Skin creams: the good, the bad, and the downright misleading

LIPIDS. Peptides. All manner of acids and AHAs. The anti-ageing beauty market is a lucrative but mind-boggling place filled with a strange vocabulary and ever-advancing science that, if we’re totally honest, serves only to increase the very lines on that furrowed brow they’re designed to erase.

Last month L’Oréal got a rap across its pretty knuckles from the Food and Drug Administration for using misleading marketing in some of its products, and earlier this year an advert for anti-wrinkle cream featuring Rachel Weisz was banned because the actress’s face was so heavily manipulated.

So who do we trust? What claims can we believe and what ones can be consigned to the beauty myth bin? More importantly, with sales of premium products soaring (a pot of cream can cost anything from £50 to £200), can money really buy us time?

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Well, yes and no, says Jo Fairley. The former beauty editor, along with her other jobs that include co-founder of Green & Black’s chocolate (she has since sold the company to Cadbury’s but continues to work closely with the new owner), eco campaigner, public speaker and brand consultant, co-writes (along with health journalist Sarah Stacey) the Beauty Bible series, whose anti-ageing edition was published last week. In it, 4,000 women aged between 35 and 70 have rigorously tested 4,000 different products – from so-called ‘miracle’ creams and redness eliminators to cellulite creams and stretch mark treatments, haircare products and bust-boosters to lipsticks that claim to plump up the pout. “British women have noticed that skincare doesn’t stop at the vest,” she says.

“We ask them to look at what the brand is actually promising on the packaging – which can be really quite extravagant – and compare it to what they see. But while they started out as cynical as we were, there is absolutely no question from the comments we get that many of these women are completely blown away.”

The army of testers take detailed notes immediately after using the product, the following day, a week later, two weeks later and at the end of the jar. “They take it unbelievably seriously,” says Fairley. “It’s almost as if they believe they are performing a service for womankind – which they are. They try it on one side of the face, and we know they do that because they start e-mailing us saying, ‘Can I start using it on the other side because I’m beginning to look lopsided?’”

Aged 56, Fairley admits a lifetime of testing every different product that came through her letterbox as a beauty editor has left her with “unbelievably horrible sensitive skin”, so her personal pared-back bathroom cabinet is almost exclusively filled with Liz Earle (Cleanse and Polish mixed with Superskin oil, followed by Liz Earle moisturiser), though she sometimes uses L’Occitane Divine Cream, “which has scored incredibly well with our testers”, and in summer she wears Estée Lauder DayWear, which has an SPF of 25.

But while she will readily admit to being extremely cynical about the overblown claims of many products, some of the results have surprised even her. Stretch marks, for instance. “Because, with all the women, we’re not talking about new pregnancy stretch marks, we’re talking about stretch marks that have been there for some considerable amount of time. We tried a few products that work really well.”

These include Bio Oil and This Works stretch mark oil. “And there’s an Aromatherapy Associates body oil,” she says. “What some of them said was that it wasn’t so much effective against stretch marks, just that it made them feel so much better about their body.”

And so, while there is still huge hype connected to products that make very little difference, there are also plenty out there that do exactly what they claim on the tin. “What completely surprised us was that the scores keep getting higher and higher,” she says, “which is an indication that these products are becoming more effective. We test everything from the supermarket brands through to Crème de la Mer, and it’s not that the most expensive ones win all the time; our questionnaires are so results-based there’s not really room for people to win on the strength of a sexy box.”

So does that mean we don’t always have to part with £100 to guarantee younger-looking skin? “There was no real bearing between effects and the amount of money you spend,” she says, “although Crème de la Mer did do well in our tests. And, interestingly, not a great number of really inexpensive products have made it into the book. But that’s because the bar has been set very high. Products have to be really outstanding now to make the ranking.”

Having said all that, while the best in show gets a lovely rosette and all the fanfare, they’re not in the habit of bad-mouthing those who don’t make the grade. “We will happily remove the tester’s name from the form and send the results to the brand so they can use it as a market research exercise. Sometimes it could be something they have overlooked, like it doesn’t dispense enough product from the nozzle or three of the lids broke, they don’t like the smell or it just didn’t perform in some way. We don’t name and shame because we would be cutting our noses off to spite our faces.”

To those of us who still maintain the anti-ageing market is merely preying on our insecurities, peddling snake oil in a pretty jar, she says, “You meet a lot of people who say, ‘Eye creams don’t work.’ Well, eye creams don’t work if you don’t use them. It’s not enough to buy it, leave it on the shelf and use it once a week. These things are designed to be used according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and that is what our testers are doing. I think that’s one of the reasons our results are so positive. You have to give something a really good shot at working and you only get that when you use it properly.”

Based on results, there is even a product out there that might persuade Fairley to step outside her beloved Liz Earle regime. “Temple Spa Skin Truffle was trialled for this edition of the book and has got the highest-ever score for ‘miracle products’,” says Fairley. “I might have to give that a go.”

And what about the science bit? “I’m not convinced – I think there is a lot of attempting to blind with science. My feedback from real women is that they don’t really care. They want to know if something works, not how.

“Most of us have just about got our heads around peptides and AHAs but there are some even more complicated descriptions and phrases used that are just bamboozling, frankly. A phospholipid and all those sorts of things mean absolutely nothing to most women and I don’t think they really care. The brands that go down that route are getting it slightly wrong – they’re listening to their lab scientists and not the women on the street.”

The Anti-Ageing Beauty Bible, by Jo Fairley and Sarah Stacey, is published by Kyle Books, £14.99