The truth about firming creams

Most cosmetics companies sell products claiming to lift and firm the skin, even when it's crepe-textured. The claims sound convincing (like "facelift in a bottle"), but almost without exception they aren't genuine. It's not that some firming creams don't have value for skin; it's just that most firming and lifting creams are poorly formulated, and the promises stretch the truth of what's possible from any skincare product.

Do skin and face tightening creams work?

Here's what's certain: even the best firming face cream or skin tightening cream will not give you results that are even remotely similar to what you get from medical procedures such as dermal fillers, lasers, or cosmetic surgery. Knowing the truth about firming creams matters because wasting money on products that don't work is never pretty!

The facts:

  • Elastin is the support fibre in the body that allows skin to "bounce" back into place. Think of elastin like the springs in a mattress and the stuffing between the springs as collagen, along with other elements of the body, such as fat, cartilage, muscle, and so on. When elastin is damaged, the skin begins to sag, just like when mattress springs get old and damaged, the mattress begins to sag. This sagging combined with sun damage can cause crepe paper-like skin.
  • During development in the womb and in early childhood, skin makes lots of elastin, but older skin makes almost none … nada … zilch.
  • Sun damage and age degrade elastin.
  • It is almost impossible for adult skin to make more elastin, even with medical procedures.
  • Most firming creams are a ridiculous waste of money because they don't contain ingredients that can firm or tighten (lift) skin.
  • Skincare products may contain collagen or elastin, but the collagen and elastin in these products cannot fuse with the collagen and elastin in your skin to help rebuild or reinforce those structures. The molecular sizes of both collagen and elastin are too large (WAY too large!) to penetrate the skin's surface.

Note: in some products, the collagen or elastin is supposedly "reengineered" to be made small enough so it can be absorbed into the skin, but even if nano-sized, these ingredients still will not fuse with the collagen and elastin in your skin. Any claims to the contrary are not supported by independent, peer-reviewed research. More important: how would the collagen and elastin you applied all over your face know what collagen and elastin to attach to in your skin and which to leave alone?

How can I tighten my skin?

Almost without exception, when you buy a cream that targets loose skin or a product claiming to tighten crepey skin, its effects, if any, are due to ingredients such as film-forming agents. Just like the name states, film-forming agents form a film on the skin, and that can make the skin "feel" tighter. The effect is temporary and you won't see noticeable lifting of sagging skin, but the sensation is often enough to convince women that the product is working. Skin "feeling" tighter is not the same as making a real change for the better in the tone or laxity of your skin. Using what really works will get you closer to the results you want!

  • Building more collagen is the key! Although collagen doesn't help crepey skin bounce back, it does help support skin so that sagging is less apparent. You can help skin make lots of collagen with skincare products that contain potent antioxidants and skin-repairing ingredients.
  • Sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater is non-negotiable! Because sun damage destroys elastin and collagen, daily sun protection is critical, but how many of us remember to apply sunscreen to our necks as well as to our faces each and every day? … Exactly. And that's one main reason why many people's necks look "older" than their faces. This is why anti-ageing skincare doesn't stop at your face!
  • Daily use of an exfoliant containing salicylic acid (BHA) or glycolic acid (AHA) can really help. Along with exfoliating for smoother skin, there is also a good amount of research showing these ingredients build more collagen and, to some extent, can help firm the skin. You don't need to use both; one or the other is fine, or, if you like, you can alternate.
  • Vitamin A, also called retinol, applied topically can improve the shape of the elastin your skin still has; there is even a small amount of research showing it can build elastin. (It definitely can build more collagen.) Applying a retinol product every night can help a lot! The same is true for prescription retinoids. Alternatively, try the plant-derived skincare ingredient bakuchiol. Research shows this natural ingredient has many anti-ageing benefits such as reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Medical procedures such as lasers and other light therapies such as Fraxel or Ulthera have impressive skin-firming results and can also improve crepey skin! Rather than spending money on expensive firming creams and facials that don't - and won't - work, you could set those funds aside and in a few months easily afford these types of skin-changing treatments from a dermatologist.
  • When all else fails (or simply doesn't give you the results you want), it's time to consider cosmetic surgery. Various types of facelifts can make a dramatic difference without making you looked "pulled too tight," and when combined with a brilliant skincare routine, the results can be nothing short of show-stopping!

There you have it! Although it's not the best news, it's not the worst, either. Skin firming and tightening from skincare products is possible, but such products never work as well as the over-exaggerated claims you see on the products' labels or what you hear from cosmetics salespeople.

Sources: Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, September 2012, pages 1036–1040; Birth Defects Research, September 2012, pages 248–257; International Journal of Cosmetic Science, April 2012, pages 132–139, and February 2011, pages 62–69; Biomacromolecules, February 2012, pages 379–386; Journal of Cosmetic Science, March 2010, pages 125–132; Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, March 2009, pages 56–62; Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, volume 20, 2006, page 980; and Experimental Dermatology, volume 11, 2002, page 398.

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