Ounce per ounce, anti-aging creams are among the priciest things you can buy in the average department store. But do all of those mysterious lotions and potions actually live up to the promise of reversing the slow march of time across your face?
"In 25 years, I've never seen a real wrinkle or fold repaired with a cream," says Fayne Frey, a dermatologist based in New York. "The skin is an amazing barrier and things don't penetrate it easily, which is why topical creams don't work well." If you need proof, Frey says, just think about how you can swim in the ocean for hours and not emerge all bloated from the saltwater.
The truth is, rigorous application of those sweet-smelling moisturizers does anything from zilch to very modest improvement, depending on the concentration of active ingredients in the jar. "A skin cream isn't going to take five or ten years off your face, but they can help with issues like discoloration, fine lines, or texture—some of the hallmark signs of getting old," says Clarissa Yang, a dermatologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
It's tough to know which creams are actually effective because cosmeceuticals—which include wrinkle creams—aren't classified as drugs, so they don't require rigorous testing or clearance by the FDA. If you look closely, most brands are pretty careful with the wording on the label so they don't get classified as a drug. If they claim to actually affect the structure or function of the skin—as in, actually repair a wrinkle—the FDA can come knocking.
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That said, science does seem to support the benefits of at least a few active ingredients. Retinoids—often called Retinol, Retinaldehyde, and Retinoic acid—are all a derivative of Vitamin A, the gold-standard for anti-aging benefits, Yang says. "We have robust studies that show it can help skin make more collagen, reduce brown spots, and get rid of dead skin cells—all of which can make skin look more youthful." Prescription retinoids, which you can get from your derm, are more concentrated and effective than OTC retinol, but you've got to use the stuff religiously to see change. It can take three to six months to notice any improvement. Lots of people, however, quit after just a few weeks because retinol can irritate the skin, leaving you with flakes and redness.
Antioxidants like Vitamin C also receive heaps of praise in the anti-aging industry as powerful wrinkle preventers, and in theory, it makes sense: When we're exposed to UV rays, pollution, chemicals, or skin-stressors like smoke, free radicals form in the skin, which damage healthy skin cells. Antioxidants neutralize those bad free radicals, halting the destruction. The only problem is that Vitamin C can be finicky and unstable—it might not even be active in that product you buy, Yang says. The best creams have a PH of less than 3.5 and are combined with Vitamin E and ferulic acid, she adds. So there's potential, but also a good chance it's doing jack.
Other so-called "hero" ingredients include hyaluronic acids to plump and moisturize skin, hydroxy acids (exfoliants that slough off dead skin), and peptides (to increase collagen production), all of which may somewhat improve texture and appearance, but can't stop the process of aging completely or erase wrinkles the way a filler or botox might, says Emily Wise, a dermatologist in Massachusetts.
In the end, as every single dermatologist—and helicoptering mother—will remind you, there's no product that does a better job of staving off skin damage than regular old sunscreen. And even that, you can remind them right back, isn't perfect either.
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