Women dealing with the hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause are turning to an unusually "cool" new treatment: skin cream.

The topical creams come in a variety of both hormone-equipped and hormone-free options and are credited by some with treating everything from hot flashes and skin dryness to mood swings and fluctuations in sex drive.

They are marketed as alternatives to hormone replacement therapy drugs, which studies suggest could cause increased risk of heart disease and breast cancer.

But can a cream actually work to treat menopause?

To some, the non-hormone lotions sound like the litany of other high-end, anti-aging face and body creams. Product makers and consumers disagree, saying the formulas effectively fight the dermatological effects of aging and hormone-loss.

As for the hormone-infused topicals, which have long been used in Canada, Europe and Australia, some health specialists and patients say estrogen and progesterone creams simulate the body's production of hormones more effectively than do the pills.

"They alleviated my symptoms quite a bit," said Paula Hodge, 31, of Ft. Collins, Colo., who hit early menopause after she had a hysterectomy.

Others are far more skeptical of the creams, which have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

"I don't have any data to say it's safer than oral estrogen," said Dr. Mercedes Castiel, the head of gynecology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. "I don't know that they're effective, and am not sure they're safe."

Castiel also said federal scientists wrote they couldn't be certain whether hormone-infused topicals posed the same risks as the drugs. And, she said, many creams sold as hormone-free actually do contain hormones.

In the hormone-based creams, brands of progesterone topicals include Kokoro Women's Balance Creme ($23.99); Progesta-Eze ($34.95) and ProgestaCare ($24.95). Estrogen creams include EstroCare ($19.95).

Non-hormonal or herbal topicals are made with ingredients like soy, collagen and antioxidants. They tend to replace lost oils and moisture in the skin and treat the superficial changes accompanying menopause: the heated, flushed skin caused by hot flashes; mottles and brown spots; wrinkles; and dry skin.

Brands include B. Kamins Baby Boomer Menopause Skin Cream for the face ($102) and body lotion ($35); SCO Antioxidant Booster ($150); Cle de Peau Essence ($85); and Estee Lauder Resilience Lift Overnight Face and Throat Cream ($70).

Pharmaceutical chemist Ben Kamins, founder of the B. Kamins skin care line, insisted he has done extensive testing to ensure his hormone-free creams' effectiveness and safety.

"There are many studies showing topical hormones are of marginal value," he said. "We did [a treatment] that's helpful, not harmful, for a long period of time."

But some women concerned over the possible side effects of hormone pills aren't quite ready to try the creams, and prefer to deal with menopause naturally.

"It's very bearable -- it isn't a problem," said Susie Johnson, 59, of Duluth, Minn., who had been on the pills for about a decade.

Her friend, Margaret Kinetz, 59, doesn't plan to use any topicals, either.

"It's not something I would do unless these hot flashes got worse," she said. "I am very, very cautious of those types of things, because they are not regulated."

For her part, Hodge stopped using the hormone creams after deciding they weren't working well enough. She has, however, stuck with the B. Kamins menopause face cream.

"I've noticed a marked improvement of my skin," she said. "When I get my hot flashes, my face doesn't get all flushed."