Are There Really Genes That Make People Look Younger?

Photo: Jim Smeal/BEImages.
Raise your hand if this has happened to you: Facebook's latest update means your timeline is now flooded with flashback photos. And suddenly, you're inundated with images of that one friend who, despite being the same age as you (also, you've spent perhaps one too many spring breaks together), never seems to look older — no noticeable forehead lines, no crinkles around the corners of her eyes. Just smooth, clear skin, like she had when you were freshmen. (Oh, are you that friend? How...nice for you.)

Let's call it the Halle Berry Effect. New York magazine reported earlier this month that it's not an A-list paycheck and access to a lifetime's supply of La Mer that keep Berry looking so sprightly. This seemingly eternal youthfulness could be courtesy of “younger genes.” Has the great nature-versus-nurture debate just been solved?

A recent study conducted by Olay in conjunction with Harvard University found that 20% of African-American women and 10% of white women have genetics to thank for looking younger than the rest of us. Though we all know a Halle, or Sandra Bullock, or two, it seemed like a strangely counterintuitive finding for a company that sells skin-care products to promote.

We reached out to Olay’s principal scientist, Frauke Neuser, PhD, to learn more about the findings she presented at the World Congress of Dermatology in Vancouver earlier this month. The Multi-Decade and Ethnicity (MDE) study examined the facial skin of 350 women with Caucasian, African-American, Asian, and Hispanic backgrounds (the data for Hispanic and Asian women has not yet been released), ranging in age from their 20s to 70s. A panel of study participants evaluated each woman’s skin and speculated on her age based on appearance. Most women fell in line with their actual age, but some looked significantly younger. "[These women have] skin that seems to defy the rules of aging," says Dr. Neuser. "They look ‘ageless’ compared to other women the same age, without having undergone a cosmetic procedure." When their RNA was examined, these women all had something in common no matter their race or age: They are "exceptional skin agers."

It wasn't that they have special "younger genes." We all have genes that help take care of our skin and keep it looking supple and fresh. For a majority of women, these genes get less active as they age, but for exceptional skin agers, they continue to work better and longer. "Olay researchers found a unique gene expression fingerprint of around 2,000 genes, many of which are interlinked and connected," explains Dr. Neuser. "They are responsible for biological pathways such as natural-antioxidant production, skin-barrier formation, or cell-energy metabolism. We all have those genes, but while in the average woman they slow down and become less active with age, in the exceptional skin agers they maintain a higher level of activity — and we know that activity can be influenced by environmental factors, lifestyle choices, and even skin-care habits."

So nurture plays a role in it all, too. (Phew.) Past research has shown that 80% of skin aging is linked to external factors, and only 20% of it is due to genetics, says Dr. Neuser. She doesn't want to speculate whether these numbers will change as more research comes out, but Olay is working with the genetics company 23andMe to find out which factors — genetics, environment, lifestyle, nutrition, skin-care habits — play the biggest roles.

"If we find distinct variations in the DNA of the exceptional skin agers — and we might not — it doesn’t mean you have no influence on your skin’s destiny," says Dr. Neuser. "It just means the odds could either be stacked slightly in your favor, or not. Think about it a little bit like a game of cards — you could be dealt a good hand and still lose, or dealt a poor hand and still win. Because, it’s not just about the cards but about the person playing them."

So what does this mean for the future of skin care? First of all, Olay is now looking into developing skin care that could make your "younger genes" perform more like those found in exceptional skin agers. "Just as personalized medicine aims to develop treatments that individuals can respond better and faster to, we are working to understand women’s skin from the inside out to define what’s possible when it comes to personalized skin care," says Dr. Neuser. "Maybe in five to 10 years’ time, doing a simple DNA test will be part of your skin-care buying experience! Knowing how likely you are to develop different signs of skin aging and when, combined with your current skin appearance and skin-care habits, could be very helpful in choosing the right skin-care regimen for you."

Mary Schook, a licensed esthetician and cosmetic formulator in New York City, appreciates Olay's extensive research, but says the study of DNA and genomics in skin care is nothing new. She points us toward an article published in 2014, which states that, "In recent years, the skin-care industry has seen a rapid influx in the use of genomics and the introduction of gene expression-based biomarkers in personal-care product development."

"I like that the study has a broad age and ethnic spectrum," Schook says. "But will genomics reveal all of the answers? Probably not." Some think the secrets to anti-aging are related to diet and inflammation, some think it is best tackled both internally and externally via antioxidants, some anti-aging academies concentrate on hormones, and so on.

"The report will certainly be a fascinating addition to our biological puzzle, and perhaps a catalyst to a greater 'aha' moment down the road," says Schook. "The next trick will be figuring out how to trigger, enhance, or activate those genes."
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