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Face Facts: What’s Up With Anti-Wrinkle Creams?

face cream, aging,seniors, skin care

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fayne freyby Fayne Frey, MD ,Board-certified clinical and surgical dermatologist

Patients ask me daily if “anti-wrinkle” creams work.

If the question they are really asking is if the aging process can be reversed, the answer is no. Anti-wrinkle creams cannot change the anatomy of skin to erase wrinkles.

Let’s rephrase the question. “Can anti-wrinkle creams improve the appearance of fine lines?” If that’s the question being asked, my response changes to yes, though the changes in the skin are not permanent.

Over-the-counter “anti-wrinkle” creams

Over-the-counter (OTC) “anti-wrinkle” creams are, first and foremost, moisturizers. These water-based formulations contain ingredients that fill in the cracks of dry skin to give skin a soft and smooth feel, as well as elements that help keep the skin hydrated. Well formulated moisturizers, when used regularly, increase the water content of the superficial layers of skin. The added moisture temporarily improves skin’s appearance.

“Anti-wrinkle” creams are marketed brilliantly. Beauty companies appeal to our youth-obsessed culture by promising to help consumers create younger looking skin. Healthy sounding ingredients are touted on the labels for greater marketing appeal.

Little, if any, scientific evidence proves ingredients added for marketing appeal are responsible for the temporary improvement in skin appearance. The beneficial results are more likely due to the ability of the OTC moisturizing cream to increase the water content of the skin. Any well-formulated moisturizer will do the job. An “anti-wrinkle” cream is absolutely not necessary.

The more expensive the better?

The overwhelming majority of my patients have purchased expensive “anti-wrinkle” creams at one time or another. When one product didn’t meet expectations, they often purchased another, and another at $50, $80 or $100 per ounce, up to $3600 per pound. Most admitted to not seeing the promised results.

Which brings me to the question – Why do so many intelligent, accomplished women continue to purchase these expensive face creams? They tell me they personally did not experience results, and that they are aware a true “anti-wrinkle” or “anti-aging” cream does not exist. If an effective “anti-aging” cream did exist, one that actually changed the structure of the skin and rid the face of fine lines and wrinkles, wouldn’t we all be using it? Yet, many women cling tightly to the hope that the next product purchased will produce the desired outcome.

Pluralistic Ignorance

Perhaps this behavior can be explained by a phenomenon in social psychology called “pluralistic ignorance”.  This term applies when a majority of people privately reject a belief, but assume most others accept it, and therefore go along with it. In other words, no one believes, but everyone thinks everyone else believes.

Do you remember the story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”  by Hans Christian Andersen? Two swindling weavers offer the emperor an invisible new suit of clothes only invisible to those unfit for their position or “hopelessly stupid.” The townspeople, not wanting to appear as fools go along with it. As the emperor prances nakedly before his subjects, a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

Let’s swap out the swindlers for the $180 billion global beauty industry for a moment. The industry promises women “anti-wrinkle” serums and lotions to rid them of their fine lines and wrinkles. The women purchase and apply these “magic potions” for ridiculous sums of money. No one dare admit they don’t see significant results for fear they won’t meet cultural expectations. As a board certified dermatologist with over 25 years of experience, I feel compelled to call out, “But these anti-wrinkle products are simply creams that temporarily moisturize!” I hate to ruin the fun.

The Moral of the Story

Aging is a gradual, irreversible, decline in physiologic function that occurs in every species. The exact cause is not yet known. The fact remains that science has not yet discovered a single ingredient proven to reverse the aging process. I wish I could tell you differently.


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