The New Science of Cosmetics

Though she's just 27 years old, with a flawless complexion, account manager Bianca Bailey is on the hunt for scientific skin care in the beauty hall of Harrods. When it comes to aging, Bailey isn't taking chances. She grills several statuesque assistants before settling on Estée Lauder's DayWear for £28, six times the cost of her regular moisturizer. She's not interested in the best-smelling cream or stylish packaging or something that promises to hydrate her skin. She's after antioxidants. "Who wants to look old if they don't have to?" she says.

Resurrecting and preserving a youthful complexion has been the holy grail of beauty since Cleopatra stepped into her legendary bath of milk more than 2,000 years ago. But until recently, most skin treatments were dubious, pricey creams and lotions that did little more than cover up blemishes and discolorations or add a healthy glow. Others were extreme and invasive, involving injections, operations or lasers. Now a new generation of skin-care products is drawing on the same genomics revolution that has transformed cancer research and agriculture. Scientists are using a greater understanding of how the genetic machinery of skin cells works to influence the aging process. Now when those fancy creams claim they can save Bailey's youthful appearance, they may be right.

The key area is the dermis, a layer of skin sandwiched between the outer epidermis and the deep hypodermis. The dermis contains blood vessels that nourish the skin, and proteins called elastin and collagen that keep it taut. As we age, our bodies struggle to replenish stores of collagen and elastin, and some people are genetically primed to break these down faster than others. Scientists can now measure an individual's genetic susceptibility to such rapid skin aging. For instance, Dermagenetics, a U.S. firm, can analyze your DNA and tell you what problems you're likely to face as you age. It distributes a self-test kit that involves swiping the inside of your cheek 10 to 12 times. The firm's scientists analyze the samples for the propensity of your skin to suffer collagen breakdown as well as its ability to handle oxygen and hydrogen free radicals (unpaired electrons that can damage DNA and proteins), environmental pollutants and mild irritation.

Scientists can then create a bespoke cream for each client's skin, using a combination of active ingredients selected to compensate for particular deficiencies. These were pinpointed after nearly three years of research in conjunction with Arch Chemicals, a Connecticut-based research firm, and include copper enzymes, superoxide dismutase (an antioxidant), and plant extracts such as red algae or clover. "We can't change your genes," says John Souza, a spokesman for Dermagenetics. "The only thing we can do is, if we know you don't handle hydrogen free radicals well, for instance, we'll give you something to help youwith that." The initial test costs £135, then the cream--which lasts around two months--is £125.

Such exclusive creams are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to new, science-based products. Heavyweights like Procter & Gamble, Estée Lauder, L'Oréal, Unilever and Johnson & Johnson, which already employ thousands of researchers, are expanding their labs in an effort to capitalize on the latest science. P&G researchers, for instance, discovered that glucosamine, known in medical circles for its effects on arthritis, also blocked the production of melanin, which is responsible for those annoying brown spots. They then tested glucosamine in the company's Genomics Lab and later used it as a key ingredient in its Olay Definity cream, launched this month.

L'Oréal's scientists have engineered ultratiny particles that act on skin and hair in ways that naturally occurring molecules can't. These tiny capsulelike structures, called nanosomes--a fraction of the size of a normal molecule--transport active ingredients like vitamins into the epidermis and then release them. Researchers are also breaking down common chemicals into nanoparticles, which often gives them new and useful properties. For instance, titanium dioxide, a compound found in sunblock, normally looks white and greasy on the skin, but the nano version is nearly transparent and more easily absorbed.

The spate of scientifically based products is the driving force behind the skin-care industry's current boom. The market for anti-aging skin-care products has grown by 70 percent over the past five years in the United States alone, according to market-research firm Mintel International. Sales of facial skin-care products rose 12 percent between 2000 and 2005, to $1.5 billion. In the U.K., the $1 billion facial-care market has grown by 20 percent since 2001. In Asia, cosmetics giants are battling it out for a slice of an $18billion skin-care market, according to Kline & Co. Last year Estée Lauder opened its Innovation Institute in Shanghai, and L'Oréal launched its Pudong L'Oréal Research Center. Japan's Shiseido followed suit last November, with a sleek new research center in Beijing.

Of course, most of the cutting-edge research is taking place in such corporate labs, which for competitive reasons aren't publishing their results. This makes it difficult to evaluate how well the products ?really work. For instance, although the evidence overwhelmingly shows that green-tea extract can help counteract some of the effects of exposure to UVB rays, "there's certainly a 'buyer beware' element," says Alexa Kimball, director of the Clinical Unit for Research Trials in Skin at the Harvard Medical School. There's no way to know for certain whether a particular product will have the ingredients your skin needs. Outside researchers have trouble judging the corporate research because they often don't own the expensive equipment needed to do the work. "No individual in an academic setting can outdo what these guys do in-house," says Kimball.

Regulatory uncertainty has only made the problem worse. The skin-care revolution has proceeded without much fanfare largely because cosmetics firms hesitate to make their products sound too efficacious, for fear that regulators will step in and classify them as drugs. The slew of new products and research has already blurred the distinction between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. A cosmetic, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is anything that is meant for cleansing or beautifying the skin, and is unregulated. Anything that changes the way the underlying dermis functions would be classified as a drug.

So where do the new "cosmeceuticals" fit in? To escape FDA scrutiny, an ad for a cream will claim it eliminates "the appearance" of wrinkles rather than the wrinkles themselves--even though the more ambitious claim is closer to the truth. This dilemma exists in most countries, and there's no resolution in sight for the regulatory and marketing uncertainty. But for women like Bianca Bailey, the new generation of scientific skin care also means that wrinkles, too, are less of a sure thing.