Treating fine lines and wrinkles doesn’t necessarily require a trip to the cosmetic surgeon. Regularly using anti-aging products, such as night creams or eye creams, can make a real difference in how your skin looks and feels, and there are many excellent ones out there that don’t require a prescription (or cost a fortune).
“There are two categories of products out there: ones that actually treat and prevent wrinkles, and others that just minimize their appearance,” says Pennsylvania-based board-certified dermatologist Erum Ilyas, M.D.
The first category of products contains legit anti-aging ingredients (think: retinol), while the second involves ingredients that excessively hydrate or temporarily swell the skin to make wrinkles seem less noticeable—but once you stop using them, your skin goes back to its regularly scheduled programming.
That’s not to say you should avoid the latter category. “These products serve a purpose of giving the appearance of ‘faster’ results, which is perfectly okay when you just want something that will make you look better for an event,” says Dr. Ilyas.
Bottom line: Know what you want out of your anti-aging creams before making a purchase. If you’re in it for the long haul and want a wrinkle cream that will keep up with you, there are several qualities to look for as you shop around.
How to choose the best anti-aging wrinkle cream or serum
Scan the label: The dermatologists we talked to recommend products that contain the following ingredients:
- Retinoids (vitamin A derivatives) promote cell turnover, stimulate collagen production, and help to even out skin tone.
- Peptides are another important anti-aging staple that help to repair skin damage.
- Antioxidants like vitamins C and E help in the fight against free radicals (unstable molecules that can do major damage to your cells).
- Hyaluronic acid, ceramides, shea butter, and other hydrators can boost and lock in moisture, which will help reduce the irritating effects of anti-aging ingredients.
Know your skin type: “For those who have oily skin or live in humid climates, a lightweight cream with mattifying properties will prevent skin from becoming weighed down and shiny,” says Joel Schlessinger, M.D., Omaha-based board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon. “On the other hand, if someone has dehydrated skin or lives in a dry, cold area, a rich cream is more appropriate for their regimen.”
Factor in sensitivities: If your skin is easily irritated, consider looking for anti-aging creams that contain bakuchiol instead of retinol. “It actually has the same effect as retinol topically, but it’s less irritating because it’s also an anti-inflammatory agent,” says Dr. Ilyas. Other potential irritants to avoid include fragrances, artificial dyes, and even coconut oil or cocoa butter, which can clog pores and cause breakouts.
Look for prime packaging: Ingredients like vitamin C, retinol, and peptides can become unstable and degrade when exposed to air or light, so any products that contain them should be packaged in dark opaque tubes, preferably with air-tight pumps, says Lela Lankerani, D.O., board-certified dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology in Austin, Texas.
But sifting through all of the anti-aging products to find the one that’s best for you can be a process. Here, the creams and serums experts recommend most.
Best for Sensitive Skin: L’Oreal Revitalift Cicacream
If your skin tends to be sensitive (and you want something affordable), this cream “contains tiger grass to help calm and repair the skin barrier, along with pro retinol to strengthen the deeper skin layers,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
Best Budget Buy: Roc Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream
This product “has the needed retinol to treat and prevent wrinkles, along with effective hydrating ingredients to minimize the irritation that most will experience with retinol-containing products,” says Dr. Ilyas. It’s also oil-free, noncomedogenic, and under $20.
Best Overall: Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream
This cream contains hyaluronic acid to plump and hydrate, amino-peptides to firm the skin, as well as niacinamide (a.k.a. vitamin B3), a potent antioxidant that helps improve the appearance of enlarged pores and dullness, says New York City-based dermatologist Debra Jaliman, M.D., author of Skin Rules.
Strongest: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Night Moisturizer
This is a milder retinol product that helps bring new skin cells to the surface, while encouraging new collagen growth over time, says board-certified dermatologist Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D. It is strong enough to be irritating, though, so start by applying a thin layer two nights a week and increase slowly as tolerated.
Most Versatile: NEOCUTIS Lumière Bio-Restorative Eye Cream
“With this cream, you don’t need to worry about whether or not it’s only going to help with puffiness or just improve crow’s feet, because it really does do it all,” says Dr. Schlessinger. Its formula utilizes powerful growth factors to smooth and firm the eye area, while caffeine improves the appearance of puffiness and dark circles.
Best for Hydrating Skin: Naturopathica Argan & Retinol Wrinkle Repair Night Cream
“This is a nice product to use if you have sensitive skin and are looking for a retinol,” says Dr. Ilyas. While more studies are needed to test argan’s benefits, the results have been promising. “At the very least, it hydrates the skin effectively to boost the benefits of retinol and reduce the potential irritation from its use,” she says.
