So-called age-defying creams with alpha-hydroxy acid really can reduce wrinkles somewhat and improve the skin, a study found.

"This drug probably isn't going to make you look 20 when you're 40, but it's going to make people look better," said Dr. Lynn Drake, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. "I'm pleasantly surprised."Drake's findings were published in the June issue of the American Medical Association's Archives of Dermatology. Funding for the study came from Unilever, the parent of Chesebrough-Ponds, which makes Pond's Age-Defying Complex, one of the age creams widely advertised on TV and in magazines.

For 22 weeks, 67 women between the ages of 40 and 70 used either creams with glycolic or lactic acid - two types of alpha-hydroxy acids - or an acid-free lotion. Women were not told the type of cream they received.

Participants' skin was rated beforehand on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being undamaged and 10 significantly damaged.

Seventy percent of the women who used alpha-hydroxy lotions improved 1 to 2 points on the scale. Forty-one percent of the women in the other group showed similar improvement.

Women who showed improvement with the acid saw reduced wrinkling and better color, texture and elasticity. Women showing improvement using non-acid lotions saw a difference primarily in the smoothness of their skin.

Doctors have known for some time that alpha-hydroxy acid speeds up the natural shedding of skin cells, and it is used in chemical peels at concentrations of up to 70 percent. The study used strengths of 8 percent.