(printer-friendly version)

Wrinkle creams: What the ads don’t tell you 9/11
(This article is adapted from the September 2011 issue of ShopSmart magazine.)

You can’t completely erase wrinkles with creams, but can you “dramatically decrease the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles” as the ads claim? Not according to Consumer Reports tests.

To see how well several popular products worked, a panel of 79 people used them for 12 weeks. The panel included 67 women and 12 men between the ages of 40 and 65 who had moderate to marked fine lines and wrinkles.

Each of the panelists applied two different products every morning one on each side of the face. The testers took photos before the first application, 1 hour after applying the products, 6 weeks later and 12 weeks later. Trained sensory panelists looked at six areas on each side of the face to find out whether they could see any noticeable improvement in fine lines and wrinkles. They also evaluated the products to see how they smelled and how they felt on the skin.

More expensive isn’t better

All the products tested smelled pretty good and left just a slight residue behind after being rubbed in. But when it came to wrinkles, most didn’t make a huge difference.

The most expensive product tested cost ten times as much as the least expensive: $80 for 1.7 ounces of Lancome Paris Renergie Double Performance Treatment Anti-Wrinkle Firming cream vs. $8 for 1.7 ounces of Equate Advanced Firming & Anti-Wrinkle Face & Neck Cream. But they had similar limited effects after 12 weeks—no dramatic changes. So don’t assume that creams with much higher prices will get you better results.

In the tests, Consumer Reports found that, at best, the wrinkle creams had a small effect, and not on everyone.

Read the ingredients label

Some anti-wrinkle creams do contain questionable ingredients. Examples include parabens, some of which mimic estrogen and might interact with your body’s hormones, and fragrances, because scented products often contain phthalates, which have been linked to reproductive problems.

More research is needed before we fully understand the risks. But for now an easy way to help avoid those questionable chemicals is to choose products without "-parabens" or "fragrance" on the ingredients label. Parabens may be listed as "methyl-," "ethyl-," "-propyl-," and "butyl-parabens."

Claims like "dermatologist-tested", "non-comedogenic"(won’t clog pores), or "hypo-allergenic" may sound official, but don’t mean much. That’s because they don’t have any standard definition, and they're not verified or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, or any other agency. "Natural" has no standard definition for personal-care products, and that claim is not verified either.

One claim you can count on is that "USDA Organic" seal. That ensures at least 95 percent of the product is truly "organic," meaning that it’s made from organic ingredients, such as plants that weren’t treated with most synthetic pesticides. But other organic claims may not be as reliable.

To find out what specific claims on labels mean—or whether they’re meaningless—you can check them using our eco-label database.

Built-in sunscreens aren’t enough

Many anti-wrinkle creams have sunscreens built in, but you can’t count on an anti-wrinkle cream to protect you all day from the sun’s harmful rays, even if it has an SPF claim on the label.

To be on the safe side, layer on a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 (or a moisturizer with a built-in sunscreen) and re-apply it at least every 2 hours, and more often if you sweat a lot or get wet.

Be sure to watch out for skin-care products that list retinyl palmitate, a type of topical vitamin A, as an ingredient. When tested without sunscreen, it has been linked in animal studies to an increased risk of skin cancer. And pregnant women may want to avoid the ingredient, given concerns about possible birth defects from vitamin A derivatives.

Prevention pays off

Because lines and wrinkles are basically impossible to get rid of with over-the-counter creams once they show up, the smartest thing you can do is try to prevent them in the first place. You can do that by staying out of the sun and wearing a tightly woven, wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen when you’re outdoors; drinking plenty of water; and moisturizing day and night.

Related links

Wrinkle creams: Miracle or mirage? 8/11

Personal care products: green buying guide. 12/10
Copyright © 2003-2012 by Consumers Union of United States., Inc., 101 Truman Avenue, Yonkers, NY 10703, a nonprofit organization. No downloading, transmission, photocopying, or commercial use permitted. Visit www.GreenerChoices.org.