When it comes to miracle-workers such as gamma-Aminobutyric acid, which purport to mimic Botox in slightly paralyzing muscles of the face, dermatologists say there is "absolutely no science" to support that wrinkle-buster. The same goes for applying collagen to the skin, or eating it in cake, as has become the vogue in Japan.
Fortunately, not everything over-the-counter is bunk, dermatologists say -- a few ingredients can soften fine lines when used over time.
Antioxidants and Retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, can have modest effects over time, says Dr. Jessie Cheung, assistant professor of dermatology at the New York University Langone Medical Center.
Retinol is similar to the retinoic acid that is used in prescription-strength wrinkle creams, but it is less potent and hence less harsh on the skin, leading to less irritation and over-drying than is experienced with the prescription version, she says.
"When you use retinol, it's a long-term commitment, however," she says. "It may take six months to see any difference."
Antioxidants help prevent future wrinkles by combating free radicals (which damage skin as we age), but it can be difficult to get stable versions of antioxidants like the popular vitamin C, E, and coffee berry.
"Vitamin C has been hugely popular as an antioxidant, but by nature they are unstable and [in most forms] it breaks down once it's exposed to the air," Cheung says, and Grant suggests an etherized (stabilized) vitamin C.
Acid exfoliants, such as alpha- and beta-hydroxy, also serve as temporary skin brighteners by removing dead skin cells on the surface of the face, says Grant, but they won't help with wrinkles.
While looking for retinol, acid exfoliants and antioxidants in a product can help you make savvier decisions, buyer beware, dermatologists say, because listing these ingredients on the package doesn't mean that they will actually be absorbed by the skin.
"Just because [the ingredient] does something in a test tube, that doesn't mean it will work on the skin or stay stable once in the jar," Cheung says.
"You need to understand," Marmur adds, "the function of the skin is not to absorb, but to keep things out. You wouldn't want to go swimming and puff up with water." Things might change the surface texture temporarily, she says, but to penetrate deeper, and have any real change in the skin, is difficult with a topical product.
There is one over-the-counter anti-wrinkle cream that dermatologists said always made a difference, and it only costs a few bucks.
Yep, you guessed it: sun block.
"Sun protection is the number one thing for anti-aging," Cheung says, as well as not smoking.
"The best cure is to not get them in the first place," Rigel agrees. "So wear an UV-protected sun block when out in the sun and don't squint or frown a lot."
And don't spend $250 an ounce on something that has no science behind it, he adds, and don't expect miracles: "if you're fifty, nothing is going to make you look like your eighteen, especially if you're getting it over the counter."