Do over-the-counter wrinkle creams really reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles? The answer depends on many factors. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Many wrinkle creams and lotions sold in department stores, in drugstores and on the Internet promise to reduce wrinkles and prevent or reverse damage caused by the sun.

Do they work? That often depends on the specific ingredients and how long you use them. Because these over-the-counter (nonprescription) wrinkle creams aren't classified as drugs, they're not required to undergo scientific research to prove their effectiveness.

If you're looking for a face-lift in a bottle, you probably won't find it in over-the-counter wrinkle creams. The benefits of these products are usually only modest at best.

The effectiveness of anti-wrinkle creams depends in part on the active ingredient or ingredients. Here are some common ingredients that may result in slight to modest improvement in the appearance of wrinkles.

  • Retinol. Retinol is a vitamin A compound, the first antioxidant to be widely used in nonprescription wrinkle creams. Antioxidants are substances that neutralize free radicals — unstable oxygen molecules that break down skin cells and cause wrinkles.
  • Vitamin C. Another potent antioxidant, vitamin C may help protect skin from sun damage. Before and between uses, wrinkle creams containing vitamin C must be stored in a way that protects them from air and sunlight.
  • Hydroxy acids. Alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids and poly hydroxy acids are exfoliants — substances that remove the upper layer of old, dead skin and stimulate the growth of smooth, evenly pigmented new skin.
  • Coenzyme Q10. This ingredient may help reduce fine wrinkles around the eyes and protect the skin from sun damage.
  • Tea extracts. Green, black and oolong tea contain compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Green tea extracts are the ones most commonly found in wrinkle creams.
  • Grape seed extract. In addition to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, grape seed extract also promotes wound healing.
  • Niacinamide. A potent antioxidant, this substance is related to Vitamin B-3 (niacin). It helps reduce water loss in the skin and may improve skin elasticity.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies creams and lotions as cosmetics, which are defined as having no medical value. So the FDA regulates them less strictly than it does drugs. This means that products don't undergo the same rigorous testing for safety and effectiveness that topically applied medications undergo before approval to go on the market. Regarding this category of creams and lotions, the FDA's main concern is safety, not effectiveness.

Because the FDA doesn't evaluate cosmetic products for effectiveness, there's no guarantee that any over-the-counter product will reduce your wrinkles.

Consider these points when judging the merits of using a wrinkle cream:

  • Cost. Cost has no relationship to effectiveness. A wrinkle cream that's more costly may not be more effective than a less costly product.
  • Lower doses. Nonprescription wrinkle creams contain lower concentrations of active ingredients than do prescription creams. So results, if any, are limited and usually short-lived.
  • Multiplicity of ingredients. There is no data to suggest that adding two or three of the ingredients above together will be more effective than just one of them.
  • Daily use. You'll likely need to use the wrinkle cream once or twice a day for many weeks before noticing any improvements. And once you discontinue using the product, your skin is likely to return to its original appearance.
  • Side effects. Some products may cause skin irritation, rashes, burning or redness. Be sure to read and follow the product instructions to limit possible side effects.
  • Individual differences. Just because your friend swears by a product doesn't mean it will work for you. People have different skin types. No one product works the same for everyone.

An anti-wrinkle cream may lessen the appearance of your wrinkles, depending on how often you use it, the type and amount of active ingredient in the wrinkle cream, and the extent of the wrinkles you want to treat.

But if you want to take the guesswork out of your skin care regimen, try these more reliable ways to improve and maintain your skin's youthful appearance.

  • Protect your skin from the sun. Exposure to UV light speeds up the natural aging process of your skin, causing wrinkles and rough, blotchy skin. In fact, sun exposure is the No. 1 reason for signs of aging in the skin, including uneven pigmentation. Protect your skin — and prevent future wrinkles — by limiting the time you spend in the sun and always wearing protective clothing and a hat. Also, use sunscreen on exposed skin year-round when outdoors, even in winter.
  • Choose products with built-in sunscreen. When selecting skin care products, choose those with a built-in SPF of at least 15. Also, be sure to select products that are broad spectrum, meaning they block both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Use moisturizers. Dry skin turns plump skin cells into shriveled ones, creating fine lines and wrinkles. Though moisturizers can't prevent wrinkles, they can temporarily mask tiny lines and creases.
  • Don't smoke. Smoking causes narrowing of the blood vessels in the outermost layers of your skin. It also damages collagen and elastin — fibers that give your skin its strength and elasticity. As a result, skin begins to sag and wrinkle prematurely.

A dermatologist can help you create a personalized skin care plan by assessing your skin type, evaluating your skin's condition and recommending products likely to be effective. If you're looking for more dramatic results, a dermatologist can recommend medical treatments for wrinkles, including prescription creams, botulinum toxin (Botox) injections or skin-resurfacing techniques.

Jun. 27, 2013