Leaf through a magazine while you're in the grocery store check-out line; click around channels on your TV; write someone an email with the words “anti-aging;” in the subject line. Doubtless, you will be bombarded with more claims of miraculous wrinkle-removers than Lourdes sends out news stories of lame people throwing away their crutches.
Unfortunately most of these claims can not be substantiated. Why not? Isn't the government supposed to protect us from false claims and "snake oil" salesmen? Isn't there supposed to be truth in advertising? Ask a stupid question, and if you ask the right people, you'll get a very detailed explanation of why your question is not necessarily stupid, but difficult to answer succinctly.
Dr. Michael O'Donoghue, dermatologist with Franciscan Alliance, led me to fascinating article by Dr. Zoe Diana Draelos, Department of Dermatology, Duke University School of Medicine Durham, North Carolina in the scholarly journal Dermatologic Therapy, Vol. 25. Some of us have come to believe that Cindy Crawford or Ellen DeGeneres or Oprah is the Queen of Cosmetics. Actually it's Dr. Draelos and she's very good at separating miracles from mole hills.
The coloring agents and the preservatives in cosmetics are regulated by the government, Dr. Draelos writes, because in the 1930s some cosmetics were tainted with lead, mercury and arsenic. The feds came up with lists of ingredients that could be harmful. One of the most common bleaching creams—known as skin-whitening creams at the time, the 1930s—contained mercury and another contained arsenic. The introduction of these dangerous products led the federal government to recognize the need to protect us from these hazards. "This type of protection is very important," she writes, "as the quickest way to whiten skin is to induce a state of anemia, which is how some of the skin- whitening products worked."
If you want to take a look back at the earliest users, ancient Egyptians wore a lot of eye makeup, color sometimes made from natural products and skin creams made of oils and herbs. But in the 1600s in Europe, a new kind of cosmetic became popular. Little velvet beauty patches, sometimes shaped like stars, moons, or hearts, were used to cover scars on the faces of those who survived smallpox epidemics. A white powder was also used to cover up scars. Later a theatrical white paste was developed, but perspiration made it gooey. "Grease paint" which suspended white pigment in oily vehicles came next. For centuries only floozies painted their faces. But when Suffragettes marched in 1912 as part of the "Gals-Should-Vote" campaign, they wore lipstick. Naughty. Not too many years later, Max Factor developed a cake makeup and patented it.
Dr. Draelos notes that cosmetic safety is especially important around the eyes and lips, so safety experts became focused on colorants and preservatives. The FDA approves only purified natural colors or inorganic pigments that won't seep into your body and cause harm.
Certain colorants can only be used in areas where they won't be ingested. Although later in her article, Dr. Draelos delves deeply into the chemistry of skin cells, she allows herself a bit of scholarly humor while pooh-poohing worries about the tiny amount of lead which may be contained in red lipstick. "Miniscule," she says. "Persons who eat large quantities of red lipstick should be careful."
Dr. Draelos is equally skeptical of concerns about preservatives in cosmetics. She says there is no such thing as a preservative-free commercially made cosmetic. Many contain water, which can attract bacteria; or ingredients that react with oxygen. Sometimes ingredients are sneaky preservatives like phenoxyethanol, "which has a lovely rose scent and may be used as a fragrance ingredient when in reality is it a preservative. Many spices, such as clove essences, can be used for a combination of fragrance and preservation."
This led up to the new ingredients in the anti-aging creams that are not regulated, termed by some “cosmeceuticals.” Cosmetics have moved beyond appearance issues to include "active" ingredients: chemicals that may push their way into the very heart of old skin cells and cause them to act more like young skin cells.
According to Dr. Draelos, the FDA does not recognize “cosmeceuticals” as a category and simply views them as cosmetics. "While ‘cosmeceuticals’ are considered quasi-drugs in Japan, it is unlikely that this category will receive governmental recognition in the United States," she writes. "Cosmeceuticals have been called by many names including active cosmetics and functional skin care. For the most part, they are moisturizers that have additional ingredients added to provide benefits beyond traditional skin creams.
"Most commonly added ingredients are botanicals (herbs/flowers/plants/trees), marine extracts (sea gunk), and vitamins, many of which function either directly or indirectly as antioxidants. Since oxidation is a key event in aging that can be easily understood by consumers, this is a good target for product claims."
So what's a moderately “old-ish” gal with lots of fine lines and a few wrinkles to do? Well, if you're going the non-surgical, non-dermatological, over-the-counter route, there are some good suggestions out there that will have to wait until next month.