For the past five years in the US alone, consumers have spent well over $2 billion annually on anti-aging products. Worldwide, the market is estimated to be nearing $200 billion in the next few years. Needless to say, there are a lot to choose from: Whole aisles in drugstores and department stores are devoted to combatting wrinkles, fine lines, and sun-damaged skin.
To find the best wrinkle cream, reviews.com looked for products for the whole face (our review on best eye cream is a good read for anyone looking for a more targeted approach). We compiled a list of 237 creams, serums, and gels from top retailer roundups; recommendations from popular beauty magazines, blogs, and experts; and best-sellers from stores like Ulta, Sephora, Nordstrom, Saks — even Walgreens. And then we started digging into their ingredients.
No retinol? That’s a deal breaker.
Retinoids are the only over-the-counter wrinkle fighter proven to reverse the signs of aging in study after study. A derivative of vitamin A, retinol works in two ways: by drying and exfoliating the epidermis (aka cell turnover) and by spurring the collagen production that naturally degrades as we get older, which improves elasticity and fills in lines.
You’ve heard of the original retinoid, tretinoin, by its brand name Retin-A, a prescription topical solution developed by dermatologists in the ‘60s. Retinol is its over-the-counter little sister, and while it’s not quite as strong or immediately effective, a three-month, double-blind, randomized study of 34 women showed there was no significant difference in efficacy between 1.1 percent retinol and 0.025 percent prescription tretinoin. In short: Retinol really works.
According to our experts, over-the-counter “wrinkle creams” that don’t contain retinol are either just moisturizers or purporting to contain some sort of new wrinkle fighter that hasn’t been put through the rigorous studies that retinoids have.
Plus some AHAs
Alpha hydroxy acids, which are derived from fruits and milk, are the second most important weapon in the fight against wrinkles — multiple studies have shown their effectiveness in improving the look of aging skin. There are many AHAs in nature, but glycolic acid and lactic acid have the ability to penetrate skin, so those are the two they targeted to find the best wrinkle cream.
They work by dissolving lipids, the adhesive that clings to old, dead cells. A wrinkle forms when there’s a faulty repair of the skin and a short collagen bond happens instead of a long one. Our bodies just start making these kinds of mistakes as we get older, and alpha hydroxy acids get in there, break up the junk, and give your skin another shot at making the right bond between cells. These guys are exfoliation powerhouses, sloughing off old cells in favor of newer, younger-looking skin at the cellular level. If you’re looking to reverse signs of photoaging (like dark spots) as well as reduce the appearance of fine lines, AHAs are your best bet.
AHAs alone will do wonders for the appearance of your skin, but by selecting a product with both retinol and an AHA, you’re getting a two-fer: the best of clinically proven anti-aging ingredients.
And finally: hyaluronic acid.
Retinol and AHAs work behind the scenes targeting long-term results. Hyaluronic acid, on the other hand, will give you immediate benefits while you wait for those other guys to kick in. This acid is different than the ones in AHAs; it’s actually a humectant.
Humectants work by forcing water into cells and keeping it there — and hyaluronic acid (and its derivative, sodium hyaluronate) is the latest and greatest humectant out there. “There’s been a renaissance in skin care products, particularly topical ones, which now include a number of ingredients to improve wrinkles. Hyaluronic acid is one of those ingredients now available topically,” says Dr. Diane Ford, a DC-area dermatologist and lecturer. A hyaluronic acid molecule can hold 800 to 1,000 times its weight in water, and it’s been engineered to the point that it can actually penetrate the epidermis rather than just sit on top. That immediate turbo-hydration helps skin look plumper and full of life, but it has longer-term benefits too, ranging from improved skin elasticity to reversing UV damage.
After running all 237 through what they considered a pretty easy wish list, guess how many passed muster? Four. Four! So they tossed three more to try out into the mix, making sure they contained at least retinol, but not necessarily AHAs or hyaluronic acid, and started having some fun.
They examined the packaging.
Anti-aging ingredients, especially vitamin A derivatives like retinol, are wildly sensitive to sunlight. UV rays can break them down immediately and render your hundred dollars of product completely ineffective. “Have you ever noticed how vitamins and prescription drugs are distributed in containers to protect from UV light? Those amber prescription bottles from CVS are amber for a reason!” says chemist Jennifer Reid.
They took each bottle or tub into a dark room and shone a flashlight through it to see if light could penetrate the container. (It felt like a kindergarten science project in all the best ways.) The top picks all passed this test — even the containers that looked transparent actually had an opaque liner. Well played.
Not so well-played was packaging that protects against contamination. Namely: tubs. Reid explains, “Sticking your fingers directly into the product can introduce bacteria, and open tubs also expose a large surface area of the product to oxygen.” Like UV rays, oxygen can degrade the effectiveness of our key ingredients. But bacteria is a whole other mess. Studies have shown contaminated beauty products contain nasty bacteria like staph and E. coli. How do they get in there? Your fingers. Yuck.
Who knows why 109 of our 237 contenders come in tubs, because it makes no sense whatsoever. (Maybe they’re all trying to look like La Mer?) Sure, you might wash your hands and face before applying your wrinkle cream, but what if you don’t get every particle of dirt out from under your nails? Boom: bacteria.
Of course there are ways around that. Some tubs come with applicators: little spoons that you’re supposed to use to take dollops of the product out. Maybe you’re the type that can always follow the rules (I’m not) — so while they didn’t declare tubs a deal breaker, they did consider it.
