5 Comments »Posted on Friday 1 May 2009 at 2:10 pm by Seth Bell
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine


Good news for the appearance-conscious this week, as it is announced that an ‘anti-ageing’ cream produced by Boots, ‘No 7 Protect & Perfect Intense Beauty Serum’, really does reduce wrinkles. And it is not just Boots who are claiming this, but qualified scientists from The University of Manchester who have given their seal of approval of the product by publishing a double-blind, randomly sampled test of the cream in the British Journal of Dermatology.

The test is essentially a clinical trial: Thirty people were given the product, whilst another thirty people were given the vehicle – the base moisturiser with the suspected anti-ageing agents absent. The participants were not told which product they were using. After six months their wrinkles were examined and compared to their previous degree of wrinkling. At this point it was revealed which product subjects were on and they were given the opportunity to keep using it for a further six months, after which time their wrinkling was examined again. The cream was shown to noticeably reduce wrinkling.

Sceptical? Well I was at first; after all we are all used to the beauty industry relying on “scientific” studies to advertise their products. But this study is published in a reputable journal and does seem to represent a genuine attempt to explore the science behind anti-ageing products. The analysis at least relies on real statistics rather than consumer surveys.

The results show that after six months 43% of people using the product show an improvement compared to 22% of people who were using the vehicle, however the authors of the paper point out that these results are statically insignificant. After twelve months the results become statistically significant, where 70% of people showed an improvement using the product compared to 33% using the vehicle.  So, strictly speaking, the authors of the study are claiming the benefit of the anti-ageing effects are only noticeable after twelve months (despite this, the BBC, The Sun and The Guardian all report the statistics for the results after six months rather than twelve.)

In 2007 No. 7 Protect & Perfect Beauty Serum became Boots’ fastest ever selling product after it was shown on BBC2 Horizon, demonstrating that science as a brand can have enormous influence on consumer attitudes.

Does it work then? Well, to be honest, I’m still not completely convinced. The results are based on photo comparisons such as the one below. I cannot really observe much improvement, but then I’m not a qualified dermatologist. In addition, the difference between the product and the vehicle may be as a result of an inherent difference to the way a person’s skin reacts to moisturiser.

But despite this I’m genuinely encouraged by this study. The comments section of The Guardian article provides an amusing read: amidst the petty abuse some have complained that this study does not constitute proof, that peer-review is not a foolproof process. I agree with the claim that peer-review is not foolproof, but at least Boots (who provided funding for the study) are making an effort to scientifically investigate their products. Author Professor Chris Griffiths points out that Boots were taking a gamble:

“We did this in a purely independent way. Either way this paper would have been published otherwise we would have not entered into the study. I suppose Boots were confident or foolhardy, whichever way you want to look at it.”

And even though I’m not convinced by the findings, I don’t’ begrudge Boots their increase in sales on the basis of the study. Consumers are more media savvy than they are usually given credit for and will understand that, even if the results are taken at face value, the product has a chance of improving their wrinkles but that there is no guarantee.  If it doesn’t work for them, they’ll end up trying another product. I think it is more hope than science which will drive people to Boots.

Terms like ‘anti-ageing agents’ do conjure up an image of beauty-treatment advertising jargon, which many of us hold a long-enduring scepticism toward. But a cream which reduces wrinkles is not particularly pie-in-the-sky compared to other achievements of mankind. I’m fortunate enough to be wrinkle-free at the moment, but am hopeful that an anti-ageing cream will be scientifically proved to work in the future. We’re not there yet, but I think this study is a least a step in the right direction.

Watson, R., Ogden, S., Cotterell, L., Bowden, J., Bastrilles, J., Long, S., & Griffiths, C. (2009). A cosmetic ‘anti-ageing’ product improves photoaged skin: a double-blind, randomized controlled trial British Journal of Dermatology DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2009.09216.x

  1. 5 Comments

  2. Sorry, forgot to include the photo! See The Times: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article6186333.ece

    By Seth Bell on Friday 1 May, 2009 at 3:37 pm

  3. It is a little more than unconvincing. The study itself showed that:

    “the test product did lead to a noticeable clinical improvement in facial wrinkles…in 43% of treated individuals after 6 months, compared with only 22% of those treated with the vehicle…In a comparison between groups, this improvement was not statistically significant

    By RS on Friday 1 May, 2009 at 6:25 pm

  4. I should point out if it is not already clear that the clinical trial only went up to 6m – after that all subjects received the cream and the ‘statistically significant’ difference they report at 12m is unblinded and comparing the 60 people receiving cream to a number they made up for what the placebo response at 12m might be if only they’d bothered to do the trial that long.

    By RS on Friday 1 May, 2009 at 8:16 pm

  5. Hello RS

    As I’ve written above, I’m not convinced the cream works. I’ve also included both the information that the first result was statistically insignificant, and that the latter half of the trial was not blind.

    So I’m not sure why you’ve bothered to post this information in the comments.

    By Seth Bell on Saturday 2 May, 2009 at 12:54 pm

  6. What you haven’t pointed out is that at 12m the ‘statistically significant’ result is a bit of a fraud – you state that:

    “after twelve months the results become statistically significant, where 70% of people showed an improvement using the product compared to 33% using the vehicle.”

    But, as I say above, the 33% improvement in the placebo group at 12m is just a fantasy figure they made up using a linear regression on the 6m data – there were no subjects using placebo out to 12m – so any statistical comparison is meaningless.

    So the take home message is that a 6m placebo controlled clinical trial found that Boots anti-ageing cream shows no statistically significant benefit over placebo (i.e. the opposite to what the media is reporting).

    The unblinded trial with no placebo group and pie in the sky statistics at 12m is neither here nor there.

    By RS on Saturday 2 May, 2009 at 4:57 pm

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