How Long Should You Give a Skin Cream To Work?

Stopwatch

Thanks to wwarby for the picture.

Adverts for beauty products make big claims. Well when you read them literally in the way a lawyer would read a contract they often make no claims at all, but they are certainly designed to give you the impression that they are going to do a lot for you. I am not a lawyer and the fine print leaves me cold. The fact is that you are being led to believe something and what you are being led to believe is pretty clear.

And the reality is that some brands do live up to the promises they make while others oversell. And in fairness, we all have subtly different physiology and what works for one person may well be useless for another. Often the only way to sort out the sheep from the goats is to buy it and give it a try.

But how long should you give something before you decide whether or not it has done what you paid your money for or not?

This is one of those questions to which there is no right or wrong answer, but it is nonetheless one that I am pretty sure I know the answer to.

If you can’t detect a noticeable benefit in a week, I think you are justified in deciding that the promise will not be fulfilled and you are justified in taking your custom elsewhere.

Now it is certainly the case that if you want to prove that something works in a clinical trial, it will take a lot longer to do it. Clinical trials on pharmaceutical actives for conditions like acne sometimes run for six months. And there are good reasons why this should be the case. If you use a product for a week and it works that does not prove anything scientifically. Scientists want to generate enough data to carry out a statistical analysis to give themselves confidence that any observations are significant. And quite right too.

But as a consumer you don’t have to prove anything to anyone else, but you do have to prove it to yourself. If something is going to take multiple weeks before you notice it, the effect is going to be pretty small. And you will start to get taken in by the sunk cost fallacy. Having put that much effort in, the temptation to think you must have done some good is great.

I have been deliberately vague about what benefit I am talking about here, because I really think this applies across most product types. A moisturiser should moisturise your skin noticeably within a week. An antiwrinkle cream should be reducing your wrinkles within a week. If it doesn’t do anything you can notice in that time, multiplying that effect by twelve is still a very small effect. You should be paying for something that you can see reasonably quickly.

There is plenty of choice out there. If what you have tried doesn’t work, try something else. And try something different. There are more choices available now than at any time in history so there is no need to settle for poor performance.

15 thoughts on “How Long Should You Give a Skin Cream To Work?

  1. Denise

    Hi Colin,

    Agreed…1 thought, 1 question…

    Thought: if you have an adverse reaction…STOP using immediately, the result will not improve over a week. I’ve had so many clients return used items with red faces whom just didn’t know when to stop, I always felt for them.

    Question: what are your thoughts on using products as preventative? Americans will all but melt their face off and then hope you have a cream to fix it. Personally, I’ve approached skincare all my life from a “let’s try to keep that from happening” standpoint. Pointless?

  2. Colin Post author

    Absolutely stop if a product is giving you an adverse reaction. Repeating behaviour that is not giving good results seems to be something we all do more than we should, and not just when using products. It’s easier to spot when other people are doing it than we are doing it ourselves of course.

    When you say preventative my first thought was sunscreens. That may not be what you meant, but I think they fit the same pattern. If you are going out in the sun you put the product on just before you go out and it should protect you straight away. You don’t start putting it on 2 months in advance to get a better effect at a later date.

  3. Denise

    Hmmm, never seem get that hint when it comes to a cocktail. However…

    Fair enough…the last item on my mind was sun care, sorry should have been clearer. More along the lines of anti-wrinkle products prior to the wrinkles, as an example. In general, do anti-aging products support healthy skin and keep it that way or just try to fix the damage? I don’t have a particular product or brand in mind.

  4. Colin Post author

    There are precious few rigourous scientific studies of the effects of actives used in cosmetics, but here is one

    http://archderm.ama-assn.org/cgi/reprint/143/5/606

    If you look at Graph 2 on page 608. It takes 4 weeks before the average effect can be measured. My argument is that as an individual you would be able to tell it was working before the assessors could confirm it. Remember that to assess someones skin condition you only have appearance to judge by. If it is your own skin you can feel it and you know how it usually behaves. You also have to allow for the fact that in a trial you are averaging out the people on whom it works well and the ones for whom it just doesn’t work.

    So I would say even an anti wrinkle cream should be assessable in a week. And they can repair damage a little, though if you look at the photos you can’t really say that the effect is huge.

  5. Denise

    Bless these folks for caring at 80, the 13 who dropped out really had a tough time of it…I do agree a full exuviation cycle is really needed to see a measured effect but I always ask them to trust me for a week. I think a lot of clients would be happy with the results of repair but would want it sooner than 6 months. Thanks for sharing the study.

