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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 March 2007, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Here comes the science...
Woman putting on face cream
Women spend most money on anti-aging products

By Nicola Cook
BBC Horizon

We all develop wrinkles with age, and we've all seen the adverts for products that claim to reduce them. But what's the science behind them and do they really work?

The first and most important rule is don't immediately be impressed by scientific sounding words. "These emollients are specially formulated with aqua and humectants" can be non-scientifically translated as "these lotions and creams contain water and moisturisers". Not nearly so exciting, but basically the same thing.

The next rule of thumb is if something sounds too good to be true it usually is - so be sure to read the small print. Although a product might use words like "lift" or "slim" in the name, it's unlikely to be a real facelift in a jar, or an easy route to a model figure.


As we age enamel on teeth gets thinner and more yellow. Hair turns grey and coarser.

Skin colour changes as we age. Uneven colouring can make you look years older.

A face cream can make an anti-ageing claim just by including a sun protection factor.

Cosmetics can't claim to affect the structure or function of skin as they are not licenced.

Top enemy of skin is free radicals, reactive molecules created by sun, pollution and smoking.

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In fact, if you read the small print you'll often discover the product "has not been proven to have a physical lifting effect" or although it has "been designed to target problem areas around the thighs and bottom it has not been proven to have a slimming effect".

Many advertisements for cellulite or slimming creams have been banned by the Advertising Standards Agency - more than for any other area of cosmetics. To judge whether a product has really been shown to work, it has to be tested.

When some studies were examined, several products simply hadn't proved they could reduce or eliminate cellulite at all. Another had been shown to have some slight effect, but no more than could be obtained with a simple moisturiser.

And this is where the first really useful tips for retaining youth comes in. Very simple products sometimes have a beneficial effect.

Scientific support

It's actually possible to measure wrinkle depth. Using technology originally designed for ensuring race car tracks were smooth, a machine projects a bar-code-type symbol on to crow's feet around the eyes. The more the lines curve on the skin surface, the greater the wrinkle depth.

Amazingly even a completely straightforward moisturiser, with no special ingredients at all, can almost instantly make wrinkles less deep. It's not rocket science.

As the moisture is absorbed by the skin, it puffs up, temporarily lessening the appearance of the lines. So don't be fooled by expensive products offering an instant effect - you can get the same from any decent moisturiser.

BOSWELOX - 'A phyto-complex' by L'Oreal that 'relaxes face muscles, helps increase hydration and restore elasticity'
C-60 - Naturally occurring of carbon, with the 'purity of a diamond', that has 'remarkable anti-oxidant properties'
RETINOL - 'Penetrates deep into all three layers of skin to stimulate collagen'
PEPTIDES - 'Instructs the body to make more collagen wherever the cream is applied'

Science suggests genes have as much to do with wrinkles as anything else. If your mum's laugh lines are deep, chances are yours eventually will be too. But you can slow down this inevitable ageing process.

The anti-ageing product with the strongest scientific support is plain and simple sun cream.

"There's very robust scientific evidence that sun exposure is the cause of many of the changes we associate with looking old like coarse wrinkles and sallow texture," says Dr Tamara Griffiths of the British Skin Foundation.

The evidence that sun protection helps prevent wrinkles is so good, including UVA and UVB sun protection in a cream is enough to justify calling it "anti-ageing".

Smoking is the other classic way to accelerate the ageing process. Both sunlight and smoking create nasty molecules called free radicals which damage the skin by attacking the collagen which keeps skin supple and youthful. And damaged collagen leads to wrinkles.

Too good to be true?

But what everyone really wants is not just prevention, but a way to permanently reduce the wrinkles they've already got. That means more than just moisturising the skin to make it puff up and smooth out wrinkles. The Holy Grail would be to restore the elastic collagen fibres in the skin damaged with age and sun-exposure.

Too good to be true? In this case, maybe not. Recent clinical studies on an acne medication called tretinoin - or retinoic acid - showed it really could reduce the appearance of fine lines in sun-damaged skin.

Woman with face pack
Many products don't live up to their claims
Microscopic analysis of skin biopsies - from the arms of volunteers using the medication for a number of months - showed an increase in collagen in the skin treated with prescription-only tretinoin. But the treatment is only available on prescription as it can have unpleasant side effects on the skin such as redness, itching and peeling.

But could ordinary cosmetic skin creams have a similar effect? Professor Chris Griffiths, now at the University of Manchester, was involved in some of those early studies on tretinoin.

