Anti-aging Skin Care: Why This Scientist Is Not Buying It.

anti-aging skin care

I am a 35 year-old academic, middle-class woman and I have, until very recently, felt quite good about myself and my apparent aging.  Now I am finding myself tracing the well-trained laughter lines around my eyes more and more often.

I have slowly begun the descent into the harsh self-criticism that is at the center of the anti-aging skin care marketing strategy. Yet I do want to have a “glowing skin!”

So I put my scientist hat on, and I investigated: Do anti-aging skin care products really work? Here’s what I found:

  • Inexpensive ingredients + high demand make anti-aging skin care a good business to be in.
  • Anti-aging products are marketed quite persuasively. (Did I say I really WANT to believe that inside this little bottle is the secret to removing laughter lines?)
  • However, their ingredients’ efficacy is far from miraculous.
  • Heck, even the super-expensive high-tech skin care cremes do not have any peer-reviewed research to support their “turn back the clock” claims.

In this article I’ll be going over the most common ingredients in skin care products, while reviewing common anti-aging claims like DNA-repair and gene-repair during the night! Now let’s get started.

Anti-aging skin care is good business: Ingredients are inexpensive while demand is high!

One can claim that anti-aging is:

  • either the reversion of damage that has already occurred,
  • or the prevention of further damage do be done.

These are two entirely different issues and yet the terminology used is often very similar. The latter definition often includes any old moisturizer or sun protection factor since they will most likely prevent damage from being done to your skin; dry and sun-damaged skin ages fast.

To claim extortionate sums of money for:

  • said tubs of fat,
  • water, and
  • emulsifiers (the basic ingredients of any cream)

is proving good business sense since these ingredients are very inexpensive and people are desperate for the fountain of youth.

For $40 to $800 you get a very good-looking bottle! At least THAT you know for sure!

I was stunned by the pricing of some of these creams. The ones I looked at ranged from $40 per 100 ml (a quite inexpensive cream it turned out) to $800 for 100 ml. Yes, about one month’s rent!

My first thought was that this cream must be able do the dishes and walk the dog for that price and then I saw the claims written on the site:

“Reveal a smoother, more radiant, younger look. Wake up to more beautiful skin every day.”

I want that “glowing complexion” and please remove my “lived-off-coffee-and-wine-for-too-long-look”! That high range plastic container it comes in also convinced me that it must work wonders for my complexion. Anti-aging skin care creams come in carefully designed tubs, almost like medicinal containers; packaging is not just the label as there is huge psychological marketing as well.

Containers are purposely designed to have a specific feel:

  • How big it is,
  • How it sits on the hand,
  • What the hand sensation when opening the lid is & what the sound is when closed, plus:
  • Should there be a flip lid? Should there be a click? (think of this the next time you put on your lipstick).

Nice packaging and a high price makes you expect that the product will actually work. This perception combined with a strong wish for something to work makes us willing to pay a LOT of money.

You NEED anti-aging skin care to work, but does it really work?

Let’s review the ingredients.

The most inexpensive cream I investigated (under $40 per 100 ml) had a list of more than 35 ingredients. As such it was very hard to pinpoint exactly what each of the ingredients was intended to do so I decided to look at two ingredients most commonly used in anti-aging skin care creams: glycerin and tocopherol. I also chose these two since I saw a few of the retailers boasting about them on their pages with regard to this particular cream.

Glycerine is an ingredient in most creams and is a so called humectant, meaning that it can aid in preventing loss of moisture. You add glycerine when you want the cream to have a more “glidy” feel to it. It is therefore very common in facial creams since it gives a feel of moisture without being oily.

Glycerine is completely safe to use and is also extremely inexpensive. I suppose a good facial cream should include it but it is not anti-aging in my opinion. With this logic I can rub my face against my dog’s fatty fur and call it an anti-aging treatment (hmmm a new business idea and it is 100% natural).

Tocopherol is often just called vitamin E but is more correctly defined as a group of compounds with vitamin E activity; let us just call them vitamin E for simplicity. Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant when applied on the skin: it mops up the free radicals that form in the skin after exposure to stresses such as UV-light and oxidizing chemicals. Many antioxidants can be formed by our bodies but vitamins, by definition, cannot be produced by the body and have to be applied or consumed.

Antioxidants: They do not repair damage that has already been done.

Commonly applied antioxidants are vitamins A, C, D and E and the carotenoids beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein/zeaxanthin. These ingredients often make up the so called active “anti-aging” components. It appears that these compounds actually do have protective mechanisms against oxidative damage to the skin even at relatively low concentrations (according to numerous studies).