  6. Tinni

    How about products that seem to work for a few days and then do nothing after that? I’ve had this happen often times with acne products. Or am I reading this wrong, and you ment more along the lines of “you can tell if the product works seeing how things go _after_ the week”?

  7. Colin

    @Tinni

    I was specifically thinking of products that suggest you should use them for a prolonged period of time. Well, yes a moisturiser for instance could well be something you want to use daily. But you should see or feel some benefit in that time.

    Acne does have that rebound effect sometimes when the organisms adapt to whatever you are using and simply bounce back. In this case my response would be stop using the product until you really need clear skin for a couple of days. But I could write post after post about acne, mainly because it is so difficult to treat.

  8. Thomas

    I totally agree, Colin. Skin is a sensitive thing and it’s usually a matter of finding what works best for YOU and your individual skin 🙂

    I work for an all-natural company called Aidance Skincare. We have a long standing record of our customers typically say they see noticeable change in either a couple days or about a week as you suggested. Some of the stories we here from our customers truly are remarkable and we are so happy to be able to help them with those pesky skin issues.

    @Tinni

    Skin doesn’t build up a resistance to our products! How cool?

    Follow @AidanceSkincare on Twitter

  9. Tinni

    @Colin: Right-o! I personally wouldn’t mind reading more of acne from you, though. 😉

    @Thomas: I’m slightly suspicious at acne products (nothing personal), that promise change. I’ve tried “it all”, as many of us say, and nothing has had as much effect as medication I got from a doctor.

  10. Colin Post author

    @Tinni be careful what you wish for! I haven’t done any work on acne for a couple of years and I am beginning to miss it so I might well write something about it soon. But I find it hard to stop on things that interest me sometimes. Also thanks for reminding me about this thread because I have a message for Thomas.

    @Thomas – I usually delete comments from people who are simply puffing their product. I stretched it a bit for you because you had actually read the post you were commenting on and your company’s website didn’t look too outrageous and might be of interest to my readers. But this is a science blog and I would rather have heard some actual facts about your stuff rather than just saying its great. I draw your attention to Tinni’s reaction. We are all suspicious of advertising nowadays, and with good reason.

  11. Celazome

    Even with clinical trials, some companies may add a certain ingredient at such a low percentage that it will not perform. Unfortunately, this method is employed in the industry just so they can add an ingredient to a label- the claims will not meet the results.

    In any type of claim being made on a product and the dynamic nature of the skin, it is tough to know if a product will really work for you. Seek out products and brands who stand behind their products and offer money back guarantees if the product does not live up to your expectations.

  12. Colin Post author

    Yes Rae, you are right there. Things like tretinoin and retinol do take several months to work. So if you already have a really effective moisturising regime and add a tretinoin or retinol cream into it, you might not notice any extra benefit for over a month. Thanks for reminding me that I really need to do a blog post on those actives.

  13. Jessica Allison

    So glad you addressed tretinoin (retinol) in the comments, because, to be honest, your 1 week suggestion flies in the face of everything I’ve ever been told about how long a person must use a product in order to see benefits.

    I totally understand your explanation in terms of, say, basic skincare- if a moisturizer is going to moisturize, it will do so fairly immediately. If a cleanser is too harsh, you’ll probably know straight off. I also take your point about clinical results taking longer, what with having to disprove statistical anomalies.

    However, with “corrective” skincare (wrinkle fighting, treating hyper-pigmentation, etc…ingredients like AHAs/BHA, peptides, niacinamide, kojic acid) is there nothing to the idea that benefits can not really be seen until the skin “cycles” and reveals new cells?

    Follow my logic here: in the US, the FDA stipulates that cosmetics may not effect inner structural change in the skin. In other words, by design, cosmetics can only effect change in the outermost layers of the skin (otherwise they are classified and regulated as drugs, as is the case with tretinoin).

    If the skin’s epidermal layer takes around 28 days to go through a full cycle, shedding its hard outer layer for newer cells, wouldn’t it be true that after only 1 week, users would basically still be treating the very most surface, almost dead cells? In contrast, after a full month, the cells that have cycled to the surface are those that have been continually treated with the cosmetic since they were formed, and thus should show greater benefit?

    Of course, all of this supposes efficacy of the product, and I have NO argument with you on the thought that many (maybe even most) over-the-counter cosmetics WAY over promise.

    Curious to hear your thoughts! (And I’ll chime in to say I’d love to hear more on acne from you, it is such a challenging area!)

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