Does Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Work? Depends on What "Work" Means

Ready for the grand reveal? Actually, according to my poll results, 56% of you don’t need it at all: The right side of my face received the anti-aging treatment. Twenty-nine percent of you couldn’t tell, and only 15% of you guessed incorrectly. And according to the results of my Visia face scan—kindly performed by Sabina Kozak, the spa director at Sensitive Touch, a medical spa in NYC—my wrinkles really have decreased on the right side of my face:

The Visia scan also told me I was in the 47th wrinkle percentile for 34-year-old women.
Does Kaplan have a course for improving this?

So obvs we should all be swarming the drugstore in search of Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair, right? Not exactly. The other measures from my Visia face scan (thanks to The Beauty Brains for the tipoff about the Visia imaging system, which aids in analyzing your skin's condition) suggested that I had poorer texture on the treated side of my face—hardly a surprise, given the flakiness and peeling I had about two weeks in. So you’re making a devil’s deal—reduced wrinkles for heightened sensitivity—and you might not ever know whether it’s worth it (unless, of course, you conduct a Highly Scientific Experiment like a certain intrepid beauty blogger).

But fine, whatever, some of us will put bat blood on our face if it’ll just slow down the cruelle hands of time, right? So look at my photo again:

Let’s be honest: The difference is minuscule. It’s not something you’d notice were you not looking for it—or, for 29% of you, that you'd notice even if you were (not to mention the 15% who thought I'd treated the other side of my face). In fact, I found it impossible to properly document, because the only way I myself noticed was when I would smile wildly at myself four inches away from the mirror. Then I could tell a legitimate difference in the depth of wrinkles under my eyes and the number of fine lines splayed out on either side of my nose. But unless I spend my life grinning fanatically to increase my wrinkles so that onloookers can tell how decreased they've actually become, no really, it's a moot point. (I might begin to garner a reputation as extraordinarily cheerful and/or as a maniac, which would either shave a few years off or add them on, depending.)

But here’s the thing: Undoubtedly, the cream “worked.” It’s justified in its claims of "fading the look of stubborn...deep wrinkles." (Though its other claims, of “brightening skin tone” and “improving texture” were unproven--do you see any difference in tone? I don’t, and neither did Kozak at Sensitive Touch. In fact, in just looking at close-up photos of my face, she guessed I’d been treating the left side of my face, because of its smoother texture—and this is a person who improves people's skin for a living.) But I recall a back-and-forth I once overheard between two coworkers of mine, in surveying the skin care basket at a beauty sale: “Oh, vitamin C cream, that sounds nice,” one said. The other replied, “Yeah, but does it work?” She said it with a cynical, resigned tone, and years later I keep hearing her voice when I’m contemplating some new skin potion. With, say, mascara, it’s easy to tell if it “works”: Are your lashes darker than they were before? Yes? It's working. Logically the same would apply to skin care: My fine lines were indeed diminished, however slightly, so unequivocally we can say it works, right?

But if the phrase “hope in a jar” is any indication, I’m not alone in illogically wanting a product to “work” in ways it simply can’t. It wasn't so much that I wanted my wrinkles diminished; I wanted the radiance I had in college, when all I had to do was roll out of bed to have the glow that now only comes with a good night’s rest, healthy diet, and exercise. At 34, I’m only beginning to enter the anti-aging sector of the beauty market, and I’m learning what a rabbit hole it could easily become. Because if this cream is the best over-the-counter cream there is, and it "works" but doesn’t work-work, the next step is to see a dermatologist for the prescription-strength version. That cream will work but probably not work-work; then Botox cometh. And then a chemical peel, and then laser resurfacing, and then what’s left but going under an actual knife in order to find what will really, finally, truly work-work?

I wonder if part of the disappointment of the anti-aging market is that it's a misnomer. It doesn't anti-age you; it ages you smarter, that's all. The right side of my face does not currently look younger than my left side; it just looks maybe a little less stressed out or better-rested, like one half of me was doing face yoga while my vampiric, type-A, humorless, haggard side, who is also probably a heavy smoker and named Charlene, was paying visit to the taxman.

I had another realization through this experiment, one that has less to do with how the cream made me look and more with how we look at one another. People had a much higher rate of guessing erroneously when in person as compared with people who voted online and could scrutinize the “data” without feeling uncomfortable. (Workplace tip: Kneeling in front of your coworkers’ desks and asking them to play Fountain of Youth with you is super-awkward, but you become BFFs real quick!) Not only that, but the people who knew me best—close friends, longtime coworkers, even my boyfriend—were the most likely to choose wrong.

Looking at pictures of my squinty eyes on a screen, you can parse out that maybe the fine lines on the right side are a bit finer. But when looking at me—a live, breathing person, one emanating energy and eagerness and friendliness and curiosity and maybe a little bit of awkward nerves—I think people weren’t able to be as objective. Not that my aura is so dazzling (I do eventually tire of the applause, you know), but rather that my humanness—just like theirs—was so present as to overshadow any individual facet of me.

Which is to say: Nobody wants to look that closely. The only times I’m scrutinizing someone’s face is when I'm intrigued by the person, so anything I find is going to be a treasure, or a clue to their inner lives. In the past week I’ve discovered a glimmer of silver eyeshadow on a low-key colleague I always thought eschewed makeup, a scatter of well-concealed pimples on a friend who’s desperately unhappy at her job, and an old-fashioned beauty mark on one of the most casually glamorous women I know. I’m paying attention to their faces and finding these things, assets and drawbacks alike, because the people captivate me. If I’m lucky enough to captivate someone else to the point where they’re mapping my face, I have to trust that they will see my lines as what they are—evidence of nearly 35 years on this planet. Whether a person thinks I look "aged" or haggard versus well-lived and vibrant will depend upon what they think of my presence, not the lines around my eyes.

So, will I keep using this cream? Well, I probably won’t buy it (I got this bottle for free, a perk of working in ladymags)--but I’ll finish the bottle. And in all honesty, the next time I go to my dermatologist for a cancer check
(which you should do, pronto—I did on a whim and it turns out I had precancerous cells, so get your butt in there, missy), I can't promise I won't ask for a Retin-A prescription. Yes, much of what I've written here has refuted the net effectiveness of age creams. Yes, I still want in. 

Even after knowing that people can only tell the difference when pressed, even knowing that I can only tell the difference when exaggerating my wrinkles, even having loosely proved that my human presence is an effective mask for any “fine lines” I might have: The option is there, every night, available. Were I to opt out entirely, I feel like I’d be giving up on the part of me that wants to establish myself as radiant and vibrant. I do the things that actually keep me as radiant as I can be: I eat my veggies, I do my yoga. But those take time, and dedication. And I am, after all, only American: There is a part of my brain resistant to all sense, and that part tells me that maybe a 60-second fix really will help. For 60 seconds every night, I can dab a bit of lotion onto my fingers and pretend like I have a quick pass to "aging gracefully"; for those 60 seconds each night, I have a quiet, divine ritual that reminds me I have a long life ahead, and that this small talisman might help me through it. For 60 seconds each night, there’s a part of me that believes I have access to the sort of older woman I look at and hope to become—and for the tentative now, the only barrier to entry is the occasional twenty-dollar bill, spent on a wishful act of magic, a moment of alchemy, a silent prayer that I have some dominion in the woman I will be in ten years, in twenty, in forty. 

Hope in a jar.