Is This Stuff Working? A Look at Anti-Aging Creams

Makers of anti-aging creams come up with some pretty enticing claims: “Look decades younger, firm your jawline, and restore your youthful glow!” But it’s not just their big promises that keep us buying hope in a jar — some users really do see results.

So why is it that anti-aging creams work for one person, but not the next? Does dedicated use make the difference or do higher retail prices really indicate a more potent anti-aging potion? From ingredients to application, we take a look at what aspects of anti-aging creams might affect your own results.

Popular Anti-Aging Cream Ingredients

Whether exotic, such as argan oil and acai berry, or downright strange (bee venom or snail slime, anyone?), anti-aging industry movers and shakers are constantly coming up with extra ingredients they hope will outperform (and outsell) the competition. 

Do trendy new ingredients really make a difference? Despite sounding tempting, there’s rarely sufficient research behind new “miracle ingredient” claims. Instead, here are a few all-star ingredients that have been proven to pack a serious punch:


Is there proof that they work?: Yes! Consumers can find volumes of information touting the benefits of retinoids, which first came out in the 1970s as an acne-fighting drug. A WebMD article on the ingredient states:

“For dermatologists," Patricia Farris, MD, says, "they're a favorite because there's so much science behind them.”

What they do: Retinoids are vitamin-A derivatives used to treat fine lines, wrinkles, dullness, and sagging skin. Retinoids also increase collagen production and can reverse some damage caused by sun exposure, such as sunspots.

How they work: Retinoids speed up cell turnover, sweep away dead cells that cause dullness, and boost collagen and elastin production by stimulating cellular repair. These compounds also pumps up circulation by increasing blood vessel formation, so skin looks healthier.

How to make it work for you: 

  • Light and air degrade retinoid creams, so pay attention to packaging and only purchase bottles and jars that are opaque and airtight.
  • Use retinoids at night, as these creams work best in the dark.
  • Wash your face with warm water, and be sure it’s completely dry before applying. Stimulating your skin allows for better absorption. However, residual moisture can lead to irritation.
  • Wear sunscreen during the day. Retinoid creams make your skin extremely vulnerable to sun damage.
  • Build up a tolerance. Start by using retinoids every other night or applying a moisturizer first to help support your skin’s protective barrier.

Prescription vs. Over-the-Counter:

WebMD clarifies that over-the-counter retinoid creams are at risk of being less effective, since brands are not required to state how much of ingredient their product contains. [1] However, while these non-prescription versions might not be as effective, they do “smooth out the skin and minimize the effects of sun damage.” 

Allure warns consumers that the only non-prescription retinoids worth using must contain “retinol” instead of another derivative. [2] Buyers of over-the-counter anti-aging creams with retinol should expect to see results after three to six months of daily use, with any improvements fading 24 weeks after stopping regular application. [1]

There are plenty of non-prescription anti-aging products containing retinol. Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Night Moisturizer ($20.99 in drugstores) and DDF Retinol Energizing Moisturizer ($91.00 online) are two top picks.

Prescription retinoids such as tretinoin, and products containing retinoic acid, such as Retin-A, Renova, and Refissa, are really where it’s at for aging skin:

“[They are] over 100-times as potent as retinol-containing products sold without a prescription,” Carolyn Jacob, MD, stated to WebMD. [1]

The cost of a prescription retinoid will vary with individual insurance policies. However, those worried about the price should know it only takes a tiny, pea-sized amount of cream nightly to achieve results.

Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

Is there proof that they work?: Yes, but not all AHAs work the same. There are a wide range of AHA types found in anti-aging products:

  • glycolic acid – sugar cane
  • lactic acid – milk
  • malic acid – apples and pears
  • citric acid – oranges and lemons
  • tartaric acid – grapes

Each AHA has unique size-related characteristic. For example, glycolic acid is the smallest molecule, so it goes to work the quickest and deepest, but it can also be one of the most irritating. Lactic acid is the second largest and is considered still moderately effective for smoothing. 

