Anti-intellectualism might be on the rise, but we're living in a kind of golden age of innovation where skin care is concerned. Age-defying measures have long surpassed vaguely mothball-scented wrinkle creams and extended to amniotic tissue injected into your face and ostrich-egg antibodies. But perhaps the next great advancement in the industry is not currently being concocted in a lab or patented by a celebrity dermatologist, but is something that occurs inside yourself on an individual level, and that only your personal choices can impact.
No, we're not talking about "inner beauty" — this is about your genes. The study of epigenetics has opened up a world of possibilities, a great big door to a future of skin care that could make shooting multicoloured lasers at your face to target your fine lines seem stone-age by comparison.
"Epigenetics is the science that connects lifestyle and its impact on ageing," explains Smitha Rao, Vice President, Product Development and Regulatory Affairs at StriVectin. “What is fundamentally ground-breaking about epigenetics,” Rao says, “is the ability to ‘reverse’ or modify how your body ages by adopting positive lifestyle practices.” Your environment and lifestyle choices can literally change how your genes work, in ways that can then be passed down — genetically — to your children.
Because this isn't the sci-fi future just yet, you still can't modify the sequence of your DNA; epigenetics are in addition to your existing inherited genetic structure. (Epi- is a Greek prefix roughly meaning "over, outside of, around.") But the importance of these variables cannot be underestimated: Stanford scientists recently found concrete evidence that your environment accounts for 70% of how your immune system changes over time, leaving just 30% to your actual DNA imprint.
Of course, where scientific discovery goes, the beauty industry follows, and cosmetics and skin care fall firmly in the lifestyle category. "Our lifestyle is what is imprinted on our skin," says Miriam Quevedo, whose eponymous Barcelona-based cosmetics brand offers a line devoted to maintaining the health and strength of the skin in any environment. "External conditions can create an imbalance in the natural cellular process, resulting in the expression of cells with premature ageing: weakening of skin’s natural defences, slowdown of night-time cell regeneration, slower turnover, and a less efficient vitamin D bio-transformation."
Quevedo says that, while formulating her adaptogenic Black Baccara products, she acted as her own Patient Zero. "I noticed after extensive travels, long work days, changes in environment, sleepless nights, high periods of stress, and jetlag that I was a reflection of premature ageing," she says. But, as a mother of two who travels extensively, slowing down wasn't an option for Quevedo. So she decided to work from the outside in.
"I found that incorporating specific ingredients in different ways had an improvement in my skin, similar to the effect of returning to proper conditions of sleep, sunlight, weather, and exercise," Quevedo explains. "I noticed, and people told me, that I looked better or well-rested, even in less than ideal conditions." In the process, she says, she was finding a "key" to unlock ways to improve her skin and the cells' ability to work more efficiently, "to neutralise the harmful effects of [her] daily habits," even when she was running on empty.
With its Wrinkle Recode Line Transforming Melting Serum, StriVectin has also forged a path to positive epigenetic changes by way of its proprietary BioRecode Technology. But the epigenetics breakthrough does not begin and end with a certain product or brand — far from it. "Simply put, the skin-care products you use and how you use them all influence epigenetics either positively or negatively," Rao says. That includes poorly formulated products with harsh, caustic ingredients, as well as not using proper sun or antioxidant protection.
"Today's consumer is well-educated on how to protect the skin against sun and pollution, how to use cleansers and moisturisers and incorporate super antioxidants, but this is an even bigger, newer step towards improving cellular efficiencies and age-delay in the beauty field," Quevedo says. The magnitude of unlocking the ability to control the rate of ageing is enormous, and as research progresses, Rao says, she sees a future "where beauty treatments customised to individuals' epigenetic makeup will become the norm."
In March, the biotechnology firm EpiGentek, which specialises in epigenetic research, announced that it would lend technological and financial backing to the skin-care startup EpigenCare. This partnership could carry serious weight as beauty companies seek to utilise the new information in ways that benefit — and make sense to — consumers: EpigenCare's main service is a direct-to-consumer at-home test that collects DNA from the surface of the skin (to assess its current state, as opposed to a saliva-based test), which are then sent to the lab for sequencing to measure everything from moisture-retention capabilities and sensitivity response to cell regeneration and oxidation. From there, a database will then algorithmically find the best ingredients and products to address those unique individual factors, which vary from person to person. It's an ambitious venture — and still in fundraising stages — but as far as truly personalised skin care goes, it's one of the most promising yet.
Pseudoscience and skin care may always be inextricable from one another; ludicrous terms like "DNA repair" and "cellular rejuvenation" may continue to abound, and products that purport to be "clinically tested" may continue to go, well, untested. But epigenetics research has real potential to change the beauty industry for once, not just bandy around buzzwords that sound science-y but come from the brain of a shrewd executive. If we're really in the midst of skin care's golden age, then this might just be our magnetic compass, pointing us unerringly in the direction of ageless skin.