The science and lies of anti-aging creams
Cosmetics companies nowadays claim their anti-aging creams are able to make the skin look several years younger. Advertisements for these products talk about clinically-tested chemicals that smooth out wrinkles by reaching through the skin to heal it from within. Sometimes even, these miraculous chemicals are said to work on single skin cells, repairing their DNA to its former, youthful state. The truth is, and has been long known by any scientist, that these pseudo-scientific claims are misleading and false, so that the effect that anti-wrinkle creams have on the skin’s appearance are only modest at best.
Out of all defences to pathogens that our body possesses, the skin may well be the toughest: it is a layered tissue designed through millennia of evolution to be virtually impenetrable to external bodies. Virtually because cuts or insects bites can mechanically break the tissue and lead to the infiltration of pathogens and consequent infections. Chemicals (molecules) are on a smaller scale compared to microorganisms, but these too have been shown to be unable to pass the skin barrier unless present in very high concentrations. For example, biomolecules-based creams, which promise to deliver collagen or hyaluronic acid inside the skin to replenish its reserves, only deposit them on top of your epidermis. That is because, not only are biomolecules such as collagen so large that they cannot penetrate the skin, but they are also delivered in very small concentrations, same as any other “active” ingredients in these creams.
Other frequent additions to anti-aging creams are vitamins and antioxidants, which again can’t cross the skin barrier in low concentrations and are instead simply degraded by the exposure to light and oxygen in the air. These molecules are still object of research regarding their ability to positively affect the skin, but there are other chemicals already scientifically proven to improve the appearance of wrinkles, such as Retin-A (Retinol), a vitamin A compound. However, regulatory bodies such as the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) distinguish between cosmetics and drugs, and only the latter possess the large concentrations required to breach the skin. While drugs have to go through much testing before they become available to the public, typically through prescription by a doctor, cosmetic creams only possess such small concentrations of chemicals that these have no effect on the body, so that it is not necessary for companies to incur the trouble of proving their harmlessness.
As little or none of the chemicals present in cosmetic creams are actually able to diffuse within the skin, how do anti-aging creams manage to make the skin look smoother, even though for just a short time? Two mechanisms are used by cosmetics companies for this: on one hand these creams are rich in moisturising agents, which fix water in the very outer layer of the skin by mixing it with oil, just as your body does to prevent it from evaporating. The water naturally plumps up the appearance of the skin, until it is eventually lost to air. On the other hand, the collagen or other large molecules applied to the top of the skin dry out and create a layer of material that physically stretches your skin and improves the appearance of small wrinkles. The effect only lasts for a limited time, until this layer is washed or rubbed off. These mechanisms are the same for cheap or expensive brands, so that really there is no difference between creams other than the texture (amount of oil) they provide.
The market for anti-aging products is expected to hit $114 billion this year, according to a report by the European Molecular Biology Organization. On top of the poor efficacy and value-for-money of the vast majority of anti-aging creams, it is shocking that the ads for these cosmetics make it to the public when they are so completely misleading. Yet cosmetic companies make use of a clever trick to dodge regulations: by not making any strong claims that their creams effectively cure or lessen disease, and by providing products that are not harmful to our body, they are able to avoid governments’ action.
Aging is scary for most if not all people, and the change in appearance that comes with it is one of the main reasons. Rather than spending a fortune on creams that deliver little, invest in a good moisturiser and broad-spectrum sunscreen and remember that the best results are achieved naturally: sleep well, drink plenty of water, exercise, manage your stress, and pray your genes do the rest of the job.