A friend uses moisturizing lotions/creams daily. No fancy purported anti-aging creams, just run-of-the-mill, relatively low-cost moisturizer.

She has the impression that regular use of moisturizer is supposed to have positive effects on how your skin will age, and also that the earlier you start to use it regularly, the better.

I don't dispute the short-term effects of less dry skin while you use it, but I'm automatically skeptical at the claims of positive long-term effects.

To play the devil's advocate, I could see that keeping your skin in constant short-term good shape would mean fewer opportunities for lasting damage.

I googled and could not find clear support or refutation.

  • Possible answer hidden behind a paywall: The clinical benefit of moisturizers onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-3083.2005.01326.x/… A university student may be able to read for free, and supply an answer. – user951 Feb 27 '12 at 21:07
  • If you look at skin lotions that claim they are clinically proven to prevent signs of aging, they generally all have sunscreen in them. Sunscreen does prevent many signs of aging. The moisturizer is just a carrier for it. – Kate Gregory Nov 30 '18 at 0:02

From the article by (Lodén, 2005) suggested by @Wayfaring Stranger, the answer seems to be Partly, but not too conclusive (emphasis mine everywhere):

Moisturizers are recommended for use in normal skin to prevent the appearance of dryness.131,132 Despite their widespread use, only a few studies have focused on their influence on the permeability barrier. Treatment with moisturizers may well influence the barrier properties of normal skin. Treatments usually increase skin hydration, but no increase in TEWL [trans-epidermal water loss] tends to follow. However, changes in skin reactivity have been noted. A lipid-rich cream without any humectant had no influence on TEWL, but skin susceptibility to SLS [sodium lauryl sulphate] irritation was increased compared to untreated skin. Increased skin reactivity was also found in a long-term study using benzyl nicotinate as a marker for permeability, where the time to maximum response was shorter for the cream-treated area compared to the untreated. In addition, the time to induce vasodilatation was shorter for the lipid-rich cream than for a moisturizer containing 5% urea. Increased sensitivity to nickel was also found when nickel-sensitive humans treated their skin with moisturizers without humectant, compared to treatment with moisturizer with humectant.

On the other hand, areas treated with the glycerol-containing cream showed less reactivity to nickel than those treated with a cream without any humectant. Furthermore, repeated applications of urea-containing moisturizers have been found to reduce TEWL and make skin less susceptible to SLS-induced irritation. An increased resistance to SLS-induced irritation and xerosis has also been found after treatment with AHA. [...] Moreover, another humectant, dexpanthenol, has been reported to decrease TEWL after 7 days treatment.

Thus, long-term side effects range from non-existent to altered sensitivity to certain chemical compounds, which is not necessarily a negative effect.

As for adverse effects, the author has this to say:

Compared to traditional drugs used by dermatologists, moisturizers are rarely associated with health hazards, although they may be used on large body areas over a large part of the human life span [...] However, intoxication has occurred. For example, topical treatment with salicylic acid in children with lamellar ichthyosis and treatment with high concentrations of propylene glycol in burn patients have resulted in poisoning. Moreover, some products, particularly Chinese herbal creams have been shown repeatedly to be adulterated with corticosteroids, which may cause serious side effects.

The article concludes with:

Clear evidence exists that moisturizers are important in the treatment of different dry skin conditions. Furthermore, moisturizers prevent the appearance of dryness, and some formulations may also improve skin barrier function and make skin less prone to eczema. The key to future moisturizer therapy will be to tailor the treatment to the distinct abnormalities that manifest themselves with the generally recognized symptoms of dryness. Ranking the efficacy will be facilitated by an increased knowledge of their interaction with the skin. So far, the links between the abnormality and the composition of the moisturizer remain largely unexplored. Therefore, it may be a matter of trial and error to find the most suitable formulation for an individual.

All said, the article claims that the long-term effects are largely dependent on the actual skin condition and the chemical content of the applied product. Short-term effects are evident and undeniable. Prolonged use is not commonly associated with adverse effects. Consultations with specialist dermatologists are recommended to determine which products have the most beneficial effect on the patients, as well as dosage and application.

Source (and references therein):

Lodén, M. (2005) The clinical benefit of moisturizers, Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, 19-6, p. 672–-688. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-3083.2005.01326.x

  • Disclaimer: this is very far from my area of expertise, but I nevertheless tried to analyze and summarize the article in question. – mindcorrosive Feb 28 '12 at 11:06

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