What they do: AHAs are an exfoliant and will not remove wrinkles or age spots altogether. They peel away dead, rough, or uneven layers of skin and increase the rate of cell renewal, leaving skin healthier-acting and looking. [3] Alpha hydroxy acids can also do double duty, allowing other anti-aging ingredients to penetrate faster and work more effectively.

How they work: AHAs work by dissolving the glue-like lipids holding cells together and can penetrate deep into the skin to loosen those clingy bonds. Increased cell renewal causes cells to become denser and more compact, making skin a more effective barrier to outside irritants while holding moisture inside to keep skin pliable and supple. 

How to make it work for you: 

  • Alpha hydroxy acids found in skincare products work best in a concentration of 5% to 8% and at a pH of 3 to 4. 
  • Anti-aging creams with AHAs will help reduce the appearance of fine lines, but the more potent their ingredients, the greater potential for irritation. It’s best to start off low and build to higher concentrations. [4]
  • Don’t overdo it! AHAs can weaken your skin’s protective barriers, which need time to recover in between treatments. Twice a week should be enough.
  • Alternate your products, but never put more than one on your face per night.
  • Regular use of AHA creams is known to make skin more sensitive to the sun. It’s important to wear a good sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection.

Popular anti-aging products with high concentrations of AHAs include ALPHA HYDROX Enhanced Cream 10% Glycolic AHA ($12.99 through ULTA) and my personal favorite,’s AHA+ (6 oz for $18.81).

A bottle of anti-aging cream



Is there proof that they work?: You can’t throw a stick in the beauty section without hitting at least five anti-aging creams that claim to fight and repair aging skin with antioxidants. So, do they?

The term antioxidant refers to a substance that is capable of stopping free radicals from robbing healthy cells of electrons. While there are thousands of antioxidants in existence, Harvard School of Public Health says the most familiar types are beta-carotene (a form of vitamin A), as well as vitamins C and E.

However, the effectiveness of any given anti-aging cream containing antioxidants is totally dependent on the formula. [5]

What they do: Antioxidants are great for protecting your skin from environmental damage and can even stop the destruction of collagen and elastin.

How it works: Here’s a little Chem 101! Antioxidants are nothing more than a “reducing agent,” a molecule that likes stability. An antioxidant molecule has an extra electron hanging out on its outer shell. 

Alternatively, oxidants (caused by free radicals, sun exposure, etc.) steal electrons from anything they can, often doing so from collagen or cell membranes.

When good-guy antioxidant comes in contact with an oxidant, it donates the extra electron in hopes of creating a stable situation. And that’s how antioxidants can reduce inflammation, cellular damage, or other types of oxidative stress!

How to make it work for you: 

While good-guy antioxidants with their extra electrons sound awesome, the bottom line is that they are more effective in helping prevent wrinkles, spots, and maybe even skin cancer, than they are for reversing existing damage.

Additionally, antioxidants in anti-aging creams don’t perform the same way as they do when you consume them through healthy fruits and veggies.

Dr. David McDaniel, a dermatologist and researcher in antioxidants, tells Allure Magazine that certain products may be beneficial in skin care, such as green tea and vitamin C, but there is no guarantee these are better than regular face creams. [6]

The Bottom Line on Anti-Aging Ingredients

If you find yourself consistently disappointed with anti-aging creams that fall short of delivering tall promises, check the label. While many trendy ingredients might be marketed as new discoveries in the anti-aging market, very few are proven to help reverse already-aging skin.

For shoppers looking to noticeably turn back the clock on wrinkles, the expert advice is conclusive: visit your doctor for anti-aging creams with serious strength.

Do More Expensive Creams Make a Difference?

Many of us have felt that once we hit a certain age, it’s time to splurge on a “proper” anti-aging cream. But is the cost of an anti-aging cream really related to how well it works?

Yes and no.

