Are expensive skin creams better than drugstore brands?

Does price matter when it comes to over-the-counter skin-care products? No one knows for sure, since most companies do not publish clinical research on their creams. But many dermatologists agree that, generally speaking, expensive brands aren't any better for you than less costly creams. "Price is irrelevant from the point of view of whether it works or not," says Dr. Charles Zugerman, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Northwestern University Medical School.

So what exactly are you paying for when you buy a fancy skin cream? "A lot of what is spent in cosmetics is on packaging and advertising," says Dr. Robin Ashinoff, director of cosmetic dermatology at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, N.J. The cost can also be determined by the contents of the cream. "Some ingredients can be very exotic and expensive or difficult to prepare," says John Bailey, executive vice president for science for the Personal Care Products Council (formerly known as the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association).

Still, unusual ingredients aren't necessarily any more effective at moisturizing your skin or reducing wrinkles. "If you want to pay so that when someone walks into your bathroom they see a $400 jar of face cream on your shelf, that's what you're paying for," says Dr. Vesna Petronic-Rosic, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Chicago. "[But] if you put Cetaphil on your skin every day, twice a day, it's going to achieve the same effect."

Affordable creams like Cetaphil, as well as Neutrogena and Oil of Olay, hydrate just fine, say dermatologists. Just be sure to apply the cream within three minutes of bathing or showering to trap the moisture under your skin. And be realistic about the results. Despite the promises of many anti-aging products, don't expect major changes from an over-the-counter cream—regardless of how much you spend on it.

If you want more of an effect, dermatologists can prescribe stronger products, like Retin A or creams with high concentrations of alpha hydroxyl acid, which exfoliate dead skin and trigger formation of new collagen and elastic fibers, says Dr. Marjory Nigro, a Houston dermatologist. (There are over-the-counter products available with alpha hydroxyl acid, but they must have a concentration of 6 percent or less; prescription products typically contain 12 percent or more.)

Perhaps the most effective and least expensive way to ward off wrinkles is by using a moisturizing sunscreen with a sun-protection factor of at least 30 every day. That simple step can help prevent lines and dry skin in the first place.

For more skin-care tips, check out our secrets to youthful skin.