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Age-defying claims are stock-in-trade for the beauty business. Lotions and potions promising to “regenerate”, “rejuvenate” or “revitalise” your skin number in the thousands. More extravagant than the claims are the eye-watering costs of some of these products.

But our test of nine moisturising creams found price doesn’t guarantee superior results.

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What we found

The cheapest product, a $13 pot of Nivea Pure & Natural Moisturising Day Cream, outperformed the most expensive, luxury-priced La Mer - the Moisturising Gel Cream, which retails for $520.

None of the nine creams were standout performers but most did a reasonable job. Testing measured the moisturising efficacy of the creams after four weeks of daily use. Eight products delivered good results, providing performance on a par with the standard cream used in the test as a control (see Moisturising efficacy).

The $520 La Mer gel cream couldn’t match the performance of the control and delivered only average results.

Miracle ingredients?

The main ingredients in most moisturising creams are water, oils and humectants. Their job is to help hydrate the skin and slow moisture loss. Oils have been used as skin moisturisers for centuries and are still a mainstay of home-made creams.

Oily ingredients in off-the-shelf creams range from products derived from mineral oils such as petrolatum (petroleum jelly) to plant-based oils. Common humectants include glycerin. Humectants are chemicals used to increase the capacity of the skin’s outer layer to hold water.

To boost consumer appeal, many products carry claims they’re “hypoallergenic” or “dermatologically tested”. But there’s no standard definition of these claims and they don’t mean much. Products carrying the claims can also contain potential allergens.

The ingredients list for Nivea Pure & Natural Moisturising Day Cream, labelled as “dermatologically approved”, includes several common fragrances recognised as allergens. These fragrances include linalool, limonene, citronellol and geraniol.

Similarly, L’Oréal Triple Active Day cream stated it was “tested under dermatological control” but also contained these scents.

Because of their potential to cause allergic reactions, the fragrances must be listed on the product label if they’re present in concentrations above 0.001 percent.

Other ingredients, such as preservatives, can also cause allergic reactions in some people. Preservatives are used in moisturisers to prolong shelf life – typically three years – and prevent bacterial contamination.

Phenoxyethanol was the most common preservative we found, used in eight of the nine creams. When it’s used in moisturisers and other cosmetics, it can’t be more than one percent of the finished product.

If you have sensitive skin or want to avoid certain chemicals, your best bet is checking the ingredients list. Moisturisers are regulated by the Cosmetic Products Group Standard. The standard requires products to display an ingredients list, a batch code and contact details for the manufacturer or supplier.

The ingredients list also indicates how much of an ingredient may be present, useful when the product boasts it contains some beneficial plant or other extract. Ingredients used in concentrations of one percent or more have to be listed by volume in descending order. If the ingredient is near the bottom of the list, there may not be much of it in the cream.

Full test results

Product Size[width=medium]Price[width=medium]Moisturising efficacy
Avène Hydrance Optimale Légère Light Hydrating Cream40ml$59
Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturising Lotion+50ml$34
Dr Hauschka Quince Day CreamA30ml$55
Estēe Lauder Hydrationist Maximum Moisture Creme50ml$96
L'Oréal Triple Active Day50ml$15
Nivea Pure & Natural Moisturising Day Cream 50ml$13
Nuxe Crème Fraîche De Beauté 50ml$61
The Body Shop Vitamin E Aqua Boost Sorbet 50ml$40
La Mer - the Moisturising Gel Cream 60ml$520

OUR TEST was commissioned by International Consumer Research and Testing, London. Acertified to the BDIH and Natrue natural cosmetics standards. PRICE is based on the most common price for the product identified in our market survey in August 2016. MOISTURISING EFFICACY shows the product’s score out of five stars. Five stars indicates very good performance; four stars indicates good performance; three stars indicates average performance.

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Moisturising efficacy

The moisturising efficacy of the creams was tested by corneometry. A corneometer is used to provide a measure of the skin’s hydration. Measurements were taken prior to and after use of the products over four weeks. Creams were applied twice daily.

Products were blind tested by women aged between 25 and 66 years with a normal to dry skin type. Volunteers applied the moisturising cream to one forearm. The control product was applied to their other arm. Measurements were performed in humidity- and temperate-controlled conditions.

Benefits of moisturising

In simple terms, skin can be categorised into several layers: subcutaneous tissue, the dermis, the epidermis and the surface layer called the stratum corneum. Skin cells are continually shed from the surface and replaced by new cells.

However, as we get older, skin becomes drier and loses elasticity. Lifestyle factors such as smoking, and environmental exposure (cold, wind and sun) can exacerbate these processes. Sun exposure causes what dermatologists call “photo-aging”, damage attributable to sun’s harmful UV rays.

Protecting your skin from the sun slows down the effects of photo-aging and minimises the risk of skin cancer. Regular use of a good moisturiser also helps hydrate your skin and slows moisture loss. But there’s little evidence of any other benefit.