Not all expensive anti-aging creams are good. However, while there are some quality anti-aging creams on the cheaper end of the spectrum, the best tend to be higher in price. Anti-aging creams such as:

… all receive great reviews. [7] The truth is, quality anti-aging creams, particularly those from established brands, do tend to use more potent mixtures and higher quality bases for their formulas. This means expensive anti-aging creams tend to last longer and penetrate your skin more effectively. 

The Bottom Line on Costly Creams

Is slightly more bang for your buck worth it? The value really is subjective. While the four anti-aging creams suggested above have received positive reviews, there still isn’t sufficient evidence to prove that over-the-counter anti-aging creams work across the board.

The American Academy of Dermatology states that certain ingredients, including those listed in this article, are shown to be both safe and effective. However, there’s still no secret for finding which ingredients and formulas work best for your skin. [8]

What About Those Bold Claims?

If shopping for effective anti-aging creams wasn’t confusing enough already, get ready for this: The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees cosmetic safety and labeling, doesn't require manufacturers to test their products for efficacy, let alone test for whether they meet their claims. However, their claims are supposed to be "truthful and not misleading.”

The Food and Drug Administration, doesn't require cosmetic manufacturers to test their products for efficacy.

“Many anti-aging brands claim that their creams can create changes in the skin that would automatically classify them as drugs. And they are not [drugs]. So it’s clear they likely can’t do all they say they do,” states NYU Professor of Dermatology Rhoda Narins, MD. [9]

And don’t think that it’s only “scammy” sounding products that are guilty of making too big of promises regarding the effectiveness of their anti-aging creams. Big players such as L'oreal and Avon have recently gotten into hot water for their promises of pharmaceutical-level results.

The good news is the FDA is starting to crack down on the overblown promises made by anti-aging brands. This includes anti-aging creams which claim to “counteract,” “control,” “rejuvenate,” or “repair” — all of which are considered “drug claims” by the FDA. [10]

Bottom Line on Bold Claims

While it’s wonderful to hear that the FDA is getting around to regulating the anti-aging claims of cosmetics companies, that doesn’t clear up confusion when products with overblown promises are still sitting on store shelves. 

Since the terminology sounds technical, consumers can be forgiven for thinking that they're buying something close to medicine. But, if these creams actually did change the fundamental structure of your skin tissue, they'd have to be classified as a drug. Shoppers should be aware that any brand that claims to deliver prescription-level results is very likely selling a jar filled with marketing hype.

Final Thoughts on Anti-Aging Creams

The skincare aisle is a crowded place. If you’re looking for a single product that makes a difference, don’t let brand names or marketing hype affect your buying decisions. Instead, take a look at the ingredients to get a better grasp on what works for your skin.

But remember, it’s not just the effect anti-aging creams provide, but the magnitude of the effect needed to bring about changes in your skin. Not many commercial products can compare with prescription anti-aging creams — they simply aren’t legally allowed to contain the right quantity of active compounds to be considered potent.

Finally, whether you’re purchasing a prescription or over-the-counter anti-aging cream, shoppers should be aware that any results aren’t permanent. Even retinoids require continued use to keep up newly smoothed skin.

So, what’s a buyer to do?

Until there really is a way to turn back time, we’re stuck taking our mother’s advice: Stay out of the sun, wear sunscreen, and keep your skin well-moisturized. While there’s no harm in using anti-aging creams, know that the best way to make a difference in your skin’s appearance is still an ounce of prevention.


  1. WebMD: Retinoids for Anti-Aging Skin
  2. Allure: The 11 Biggest Retinoid Myths
  4. WebMD: Understanding Skin Care Products
  5. Allure: The Top 6 Antioxidant Creams and Serums
  6. Livestrong: Does Antioxidant Face Cream Work?
  7. The Guardian: Are expensive moisturizers worth the money?
  8. Live Science: The Truth About Anti-Aging Products
  9. WebMD: More Hope In A Jar? The Anti-Aging Skin Care Promise
  10. Cosmetics Design: FDA Ups the Ante on Imported Anti-Aging Skin Care Products
  11. EWG: FDA Warns Leading Cosmetics Maker On Anti-Aging Claims

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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