Just recently he was asked to run a similar study on sun-damaged skin, but this time using a standard cosmetic moisturising cream. To the team's great surprise, they found the cosmetic cream also seemed to have an ability to repair damaged skin.

Griffiths stresses the effects of the cosmetic cream were not as dramatic as you would see with tretinoin and the studies were only done on a small group of people over a short time period.


But he concludes it "wouldn't surprise me at all if other, up til now, designated cosmetic products actually have more effects on skin physiology and skin structure than we gave them credit for in the past. But then you start to question what is a cosmetic and what is a pharmaceutical."

And that's the catch for the cosmetics companies. If they prove a product really can heal damaged skin, it could be classified as a medicine. That would mean they require years of expensive tests before getting a licence.

So for the moment, if you want to stay young and beautiful, don't smoke and avoid too much sun exposure. And if you think your moisturiser is helping keep away the wrinkles, just maybe it could be working a little more than skin deep.

Horizon investigates the science of beauty and ageing on Tuesday 27th March at 2100 BST on BBC Two

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Due to time constrains I could not buy my very expensive anti-wrinkle cream last saturday. Instead I start using my everyday cream (body lotion) on my face... the results: the same day that hideous wrinkle that I got on my forehead disappear! Thanks very much for this article, it has saved me lot of money on creams.
Mena, Anwerp, Belgium

I have always thought these products to be rubbish. A few years ago through work I happened to meet a professor of dermatolgy (I think) and when I asked him about these creams and the claims attached to them he said it was 95% nonsense.
Andy, UK, Newcastle

So what are the creams that really work? Despite sounding like a forum,has any scientist approved any "wonder cream"?
Debra, london

I don't wear any foundation and I don't use any fancy creams etc. And I admit it, I don't clean my face every night before I go to bed (shock, horror!). I use moisturiser once a week on my face and nobody thinks I am as old as I am. I guess I am blessed with good genes. Both my mother and my grandmother don't look their age. Thanks Mum!
Franziska, Sevenoaks

Stop being so vain and superficial! Wrinkles are a natural part of aging, but the advertising agencies would have you believe that they are some hideous deformity that only their (expensive) products can cure. Women are basically being victimised by cosmetic companies in order to make then buy unnecessary products, and now they are begining to target men. It is time we stood up and exposed their products as the rubbish that they are.
Simon Ward, Watford, UK

I have used a cheap moisturiser all my life. I am now 57 and have a better skin than most of my contemporaries. I have avoided excessive sun exposure and have always used a foundation (again a cheap one) before going out, therefore protecting my skin from the elements. I think it is as simple as that.
Susan Horswell, Plymouth, Devon

Well....as you say not rocket science! Glad to see it all in print what I have known all along, these expensive anti-this and anti-that creams are a complete waste of time and money. All you need is a decent moisturiser and faithfully put it on morning and night. Freeing your face of make up each night and putting on moisturiser before bed does wonders for the face. I always wear tinted moisturiser with some foundation / powder, it protects the skin from every day elements. I recently turned 40 and my work colleagues found it very hard to believe this....I actually offered to bring my birth certificate in to prove I was 40 as they all thought I was around mid thirties. Not smoking once in my life nor excessive sunbathing has helped a great deal of course. So ditch those expensive creams, instead treat yourself to a beauty treatment which will do wonders for you! Over and out.
Debbie J, Petersfield

Beauty really does come from within - what you put into your body has a big impact on your skin, as with any other organ. Eat right, don't smoke, protect against the sun and a little bit of moisturiser will all help, but most important - stay young at heart!

My 86 year old mother has beautiful skin and looks at least 10 years younger than her age. She was an avid sun worshipper from the 1950s to the 1980s and smoked 10 a day for 40 years. She has used cold cream all her adult life. I suspect it's all in the genes as my maternal grandmother never looked her age and lived to the great age of 106.
olwen johnson, staffordshire

I don't believe in all those creams and cosmetics. It's all just an optical illusion and there seems to be a lot of gullable people out there who believe these silly advertisements on television, that work wonders on people of any age. Old age and wrinkles are a part of life and one should accept that instead of throwing a lot of money on senseless cosmetics!
Karen, Scotland

My sister in law uses olive oil to cream her infant baby after shower - now that's going back to basics, and it really works!! It's cost effective and has the same, or maybe even better effect than all the ranges of baby creams advertised on TV/in magazines.
Beata T., London

I am over 80 and wrinkled. However, since using an alpha-hydroxy lotion, I am able to pass for 79 in favorable light.
Nicolette Maleckar, Cass, West Virginia, USA

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