Last year, Americans spent more than $20 billion on various "anti-aging" products. Here's the wrinkle: In one five-month period, 40,000 people lobbed complaints to the Federal Trade Commission after one e-mailing solicitor promised that his "human growth hormone" pills—at $80 a month—would regrow hair, remove wrinkles, increase muscle mass, cause weight loss and otherwise stop or reverse the aging process.
"We bought some and had it analyzed," says FTC attorney Steven M. Wernikoff, who last summer settled a lawsuit against the e-mailer, Florida entrepreneur Creaghan Harry. "Our experts said there really wasn't a safety issue because there was no HGH (human growth hormone) in it. People would have gotten more growth hormone eating a steak."
But even if Harry's Supreme Formula HGH and Youthful Vigor HGH actually contained human growth hormone, consider this bit of knowledge: When taken in pill form—and not injected—real HGH is degraded by enzymes in the intestines before it can reach the bloodstream, rendering it useless, says Marc R. Blackman, M.D., of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
"I cannot say that HGH or other anti-aging products sold over the Internet are categorically safe," Blackman says. "But I can say with certainty that they all are injurious to your wallet."
To date, there is "absolutely no scientific proof that any commercially available product will stop or reverse aging," adds Thomas Perls, M.D., of Boston University School of Medicine, director of the world's largest study on centenarians.
Just ask Debra Scheufler, who estimates she spent $1,000 on skin creams advertised to be "age-defying," including several jars of $120-an-ounce Crème de la Mer, an Estée Lauder brand touted on its website as a "miracle" whose skin-enhancing ability "defies the laws of nature."
"It didn't remove wrinkles or do anything to improve my skin," says Scheufler, 48, of San Diego. "In fact, it clogged my pores and made my skin rougher." Last January, she filed a lawsuit against Estée Lauder and two department stores, claiming false advertising. Months later, a Florida woman filed a similar lawsuit.
Spokeswoman for the Estée Lauder Companies Janet Bartucci declined comment because the two lawsuits are in litigation. "But," she said, "we stand behind the skin care benefits the products claim."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate over-the-counter products, and marketers are not required to prove their effectiveness. It's buyer beware, says Perls.
Attorney Wernikoff points to another growing threat for those who buy products over the Internet: the risk of identity theft.
"When you provide a credit card, you absolutely run the risk of something nefarious happening to your account," he says.