Do over-the-counter wrinkle creams really reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles? The answer depends on many factors.
Many wrinkle creams and lotions sold in department stores, in drugstores and on the Internet promise to reduce wrinkles and prevent or reverse damage caused by the sun.
Do they work? That often depends on the specific ingredients and how long you use them. Because these over-the-counter (nonprescription) wrinkle creams aren't classified as drugs, they're not required to undergo scientific research to prove their effectiveness.
If you're looking for a face-lift in a bottle, you probably won't find it in over-the-counter wrinkle creams. The benefits of these products are usually only modest at best.
Common ingredients in anti-wrinkle creams
The effectiveness of anti-wrinkle creams depends in part on the active ingredient or ingredients. Here are some common ingredients that may result in slight to modest improvement in the appearance of wrinkles.
- Retinol - Retinol is a vitamin A compound, the first antioxidant to be widely used in nonprescription wrinkle creams. Antioxidants are substances that neutralize free radicals — unstable oxygen molecules that break down skin cells and cause wrinkles.
- Vitamin C - Another potent antioxidant, vitamin C may help protect skin from sun damage. Before and between uses, wrinkle creams containing vitamin C must be stored in a way that protects them from air and sunlight.
- Hydroxy acids - Alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids and poly hydroxy acids are exfoliants — substances that remove the upper layer of old, dead skin and stimulate the growth of smooth, evenly pigmented new skin.
- Coenzyme Q10 - This ingredient may help reduce fine wrinkles around the eyes and protect the skin from sun damage.
- Tea extracts - Green, black and oolong tea contain compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Green tea extracts are the ones most commonly found in wrinkle creams.
- Grape seed extract - In addition to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, grape seed extract also promotes wound healing.
- Niacinamide - A potent antioxidant, this substance is related to Vitamin B-3 (niacin). It helps reduce water loss in the skin and may improve skin elasticity.
No guarantees: Assessing safety and effectiveness
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies creams and lotions as cosmetics, which are defined as having no medical value. So the FDA regulates them less strictly than it does drugs. This means that products don't undergo the same rigorous testing for safety and effectiveness that topically applied medications undergo before approval to go on the market. Regarding this category of creams and lotions, the FDA's main concern is safety, not effectiveness.
Because the FDA doesn't evaluate cosmetic products for effectiveness, there's no guarantee that any over-the-counter product will reduce your wrinkles.
Consider these points when judging the merits of using a wrinkle cream:
- Cost - Cost has no relationship to effectiveness. A wrinkle cream that's more costly may not be more effective than a less costly product.
- Lower doses - Nonprescription wrinkle creams contain lower concentrations of active ingredients than do prescription creams. So results, if any, are limited and usually short-lived.
- Multiplicity of ingredients - There is no data to suggest that adding two or three of the ingredients above together will be more effective than just one of them.
- Daily use - You'll likely need to use the wrinkle cream once or twice a day for many weeks before noticing any improvements. And once you discontinue using the product, your skin is likely to return to its original appearance.
- Side effects - Some products may cause skin irritation, rashes, burning or redness. Be sure to read and follow the product instructions to limit possible side effects.
- Individual differences - Just because your friend swears by a product doesn't mean it will work for you. People have different skin types. No one product works the same for everyone.
Your anti-wrinkle regimen
An anti-wrinkle cream may lessen the appearance of your wrinkles, depending on how often you use it, the type and amount of active ingredient in the wrinkle cream, and the extent of the wrinkles you want to treat. But if you want to take the guesswork out of your skin care regimen, try these more reliable ways to improve and maintain your skin's youthful appearance.
- Mild Facial Cleanser - If your skin is showing the signs of age—fine lines in creases, wrinkles, tissue that isn’t as firm as it used to be—your first defense is to do no harm to more sensitive, healthy skin. Loss of moisture is part of the reason for wrinkling. Because you use a cleanser every day, dermatologists suggest purchasing one that moisturizes, not dries, facial skin. Avoid deodorant, antibacterial or perfumed soaps. Mayo Clinic doctors endorse cosmetic products that contain humectants and emollients. These beneficial ingredients include glycerin, cetyl alcohol, and oils such as olive, sweet almond and sunflower seed.
- Daily Moisturizer - This trend should continue in your facial moisturizer. Skin care creams offer greater protection to aging skin than moisturizing lotions due to their higher oil content. The AAD reports that moisturizers are proven to immediately reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles, while keeping healthy skin pliable to create an effective moisture barrier. Ingredients to choose include propylene glycol, urea, petrolatum, dimethicone, lanolin and allantoin.
- Sunscreen - Sun damage and skin cancer are serious concerns for those with aging skin. Researchers at the Skin Cancer Foundation note that sunscreen cosmetic products are proven to be largely, but not entirely, effective at blocking ultraviolet radiation that harms healthy skin. Therefore, daily skin care should include protective clothing as well as an application of a broad-spectrum sunscreen. Choose one that addresses UVA and UVB protection, in an SPF 15 or stronger formula.
- Night Repair Cream - Manufacturers purport that night skin care creams do the most to rejuvenate aging skin, but dermatologists approve of only certain proven ingredients. Because these cosmetic products represent the high end in cost, make sure their active ingredients are effective. The AAD sanctions skin-supporting antioxidant vitamins A, C and E, which may be listed on packages as retinol, ascorbic acid and tocopheryl. Mayo Clinic dermatologists approve of hydroxy acids, such as lactic, salicylic, glycolic and citric acids. These encourage exfoliation, which aging skin is less efficient at. Other ingredients that promote cellular rejuvenation include kojic acid and azelaic acid.
- Don't smoke - Smoking causes narrowing of the blood vessels in the outermost layers of your skin. It also damages collagen and elastin — fibers that give your skin its strength and elasticity. As a result, skin begins to sag and wrinkle prematurely.
A dermatologist can help you create a personalized skin care plan by assessing your skin type, evaluating your skin's condition and recommending products likely to be effective. If you're looking for more dramatic results, a dermatologist can recommend medical treatments for wrinkles, including prescription creams, botulinum toxin (Botox) injections or skin-resurfacing techniques.