Is there actually evidence for anti-ageing creams?

Here is a short piece I wrote for Tuesday’s Irish Independent. It was part of their ‘Science For Life’ supplement (not available online), in which scientists provide answers to “some of life’s big questions“. I was asked to respond to a question raised by current affairs broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan (@miriamocal), who asked “Is there any scientific evidence that anti-ageing creams work?” Naturally, given my own wrinkle-free visage (as featured prominently in the awesome and not-at-all embarrassing photograph that accompanied the piece), I was quickly identified as a suitable expert for this type of thing.  

The version below is the final draft prior to typographical edits. The Irish Independent’s ‘Science For Life’ section is edited by Katherine Donnelly, and its production is assisted by support from the Higher Education Authority and Dublin City of Science 2012, hosts of ESOF 2012.

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IS THERE ANY SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE THAT ANTI-AGEING CREAMS WORK?

This question divides scientific opinion. On the one hand, we know lots about the science of cell ageing, and many studies show how certain substances alter the skin’s appearance. However, lots of scientists are sceptical as to whether these substances can be made into a workable anti-ageing cream. And there is a dearth of scientific research showing that commercially available creams actually make a real difference.

For example, we know ultraviolet radiation damages the skin in ways that accelerate what most people refer to as ageing. Put simply, exposing your skin to sunshine makes it wrinkle more. It therefore follows that ordinary sun protection creams will prevent wrinkles by blocking UV rays. This is why many anti-ageing creams contain ingredients that protect against UV radiation. But few such creams have as much sun-blocking power as regular sunscreens, despite being much more expensive.

Similarly, we know that natural proteins called collagens can work as a kind of ‘dermal filler’ to reduce the width of skin creases. For this reason collagens are used in cosmetic surgery to help eliminate scars. Several anti-ageing creams contain collagens too. However, collagen molecules are too big to be absorbed into human skin as part of a cream. Any collagen applied topically will simply stay there until the next time you wash your face, when it will be swept away.

Other ingredients common in anti-ageing creams include alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), antioxidants, retinol, and Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). Again, many scientists doubt whether such ingredients can exert beneficial effects in the form of regular skin cream. For example, most research on CoQ10 relates to the effects of eating it, rather than of rubbing it onto your face.

Last year, Which? magazine described analyses of 1,800 photographs of people’s eyes and eyelids. They found that, when it came to reducing wrinkles, the most expensive cosmetic product made no more difference than the cheapest cream. Any effect was probably due to the effects of moisturisation. Many experts argue that the simplest way to make your skin look smooth is to hydrate it.

In the end, there is probably no cream that will produce a true anti-ageing effect. We can moisturise to keep skin supple, and apply make-up to hide blemishes and spots.

Or, of course, as a culture, we could simply accept the fact that our appearance changes as we grow older.

Dr Brian Hughes is a senior lecturer in psychology at NUI Galway. He blogs at http://thesciencebit.net

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Categories: Celebrities, Cosmetics, Irish Independent, Jargon, Pharmaceuticals, Radiation, Science, Skepticism

Tags: , ,

3 replies

  1. An interesting related product is the cellulite/stretchmark/scar removal oil/gel/cream. The main thing they seem to have in common is a direction to massage into the skin for $time and $directions, rather than it being the product that helps I imagine it might be the squidging about of the offending area.

    • Yeabsolutely. A lot of claims made for health/beauty-enhancing products are confounded in this way, with a multitude of variables all working their magic simultaneously. That’s why it is important to have controlled trials where we can (hopefully) manipulate one variable at a time.

      Easier said than done, of course.

  2. My understanding is that if any of these creams had a significant physiological impact on human tissues, then they would fall into the category of Pharmaceuticals. The nature of over the counter creams is that they have short-lived effects, wearing off in less than 24 hr. Anything lasting longer would require more stringent, clinical trials, approval and probably require prescription. Tretinoin is a Retinol-derived compound prescribed for wrinkles. So anything you buy over a counter is likely to be just a moisturiser. This may explain why most creams have the same effect on skin, regardless of cost! .

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