Behind Wrinkle-Cream Claims

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What is the science behind claims about anti-aging face creams? We examine the newest claims, what scientists and clinicians think about various treatments, and whether they are proven.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The personal health news this morning includes a reality check on therapeutic cosmetics. As the year winds down, NPR's Patricia Neighmond reports on wrinkle creams that promise to turn back the clock on aging.

PATRICIA NEIGHMOND reporting:

Of course, we all want to know what really works. Well, it turns out that's a really difficult question to answer. The reason has to do with how cosmetics are regulated or not regulated in this country. Dr. Amy Newberger is a dermatologist in private practice in Scarsdale, New York. She also serves on Food and Drug Administration advisory panels.

Dr. AMY NEWBERGER (Dermatologist): If you have a product that you're applying to the skin--it could be a lotion, a potion, a souffle, a mousse--you're putting that on the skin, and the manufacturer makes the claim that it changes the structure or function of the skin...

NEIGHMOND: As in reducing wrinkles.

Dr. NEWBERGER: ...well, then that's a drug.

NEIGHMOND: And as a drug, these creams are required to prove their safety and their effectiveness and scientific testing can take years and cost millions. So most cosmetics manufacturers don't claim their products actually reduces wrinkles. They claim their product reduces the appearance of wrinkles.

And they use semantics to avoid the Federal Trade Commission, too. Newberger points to ads for the stretch mark cream, StriVectin, now being marketed as the anti-wrinkle breakthrough of the decade.

Dr. NEWBERGER: They're not claiming better than Botox. They're asking the question, better than Botox? If they made the claim, better than Botox, the FTC would go after them and the product would be seized.

NEIGHMOND: Of all the hundreds of skin creams on the market, two are approved by the FDA. One is Renova, the cosmetic variation of the acne medication, Retin-A. The other is Avage, also a cosmetic variation of an acne medication, Tazorac. Both have been shown in scientific studies to reduce wrinkles, and both require a doctor's prescription. As for the rest, their effects are up to the users to determine with a little help here from Dr. Newberger who says, first and foremost, sunscreens should be used every minutes of every day. Then she recommends Renova or Avage. And if those are too irritating, there are other choices.

Dr. NEWBERGER: Copper peptides are copper which is linked to an amino acid chain, and it's a product that you can apply to the skin. It'll penetrate. It does make the skin feel firmer and look firmer. It does make it plump out. It does it without irritation for most people, so that's something that's really quite user-friendly.

NEIGHMOND: Visibly Firm, by Neutrogena, is one of the major products which contains copper peptides. And vitamins taking by mouth provide extra amounts of skin nutrients. A vitamin face cream, Clearly C by Avon, helps repair sun damage.

As for everything else, `Show me the data,' says Newberger. Products like Strivectin, Olay's Regenerist and MMPi's may work, she says, but they simply have not been proven. And even those not headed for FDA approval could provide convincing evidence. Take, for example, one of the newest contenders in the battle of the skin creams.

Mr. BERT ENSLEY (CEO, DermaPlus): My name is Bert Ensley. I'm the CEO of a company called DermaPlus.

NEIGHMOND: Ensley is a molecular biologist who got his start with Amgen. About 12 years ago, Ensley figured out how to change the DNA of a plant so that it makes the precursor to human elastin, one of the most valuable things in the skin because it allows the skin to stretch and snap back into shape.

Mr. ENSLEY: I think if there wasn't any elastin in your skin, you'd probably look more like an amoeba. You know, your skin would sag and--from the internal pressure, it would bulge and it just wouldn't hold the shape that it does in human beings.

NEIGHMOND: Ensley says he's done some testing, which did show a difference on skin treated with his cream, DermaLastyl. But dermatologist Newberger, says a lot more research needs to be done to convince her.

Dr. NEWBERGER: It is a product for wrinkle reduction. You'd like to have a product that uses silicone casts. Profilometry is the technique that's really pretty effective. You'd like to have a study that involved more than 25 individuals. You'd like to have a study that extended for a period of at least three months.

NEIGHMOND: Ensley says he's planning more rigorous research, but for now he's selling DermaLastyl over the Internet.

Patricia Neighmond, NPR News.

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