Do Skin Tightening Creams Really Work?

Everything from genetics to age — even diet and fitness — can impact skin density and elasticity. So, the solution to loose skin or dimpling isn't always one-size-fits-all.

That said, there are several firming lotions with innovative ingredients that are designed to give skin an added boost.

From aiding the collagen and elastin production to neutralizing free radicals, read on for five expert-approved firming lotions. They can soften and smooth skin just in time for that next trip or the big event with regular use.

Walk down any skin care aisle, and you'll see at least a dozen body creams and lotions promising to firm your butt, cure your cellulite, and tone your thighs—so, you know, a 12-month gym plan in a bottle.

As the saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. But while firming products definitely fit the sounding-too-good-to-be-true bill, we're here to tell you that they aren't all smoke and mirrors. Some of these so-called workout-in-a-bottle creams and serums actually do everything they claim.

According to the Mayo Clinic, cellulite "refers to the appearance of dimpled skin on the thighs, hips, buttocks and abdomen of most women and some men, too." It is the result of uneven fat deposits under the skin's surface. While it's not a serious medical condition, it can cause some serious insecurity and embarrassment, especially during warmer weather when the layers come off.

Firming creams and serums are a great way to supplement any workout plan to send dimples back to the only place you want to see them: your face. And while, yes, certain firming creams and serums do tone and tighten your problem areas, Manhattan board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rebecca Baxt lets us know that it can't be looked at as a permanent solution. "Any cream or serum is a temporary fix. That said, they can work well. If the skin is dry and lifeless, a good moisturizer can help firm it up. Retin-A is thought to help remodel collagen underneath the surface of the skin, but it only works when it's being used."

Many companies have touted caffeine as their primo ingredient, but Dr. Baxt says that it's actually important to look for water on the label. "You want a good moisturizer. 'Firming' is really a good marketing term. The skin will look plumper and more 'firm' when it's moist, not dry. Most of the products on the market should be able to provide a good level of moisturizer."

Not inclined to reach for the firming cream day and night, seven days a week, and want a more permanent solution for saggy thighs and the dreaded c-word—cellulite? Dr. Baxt suggests a visit to a medical spa for a body contouring/toning treatment. "There are lots of machines out there, from Fraxel laser resurfacing to Thermage, Velashape [and] Ulthera." These ultrasound and radiofrequency devices all help to tighten and tone the skin and give faster, longer-lasting results than your bottle of firming creams and serums.

skin tightening creams

After testing more products than we can possibly count, we know two things to be true: We wholeheartedly believe in the transformative powers of amazing skincare. The second? We also know to be wary of products that overpromise.

As New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner aptly puts it, "Generally speaking, any product that makes claims that sound too good to be true, likely is." So—where in this matrix do body "firming" creams lie? We talked to top dermatologists and examined the ingredient lists on the top products in the category to find out.

Sure we'd like to believe the claims on the scores of lotions and creams promising to firm up our skin and erase the damage done by late nights, too many drinks and the occasional cigarette. These are tempting propositions indeed, but these potions can't really turn back the clock and hide the inevitable signs of aging -- at least not permanently or significantly.

As we get older, we produce less collagen and elastin, the connective tissues that keep the skin firm and supple. Meanwhile, in approximately 80 percent of women (and a small percentage of men), fat deposits collect under the surface of the skin, creating an "orange peel" or "cottage cheese" appearance. Known as cellulite, this dimpling increases with age and may be caused by hormonal changes. Rapid weight loss can also contribute to loose, sagging skin.

Enter the growing multitude of firming lotions and creams, which contain ingredients thought to tighten up the skin and restore elasticity. These include caffeine, retinol and dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE). Caffeine, a vasoconstrictor and diuretic, can make the skin appear smoother by dehydrating fat cells and dilating blood vessels, but its effect is temporary.

Retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, can increase collagen production and thicken the skin, indirectly making cellulite less visible. Several small studies have suggested that DMAE, an antioxidant found naturally in fatty fish, plumps and firms skin by causing the muscles to contract. However, some experts have questioned the safety of long-term use. 

Even if these ingredients do their job, dermatologists don't think they can penetrate enough to zap cellulite or permanently lift sagginess. For that, doctors say, more invasive treatments are necessary -- but not liposuction, which targets fat stores lying deep below the skin's surface. Some dermatologists and plastic surgeons swear by Cellulase, a relatively new laser treatment thought to destroy dimple-causing connective fibres. Other doctor-administered cellulite therapies include subcision. A needle severs connective tissue between the fat bulges and radiofrequency, decreasing dimples for up to six months in some patients.

How Can I Tighten My Skin?

Almost without exception, when you buy a cream that targets loose skin or a product claiming to tighten crepey skin, its effects, if any, are due to ingredients such as film-forming agents. Just like the name states, film-forming agents form a film on the skin, and that can make the skin "feel" tighter. The effect is temporary, and you won't see noticeable lifting of sagging skin, but the sensation is often enough to convince women that the product is working. Skin "feeling" tighter is not the same as making a real change for the better in the tone or laxity of your skin. Using what really works will get you closer to the results you want!

