Maureen Murphy, 60, a part-time receptionist, knew better than to believe a lotion could turn back time. But last March, when Crème de la Mer arrived in the U.K., she decided to dip into the plain little jar presented to her at the Harrods counter. Impressed that it was created by a U.S. space agency scientist, she paid a lot — $98 for a 28.3-g jar — and is happy to keep on paying. The pesky lines she was fighting haven't gone away. But after a month, they looked softer. And now she sounds like the saleslady who first hooked her on the product. "It's improved the hydration," she raves. "What else could you ask for?"
Most of us don't expect the fountain of youth when we slather on a face cream at night. After all, we've grown up with fantastical claims from the cosmetics industry that never seem to pan out. But suddenly the cosmetics counters are arrayed with dozens of new products that promise really and truly to reduce the signs of aging. The difference is that this time around, there may be some solid science behind the claims.
A smart soul has even conjured up a name for all these fabulous new lotions: cosmeceuticals (think cosmetics plus pharmaceuticals). The idea is that they're more potent than cosmetics but not so powerful that government agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration need to regulate them like drugs.
American baby boomers, 76 million of whom are now in their 40s or 50s, refuse to grow old gracefully. U.S. sales for what the cosmetics industry genteelly calls "age-specialist" products could shoot well over $2 billion this year, says Mark Brooks of NPD BeautyTrends. It has even inspired a best seller — The Wrinkle Cure, by Yale dermatologist Dr. Nicholas Perricone. With so many products to choose from, it's a challenge to separate the science from the spin:
Renergie, created by cosmetics powerhouse Lancôme, was one of the top-selling products in the age-specialist category last year. It seeks to restore youthful elasticity to the skin while reducing wrinkles.
Crème de la Mer was invented by Max Huber in the 1960s to treat his own rocket-fuel burns. According to Estee Lauder, which owns the product, his formula consisted of fermenting a seaweed broth to the prerecorded gurglings of previous batches. Lauder researchers don't know why the sounds make a difference, but without them, they contend, the cream loses its potency.
Idealist, also by Estee Lauder, plays on the incipient insecurities of the late-20s crowd. "You can't just start thinking about the effects of aging at 30," says Sandy Cataldo, senior vice president of marketing. "For 40% of women, it becomes a lifelong obsession between 25 and 29." Among other ingredients, Idealist's breathable polymers (that's silicone to you and me) are intended to fill in the pores in the skin that grow larger with age.
Aveda's Tourmaline Charged Hydrating Creme, which is designed to retain the skin's moisture and block out ultraviolet rays, uses the gem as a "tuning fork" to increase the "vibrational energy" of its other ingredients.
Cut through the hype, and you're looking at a potpourri of the same active ingredients. There are antioxidants for preventing skin damage from exposure to the sun, copper peptides for stimulating skin repair and hydroxy acids for sloughing off layers of dead skin. Wheat germ and barley extracts often serve as natural moisture barriers.
Sound too good to be true? That's what we at Time thought too. But a group of us — O.K., let's admit it, women in our 30s, 40s and 50s — decided to look into the claims a little further. (More men have been spotted buying antiaging creams, but the market is overwhelmingly female.) With open minds and a certain degree of self-interest, we contacted the major cosmetics firms and talked to biochemists, physiologists and dermatologists. We even commissioned the Chemir/Polytech Laboratories of Maryland Heights, Mo., to analyze 10 different products to see how much antiaging agent they contained (see box).
What we learned surprised us. While we didn't exactly find a face-lift in a jar, we did try some creams that made us look better. The effects are subtle and temporary, but they're real. That doesn't mean you can suddenly trust everything you hear. Nor are we convinced the hypercostly potions — as much as $18 per gram and sometimes more — are better than what you can get in the drugstore. But as long as you don't expect to look 18 again, you won't be disappointed.
Before we start giving you the details, there's a little background you need to know about your skin. (We promise to keep the chemistry to a minimum.) Considered by scientists to be an organ, the skin weighs 4.08 kg on average and has three main layers: the epidermis, the dermis and the hypodermis. No thicker than a page in this magazine, the outermost layer, the epidermis, is filled with layers of specialized skin cells known as keratinocytes. When these cells, which start out plump with water in the deepest layer of the epidermis, migrate to the skin's surface, they lose moisture and are eventually sloughed off. In young people the average keratinocyte takes 28 days to traverse the epidermis. In folks over 50, it can take an additional week and a half. Result: mature skin contains fewer round, plump keratinocytes at any one time; it loses its glow, and fine lines start to form.
Right under the epidermis is the dermis, which contains the blood vessels that nourish the skin and the structural elements — proteins called collagen and elastin — that keep it taut and springy. As we grow older, the body has trouble replenishing the stores of collagen and elastin, giving the skin a thin, papery look.
Back in the 1970s, most dermatologists believed your genes determined how well your skin aged. But that was before researchers learned how many dangerous chemicals called free radicals are released in the skin when a person smokes or spends too much time in the sun. Now they estimate that as much as 90% of the signs of premature aging are due to just these sorts of environmental triggers. The damage is greatest among Caucasians, who seem most vulnerable to the effects of "photo-aging."
To get at those free radicals means going deeper into the epidermis than most cosmetics had ever gone. And that means shelling out for some serious research. "It's the year 2000, and we don't understand the skin," says chemist Daniel Maes of Estee Lauder, whose basic research staff has tripled in the past decade. "But studies in skin technology are now at full speed."
First across the finish line, in 1995, was Ortho Dermatological's prescription cream Renova, a less concentrated form of its antiacne medication Retin-A. The two are the only products that have been medically proved to reduce fine lines. Their active ingredient, a form of vitamin A called tretinoin, does at least two things: it boosts the development of firm new keratinocytes and smooths tiny creases in the upper layers of the epidermis. The downside: some women find it irritates their skin too much.
