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 are.” 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.
What Is a "Firming" Cream?
Put simply, firming body products help “firm” the appearance of the skin, and make it appear tauter. A lack of firmness can be attributed to the natural depletion of collagen in our bodies as we age. “Typically, “firming” creams are products that will enhance production of collagen and elastin in the skin to tone and tighten,” explains New York City-based, board certified dermatologist Dr. Shari Marchbein. Especially during the summer, when more skin is showing, the idea of a cream that “firms” things up is pretty appealing.
How Does It Work?
The science behind firming creams, like so much else in skincare, comes down to encouraging our bodies to produce collagen, especially once we’ve passed the age at which our bodies make it naturally. “We know that after age 25, our bodies start producing less collagen at a rate of about 1% less per year in the skin so that by the time we’re 50, there is almost no new collagen being made and the collagen that remains becomes broken down, fragmented and weaker,” Dr. Marchbein explains.
But first, a quick refresher. Why is collagen so crucial to maintaining taut and firm skin? Collagen, Dr. Zeichner explains, “is the component of the skin that provides structure.” Weak collagen leads to sagging skin. The other part of that equation is weak elastin, which “is the component of the skin that gives it bounce.” There are ingredients (more on those later) that can help stimulate collagen and elastin production—but the short answer to the main question remains: don’t expect any miracles.
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 radio frequency to dissolve fat and tighten skin),” Dr. Marchbein notes. “Nor will they compete with surgical procedures, including abdominoplasty, liposuction and injections of biostimulatory 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 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,” hes 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 fibers,” Zeichner notes.
The Best Products With "Firming" Ingredients
This "anti-aging" body lotion contains shiitake mushroom complex and wheat protein which help improve skin’s texture and elasticity. The brand’s clinical studies showed the cream to provide firmer looking skin in two weeks.
The hero here is this clinical brand’s patent-pending iFirm technology, which works to visibly lift and firm skin on the arms, thighs, butt, and stomach, while supporting the skin’s microbiome for long-term skin health. Caffeine helps tighten crepey, sagging skin.
Caudalie’s signature grape-derived botanicals are at play in this body cream with the use of grape polyphenols, which are an antioxidant that defends against free radicals. Its toning properties help preserve collagen to keep skin firmer. Skin is simultaneously nourished with grape seed oil and shea butter.
This luxe body treatment uses botanical ingredients to tighten skin. The product combines a host of botanical ingredients: kigelia Africana, ivy extract, juniper berry, thyme, cypress, grapefruit, and active marine algae all work to firm skin, while caffeine stimulates blood flow and smooths and improves skin texture. Vitamin C, marula oil, and hyaluronic acid work together to not only moisturize, but promote collagen production.
A dermatologist favorite, this product is often recommended for us in conjunction with in-office body treatments, but on it’s own, the brand’s TriHEX technology still helps support the skin’s production of new collagen and elastin to help improve the appearance of skin texture and crepiness.
Hirsch is a fan of this affordable pick which combines “caffeine to tighten and shiitake mushroom extract and moisturizers to hydrate and plump.” Squalane, hyaluronic acid, and shea butter all help nourish and hydrate skin.
Squalane is the hydrogenated form of squalene. It is a lipid that is naturally found in the skin and secreted by the sebaceous glands. It calms inflammation, supports the outer skin barrier, and works well with actives like retinol.
A 2.5% tri-peptide complex is the hero ingredient in this formula—also often recommended by dermatologists for enhancing results post-procedure. The peptides, alongside a 2% hydrolized rice protein work to help tighten and lift the appearance of loose, sagging skin.
This body serum comes equipped with a built-in metal applicator, so Dr. Hirsch recommends storing it in the fridge. “Encapsulated ingredients allow for a more measured delivery into the skin which helps results last a bit longer,” Hirsch says of this caffeine and peptide infused formula.