Your local drugstore is full of face creams in tiny jars that promise an awful lot. They claim to make you look younger, fill in your crow's feet and close up your pores. But do they actually work? And what exactly are they actually made of? The Food and Drug Administration finally has decided to ask: In the next year, the FDA will pay increasing attention to the cosmetics industry to determine whether the claims that products make are reasonable, and whether the ingredients are safe. Anti-wrinkle and anti-aging creams will be especially scrutinized since not only do they make promises about eliminating signs of aging, but many of them also contain ingredients that haven't been well-researched.
The most mysterious – and also most medically promising – of these ingredients are known as nanoparticles. Cosmetics companies sometimes refer to them as cosmeceuticals because of the drug-like effects they have on the skin and body.
A number of popular anti-aging or anti-wrinkle creams and products contain nanoparticles, which are believed to be small enough to seep into the skin — or a small fraction of the width of a strand of hair.
"When we age, there's breakdown in the skin due to free radicals," explains Dr. Elizabeth Zeitler, a dermatologist. "People talk about antioxidants like Vitamin C and Vitamin E. The problem is that there's a limit to how much most products can be absorbed. That's what this nanoparticle thing is trying to do. The idea is to make the particles so small that they're absorbed into the skin."
While prescription drugs are subject to peer-reviewed laboratory trials, anti-aging creams – even those with nanoparticles – aren't subject to the same degree of scrutiny. The FDA and doctors agree that they need to be tested.
"Nanoparticles have some drug-like behaviors but they aren't being closely monitored," says dermatologist Debra Wattenberg. "The companies making them are currently at liberty to put anything in these products."
The issue, doctors agree, is that the products need to be tested for both efficacy and safety. Currently, brands are required to list ingredients, but those ingredients don't have to be particularly well-studied with regards to whether they actually work or whether they're safe for human use. That's what the FDA hopes to change.
No one's saying the products are definitively dangerous (or even just not effective), but rather that more testing is required to know for sure. "It might be that they find out that nanoparticles are actually effective, but more research needs to be done," Zeitler adds.
So, before research gets done, which products are actually safe to use?
Conventional "big business is bad" wisdom doesn't hold here. When it comes to wrinkle creams with big promises, don't go for locally made and artisanal.
"With these types of products, you want to go with companies that have science behind them. If there's no evidence for testing, I probably wouldn't use them," Wattenberg says.
And, as Zeitler points out, the brands that actually spend money on testing are the Olays, L'Oréals and Neutrogenas of the world. "In this case you're actually better off buying the mass market brands, because there really is science behind them. These companies spend tons of money every year on research and development," she says.
While the FDA investigates the safety of nanoparticles, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus will monitor the outlandish claims brands frequently make about the products in advertisements.
A representative from Neutrogena says, "While we are confident data supports all of our claims for Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair, we understand NAD’s recommendation to modify certain statements and will take the group’s suggestions into consideration in future advertising."
Procter and Gamble, which owns Olay, says they "generally support the reform."
Representatives from L'Oréal did not respond to requests for comment.
The FDA is still evaluating how exactly they'll go about regulating the products, but it's likely the companies will be asked to carry out testing on ingredients, particularly those made up of nanoparticles. In the meantime, it's probably safe to keep slathering on the RevitaLift and Regenerist.