Note that these compounds do not repair damage that has already been done and they do not have SPF properties. The good news is that these vitamins and carotenoids are very inexpensive and can also be found in very cheap creams.

Let’s make it clear: Consuming antioxidant supplements is a completely different matter and there is even evidence that the intake of antioxidant supplements can actually cause oxidative damage. Eating fruits and vegetables however is beneficial because of several accessory compounds present in such a diet. Keep a good diet for a nice skin!

Ageing of the human face (image credit: GBdeZeeuw)
Aging of the human face (image credit: GBdeZeeuw)

High-tech terminology makes you *think* the product is better.

The cream in the price mid-range was still about 10x the price I have ever paid for a cream! (But then I am a badly paid academic.)

This one focused their marketing on different fatty acids: “Enriched with Squalane, bla bla… botanical lipid… bla bla …molecular structure bla bla… Evening Primrose Oil, bla bla …Omega-6 Fatty Acids… bla bla.”

Squalene is very inexpensive, can be found in many types of oils such as olive oil, is produced by humans as a skin lubricant, has a chemical structure similar to the carotenoid beta-carotene and can thus act as an antioxidant. Terminology such as “molecular structure” was used as it sounds high-tech despite squalene being found in most kitchens.

One interesting and funny little detail is that when squalene is oxidized by, for example, UV-light Squalene monohydroperoxide (SQOOH) is formed and this compound induced wrinkling in hairless mice when applied at a concentration of 10 mM. 10 mM is an extremely high concentration.

I just want to underline that it is all a question of dosage and that one compound can be good, bad or ugly depending on the concentration and the situation. I am not saying that olive oil causes wrinkles – though I could have twisted it that way had it been good for my marketing strategy.

“Exclusive anti-aging technology” seriously made me want to sell my house to get my hands on this 100 ml cream!

If I had enough money to actually have a house I would have considered it. This last cream claimed to:

  • Turn back time (did you start to sing some Cher?),
  • Repair my skin damage during sleep, and
  • Make me wake-up looking like a 16 year-old Cinderella after my 4 hours of sleep between finishing writing the last paper and my morning coffee.

Bollocks to the veg and exercise!  After all the cream did include “exclusive BLABLABLA Technology”. This sounded very high-tech and I geared up mentally since this could be a hard nut to crack.

I decided to take this cream as an example for the high tech claims made by the beauty industry and I am fairly convinced that this example is fairly standard for this business.

NEW anti-aging technology claims it repairs genes during the night – if only we had proof it worked!

First, I had to spend a fair amount of searching to find any information of what this technology actually meant.

Eventually I identified a certain peptide (amino acid sequence) that apparently is able to affect the genes responsible for the repair of the keratinocyte skin cells. These genes are more active during day time than during the night and adding the cream supposedly activates these repair genes during the night. A nice idea but does it really work?

What was striking was that despite the claims of all the research having gone into this product I could not find a single reference to a scientific peer-reviewed journal on the company home page. I would boast of such thing if I were running a beauty company. I also only found a handful results on Google Scholar all referring to patents and none to actual studies. This made me suspicious.

High-tech skin care solutions of the past: radioactive radium resulting in radiating and beautiful skin. Knowledge is power! (Image credit: Radior cosmetics)
High-tech skin care solutions of the past: radioactive radium resulting in radiating and beautiful skin. Knowledge is power! (Image credit: Radior cosmetics)

What about those DNA-repair enzymes?

One common claim regarding these high-tech creams is that they contain DNA-repair enzymes from plant extracts working together with different peptides. In the case of my expensive example cream, the DNA-repair enzymes will repair the DNA and increase the viability of the keratinocytes. OK but can someone explain to me how a DNA-repair enzyme is spontaneously let into the cell and then passes the nuclear membrane to actually access the DNA?

These are logical leaps of gigantic proportions to me. It is a bit like taking a steak, rubbing it on one’s belly and expecting the cow-enzymes to enter one’s cells and affect one’s circadian rhythm. I am confused. Maybe I am not so far off with my idea of rubbing my face in the dog’s fatty fur?

Can anti-aging skin care products activate the central genes involved in the central circadian clock?

Another logical leap is the activation of central genes involved in the central circadian clock (the internal “clock” of the cell) since this would also activate a bunch of other genes in addition to the ones that one would like to target with the cream.

This could be sort of a serious thing. I mean there is a reason for us having a circadian rhythm and some genes should perhaps be down regulated at night time. I found no mention of such issues in the patents – ooops…

I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt. I am sure that the tests they ran came out positive and that the peptide had an effect on keratinocytes on a petri dish. However the leap to a practical and effective use in humans is bit of a stretch if I can express myself mildly.

