You don't have to venture far into your corner drugstore or local department store to find shelves full of creams and serums promising to add to your store of collagen. Is there any science behind the claims that they'll give you a tighter, more youthful look? Yes, with caveats.
Many cosmetic creams have been shown to stimulate production of the key protein in the skin, which is vital to its firmness and elasticity. And though they may not be as powerful against wrinkles as collagen injections, Botox, and plastic surgery, the creams can be worthy alternatives to more invasive procedures, says Maria Tsoukas, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Chicago. They're gentler on the pocketbook, too.
One ingredient to look for: amino acids called "pentapeptides." Early research on these substances showed that they helped heal wounds; because they also stimulate the skin to make more collagen, they can help reduce the appearance of wrinkles, too.
Some pentapeptide products, including Olay Regenerist, also contain hyaluronic acid, another ingredient that has been shown to restore structure and volume to the skin. And many dermatologists swear by retinol, a derivative of vitamin A. At prescription strengths, it's used to fight acne, but the retinol in over-the-counter creams such as Neutrogena Healthy Skin and RoC Retinol Correxion seems to revive skin by building collagen, shrinking pores, and lightening age spots. Tsoukas recommends using retinol products at night, and slathering on a moisturizer with sunscreen during the day, both to prevent future damage and because retinol can make skin extra sensitive. "These regimens are fantastic, but it's important to use some sun protection," she says.
Some creams combine peptides and retinol with anti-oxidants such as green tea extract, vitamin E, and vitamin C. The theory is that in addition to boosting collagen production, these anti-oxidants reverse damage from smoke, sun, pollution, and other contaminants. But Deborah Sarnoff, clinical professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center, warns that it's not clear whether or how well such ingredients work. "We don't know how long these ingredients remain active in the jar or how much the skin is really absorbing," she says. "We need more controlled, scientific studies." Meantime, she says, there's no need to be spending hundreds of dollars on creams to see results.