The youth-obsessed culture we live in has driven many people to obsess about having fine lines, wrinkles, or crepey skin. So many companies claim to have found the mythical “Fountain of Youth” and sell skin care products by the ounce containing anti-aging ingredients that are sometimes more expensive than gold.

We examined the claims of a couple of some of the hottest ingredients and took a look at the evidence supporting them. Then we looked more closely at the cosmetic/beauty industry and we discovered some very unsettling things… Read on, if you dare!

The Swiss Apple Hype

A Swiss apple called Uttwiler Spätlauber is said to stay fresh longer than other varieties. Because the fact its skin doesn’t wrinkle, it was postulated rubbing some of it on your face would do the same to your skin.

Uttwiler Spätlauber
Uttwiler Spätlauber

This appeared to be the case when a paper was published in the International Journal for Applied Science entitled Plant Stem Cell Extract for Longevity of Skin and Hair. In it, they claimed to show an ingredient they coined PhyoCellTec Malus Domestica worked to reduce fine lines and wrinkles.

However, this study was only done with 20 women for 4 weeks, after which their crows feet were reduced by 15%. You can see the actual before/after picture below:

Actual before/after picture

From this one tiny study, which was sponsored by the makers of PhyoCellTec, the frenzy for anything Swiss Apple-related was born. Even First Lady Michelle Obama is said to swear by it. 

There have been no other studies that we could find, and Dr. Daniel Schmid, the head researcher admitted “The anti-aging benefit [of apple stem cells] could not be confirmed in a clinical trial.” 

Retin-A: Proven To Work?

From all the research we’ve done on anti-aging products, there is one that seems to  backed by science: a Vitamin A derivative called tretinoin, marketed as Retin-A. The New York Times did a fawning piece about the drug, concluding that studies show it works for treating fine lines and wrinkles.

However, there is a lesser-known history of Retin-A. In 1991, the FDA began an investigation in the way the manufacturers Ortho Pharmaceutical marketed Retin-A as an anti-wrinkle agent, when it was only legally available as a prescription medication to combat acne. 

The FDA accused them of paying for press conferences promoting it as a wrinkle cream, timed to be coordinated with a release of a major study. Many consumers became aware of Retin-A and began demanding it from their dermatologists. 

An article in the Los Angeles Times quoted Dr. Patrick Abergel, a Santa Monica dermatologist as saying: “The marketing of Retin-A has been so strong that patients as well as dermatologists have been intoxicated… it is a drug with a number of side effects. And I'm not sure it is effective at all.” 

In 1995 Ortho paid $7.5 million in fines and plead guilty to obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice after it admitted destroying evidence. 

Since that time, Retin-A continues to be only available by prescription for children’s acne (and not covered by insurance for other uses) and according to and article published in the British Journal of Dermatology  “in recent publications the clinical evidence of tretonin [in reducing wrinkles] is assessed with reserve.” 

Over-the-counter versions of Vitamin A retinoids do not have the same amount of “science” to back up their claims. 

What’s In That Cream?

Ok, so maybe that’s not enough for you – the fact that in reality there is skimpy evidence for the anti-aging properties of two of the most popular ingredients. You’d still like to try this amazing new cream you just saw advertised.

How do you know you are getting what they say you are getting? The harsh reality is: you don’t. As Healthline pointed out in an article called 20 Reasons Not to Trust Cosmetic Labels, there is no regulatory agency responsible for checking for safety of cosmetics before they go to market. In addition, the FDA is not authorized to order their recall. 

You basically have to trust the manufacturer that when they say their cream is “All Natural”, “Organic”, or even “Clinically Proven” that they’re not lying. 

A more recent development in the beauty/anti-aging segment adds another “wrinkle” to the mess: the cosmeceutical. 

Essentially, cosmeceuticals are a Frankenstein monster of a cosmetic that claims to offer benefits similar to a prescription drug – minus any regulatory oversight. These products are often marketed by doctors, but all the FDA can do is send these companies a warning letter if they feel they step over the line. 

What You Can Do

Now that you know the frightening reality behind the ingredients as well as the regulations behind these so called anti-aging products, don’t panic. The Environmental Working Group is a non-profit organization whose mission is to make people aware of key issues affecting their health and the environment.

EWG compiled a database of 68,000 personal care products, listing their ingredients as well as safety information. They recently introduced a smartphone version called SkinDeep, where you can scan a product barcode right in the store. While some of the information is limited (due to the industry’s own lack of disclosure) it will at least give you an idea of what you are buying.

In summary:

  • There has been only one study done on Swiss apple stem cells and the doctor has stated it hasn’t been proven to combat aging in clinical trials.
  • Retin-A is said to have clinical evidence, but this is still prescription-only and not approved by the FDA for anti-aging; researchers have backed away from these claims.
  • Cosmetics are not regulated and don’t have to list their ingredients or recall products.
  • Cosmeceuticals straddle a grey legal area and also have lax oversight. 
  • The Environmental Working Group has created a cosmetic database.
  • There is no such thing as the Fountain of Youth.

We hope this has shed the light on what you are putting on your face.

You may also like: WARNING: The FDA Has NOT Evaluated this Article!