The World Health Organization (WHO) projects that there will be more than 1.5 billion overweight consumers by 2015. Of these, those in the US alone will incur health costs greater than US$117 billion per annum. In comparison, Singapore’s gross domestic product for 2011 was S$326.8 billion or roughly US$265.8 billion. In fact, 90% of men and 70% of women will sooner or later become overweight, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
As the market for weight or fat control products is—pardon the pun—growing so quickly, many products once considered niche are fighting for general acceptance. Once such class of products is the slimming creams, lotions and gels, which purportedly can help one achieve washboard abs, a toned body or a sculpted face. Such products claim to help tighten, tone, firm and smooth the skin, tackling areas where fat accumulates or where there’s slack skin, namely in the abdomen and sides. There are products available for almost any part of the body: the thighs, buttocks and the abdomen. All of them promise to help the user achieve a more defined physique, never mind the fine print, which usually says that optimal results will be achieved only if the use of such products is combined with regular exercise and diet.
Cosmeceuticals, the category name for such products, have seen exponential growth in the last 20 years or so, as skincare and cosmetic companies muscle in on body care products that purport to burn fats effortlessly and sculpt problem areas. In the United States alone, the cosmeceutical industry is expected to grow at almost double the average rate for the cosmetics sector, projected to reach a value of US$8.5 billion in 2015. This is a marked increase from US$6.4 billion in 2010.
A check shows that many brands offer toning, slimming and sculpting products to consumers. From well-known brands in department stores to lesser known ones found online, there are sculpting and slimming lotions, creams and gels for both men and women. Such products claim to contain formulas made of ingredients such as caffeine, creatine and soya protein that promise to fortify the skin (firm, tone and tighten as well as energise) by eliminating excess water and fatty deposits, giving it a firmer, smoother appearance. In some cases, such products also claim to be able to flatten the dimpled look of cellulite by softening the rigid connective tissues that cause cellulite’s orange-peel appearance while constricting the skin surrounding puffy fatty tissue.
Indeed, some ingredients found in toning and sculpting products have been reported to have properties that help in burning fats away. They also tone and smoothen as well as regenerate the skin to some extent.
Most skin-tightening creams, for example, will contain caffeine because research has found that it tightens the skin by drawing out excess water between fat cells. Caffeine is also believed to help burn fat and constrict blood vessels in the skin. An antioxidant, it may even protect the skin against UV rays.
Guarana, a well known lipolytic agent (which releases fat from the body’s fat cells), is said to regulate the breakdown of fat, while bio-active keratin has been shown to effectively stimulate the regrowth of collagen and elastin in the skin so that skin firmness and elasticity are maintained.
One ingredient that has been continually praised over the past few years is niacin, otherwise known as Vitamin B3. Niacin is said to promote cell turnover, repair sun damage and boost hydration and ceramide production (skin lipids that retain water) by strengthening the skin barrier. As such, it can be found in many sculpting and skin-tightening creams and lotions for areas such as the neck and face.
Even ingredients used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) claim to be able to break down fats and tone the skin. Such ingredients include natural red pepper oil, natural ginger extract, seaweed essence and cranberry essence that purportedly can break down and burn excess fats, promote blood and lymph circulation, and accelerate skin metabolism.
Do these products really work?
Aesthetic physician Dr Chiam Tut Fu from Healthway Medical doubts so. He said that there is very little clinical evidence to support the claimsthat they work. “Creams and gels can improve the skin but to reduce the fatslocally is not supported by clinical evidence,” he says. In his book, Skin Rejuvenation: What Works, What’s Hype, Professor Goh Chee Leok, Senior Consultant Dermatologist of the National Skin Centre, asserts that many claims by cosmetic companies are often not substantiated by rigorous scientific evaluation. “The true clinical benefits of many new cosmetic products and ingredients are therefore uncertain,” he wrote. The American Academy of Dermatology has also cautioned consumers against falling for exaggerated advertising claims, even if they are said to be backed by “scientific evidence.” This is because if a claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is. However, to convince users of the efficacy of products, a few cosmetic giants have gone to produce consumertargeted report cards. Shiseido, for example, shared results of a three-week in-house trial of 100 women aged 30 to 55, which showed that 87% reported firmer skin after using the brand’s Body Creator, a gel that claims to refine body contours; 68% said they have a slimmer body contour while 91% noted that their skin looked and felt smoother after using the product. Note that there was no indication of when the trial was done.
Could this be simply marketing hype? Perhaps. But thousands of women are sold to such claims.
One such woman is 45-year-old Nadya Hussein, who has been using a popular facial lift serum for one-and-a-half years. Nadya claims to have shaved a few inches off her face after using the product. “I saw results within six months. My face is slimmer and my chin is definitely sharper,” she says. Another believer of the efficacy of such products is 35-year-old Susan Tay, user of a sculpting gel from a popular brand. She says that results were visible one week after she started using the product. “I continued to experience firmer skin after four weeks, especially on my inner thighs. I know this is the effect of the products because during that period I stopped exercising for a while.”
Some users of body sculpting and toning products feel that sculpting, slimming and toning products do work if used regularly, conscientiously and according to product instructions and recommendations. According to 25-year-old office administrator Lynette Wong, who uses anti-cellulite creams and has seen positive results, “The products must be used to complement—and not replace—exercise and diets.” Health and fitness advocate Haslinda Ali, who hits the gym almost daily and follows a diet of more fruits and vegetables, and less oil, said that while firming gels and toning lotions help to a certain extent, results are not significant, especially if not coupled with a healthy lifestyle. “If you are not exercising and you don’t have a good diet regime, the results may not show at all,” said the mother of three, who tried firming gels and toning lotions after her third pregnancy. “To achieve a sculpted body, the best way is still through nutrition and exercise,” she affirms. It’s advice similarly advocated by Dr Chiam; he advises that the only way to achieve a sculpted and toned body is through “a sound nutritional plan with low fat and low carbohydate intake, and a regular, moderately intense exercise regime.”
In other words, no pain, no gain.
Photo courtesy of Thinkstock. This article first appeared in NATURA magazine issue No.3. Find NATURA at Eu Yan Sang retail outlets, newsstands and major bookstores in Singapore.