In our mothers’ days, facial moisturizers were applied twice daily — once in the morning and once at night. That started to change in 1982, when Estee Lauder introduced its Night Repair Cellular Recovery Complex. As the name suggests, it urged women to not just maintain, but fix themselves. A few years later, in 1986, night cream came to the masses courtesy of Pond’s Night Cream.
We had entered the age of fear-mongering facial products purporting to fight aging with science.
As a beauty product skeptic, I’ve always been suspicious of any anti-aging advice other than “wear sunscreen every day.” Night creams, in particular, have always felt more like a marketing gimmick than a real tool for achieving perpetual youth. There’s no denying they’re popular. According to data from Euromonitor, the market for facial moisturizers in the United States has grown modestly, from $1.64 billion in 2000 to $2 billion today. Meanwhile, the market for anti-ager products has exploded, from $1.2 billion to $3.56 billion, during that time. Night creams comprise a key leader of that charge.
“Night creams and skin care products in general have become more common in the past seven to ten years in the aging population,” says Dr. Jessica Weiser, a board-certified dermatologist with the New York Dermatology Group. “But in the past two to three years, even more so in the young — in their 20s and 30s — in an effort to prevent or at least slow the aging process.”
Purportedly, night creams are effective thanks to the skin’s overnight healing and replenishing process. But Dr. Molly A. Wanner, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, says it’s more about the absence of harsh external daytime factors. For example, she says, “During the day, you’re outside in the wind, [which] strips moisturizer from the skin.” Additionally, some ingredients in night creams — especially retinol — are made inactive by the sun. Using them at night makes perfect sense.
But do they work?
Information about a product’s true effectiveness is often tightly controlled by its maker. Because so many ingredients are developed within the companies that sell them, publicly available research can be scarce. “There’s a real lack of available peer-reviewed, published data on a lot of these ingredients,” says Dr. Wanner. In addition, the marketing of night cream products, along with the complicity of many of the publications that cover them, often obfuscates the truth more than it shines light on it.
What's more, producers of night creams don’t have to prove that their products actually make customers look younger. In fact, the FDA prohibits claims that a cosmetic product affects the structure of the body, including the skin. Instead, cosmetic companies say their products make customers appear younger. (Hence the common advertising pitch “reduces the appearance of fine lines.”) Whether that’s true is beside the point, as far as the FDA is concerned. Their concern is safety.
To step up where the FDA fails to deliver, I tried five top-selling night creams for three nights each. Each contains one of the five types of active ingredient most commonly found in night creams.
I must admit, I was surprised by the results.
Key Ingredient: Peptides are small chains of amino acids that, applied to the skin, are said to boost collagen production. The Boscia night cream contains palmitoyl oligopeptide and palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7.
Price: $34 for 1 fluid ounce.
Results: My face was feeling especially crusty after a day at the beach, giving this cream a real challenge. Going on, it felt slick and very viscous. It didn’t soak in immediately, and my face felt lotioned-up for a while. When it finally dried, my face felt a little sticky.
On the first morning, I noticed no visible change. But when I washed my face and applied my normal moisturizer, my skin did feel a little softer and smoother than usual.
After the third night, I noticed absolutely no change in the appearance of my skin, especially around the eyes, where peptides are said to fight crow’s feet and under-eye circles. Overall, my skin felt different (i.e. softer) but didn’t look different (i.e. I’m still 38 years old).
I experienced a slight breakout on my right cheek, which may or may not have been caused by the night cream.
Key Ingredient: Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) strip away dead skin cells from the epidermis, and there is some evidence they increase collagen in the skin. “What they’re going to do is give your skin a glow,” says Dr. Wanner. Hope in a Jar contains glycolic acid, which along with lactic acid is one of the most common AHAs found in night creams, thanks to its ability to penetrate the skin.
Price: $50 for 2 fluid ounces
Results: This one went on nicely, felt like a true cream and possessed none of the gooey-ness of the Boscia. It absorbed completely within a couple of minutes. The next morning, my skin felt nice, although nothing dramatic had happened to it. I did think my crow’s feet looked a little less grumpy, or was I just seeing what I wanted to see?
The cream seemed to absorb increasingly well over the next two nights. By the third morning, my skin did feel softer, especially on my neck. It’s hard to say what exactly was different around my eyes, but I though I looked less tired than usual.
In addition, that slight breakout from the Boscia testing phase had cleared up completely — and more quickly usual. My skin felt a bit tingly in the eye area, especially when I applied my normal moisturizer.
Key Ingredient: Hyaluronic acid is the same stuff that goes into injectable fillers like Restalyne and Juvederm. “It’s a humectant, so it’s going to attract water,” says Dr. Wanner. “It’s basically going to help the skin be more hydrated.”
Price: $62 for 1 fluid ounce
Results: Ten seconds after applying this updated version of Estee Lauder’s original 1982 product, it was completely absorbed — I couldn’t even tell I’d applied it.
By the second morning, I couldn’t deny the presence of a more fresh-faced woman staring back at me from the mirror. While my crow’s feet weren’t conquered and my skin wasn’t particularly soft, I looked smoother and less tired.
Unfortunately for the good people at Estee Lauder, I had a few drinks on night number three. Their serum just wasn’t powerful enough to fight off the visible effects of my hangover. Still, this product delivered some results.
It’s worth noting that, according to Dr. Wanner, humectants should be “sealed” into your skin. I’m left wondering if the Advanced Night Repair would have been more effective had I used a heavier cream after applying it.
The Key Ingredient: Antioxidants, an umbrella term referring to ingredients that combat free radicals that can damage the cellular structure, keeping skin looking young. Among the most popular antioxidants in night creams are Vitamin C, Vitamin E and Vitamin B-3. The Origins cream is high in Vitamin C (although its total ingredient list is disconcertingly long).
The Price: $43 for 1.7 ounces
Results: General rule of thumb — the thicker the cream, the more it can hydrate. Unfortunately, I don’t like thick creams. But this went on feeling fairly light. It took some time to absorb, but once it did my skin wasn’t sticky or greasy.
I noticed no change on the first morning. By the third night, the cream’s citrus scent was more overpowering than enjoyable. On the third morning, I could still detect no change in my skin, save a few minor blemishes — cause unclear.
The Key Ingredient: Retinol, a derivative of Vitamin A that increases collagen production, can even out skin tone and “reduce fine lines.” Exposure to the sun deactivates Retinol, making it a natural fit for use in night creams. Dr. Wanner says that over-the-counter Retinol products are less irritating than their prescription-only counterparts, but they also provide more modest results.
The Price: $85 for 1 ounce
Results: I actually loved the way RetAsphere went on —very thick and taking a couple minutes to absorb, then leaving my skin feeling nice and dry and smooth. This one has a slight medicinal smell.
On the first morning, I liked the way my skin felt. But aside from a general smoothness, I didn’t notice any difference in appearance. Same with the second morning. After the third night, my skin felt tighter — in a good way — and smoother.
Experts say you have to give Retinol some time to work its magic. I’d be willing to test this one for another week, to see what longer-term benefits might emerge.