Let's face it: Getting older is no picnic. There are the aches and pains, wrinkles, gray (or no) hair and -- in some cases - the absence of the energy upon which we all came to depend.
For these and other reasons, helping those of us getting older cope with it has become big business. In its May Issue, Consumer Reports takes a look at the various products being hawked in hopes of keeping us from becoming too despondent every time we pass a mirror.
Handling hair loss
Among the most ubiquitous are the "baldness cures." These snake-oil treatments have been around forever, and the empty promises continue to this day. A new survey by the CR National Research Center found that while late-night TV and pharmacy shelves are filled with products touted to restore hair, most of the tactics tried by thousands of balding men and women simply don't work very well. The product that worked for the most people was the prescription drug Propecia (finasteride), which was found very effective by 27 percent of men.
The Consumer Reports Health Baldness Remedies survey is one of three reports on the market for anti-aging products that promise to turn back the clock. It looked at do-it-yourself hair dyes, over-the-counter anti-wrinkle serums, and baldness treatments.
"The market for baldness remedies plays to a particularly vulnerable segment of society," said Tod Marks, the magazine's senior editor. "It's a deeply personal, devastating issue to many who desperately want to believe that there's a panacea out there. Sadly, there is no magic bullet. At the end of the day, the best remedy may actually be acceptance.
Marks says those who were surveyed said masking hair loss is one of the more effective options. But they also pointed out actual benefits of being bald: you won't get hat head; you won't waste time grooming your hair; and you'll save lots of money on shampoo, conditioner, gels, mouse, hair dryers, and other hair care products."
Of those who sought treatment for hair loss, 65 percent said they had nothing to lose from trying. CR Health notes that there are plenty of downsides to several remedies:
• Finasteride, available as Propecia and as a generic, worked for some. Patients should commit to it for at least three months and any gains it may have will be lost once the patient stops taking it. While side effects are infrequent, they can include depression and impotence. It can be used by men only.
• Minoxodil, sold under the brand name Rogaine or generically, works best on patients whose hair loss is recent. Those who were asked said it was largely ineffective. As is the case with finasteride, any benefits are lost when you stop taking it. Side effects include dry, itchy, or irritated scalp and increased facial hair. Women can use Rogaine in the two percent strength if they're willing to live with the possibility of facial hair. Men can use two or five percent solutions.
• Surgery, which typically involves a basic transplant of hair from the back of the head to the top or front of the head, costs on average $5 for each graft. The average transplant can take 2,000 grafts, bringing the total cost to approximately $10,000. In many cases, the procedure must be repeated, doubling the cost. Not everyone is a successful candidate and there's a possibility of infection, a long recovery period, scarring, or patchy hair growth. And finding a skilled surgeon can be a challenge.
The health survey found that women were especially bothered by hair loss. Fifty-five percent of women who had hair loss, compared with 24 percent of men surveyed, said they worried a lot about losing more hair in the future. Women who had lost hair were more likely than men to pay attention to other people's hair or lack of it, stare in the mirror, and feel self-conscious about their appearance.
The survey found that masking baldness might very well be the ideal option. Sixty-five percent said that they found wearing a wig or toupee was very or somewhat effective, while 46 percent of men liked shaving their head, and 46 percent said that simply dressing better was an effective technique at hiding hair loss.
Most men and some women blamed genetic makeup or age; other women said their hair loss was due to a health condition (such as thyroid disease) or stress. Those whose hair loss was related to chronic illness or chemotherapy were excluded.
Speaking of genetic caused of baldness, it's been pretty well established that these things do run in families .
Covering up the grays
If you still have your hair but are looking to cover grays, a new test of home hair dyes found that Clairol Textures and Tones, L'Oreal Paris Superior Preference, Clairol Natural Instincts, and Clairol Natural Instincts For Men work best.
Consumer Reports Health tested 13 home hair dyes consumers would use to dye gray hairs brown and rated them on how well they covered grays, how easy they were to use, and whether the color was blotchy or streaky.
The top products scored high marks across the board when tested on tresses of gray hair. The results show that for less than $13 -- well below salon prices -- consumers can easily and effectively cover their grays.
"More than ever, consumers are searching for ways to look and feel their best without breaking the bank, so we were pleased to find there are high quality, low-cost options for covering grays," said CR Health associate editor Jamie Hirsh.
For maximum success with at-home hair coloring, the magazine advises first performing a spot test for allergic reactions, then testing the dye on a single piece of hair to determine how the color will turn out and how long to leave the dye in your hair. Refer to the more detailed color charts on the sides or back of the box rather than the picture on the front to see how a color will work with your hair.
And it's best to determine how much gray coverage you need before you select a product. Some products aren't made for hair that is more than 50 percent gray.
Although Revlon's products were not mentioned in the survey, a complaint received by ConsumerAffairs.com might prompt you to give extra consideration to whatever hair-coloring product you might use.
Lisa of Boise, ID, tells of an allergic reaction she had to Revlon Colorsilk hair color. "I broke out in a horrible rash along the base of my neck and ears swelled up twice their size and seeped clear fluid. I went to the doctor and was put on Predisone and got a cream. He said it was an allergic reaction and it had entered my blood stream."
Lisa says the problem returned after she finished the Predisone. "I got a rash then over my entire body, looking like chicken pox. The rash on the back of my neck is worse now than ever." She says when she contacted Revlon, the company expressed shock, claiming it had never heard of such a problem before.
When it comes to your skin, the May issue of Consumer Reports found you might be better off spending money on sunscreen or moisturizer, than anti-wrinkle facial The magazine put nine face serums to the test and found only minor and inconsistent improvements among test subjects.
Almost all of the serums claimed to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles within six weeks or less, but the effectiveness of even the best products was limited and varied from subject to subject, CR found. Every serum tested produced a visual change in wrinkle length or depth for at least some test subjects, and did nothing for others. And when there were any wrinkle reductions, they were at best slight, and fell short of the miracles implied on the product labels.
"Consumers should focus on getting back to the basics like moisturizing and shielding skin from the sun," said Jamie Hirsh, CR Health associate editor. "Beyond that, if you want to try an over-the-counter anti-wrinkle product, realize that the results may be minimal if any. For more dramatic improvements, talk to a dermatologist about using a prescription retinoid like Renova, Retin-A, or their equivalent generics." Prescription retinoids, which contain a potent derivative of vitamin A, remain the only topical products proven in large, rigorous studies to reverse the collagen loss that causes wrinkles.
Two serums were rated as slightly more effective than the others: DermaSilk 5 Minute Face Lift ($40 per ounce) and Neutrogena Ageless Intensives Deep Wrinkle ($20 per oz). Interestingly, these two serums with the best results received fewer positive comments from the testers than the others.
The survey also found that the one serum with all-natural ingredients (no parabens or phthalates), Burt's Bees Naturally Ageless Intensive Repairing, was the least effective at reducing wrinkles, despite its steep price at $56 per ounce.
Testing included 79 people, 67 of them women, between the ages of 40 and 65. Testers used one serum on each side of their face for six weeks, longer than the time their manufacturers claim it takes for the products to visibly reduce wrinkles. Trained sensory panelists then analyzed high-resolution images of the testers' faces before using the serums, 20 minutes after the first applications, and after six weeks of use.
Serums, which were tested for the first time by Consumer Reports Health, are thinner and more fluid than creams and usually soak into the skin quickly. Those tested range from $20 to $65 and are available at drugstores, department stores, and specialty beauty stores such as Sephora or online.
It's important to remember that no matter what kind of anti-aging product you purchase, the chances of finding a fountain of youth in a jar are highly unlikely.