Renova's success inspired something of a rush on vitamin A. But instead of using tretinoin — which would trigger intense fda scrutiny, not to mention a patent-infringement lawsuit — most over-the-counter skin products contain other forms of vitamin A. Although these compounds, technically known as esters, are not biologically active, the theory is that certain enzymes in the skin will convert at least some of them into tretinoin.
Sounds plausible enough until you talk to James Olson, a biochemist at Iowa State University who studies vitamin A's effects on the body. Olson tells us that while these enzymes probably exist, there are no good studies proving that they're powerful enough to make the esters get to work. For their part, cosmetics manufacturers reply that you don't need a lot of enzyme to have an effect. The majority of the products we tested used derivatives of vitamin A, with the highest being L'Oreal's Plenitude at .1%. Dermatologists are divided on whether that's enough.
Fortunately, there's more than one way to slough off a layer of skin. When Cleopatra bathed in sour milk 2,000 years ago, she was actually giving herself a weak chemical peel — in her case with lactic acid. Nowadays she would have plenty of company in that tub. Jayne Singer, 46, a special-ed teacher, found that the stresses of her job helping inner-city Los Angeles teens were taking a toll on her face. She tried toners, pore cleansers, eye creams and masks of egg yolk and witch hazel. Nothing worked. Then she hit upon glycolic peels and fruit acids. She effuses: "They're melting away layers. Of work? Or skin? Who knows?"
We do know that lactic acid is just one of a group of compounds, called hydroxy acids, that can reduce wrinkles. The trick is to get the right concentration. Too much and you burn through too many layers at all. Too little and there's no effect. Even modest amounts irritate the epidermis a little, causing it to swell, which has the benefit of filling out some of those furrows.
So far, no one has found the happy medium. But there have been enough complaints about hydroxy acids that the cosmetics industry financed an independent review, which concluded that the the products were safe as long as they didn't contain more than a 10% solution of hydroxy acids. It added one important caveat. Since hydroxy acids heighten the skin's sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation, users should always slop on sunscreen (at least spf 2, higher if you spend much time outdoors). Aqua Glycolic, which has one of the highest concentrations, is modestly priced and available at websites like beautyjungle (www.beautyjungle.com).
So much for the brute-force approach. Ideally there would be a way to repair aging cells and prevent cell damage from occurring in the first place. Enter two vitamins, C and E, which are eminently suited to soaking up those nasty free radicals caused by sunlight, smoking and, alas, just plain living.
Like vitamin A, vitamin E is found in several forms, with alpha-tocopherol being the most biologically active. Because alpha-tocopherol isn't terribly stable, however, most cosmeceuticals contain derivatives. Although some of these compounds are converted to the active form in the skin, it's unclear whether they have an effect. Even if you find a cream with alpha-tocopherol in it, there's no definitive word on how strong it should be, according to Dr. Karen Burke, a dermatologist who consults for L'Oreal's Helena Rubinstein division. However, Burke's experiments with mice suggest that vitamin E creams should contain at least 1% alpha-tocopherol. Most lotions don't give percentages of their ingredients. Of the brands we tested, only Lancôme's Primordiale eye crème-gel contained this ingredient, at a very small .05%.
What about vitamin C? You'd think, since it's a hydroxy acid and an antioxidant, that it would prove ideal. Vitamin C even has a tendency to stabilize vitamin E, which is one reason you so often see the two of them together. Unfortunately, this putative conqueror of the common cold loses its potency rather quickly when exposed to air.
Still, cosmetics firms believe that vitamins could be effective if scientists could find a better way to get them into the skin. An option is to surround the antioxidants with a protective coating that doesn't release the vitamins until they are deep in the epidermis. Estee Lauder is using "photosomes," which pop open only when exposed to ultraviolet radiation, in its Re-Nutriv Lifting Serum (available in November). Another approach, favored by Osmotics of Denver, depends on transdermal patches to allow vitamin C to soak directly into the skin.
Sometimes the push for innovation lies closer to home. Canadian pharmaceutical researcher Ben Kamins wasn't too interested in antiaging products until 10 years ago, when his wife, then 53, started worrying about the effects of hot flashes on her thinning skin. In response, he developed the Menopause Skin Cream, which uses urea — a common humectant — as a cooling agent. His solution to the vitamin E problem: encapsulate alpha-tocopherol in tiny little sacks of sugar molecules that are activated by body heat.
And that's pretty tame compared with some of the more fanciful ideas that are being floated. Lauder is studying shock proteins, which are released by the body in response to stress, in the hopes of preventing the formation of free radicals. Yale's Perricone is pushing the theory that inflammation also plays a role in the aging process, and antioxidants like alpha-lipoic acids could help reduce its effects.
Hydroxy acids, esters, shock proteins — pretty soon we're all going to need doctorates to shop at the cosmetics counter. You'll do fine as long as you start with a product that contains a good moisturizer, for example glycerin and water. Next decide how many extras you really need. "I was just looking at a new [product], and it had 55 different ingredients," says Dr. Sheldon Pinnell, a dermatologist at the Duke University Medical Center who also consults for the company Skinceuticals. "How much of any one ingredient can it have?"
In the meantime, follow these rules: Stay out of the sun. Cleanse and moisturize your face morning and night. Often that's all you need to do to plump up keratinocytes. If you have sensitive, dry skin, avoid products that contain vitamin A or hydroxy acids. Don't smoke. Use hydroxy acids sparingly. And don't get obsessive. There are worse things than a few crow's feet or age spots. Just remember that nobody ever died of a wrinkle.
Reported by Cathy Booth/Los Angeles, Alice Park/New York and Elinor Shields/London