Best Expert Favorite: Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment
This derm favorite is the only prescription-strength retinoid (adapalene) available OTC, and it treats everything from acne to discolorations to wrinkles. Apply a gentle moisturizer on top since it acts like more of a treatment. If you experience irritation, apply your moisturizer underneath to provide a bit of a barrier.
Best for Scars: Murad Rapid Age Spot Correcting Serum
Dealing with acne scars or sun spots? This serum will help brighten your complexion as it prevents future pigment formation, says Manhattan-based board-certified dermatologist Emmanuel Loucas, M.D. Chalk it up to its blend of antioxidant-rich vitamin C and skin-lightening hydroquinone.
Best for Tightening Skin: NeoStrata Triple Firming Anti-Aging Neck Cream
Your neck is one of the first parts of your body to show signs of aging. This cream firms the area with a unique trifecta of ingredients, which help tighten skin by boosting collagen production, exfoliate to fade dark spots, and hydrate with vitamin E and shea butter.
Best Budget Buy: CeraVe Skin Renewing Night Cream
“The ingredients in this moisturizer can achieve results of some much more expensive products,” says Dr. Jaliman. It contains ceramides and hyaluronic acid, making it an excellent hydrator that helps to reduce the skin’s crepey appearance, while niacinamide helps even out skin tone. It’s a light formulation that won’t clog pores (and is super-easy on the wallet).
Best for Fine Lines: OLEHENRIKSEN Goodnight Glow Retin-Alt Sleeping Crème
This cream is formulated with bakuchiol, a plant-based retinol alternative that delivers similar benefits but is gentler on skin, says Dr. Ilyas. It’s also concentrated with exfoliating alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and edelweiss stem cell, ultimately helping your skin fight fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots while improving elasticity.
Award-Winning: PCA Skin Intensive Age Refining Treatment 0.5% Pure Retinol
“When it comes to retinol, I don’t compromise,” says Mona Gohara, M.D., vice president of the Women’s Dermatologic Society and member of Prevention’s Medical Review Board. “I like to have the science (knowing it’s been tested to build collagen), the right percentage (at least 0.5%), and the ability to use it regularly without irritation. When I find a product that has all those things, I stick with it.” That’s why she backed this pick for our 2020 Beauty Awards.
Best for Oily Skin: SkinCeuticals Phloretin CF
“Phloretin is my favorite vitamin C antioxidant serum to help protect against and repair free radical damage, which is a key step in a daily skincare routine,” says Shari Marchbein, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Downtown Dermatology in New York City. “It can help reduce brown spots, evens skin tone, and protects from further sun damage.” She notes it’s great for all skin types, but especially those who skew oily or acne-prone.
Best for Quick Results: SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator
Hyaluronic acid, a peptide complex, and vitamin E “draw in moisture from the air and deliver it to your skin for up to 8 hours after application,” Ramya Kollipara, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology in Texas told us previously. “It’s great for fine lines and works almost immediately.”
How to get the most out of your anti-aging creams and serums
Layer in the correct order: You want your products to complement each other, not work against one another. “Unless otherwise indicated, remember to apply anti-aging creams after all other skincare—except your daily sunscreen,” says Dr. Schlessinger. Applying a cream before a gel or serum, for example, may prevent them from properly penetrating the skin.
Make sure the ingredients get along: Many of us layer products because we think this will increase the active ingredients that will help our skin, when in reality, we may be deactivating them by combining ingredients that clash—and retinoids are a good example of this.
“Retinoids are some of the most proven topical options for anti-aging, but they’re often deactivated by alpha hydroxy acids and benzoyl peroxide,” says Hadley King, M.D., clinical instructor of dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. “So if you’re layering products and one contains AHA and one contains a retinoid, you may not benefit from the retinoid at all.” (They’re also degraded by sun exposure, which is why they are typically found in night creams.)
Exfoliate: Oiliness and dead skin cells can clog pores and interfere with product penetration, says Dr. Schlessinger, who recommends using an exfoliator once a week to make sure you’re scoring all the perks from your anti-aging creams.
Store your products properly: “Efficacy of anti-aging products is compromised when you don’t store your products in the appropriate place,” says Dr. Lankerani. Products with active ingredients, such as retinol and vitamin C, should be kept in a dark, cool environment to slow down the degradation of the active ingredients.
Be patient: “While the amount of time needed to see visible results varies from product to product, I recommend waiting 12 weeks to see results with most anti-aging creams,” suggests Dr. Schlessinger.
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