  • Building more collagen is the key! Although collagen doesn't help crepey skin bounce back, it does help support skin so that sagging is less apparent. You can help the skin make lots of collagen with skincare products that contain potent antioxidants and skin-repairing ingredients.
  • Sunscreen rated SPF 30, or greater is non-negotiable! Because sun damage destroys elastin and collagen, daily sun protection is critical, but how many of us remember to apply sunscreen to our necks as well as to our faces each and every day? Exactly. And that's one main reason why many people's necks look "older" than their faces. This is why anti-ageing skincare doesn't stop at your face!
  • Daily use of an exfoliant containing salicylic acid (BHA) or glycolic acid (AHA) can really help. Along with exfoliating for smoother skin, there is also a good amount of research showing these ingredients build more collagen and, to some extent, can help firm the skin. You don't need to use both; one or the other is fine, or, if you like, you can alternate.
  • Vitamin A also called retinol, applied topically, can improve the shape of the elastin your skin still has; there is even a small amount of research showing it can build elastin. (It definitely can build more collagen.) Applying a retinol product every night can help a lot! The same is true for prescription retinoids. Alternatively, try the plant-derived skincare ingredient bakuchiol. Research shows this natural ingredient has many anti-ageing benefits, such as reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Medical procedures such as lasers and other light therapies such as Fraxel or Ulthera have impressive skin-firming results and can also improve crepey skin! Rather than spending money on expensive firming creams and facials that don't - and won't - work, you could set those funds aside and, in a few months, easily afford these types of skin-changing treatments from a dermatologist.
  • When all else fails (or simply doesn't give you the results you want), it's time to consider cosmetic surgery. Various types of facelifts can make a dramatic difference without making you look "pulled too tight," and when combined with a brilliant skincare routine, the results can be nothing short of show-stopping!

There you have it! Although it's not the best news, it's not the worst, either. Skin firming and tightening from skincare products is possible. Still, such products never work, and the exaggerated claims you see on the products' labels or what you hear from cosmetics salespeople.

woman applying volcano ash cream

Do Skin-Firming Creams Really Work?

"Firming creams are best at preventing sagging or may give modest improvements in sagging skin when used alone," says dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital, noting that the formulas you want to look for are those spiked with caffeine or carnitine ("they can help minimize the appearance of cellulite by dehydrating the fat, while actually helps your body break it down") and peptides ("they can promote collagen and elastin production to thicken skin and improve its bounce").

Of course, this is not to say that slathering something on the outside of your skin will magically sink in and repair your connective tissues or tone your muscles because we all know you need a few hours of exercise, a cleaner eating plan, and maybe some help from a doctor and derm to get that body. But, if you use them every day, you'll basically always reap the benefits of the "temporary" effects, which is almost the same as permanent, right?

Basically, the biggest downside of trying one of these body-firming creams is that they do nothing but hydrate your skin, which is exactly what your normal lotion would do anyways. But the possible upside? Slightly firmer and smoother skin, which I'm all about. Of course, for every single good product, there are a billion crappy ones, so to cut through the noise, I present to you the three top-rated body-firming creams below that (allegedly) really do work.

What Does It Actually Do?

Here's what you can't expect: "Certainly these creams are not a means of weight loss nor can they achieve the tightening that various laser devices boast (including those that use heat, cooling, ultrasound or radiofrequency to dissolve fat and tighten skin)," Dr Marchbein notes. "Nor will they compete with surgical procedures, including abdominoplasty, liposuction and injections of bio stimulatory fillers (i.e. Sculptra.)." That said, firming creams are often used in conjunction with these procedures to help amplify their results. 

"They will also not remove stretch marks or cellulite, so having realistic expectations about what to achieve is important before spending money on various firming creams," Dr Marchbein explains.

Bottom line: these are not miracle creams and work modestly at best. "Some are just really good moisturizers and help to plump the top layer of skin, which can in and of itself make the skin temporarily look smoother and tighter," Marchbein says.

Benefits of "Firming" Creams for Skin

Despite these caveats, the right topicals can help improve the appearance of the skin. "It is reasonable to expect a product like this to help you look good, for example, in a dress with a slit for a big night out," explains Cambridge-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch says. 

What Ingredients Help "Firm" Your Skin?

When it comes to the best ingredients for "firming" effects, some are easily recognizable to any (facial) skincare junkie, while others are unique to the skin on our bodies. The list that follows includes a few (but not all) of the most common ingredients in firming body products.

Retinol: Of course, retinol holds a prominent spot on the list. It is "perhaps the best-studied ingredient we have to strengthen the foundation of the skin," notes Dr Zeichner. "It directly stimulates our skin cells to rev up collagen production," he says. 

Antioxidants: Antioxidants, like vitamin C and coenzyme Q10, "act like fire extinguishers to put out inflammation in the skin caused by free radical damage and allow the skin to function optimally," Zeichner explains.

Hydroxy Acids: "Hydroxy acids like glycolic acid provide exfoliating, brightening and collagen-stimulating benefits," Zeichner says.

Peptides: Peptides, a hero ingredient in body firming creams, "are messengers that tell your skin cells to do a specific job," Zeichner explains. "The first peptides that came on the market worked by stimulating collagen. However, subsequent peptide molecules perform other jobs like reducing inflammation and evening skin tone. The peptides typically used in firming creams work by strengthening the skin to improve elasticity and firmness."

Caffeine: Caffeine, commonly used in these kinds of products, "helps constrict blood vessels to reduce excess fluid in the skin and also helps the body break down extra fat," Zeichner says.

Shiitake Mushrooms: Finally, certain botanical ingredients like shiitake mushrooms are often found in firming creams "because they help increase production of elastin fibres," Zeichner notes.

Give your skin what it needs by using our Volcanic Ash facial mask today! You won't regret it! We guarantee you will see results in just one week of use! With over 10 years of research behind us, we know how to make products that work wonders on your face.