Lab test 'revolution' predicted for anti-ageing skin creams

A revolution in the marketing of anti-ageing skin creams based on scientific evaluation of their effects was predicted yesterday by leading dermatologists.

Results of the first double blind randomised controlled trial of a skin-care product are awaited and could trigger a flood of similar trials as companies compete for domination of the multimillion-pound market, the experts said.

The race to develop a scientifically proven over-the-counter product with comparable anti-ageing effects to retinoic acid, the remedy for sun-damaged skin developed as a treatment for acne more than 30 years ago, heralded a new era in the approach to skin-care products, they said.

Retinoic acid causes side effects of redness, dryness and irritation in about 1 per cent of users and is only available on prescription. Over-the-counter versions contain very small amounts of the agent and are of limited effectiveness.

The clinical trial of the Boots No 7 Protect and Perfect beauty serum, which is claimed to have significant anti-ageing properties, was launched after initial laboratory tests showed it worked better than more expensive creams in repairing skin damaged by the effects of the sun and ageing.

After the laboratory tests were shown last year on the BBC TV Horizon programme, they triggered a run on the Boots cream and near-riots when stocks ran out, proving the marketing power of hard science. Boots sold almost six million 30ml tubes of the beauty serum at £16.75 each in the nine months after the programme. Yesterday, Chris Griffiths, professor of dermatology at the University of Manchester, who tested the cream for Horizon and is leading the clinical trial, was astonished by the response. "It showed how science is something the public latch on to," he said, at a briefing organised by the Science Media Centre.

The cream contains white lupin and retinyl parmitate, a derivative of retinol (Vitamin A) which was shown 30 years ago to reduce brown spots and wrinkling associated with ageing. Professor Griffiths said there had been a "lot of conjecture" about which of the two ingredients accounted for the effects in the laboratory tests, which showed the cream stimulated production of fibrillin.

Fibrillin is essential to the structure of the skin, in the same way tent-pegs hold a groundsheet smooth, but it is destroyed by the effects of the sun and ageing, he said. Although the laboratory tests suggested the Boots cream had a positive effect on fibrillin, there was no way of knowing if it improved appearance until the results of the clinical trial were revealed. "It may do absolutely nothing," he said.

Whatever the outcome, the pressure for more scientific evaluation of skin cream manufacturer's claims was irresistible, said Richard Weller, consultant dermatologist at the University of Edinburgh.

The market for "cosmaceuticals" – cosmetics sold on the basis of their supposed scientific effects – has doubled in the past five years to £100m. But there was little trial evidence to prove their effects, Dr Weller said.

"There are half a dozen major companies operating in the same market with essentially similar products. If one took the risk [of running trials] and it paid off, you would have the killer company. It would dominate the market. It's a high-risk strategy but I think one of them will do it."

What restrained the companies was the fear that, if their products proved too effective in scientific trials they could be classed as medicines, restricting their sale over the counter and making them available only on prescription, like retinoic acid. The battle then would be with the regulators over the definition of the product. Dr Weller said: "If I ran a cosmetics company I would say, let's do it."

Best seller

6,000,000: Number of 30ml tubes of Boots No 7 Protect and Perfect sold in nine months after favourable lab test