A drop of oil with a DNA strand in it

Skincare has always been driven by chemistry. Formulators are chemists who know their active and what makes a potion a lotion. Today, we are on the brink of a profound change — skincare is increasingly going to be driven by biology. In particular, a deeper understanding of genetics will inform what’s in your bathroom cabinet. There are some who believe that this will revolutionize the beauty industry with personalized treatments that will do their thing in days, not months.

Exciting stuff, but is this science fiction or scientific breakthrough? Let's find out.

All cells in your body have the same genome. Different genes are activated or deactivated at different times. And this can happen as a result of external or environmental effects. This is where the science of epigenetics comes in. Epigenetics describes the physiological reprogramming that occurs in the cell without actually changing the DNA sequence. Scientists becoming very interested in the effects of epigenetics on aging. Happy for us, the skin is easily studied since it is visible and so is getting a good deal of attention from epigenecists.

Very obvious examples would be tanning or smoking. We all know that these activities lead to wrinkles, but what is now being understood is that they impact our genes. The effects are also intergenerational. In tests, mice that were fed a poor diet lacking in folic acid during pregnancy changed the expression of the gene responsible for hair color of their offspring permanently — in this case from “blackish” hair to “blondish” hair — for all future generations of mice. (I wonder if this means that I get to blame my mother's smoking for my lip lines).

Gene testing is showing researchers differences in how genes are expressed in older and younger skin and how certain ingredients may affect those genes (source).

Genes make proteins and it is proteins that enable communication between cells. This is why peptides, which are strings of proteins, have been such a helpful innovation in skincare (and hair care). Nothing happens in a cell without the involvement of a gene.

And yet, genes need direction and this is where the epigenome comes in to direct the genes in skin cells without altering the DNA. For example, there are 40 collagen genes, 200 antioxidant genes, 700 hydration genes and so on. There is a gene called NFR2 that is important for longevity and anti-inflammation.

According Rebecca Gadberry, whose excellent presentation I am indebted to, some skincare actives can direct the genes in skin cells. Until now, whether an active hits its target has been a bit haphazard. Greater understanding of genes and epigenetics will lead to greater accuracy and efficacy.

Some of the actives that Dr Gadberry mentions are astaxanthin (an antioxidant that gives salmon their red color and long a personal favorite of mine), superoxide dismutase, which protects cells from free radical toxicity, sulforophane (in leafy greens), and meadowsweet and certain peptides.  

Aquaporins, proteins in the cell membrane that regulate the flow of water, are currently being researched to understand how cosmeceutical ingredients can benefit the skin. They line the walls of the cells and allow water to flow in and out of the cell — much like a water spout. Believe it or not, good old glycerin, a very common moisturizing ingredient, has been singled out for study of its interaction with aquaporins.

In the meantime, some of the big beauty brands have harnessed their powerful R&D departments to jump on the epigenetic bandwagon. Unfortunately, the final formulations don’t quite live up to the marketing hype. Estée Lauder entered the fray with its Re-Nutriv Ultimate Lift Age Correcting Collection with the phrase “inspired by the field of epigenetics.” Clinique Smart also pays epigenetic homage. HAVVN DNA products also cite “The Science of Epigenetic Skin Care”, but are sketchy on details and there don’t seem to be obvious standouts amongst the mostly botanical ingredients. And you know it’s a rickety bandwagon when even Christie Brinkley is on board.

I’ll try to stay off the bandwagon and keep researching this subject. We already have some products with astaxanthin and SOD and I’ll be identifying them, finding more and making sure that epigenetics and the new future of cosmetics stays part of Truth In Aging’s DNA.