An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

The Race Against Time

The 411 on anti-aging skin creams

You can’t blame us for feeling cheated. One day we glowed with dewy youth, and seemingly the next we sprouted forehead furrows, unfunny laugh lines and unsightly splotches.

Even worse, ineffective over-the-counter (OTC) age-erasers accumulate like dust bunnies in our bathroom cabinets — despite our spending billions on them, reports Kline & Co., a consumer consulting group.  

What gives — besides our jowls — and where’s our happy ending? 

“The most efficient anti-aging cream is sunscreen,” says Adelaide A. Hebert, M.D., professor and director of pediatric dermatology at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School. “You can try to hide wrinkles after they form, but it’s like being on a diet and eating candy every day. It isn’t going to work. Also consider that it takes only 10 seconds of sun in Texas to have brown spots for a year.”

At least 20 minutes before heading out, even to the mailbox, generously slap on SPF 30 or higher sunscreen: a full ounce to cover your exposed face, arms and/or legs. Reapply if you’re out more than two hours or sweat heavily. And don’t skimp when it’s cloudy or snowy: 80 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays get through.

You should use up an eight-ounce bottle each week — per family member.

Further, shield your face and neck with a two-and-a-half inch or wider brimmed hat, ideally with an ultraviolet protection factor of 30 plus (meaning only 1/30th of rays pierce the fibers.) 

What about other anti-agers? Hebert breaks down what they really do for us: 

Retin-A, Retinoids and Retinol 

The Claim: These derivatives of vitamin A tighten the skin’s hidden girdle of collagen and elastin. 

The Reality: “Retinoids are not a fountain of youth, nor a face lift, but they enable your skin to look as good as it can,” Hebert says. “If you think of skin cells as part of a brick wall, the wall gets dilapidated as we grow older. They (retinoids) make the bricks — actually fibers — line up, which helps smooth roughness and wrinkling and fade brown spots.” 

The Bottom Line: “You might see results in a few days, but more within three to six weeks. Yet you can’t stop using them, because then your skin will return to its pre-treatment status,” Hebert says. 

Ranging from strongest to weakest, these derivatives are tretinoin, the active ingredient in Retin-A and Renova; retinol; and Retinyl palmitate. 

Use these topical agents only at night since they can increase sensitivity to the sun. Do not add any products afterward as retinoids can be unstable and break down if other chemicals are applied over them. Also avoid deep creases around the nose and mouth where topical retinoids can accumulate and irritate. 

If your skin reddens, drop frequency of use to once or twice weekly and add an OTC cream that contains ceramides, which are lipids essential for the skin to bind with water, thus helping keep the skin moist and soft. This is also why retinoids should not be used the night before a marathon or a few days after chemical peels. 


The Claim: Bleaching creams containing hydroquinone lighten hyperpigmentation — brown, “liver” or aging spots — the marks of sun damage that appear after age 40. 

The Reality: These creams dial back sun damage. “These formulations can be very effective in reducing dyschromia, that is, the discoloration of the skin surface,” Hebert says. Many people see results with the 2 percent strength available over the counter, but dermatologists can prescribe the 4 percent version. 

The Bottom Line: “If you do not use sunscreen, these bleaching agents can potentially be an absolute waste,” Hebert says. 

Dab a small amount on individual spots, using your finger tip or a cotton swab. You’ll see results within four to six weeks depending on the darkness of the spot.

If you’re allergic to hydroquinone, your dermatologist may recommend kojic acid, an element of fungus that limits melanin production. 

Vitamin C 

The Claim: You could call vitamin C, in the form of L-Ascorbic Acid, a skin Spanx, as it boosts collagen production while also lessening lines.

The Reality: While it’s not the equivalent of a face lift, Hebert says, “this topical vitamin formulation can be very helpful because it’s a co-factor for the formation of fibroblasts — critical for the skin cells to form like bricks in a brick wall, so the skin surface does not look as damaged from sun exposure.”

The Bottom Line: Wait six-plus weeks to see results. 

Alpha-Hydroxy Acids and Beta-Hydroxy Acids 

The Claim: Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs), including glycolic acid and lactic acid, along with beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), AKA salicylic acid, exfoliate. This helps skin shed its outer shell, which may help with fine lines, irregular pigmentation and age spots and may help shrink pores. Salicylic acid also helps with acne since it enters via oil-laden hair follicles. 

The Reality: Consider these acids booster shots. “These chemical agents can enhance the overall success of your regimen,” Hebert says. They will help smooth out your skin’s surface, which starts as smooth as a baby but by adulthood is more like roof shingles. They do not reflect the surface light as readily and thus the eye interprets the skin surface as less esthetically pleasing. 

The Bottom Line: Use AHAs and BHAs at night only, as they raise sun sensitivity. And, as with vitamin A, you will need to build up a tolerance, increasing use up to every second or third night, Hebert says. 

BB Creams 

The Claim: These multi-taskers, short for beauty balms or blemish balms, are popular. They combine sunscreen, moisturizer, anti-agers, foundation and concealer in one product — for a fast fix. 

The Reality: Unless it’s a printer/scanner/fax, the all-in-one is a mirage. Heed the adage “Jack of all trades, master of none” because the more the “active” ingredients, the more adulterated they are. “It’s hard to get everything in one cream,” Hebert says. “You’re better off seeking ‘hypoallergenics’ because they’re less irritating, especially around the eyes, where the skin is both thin and sensitive.” 

The Bottom Line: Streamline your routine instead — while getting results — by wearing sunscreen throughout the day and using a retinoid or OTC anti-aging cream every night. 


The Claim: By contracting corpuscles, caffeine creates a mini-face lift. 

The Reality: At best, caffeine is a party trick. It tightens skin a tiny bit and for only a few hours.

The Bottom Line: “This newcomer is not as medically proven as retinols and retinoids,” Hebert says. “Why not use retinoids, which have been out for 30 years. We know they work.” 


The Claim: Copper contains peptides that boost collagen production, thus firming and softening your face. 

The Reality: Buyers beware! Marketers are mining your pocketbook, and this is fool’s gold. “[This is] a real waste of money,” Hebert says. “You won’t see a huge difference.”

The Bottom Line: Skip it! 

The Fine Print 

Whatever you use, keep it simple. That makes it more doable. You don’t need to refrigerate creams since they are stable, but pay attention to the icon of an open bottle (near the bottom.) It indicates how many months the product will be effective, which is generally a year. 

Also, avoid fragrance and alcohol, which can irritate skin. And forget about spending a fortune. “Cost does not equal efficacy,” Hebert says. “A serum from a drugstore works just as well as an expensive cream from an upscale department store cosmetic counter.” 

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