May 16, 2007 — -- For centuries women (and men) have been searching for the magic elixir which promises to turn back time and reduce wrinkles. This quest for the Holy Grail of face creams is worth several billion dollars a year worldwide.
As a result, scientists are constantly experimenting with peptides, collagens, bases and other chemicals, hoping to find one formula that really makes a difference. But most conclude there really is no such thing as a face-lift in a jar.
Or is there?
Enter career chemist Steve Barton from Nottingham, northern England, known as the skin care man in the U.K.
After years of testing various compounds in his cramped laboratory, some British dermatologists have concluded that Barton's product, an over-the-counter serum called Boots No. 7 Protect and Perfect, visibly reduces fine lines.
The cream recently became available in the United States. Target, one of the largest chain stores, is stocking the product with a different name: It's called No. 7 Restore and Renew.
Some dermatologists in the United States, however, say it is unlikely that the cream offers anything terribly new as a wrinkle fighter, and is probably not worth the hype.
Rachel Watson, a British skin researcher from the University of Manchester, explained that the five scientists developing the cream used retinoids and chemical compounds as a comparative marker. Traditionally, these compounds are used to treat acne and photo-aged, sun-damaged skin.
Retinol creams are only available by prescription as they can cause redness and peeling. Watson said that the compounds "increase the protein fibrillin in the skin, which repairs molecular damage and reduces wrinkles."
Describing the method, Watson told ABC News: "We tested three unidentified creams against those containing retinoic acid and only one showed the same increases in fibrillin as the prescription-only treatment, the Boots product."
As far as Watson is aware, there are "no other over-the-counter products available that can match these results."
But Dr. Darrell Rigel, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center, said there have been other over-the-counter products in the past that have aimed to replicate the effects of prescription retinoid creams.
"They've been around for a long time," he said. "This is not a unique product."
He said many of these over-the-counter anti-wrinkle creams contain a chemical similar to that seen in tretinoin, commonly referred to as Retin-A. And while users may experience some fine line reduction, he said, "They are not as effective as tretinoin."
Cut to the power of television. The BBC's science program "Horizon" investigated claims by various cosmetic companies to work magic and stumbled across Watson's research.
The program's narrator, a 50-year-old female doctor, concluded that most slimming gels, hair tonics and anti-aging creams are completely ineffective. But she supported the research on Boots No. 7 Protect and Perfect serum.
After the show broadcast last March, there was not a single jar of this product available to buy in the U.K. within 24 hours. Sales went up 2,000 percent.
Boots marketing executive Lucy Folkes told ABC News that the waiting list has been as high as 50,000 women. And, more than a year later, sales at the nation's chain store are limited strictly to one bottle per customer.
Newspapers continue to keep this lotion in the headlines, keeping the frenzy at a steady volume.
And as soon as a shipment at a local Boots chemist arrives, it is normally sold out within the hour.
Jojo Tooi, a 34-year-old Londoner, converted to the Boots serum about two months ago after the BBC documentary aired. "Since I've been using this product my dry skin has gotten smoother, softer," she said. "I will not go back to the more expensive product."
Another customer, Phillippe Donatien was found waiting at the Boots moisturizer counter. He had heard more stock was coming into the Boots store.
When asked why he was in the queue, Donatien told ABC News, "Well, I am a dermatologist and I have read so much about this product. I've never used it and I am not vain. But if the Vitamin A in this product helps, then great. We all need a little bit of repair now and again."
Boots' marketing department said that only one bottle per person is allowed so that Boots "can meet the high level of demand. What one does with it after purchase is not for us to comment."
But this high demand means that not everyone in line to buy it has smooth skin on their minds. There have been reports of "flipping" -- buying the Boots serum to sell on Amazon and eBay.
Dr. Nick Lowe, of London's Cranley Clinic, one of the top dermatologists in the United States and the U.K., told ABC News that he is not surprised by the product's popularity considering the sensible ingredients in the Boots serum. He admits he is impressed with the increase of fibrillin in the product.
However, he added: "This won't decrease worry lines caused by too much facial activity. No cream is going to help those. For deep lines you need Botox or laser rejuvenation. And sun cream must also be used."
Barton isn't given anything away about the secret formula, but he told ABC News that his team at the Nottingham lab began testing this formula three years ago.
The Boots marketing team say that the serum actually produces measurable improvements in wrinkle depth, and the volunteers noticed positive changes as well.
Still, dermatologist Rigel said the excitement over the cream may be shortlived.
"This is hype," he said. "If somebody really had a magic cream that reversed aging, it would probably be more lucrative than a cure for cancer. You're really selling hope in those bottles."
So, what's the damage? About $34 (£16.75) a bottle at Boots or $19.99 at Target. When compared to La Prairie Skin Caviar, which costs over $520, it's not bad.