Misinformation Abounds on Anti-Aging Products

Few Understand the Risks or Effectiveness of Products and Procedures

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 13, 2004
From the WebMD Archives

May 13, 2004 (New York City) -- Nearly 90 million Americans use or have used "wrinkle-erasing" products and procedures to help fight the effects of aging, but a new survey shows many are confused about the risks and potential benefits associated with them.

The survey, released today and commissioned by the National Consumers League, shows only about half the women who have used an over-the-counter anti-aging product felt it delivered what it promised and was "worth it."

Although 93% of women and 65% of men said they were familiar with over-the-counter anti-aging face creams, six out of 10 people surveyed said the FDA regulates whether these creams are safe and effective.

But the FDA does not regulate cosmetics for safety and effectiveness before they reach the market. This type of regulation is reserved for prescription drugs and over-the-counter products containing active ingredients that are classified as drugs.

"Consumers lack the facts they need to make informed decisions," says Carol Golodner, president of the National Consumers League, in announcing the survey results today in New York City.

Golodner says that the number of anti-aging products and procedures, such as over-the-counter lotions, facial peels, prescription creams, injectable wrinkle fillers and cosmetic surgery has grown dramatically in recent years. For example, the number of Botox cosmetic injections alone grew by more than 150% from 2002 to 2003, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

Survey Reveals Consumer Confusion

The online survey of 1, 343 adults 25 and older looked at public attitudes toward and experience with various products and treatments designed to reduce the signs of aging. Harris Interactive conducted the survey between March 29 and April 9, 2004.

Researchers defined the categories of products and procedures as follows:

  • Over-the-counter facial products. These are creams, masks, gels, and vitamin and herbal extracts products applied directly to the face that can be purchased without a prescription.
  • Prescription facial products. These are creams, masks, and gels that are applied to the face and that require a prescription from a doctor.
  • Injection therapies. These are non-surgical procedures that involve facial injections, such as Botox, collagen injections, fat augmentation (filler) injections, and facial injections to remove spider veins (sclerotherapy).
  • Skin resurfacing therapies. These are nonsurgical procedures that change the surface of the skin on the face, including chemical peels, microdermabrasion, laser skin resurfacing, photofacial light treatments, and laser, photoderm, or electric current treatment of facial spider veins.
  • Surgical procedures. These include invasive cosmetic procedures on the face, such as facelifts, eyelid surgery, and forehead surgery.

The survey showed that most men and women say they are at least familiar with these options, but there was some confusion about how these products and procedures are regulated and administered.

For example, 11% of women said an esthetician could administer injection therapies, which are available by prescription only to be performed by a doctor.

The survey showed over-the-counter products were overwhelmingly the most common anti-aging option:

  • 72% of women and 13% of men said they had used or are currently using an over-the-counter anti-aging product.
  • 36% of women and 11% of men reported use of vitamin or herbal extracts applied directly to the face, such as vitamins C or E.
  • 19% of women and 6% of men said they had used or are using prescription face creams, masks, or gels.
  • Fewer than 10% of men and women said they had had anti-aging procedures.

Most respondents believed a product or procedure's effectiveness went hand in hand with the risks associated with it.

"Surgical procedures are seen as more effective and dangerous, whereas over-the-counter products are seen as less dangerous but also less effective," says researcher David Krane, senior vice president of public policy at Harris Interactive.

However, researchers found 15% of the respondents had experienced side effects or negative outcomes from using an over-the-counter anti-aging product, such as redness, allergic reaction, or irritation. Seventeen percent and 18% reported negative side effects from prescription products and procedures, respectively.

Although that percentage is small, researchers say that translates to more than 10 million women nationwide who have suffered negative side effects from the use of over-the-counter products -- 2.3 million from prescription products and 1.4 million from procedures.

Impact of Youth-Obsessed Society

The survey also revealed that people are increasingly turning to anti-aging products in an attempt to look younger for personal as well as professional reasons.

For example, the survey found that as people's age increases, so does their ideal age. When asked which age they'd like to look, women aged 45-54 said 36, but women over 55 said 46 was their ideal. For men aged 45-54, the ideal age was 35, and for men over 55 it was 45.

Other findings of the survey include:

  • Half of men and women agree that looking young is important to professional success.
  • Women are more likely than men to believe looking young is an important factor in personal happiness (37% vs. 28%).
  • Most women and men agree that it has become more acceptable in the last five years to use products or procedures in order to look younger.

Dermatologist Dennis Gross says the survey's findings echo what he's seeing in his New York City-based private practice.

"Many people who come into my office are afraid of being replaced by someone younger at work," says Gross. He says they view anti-aging procedures as a means of job security.

But Gross says there are now so many more options available than there were just a few years ago and that people need to seek professional help to sort through the options and determine what is most appropriate to meet their own goals.

People Listen to but Don't Trust Media

The survey showed the media is the main source of information about anti-aging products and procedures, especially TV. Nearly three-quarters of the people surveyed say they learned about products and procedures to reduce the signs of aging from televisions programs. Other commonly named sources of information were magazines, newspapers, infomercials, the Internet, and friends.

Only about a quarter said they learned about anti-aging options form a doctor, such as a dermatologist or plastic surgeon.

"While the media was the most common source of information, it was also seen as the least trusted," says Krane.

Most people named their primary doctor or dermatologist as the most trusted source of information on anti-aging options, followed by professional articles, plastic surgeons, friends, and family.

Only about three in 10 said they trusted TV news completely or a great deal. Less than half that amount said the same about other media outlets, such as TV shows, the Internet, and beauty professionals.

The vast majority of men and women also said they do not believe that the advertising for over-the-counter and prescription anti-aging products is accurate.

Show Sources

SOURCES: "American Attitudes Toward Measures to Treat Visible Signs of Aging," survey conducted by Harris Interactive, March 29 to April 9, 2004. Linda Golodner, president, National Consumers League. David Krane, senior vice president of public policy, Harris Interactive. Dennis Gross, MD, dermatologist in private practice, New York City.

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