Going Skin Deep

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By Ishani Ganguli
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Today's fountain of youth is filled with a strange brew of fairy-tale herbs and chemicals: Chaga mushrooms, osmolytes, coffeeberry extract, polyhydroxy acids, silver tip white tea, rhodiola.

Americans shelled out $44.6 billion for anti-aging products and services in 2004 alone, according to a report by Business Communications. A 2004 online survey of 1, 343 Americans 25 and older, conducted by Harris Interactive, found that 72 percent of women and 13 percent of men had used or were then using an over-the-counter anti-aging product. Nineteen percent of women and 6 percent of men reported using prescription face creams, masks or gels.

Now, Boots No. 7 Restore & Renew Beauty Serum -- the British "anti-aging sensation" that made a hyped transatlantic journey to the States this summer -- has become the latest emblem of our age-old desire not to age.

But what do these supposedly time-defying potions actually do for the tens of millions of Americans of all ages who seek immortal skin on drugstore shelves? The answer is often unclear.

Scientists dispute the definition of aging as well as its mechanisms, so claims that a product can stop or reverse the process are misleading at best, said Thomas Perls, a geriatrician at the Boston University School of Medicine and director of the New England Centenarian Study.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not approve anti-aging creams -- with the exception of a few that count as drugs rather than cosmetics -- and marketers have no requirement to prove that they work. The Federal Trade Commission looks into unsubstantiated claims, but it takes on lawsuits only after dissatisfied customers file complaints.

Anti-aging creams are "not being held to any standard, so we don't know if they work," said Rebecca Kazin, assistant professor of dermatology and medical director of the Johns Hopkins Cosmetic Center at Green Spring Station. She encourages consumers to buy and apply the creams with a healthy dollop of skepticism.

The best bet is to talk to your primary care physician or dermatologist about what skin care is best for your skin type, said Washington dermatologist Sandra Read.

And of course, Perls said, lifestyle choices such as avoiding cigarettes and sun, as well as following a healthful diet, are proven strategies for better skin.

Nonetheless, Americans show no sign of slowing their search for a panacea among the tubes and bottles on drugstore shelves. Here's a closer look at some of the products, their ingredients and the research behind them.

Sunscreens

The approach: Blocking the harmful ultraviolet rays (both UVA and UVB) that cause photoaging, which compounds the skin's natural sagging and deterioration and leads to the most visible signs we associate with aging.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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