There is currently much research going on that targets small molecules and their possible use in modifying the internal clock but in the recent review by Wallach et al. 2015 there was no mention of this peptide. I might have missed something but I feel very skeptical. Damn! I wanted this to work so badly!

No, I won’t be buying any anti-aging skin care products.

In fact, I decided to make my own. All you need is a thermometer, some fats (olive oil, avocado oil, rape seed oil…), water, an emulgator like bee’s wax (to make the water and fat mix). You can get carotenoids and tocopherols on Amazon and maybe throw in some glycerine and urea for moisture and then add a preservative. It takes 30 min and is great fun (my Spawn can vouch for this!).

If I eventually do buy an anti-aging cream I will stay in the lower price range and look for perfume free creams with antioxidants and most importantly: a sunscreen. Exposure to the sun’s rays can age one’s skin remarkably fast. A good sunscreen should at least have an SPF of more than 20.

Furthermore, the best thing to keep one’s skin young is to eat healthily, not smoke, exercise moderately, sleep well, and not stress. Your genes also play a huge role. You can also choose not to worry about it at all.

What about you? Do you buy anti-aging skin care products and have you experienced the pull of this kind of marketing?


Molecules 2009, 14(1), 540-554; doi:10.3390/molecules14010540. Review Biological and Pharmacological Activities of Squalene and Related Compounds: Potential Uses in Cosmetic Dermatology Zih-Rou Huang 1,  Yin-Ku Lin 2,3 and  Jia-You Fang 1.

Wallach, Thomas, and Achim Kramer. “Chemical chronobiology: Toward drugs manipulating time.” FEBS letters (2015).

Experimental squalene adjuvant II. Harmlessness and local reactogenity. By: Benisek, Z; Suli, J; Elias, D; et al. VACCINE  Volume: 22   Issue: 25-26   Pages: 3470-3474   Published: SEP 3 2004

*Patent: Publication number: US8962571 B2. Publication type: Grant. Application number: US 13/452,415. Publication date: Feb 24, 2015. Filing date: Apr 20, 2012. Priority date              Feb 9, 2009. Also published as. CA2750469A1, 7 More ». Inventors: Daniel H. Maes, 6 More ». Original. Assignee: Elc Management

Circadian Clock Gene Expression in the Coral Favia fragum over Diel and Lunar Reproductive Cycles. Kenneth D. Hoadley, Alina M. Szmant, Sonja J. Pyott . Published: May 6, 2011. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0019755

The Role of Phytonutrients in Skin Health. By: Evans, Julie A.; Johnson, Elizabeth J. NUTRIENTS  Volume: 2   Issue: 8   Pages: 903-928   Published: AUG 2010

Effect of supplemented and topically applied antioxidant substances on human tissue. By: Darvin, M.; Zastrow, L.; Sterry, W.; et al. SKIN PHARMACOLOGY AND PHYSIOLOGY  Volume: 19   Issue: 5   Pages: 238-247   Published: 2006

Benísek, Zdenek, et al. “Experimental squalene adjuvant. II. Harmlessness and local reactogenity.” Vaccine 22.25-26 (2004): 3470-3474.

Read more about if sunscreens are toxic here on Fitness Reloaded or read up on “natural sunscreens” on The Imaginarium.

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  1. I am a biochemist and I tend to make my own, but since I can’t reliably test their sunscreen factor, I buy day creams for summer, and make my own night creams and day creams for winter (I live in Central Finland, we don’t have any UV in the wintertime). It works really well and the stuff you can make is really luxurious – provided you splurge (quite affordably so) for nice things like cocoa butter, nice olive oil, some vitamin E, etc.

  2. I’m a PhD biochemist and I also substitute my income with a cosmetic company bc lets face it we are poor. The ingredients that you listed are in fact very inexpensive, but come on these are nothing for the far superior creams. These are just your basic everyday creams you buy at Target or Walmart..there are some very good ingredients out there. I mean first of all you didn’t even cover hyaluronic acid. What about some of the new products that are coming out of labs actually from Sweden? It’s Called Syn-ake it mimics waglerin 1. Some of these in my opinion should only be used in the presence of a dermatologist, but this is nowhere near cheap and in reality truly good quality hyaluronic acid isn’t a cheap ingredient. Then we have BTMS-50 which is a wonderful conditioner especially for the hair…nowhere near cheap. Are there true anti-aging products out there? In my opinion no, but are there improvements to skin structure and support, elasticity,durability, and overall feel and look of the skin? yes….do you have to pay a lot of money for them? it depends. However, this article is definitely not worthy of someone in science and research writing it……it was written in order to just gain views and while yes I read it, I definitely wasn’t impressed with content.