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How Anti-Aging Creams Get Old Too Fast
By ANDREW ADAM NEWMAN SEPT. 2, 2015
Women who like the decadent feel of scooping up pricey wrinkle creams with their fingers may want to re-evaluate their favorite beauty packaging.
Jars, the more opulent the better, have long been a favorite of cosmetic marketers. But some of the most common ingredients in anti-aging formulas, like retinol and other antioxidants, are highly unstable, meaning that they break down when exposed to air and light.
Paula Begoun, the founder of Beautypedia.com, which rates skin-care products, has long opposed jar packaging.
“Anything you can do to reduce the vulnerability of these ingredients by keeping them as much as possible out of the air and light means that the ingredients that you’re banking on to improve your skin will be there after you open the product,” Ms. Begoun said.
Sales of anti-aging facial cream sold in plastic jars dropped 6.8 percent in the United States, and those in glass jars dropped 4.5 percent, from 2009 to 2014, according to data from the market research firm Euromonitor.
Over the same period, sales of anti-aging products sold in squeezable plastic tubes grew 14.3 percent; those in plastic bottles, which commonly house popular airless pump systems, rose 14.2 percent.
Olay sells many moisturizers in jars, but in-house testing found that formulations with retinol fared poorly in the containers, said Frauke Neuser, a scientist at Procter & Gamble, which owns the brand.
“We know that retinol is very oxygen sensitive and degrades,” Dr. Neuser said. “We certainly wouldn’t put an Olay product with retinol into a jar because we want our product to be just as efficacious and great at the end as it was at the very first.”
Dr. Elizabeth K. Hale, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at the NYU Langone Medical Center, said that numerous studies show that retinol and other anti-aging ingredients degrade when exposed to air and light.
“If you’re looking for maximum efficacy from anti-aging ingredients, it’s probably best to use something like an airless pump,” Dr. Hale said. None of the retinoids Dr. Hale prescribes come in jars. Name brands tend to be packaged in airless pumps, and generic brands in tubes, she said.
Thirty percent of the Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare line is sold in airless packaging, up from 21 percent six years ago.
“The science clearly shows that retinol and antioxidants are very vulnerable to losing some of their activity in the presence of light and air,” Dr. Gross said.
But the line does use jars for some products with the ingredients, including its Ferulic & Retinol Anti-Aging Moisturizer, which costs $72 for 1.7 ounces. Dr. Gross said his jar is amber to shield light, while the retinol is protected against degrading by a process called encapsulation.
“If you look at consumer surveys, many people really like the old-fashioned jar and the experience of taking a dollop out, and you have to consider what makes people happy,” he said.
Marie Redding, the associate editor of Beauty Packaging Magazine, has chronicled the growing appeal of airless packaging but said that the allure of jars endures.
“People like that heavyweight jar that’s beautiful on the counter and the feeling of scooping out the cream,” Ms. Redding said. “Marketing people have told me they love jars because of that, and because older customers tend to like them.”
Some worry that bacteria may also be fond of jars. One reason that Dermalogica uses no jars is because it’s unhygienic, said Diana Howard, its vice president for research and development.
Along with bacteria from fingers, airborne micro-organisms can settle into an open jar. If you have the beginning of a blemish or a nick from shaving, “you have a means of that bacteria getting into your system and irritating the skin,” Dr. Howard said.
Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist and a founder of the Beauty Brains, a website and podcast where scientists examine skin-care ingredients and industry claims, said he thinks that concerns about jar hygiene are largely misguided.
“If you’re using a quality product that has a preservative system in it, that’s not really an issue,” Mr. Romanowski said. But he advised against jars for any natural products that are preservative free.
As for maintaining efficacy, Mr. Romanowski said that while an airtight package is ideal, the actual advantage it adds is negligible. In jars, he said, only the surface of products is exposed. “The stuff in the middle is not getting exposed to air, just the stuff on top,” he said.
Ms. Redding, having written about the comparative appeal of jars and more-protective packaging for a decade, arrived at her own preference.
“I do think that products in jars are safe to use, and have been tested for effectiveness, but after learning everything I now know about airless packages, I prefer them,” she wrote in an email. “Plus, for a product that contains more natural ingredients and less preservatives, which I am always looking for as a consumer, an airless package is essential.”
Ms. Begoun of Beautypedia.com gets an earful from women whose favorite products are in the container she loathes.
“What I get from a lot of women about a product in a jar is, ‘Well, I like it,’ ” she said, adding that her response is the same as for women who like sunbathing:
“ ‘Well, it’s not good for your skin. What do you want from me?’ ”
A version of this article appears in print on September 3, 2015, on Page D4 of the New York edition with the headline: How Anti-Aging Creams Get Old Too Fast.