) form.
Plenty of products contain antioxidants. In the ingredients list look out for pycnogenol (the active part of grapeseed extract) and vitamins A, C and E.
This is the chemical name for the basic molecule of vitamin C, also known as magnesium ascorbyl phosphate.
Derivatives are used in skin-care products because the pure vitamin is unstable and very irritating to the skin.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that can lighten pigment, and is one of the most popular constituents in products today. But in cream form, it may not be effective.
Beta hydroxy acid (BHA)
The most common BHA is salicylic acid.
These acids are anti-inflammatory and exfoliating agents, so are useful in the treatment of spots and acne.
BHAs cause sensitivity reactions if overused.
Ceramides are normally found in the skin and help it to retain moisture. Synthetic ceramides are one of the ‘buzz’ ingredients that claim to reverse the signs of ageing.
Little science exists to back these claims, but they may be proven effective in the future.
Co-enzyme 10 (Q10)
Also an ‘in’ ingredient, Q10 occurs naturally in the skin and is an antioxidant and antibacterial agent.
As we age, levels of Q10 decrease and this may play a part in skin ageing.
So far, the claims made for Q10’s anti-ageing properties are unsubstantiated.
Idebenone (Prevage MD) is a more potent form of co-enzyme Q10. It is the most powerful antioxidant to date, and there is clinical data to support its benefit in ageing skin. It is produced by Allergan, the makers of botox.
Collagen is a very large molecule and evidence does not support the suggestion that it can penetrate the skin. It can only sit on the skin’s surface where it gives very little benefit.
Green tea is a popular ingredient and can be found in everything from face creams to depilatory waxes.
It contains polyphenols that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These effects may explain why cold tea bags are applied to the face to reduce swollen eyes.
Research is promising so don’t throw the idea out with the tea bags.
An essential protein found in the skin. It has very powerful moisturising properties, able to attract over 100 times its weight in water. But it needs to be at the correct concentration to work.
Obtained from wool and used as a barrier to reduce water loss from the skin’s surface. It is a frequent cause of sensitivity reactions to products, so read the ingredient list carefully.
Retinoic acid, retinol or retinyl palmitate
These are all derivatives of vitamin A.
Retinoic acid (tretinoin) has convinced the medical profession that a topically applied cream can reduce the appearance of lines, wrinkles and pigmentation.
Under the trademark name of Retinova, it is the first drug to be given a licence for treating sun-damaged skin.
To get this licence the company had to show beyond doubt that the product works in the majority of people with limited side-effects.
Retinova can be irritating and make your skin more sensitive to sun, so must be used with a sunscreen.
Cosmetic companies have since jumped on the bandwagon with various vitamin derivatives such as retinol, a weaker version of tretinoin.
While none are as effective as Retinova, two recent studies have shown that creams with retinol can reduce the appearance of wrinkles.
The latest, by Michigan University Medical School, appeared in the journal Archives of Dermatology.
It found a moisturiser with 0.4 per cent retinol ‘significantly’ improved the appearance of fine wrinkles in elderly people. But only 24 people completed the study, and the benefits were lost once the product was stopped.
Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. Often this vitamin is put into sunscreens to fight free radicals made by sunlight.
Some rigorous data is being collected about the benefits of topical and oral vitamin E on skin ageing, but little has been proved so far.
How do I choose the right product?
With this barrage of ingredients, it is not surprising that most people are unsure about choosing the right skin-care product.
The next time you choose a facial or body product, seek the opinion of a skin-care professional rather than relying on products you can find on shop shelves.
Professionals have potent products in their armoury that are a step above store-bought cosmetics, so are more likely to produce the skin benefits you are seeking.
Otherwise check the ingredient list, which should be on the product or the leaflet inside, and do not be afraid to ask questions.
Don’t forget: skin care is more than just picking a product. A healthy diet and stopping smoking will help your skin far more than any cream. And if you really want to avoid wrinkles, use an SPF15 cream every day. Ultraviolet light from the sun’s rays is the primary cause of ageing.
Written by Dr Patrick Bowler, cosmetic skin specialist and laser surgeon