Firm offers: Can beauty products supplant surgery?
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Beauty & Brains: The Thinking Woman's Guide to Skin Care
By Melisse Gelula
March / April 2008
Photograph by David Lawrence
The number one solution for wobbly jawlines, drooping eyebrows, or sagging cheekbones has always been surgery. But now a new group of beauty products implies it can restore lost skin volume. "Get face-lift-quality results without the pain and expense of surgery," reads the tagline for Z. Bigatti Rescue Intensive Facial Serum. Laboratoire Remède packages three of its top-selling spa products in a Liquid Face Lift Kit, promising that skin is restored to its "younger looking splendor so quickly, friends may swear you've seen a surgeon." Is this too good to be true?
Yes, according to Seth L. Matarasso, M.D., a dermatologist and clinical professor at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco. The main cause of facial laxity next to aging is sun damage, particularly exposure to long-wave UVA rays, which break down collagen and elastin protein fibers, the skin's structural springs. According to Dr. Matarasso, it's very difficult to restore that structure with topical beauty products. (He says he gets good results with the injectable fillers Restylane and Perlane.) Jillian Wright, a clinical aesthetician and the owner of New York City's Glow Skin Spa, concurs. "There are so many products on the market that don't achieve skin firmness," she warns. "It's a classic case of buyer beware."
The best of the new products rely on proven anti-aging ingredients like peptides, retinol (a derivative of vitamin A), and vitamin C. They're widely used in skin-care products to smooth fine lines, fight free radicals, and even out sun-spotted skin. "All of these are proven to stimulate collagen and prevent its breakdown," says MD Skincare founder Dennis Gross, M.D., whose Hydra-Pure Antioxidant Firming Serum contains peptides and vitamins A and C.
But they also employ a bit of chemical sleight of hand to convince the user that they work. They incorporate ingredients called film formers, polymers that instantly tighten skin by creating an invisible layer over it. Ben Kaminsky, the pharmaceutical chemist founder of B. Kamins Chemist, uses them in Therapeutic Anti-Aging Wrinkle Lift. "Polymers reduce water loss from the stratum corneum [the skin's top layer]," he says, "which in turn allows the skin to remain plump and firm." The tightening effect of polymers is immediate, confirms Warren Wallo, the associate director of scientific affairs at Johnson & Johnson Beauty Group, who also likes a firming ingredient called THPE (tetrahydroxypropyl ethylenediamine), which is in the Roc drugstore brand. THPE causes the skin to microcontract—the same result produced by splashing it with cold water. (Mulberry leaf, zinc, and copper salts can also produce this astringent effect.)
Kaminsky acknowledges that these ingredients act only superficially on skin's water content, which is why he also incorporates growth substances into his products. Wrinkle Lift contains zinc oligopeptides, which can penetrate into the lower layers of the skin and kick-start the regrowth of collagen fibers. "This thickens the skin," Kaminsky says, which in fact does produce a lifting effect.
But there's a difference between an effect and a change. These products are good at producing the former, temporary and small improvements in facial volume and shape. Permanent change still requires plastic surgery or injections. "It's almost impossible for an over-the-counter product to produce overnight results," warns Dr. Gross. "It takes time, molecule by molecule, to build collagen fibers. Firming is acquired progressively with consistent use of proper ingredients." And if patience is everything, so is regular application. "It's important to get peptide-based creams in contact with skin as much as possible," says Kaminsky, who himself sounds surprised that these products can have an effect. "The production of new collagen is asking a lot of skin, though it can be done."