And tried them all on.
Was any smell off-putting? Did they hurt or sting in any way? Did they have any negative reactions? Keeping in mind that everyone’s skin is different and we all react to products in a unique way, so they looked for any glaringly obvious issues in the immediate aftermath of use. They didn’t evaluate any product on its results — even the best wrinkle creams take around six months before results are visible. Those ingredients need time to do their thing.
Reviews.com was pretty ticked that the best wrinkle cream is also the most expensive. (And honestly, so was I) We’re talking really expensive: over five times as much as any of our other top picks for slightly less product (only 1.35 oz). Come on. For $510, you can buy a roundtrip plane ticket to Cancun, where they sell prescription Retin-A in the airport for $35 (not that we’re recommending this…).
But La Prairie’s Cellular Power Charge Night has everything you want in an over-the-counter wrinkle cream: all three of the wishlist ingredients, plus a completely opaque bottle with a pump. The packaging has an otherworldly feel to it. It’s sleek, minimal, and futuristic. It looks like the wrinkle cream androids would use. The airless pump bottle means not only no contamination or oxygen degradation, but also that each portion is tightly controlled — you’re not at risk of over-serving by even a single drop.
Equally important as including all three ingredients is including enough of each. Retinol stood out here at spot 12 on the ingredient list — the second-highest of all the top picks, with Neutrogena’s Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum coming in first with retinol at number 11.
And the texture is sublime: It’s a very lightweight serum that absorbs instantly with no residue. One thing about these wrinkle treatments is that they can be drying, so there’s a temptation to add a heavy duty night cream on top. With the thicker wrinkle creams (like the ones we tested by Peter Thomas Roth and Dr. Dennis Gross), it’s cream overkill, but La Prairie’s practically invisible formulation lends itself to layering.
The serum felt good, and it smelled clean and crisp. Best of all, they felt no irritation upon application or the following morning, which we couldn’t say about many of the other creams. With each of the other top picks they woke up feeling something. Not pain necessarily, but definitely tightness. Not so with La Prairie. This is probably due to the addition of plenty of plant-based oils, which packed the top of the ingredient list. The other top picks listed a jumble of unpronounceable “-xanes” and “-xides” before getting to our wrinkle fighters. Something about seeing words like jojoba and sunflower seed oil up top soothed their minds as well as their skin.
We searched and searched for other options that did wrinkle cream as well as La Prairie, but couldn’t. This one just nails it. A brief survey of eBay reveals that there’s a hot second market for it (or for knockoffs) — and we found it on Amazon for closer to $200 — so we’re not alone in thinking the price tag is simply ridiculous. Elle Magazine also notes its effectiveness in the face of a blinding price tag. If you have the cash, you can feel confident spending it here, but if you’re just a regular person and not a cartoon oil tycoon, there are more reasonable alternatives.
This wrinkle fighter came in a package that looked the most medicinal of all those we tried: It’s in an amber-tinted pot and the logo is a little cross like you see outside of pharmacies. You may think that’s some marketing sleight of hand (“Ooh, this looks like it came from an old-timey apothecary! It must be good!”), but Dr. Dennis Gross packs a punch in terms of ingredients. Retinol shows up the lowest on its ingredients list out of our three top picks (around 20th), so it won’t be quite as efficacious as La Prairie, but it does include both glycolic and lactic acid (which Neutrogena lacks), plus a hyaluronic element. It feels luxurious going on — a little thinner than a night cream, a little thicker than a moisturizer — and has a pleasantly light citrus and lavender scent.
Now, for the bad news: It’s in totally the wrong packaging. There is a white plastic liner inside the pot so the cream isn’t getting exposed to light at all times — but what about when you open the container? If you can trust yourself to either thoroughly wash your hands or use a spoon to take the product out of its pot (and to only do that far away from any windows), we say it’s worth trying. After La Prairie, $72 feels like a steal, but be warned: You only get 1.7 ounces and portion control can be tricky without a pump.
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum
Reviews.com was so happy to have found this stuff. The other drugstore pick, RoC Deep Wrinkle Night Cream, did only so-so in our testing — which is especially surprising since the “R” in RoC stands for retinol. Out of Deep Wrinkle Night’s 35 ingredients, retinol was buried at 27th out of 35, and its best attempt at an AHA was 19th. “If you see the word ‘retinol’ listed in the first few ingredients, it will probably have a more significant effect. However, if it is listed as one of the last ingredients, it may not be as effective for anti-aging and wrinkles,” says Ford. When they realized they weren’t happy with any of the drugstore creams they’d been recommended, they set back out to CVS and read the ingredients list of literally every wrinkle fighter in the store to find a decent product for those of us with tighter budgets. (Yay!)
According to its box, Neutrogena’s Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum is new to market, and review.com feels pretty sure this one is going to take off in a big way. Unfortunately, it lacks any AHAs — but it does include enough retinol and hyaluronic acid to be effective, and it comes in the right container. Best yet: It’s under $20.
It calls itself a serum, but the texture is more like a thin moisturizer — it’s quite creamy. That needn’t bother anyone too much, but if you’re a stickler for grammar, you might want to take a Sharpie to the packaging. The only other thing we disliked about it: its scent. The fragrance is strong. For a daytime treatment, that might be fine, but we’re not sure you’ll want to go to bed smelling like a perfume counter.
Curious about other wrinkle creams? That will be coming up in the next blog post – stay tuned!