Hope in a Jar: Do Skin Creams Work?

New antiaging skin creams claim to do as much as a medical procedure -- but can they? Doctors explain.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 06, 2007
6 min read

You've seen the antiaging skin care claims, in newspapers, magazines, and even online: ominous photos of hypodermic needles posed along side innocuous, even innocent-looking jars of cream.

The message: Topical cosmetic creams promises the same wrinkle-relaxing, age-defying results as some pricey wrinkle-filling injections like Restalyne and Juva Derm, or even Botox.

But can they? If you're skeptical about what you read, you're not alone. Not surprisingly, some doctors also question the claims and the promises.

"The bottom line is that if these creams could accomplish the same thing as a medical procedure, they would be drugs and not cosmetics -- and that's what you have to keep in mind when deciding whether to try or buy," says Marsha Gordon, MD, vice chairman of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

Some of the antiaging treatment technology focuses on compounds called pentapeptides -- small groups of long-chain amino acids that function as chemical messengers throughout the body. Among the most popular creams containing these ingredients include the Regenerist line by Olay, Strivectin-SD by Klein Becker, Wrinkle Relax by DDF, and the Principal Secret Reclaim line.

And though doctors say there are no published medical studies showing they work, experts involved in product testing say there is ample science behind the pentapeptide technology.

"It had a very strong pedigree going into the process -- we weren't just looking for the next hope in the jar, we were really looking at medical science before we started down the path with these products," says Lauren Thaman Hodges, director of Beauty Science for Olay skin care products.

Initially, the research on pentapeptides was done in relation to wound healing. As part of the body's natural response to help skin heal, published studies showed peptides are instrumental in increasing cells in the skin to produce more collagen.

But collagen isn't just for healing boo-boos. It also plays an important role in how skin ages. Gordon explains that collagen is the support structure that gives our skin a firm, young appearance. When levels remain plentiful, our skin looks young and fresh. When levels decline, we lose that support and wrinkles begin to form. While wrinkle-filling injections can temporarily fill in the gaps, some researchers believe that topically applying these peptides to the skin might help it make more collagen on its own. This would have a "filling" effect similar to the wrinkle injections – but without the needle!

After combining synthetic peptides with a fatty acid -- essential to get it into the deeper layers of skin -- Hodges says Olay developed the compound palmitoyl pentapeptide-3. Strivectin-SD uses a similar complex known as palmitoyl Oligopeptide. Both companies claim increased collagen production and firmer, more youthful looking skin within four to 12 weeks.

"We don't claim it's better than a medical procedure -- we claim that many women aren't ready [for an injection] so until they are ready, or if they never are ready, we are giving them a choice with a skin care technology you can use at home," says Hodges.

According to Strivectin-SD spokesman Dave Owen, when their ads pose the question, "Is this better than Botox," what they are really asking, he says, is: "Is this better than Botox for you?"

"We're just saying that if you're not ready for an injection, then the ingredients in our product can make a difference in how your skin looks -- and it's the end result that counts," says Owen.

And these products contain a lot more than just pentapeptides; they include vitamins and herbs with antiaging potential. And at least in the case of Strivectin-SD, the ingredient list was originally developed not for antiaging purposes, but for use as a stretch mark cream. Since stretch marks are the result of split and broken collagen fibers, their researchers theorized that a peptide involved in collagen production and wound healing might also help repair stretch-marked skin.

It wasn't long, however, before the company says women discovered on their own that the compound could also help build collagen reserves anywhere they're needed -- including the tiny lines around the eyes, mouth, and forehead. And the rest, they say is antiaging history.

Despite the homespun tales of success, without published medical studies the question still remains as to whether or not these pentapeptide compounds can really make the jump from wound healing inside the body to antiaging effects on top of the skin. According to Sumayah Jamal, MD, they probably can -- but in a very small proportion.

"I think you'll get some activity with the creams, but not anywhere near what happens during wound healing," says Jamal, an assistant professor of dermatology at the NYU School of Medicine in New York City.

Gordon remains dubious of the promises. "It is a big jump to say that what happens under the skin is the same thing that happens on top of the skin; I have not seen any conclusive evidence that this jump is possible," she says.

But that doesn't seem to stop the antiaging brigade. Still more attention has been focused on yet another entry in the antiaging category: products like "Wrinkle Relax" that combines two types of pentapeptide technology -- palmitoyl pentapeptide and acetyl hexapeptide, (also known as "argireline") -- for a compound that may mimic both a wrinkle-filling shot and a Botox injection.

"Botox works by destroying a protein involved in the release of a neurotransmitter that would otherwise keep a muscle tense, allowing a wrinkle to form," Jamal tells WebMD. By stopping the tensing motion and relaxing the muscle, the wrinkle seems to disappear, she says.

The argireline complex attempts to mimic that same Botox action by blocking the action of the protein. It doesn't destroy the protein, like Botox does, says Jamal, but instead simply keeps it from connecting to the cell and turning on the muscle contraction. The palimtoyl peptide, meanwhile, works on producing more collagen. The end result, she says, may be similar to medical procedures, just much less dramatic.

"I think there is question of degree -- you have to think of not only the effect, but the magnitude of the effect -- plus whether or not any product has enough of the ingredients to actually bring about a change in your skin," Jamal advises.

Again, Gordon is less convinced. "Botox is a compound that clearly inhibits neurotransmitters, but you have to be very precise where you put it; isn't it a little frightening to think that you could get the same effect by smearing a cream all over your face? It really makes you wonder," she says.

If you just can't wait until the jury decides, here's a sampling of what's available -- and the active ingredients they contain.

  • Regenerist by Olay. Key ingredient: palmitoyl pentapeptide-3. Price: $18.00 for 1.7 ounces.
  • Strivectin-SD by Klein Becker. Key ingredient: oligopeptide palmitoyl. Price: $135 for 6 ounces.
  • Principal Secret Reclaim Anti-Aging Night Cream. Key ingredient: argireline (acetyl hexapeptide-3). Price: $40 for 1 ounce.
  • Wrinkle Control Intensely Lifting Eye Gel with Revolox. Key Ingredient: acetyl hexapeptide-3. Price: $19.99 for 0.5 ounce.
  • Wrinkle Relax by Doctor's Dermatologic Formula. Key ingredients: acetyl hexapeptide-3, palimtoyl pentatpeptide-3. Price: $75 for 0.5 ounce.
  • Anew Clinical Line and Wrinkle Corrector by Avon. Key Ingredients: Exfoliants that include apple root extract, saccharomyces/pichia petone (a yeast complex), pomegranate juice, and oxa acid. Price: $32 for 1 ounce.

Botox injections cost approximately $400 each, take up to three weeks to see final results, and must be repeated every four to six months. Wrinkle-filling injections cost about $500 per line and up. They can last from six months to two years or more depending on the filler.