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How to Read Anti-Aging Cosmetics Labels

This guide to the beauty-products aisle can save you money and help you look better, too

posted by Caroline Mayer, October 19, 2012 More by this author

woman shopping in cosmetics aisle

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer


woman shopping in cosmetics aisle
Read those labels closely when you shop for cosmetics.
iStockphoto | Thinkstock
Want to look years younger?

Plenty of beauty products for women and men say they can help. You’ve undoubtedly seen lotions, creams, and other cosmetics with words like “anti-aging,” “age-defying,” “anti-wrinkle” and “youth-regenerating.” And they’re doing gangbusters business: Annual sales of anti-aging skincare products in department stores alone total $1.5 billion, according to The NPD Group, a market-research firm. 
 
But for this hardened consumer reporter who’s well over 50, a stroll down any drugstore aisle these days is wrinkle-provoking. It’s not just the growing number of products that confuse me; it’s their mind-bending labels.
 
Is there really any difference between anti-aging serum and age-defying cream? Is a youth-regenerating cream more effective than an anti-aging peel kit? Is a wrinkle-defense cream better than an advanced wrinkle corrector?
 
More important: Do these products work — and if so, are more expensive brands more effective? How are companies allowed to make these types of anti-aging claims and is anyone in the government checking up to keep them honest?
 
Seeking some answers, I sought guidance from a few savvy beauty experts.
 
First up: Paula Begoun, who calls herself “The Cosmetics Cop.” Begoun has reviewed skin-care products for years, wrote Don’t Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me and founded the cosmetics-review site beautypedia.com before creating and selling her own product line.
 
Begoun minces no words: “There are no differences of any kind” when it comes to labels such as anti-aging, age-defying anti-wrinkle and rejevenuating. These words “simply describe what women want to hear,” she says. “The terms will not help anyone make a better decision on what products to buy.”
 
As for government oversight, it’s complicated.
 
Although the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission regulate some cosmetics products in certain ways, companies can pretty much say what they want on their labels as long as they can back up the words. That’s why most anti-aging descriptions are very general and lack specific claims, like “This will make you look 30 years younger.”
 
Once a cosmetics product asserts itself to be a drug (meaning that it can treat a disease or change a body’s structure), however, its ingredients must be approved by the FDA for the stated use.
 
The plain-English translation: A product that claims to be “anti-aging” is not considered a drug, because aging is not a disease. But a serum that says it can, say, eliminate age spots could be considered a cosmetic and a drug. So it must contain an ingredient the FDA has approved for that purpose. (In this case, it’s hydroquinone.)
 
Since the marketing terms can be squishy, how do you know which products are worth buying?
 
For that answer I turned to Nina Judar, beauty director at Good Housekeeping. Her department worked with the chemists at the Good Housekeeping Research Institute, testing 90 anti-aging products on 825 volunteers before declaring 14 winning treatments that can “make a difference.” Half of its winners cost $25 or less.
 
While these products do not, alas, reverse the aging process, they did help firm, soften and smooth skin; reduce under-eye bags and puffiness; minimize the appearance of wrinkles; or make age spots fade.
 
When you’re shopping for an anti-aging cosmetic, Judar says, you need to decide what problem you most want to attack. Is it wrinkles? Crow’s feet? Age spots? Then look for a product that specifically targets the problem. “Make sure it has a proven ingredient in it,” Judar says.
 
For example, retinol or peptides are proven ingredients for smoothing out wrinkles.
 
For age spots, hydroquinone (available over the counter in concentrations of 2 percent or less) is the gold standard. If you find hydroquinone irritating, try an age-spots product with less irritating ingredients, like kojic acid, alpha-arbutin, licorice extract and vitamin C — though these aren't as potent as hydroquinone. It’s best to choose an option with a combination of ingredients, especially if you’re going with the less potent alternatives.
 
No matter which anti-aging cosmetics product you choose, keep in mind that it could take four to eight weeks to see an improvement.
 
Which product labels confuse or annoy you? Send me an email at nextavenue@carolinemayer.com and I might write about them in an upcoming NextAvenue.org blog post.