Saturday, January 14th, 2012

By Nicki Zevola, Pennsylvania, Skincare Expert

Nicki Zevola is a beauty expert and the founder of FutureDerm.com, where she provides clear, well-researched information about beauty+skincare, fashion+style, nutrition+fitness, and personal development from a different perspective from most in the blogosphere. Named one of the top beauty bloggers since 2009, Nicki is also a medical student (M.D.) with an estimated graduation date of May 2013. Continue reading her full bio


Photo by mira66

5 Things You Must Know about DNA and Beauty Products

It’s been almost a decade since the human genome has been sequenced, and all of a sudden, it seems everyone wants to get in on the hot biological terminology. From sequencing to splicing to cloning, you can’t walk into a Sephora without having someone ask you about your genes (and sorry, honey, we’re not talkin’ about your Sevens). Unfortunately, while some industry insiders are utilizing the technology to make skin care bravely go where no product has ever gone before, others are, unfortunately, being a bit deceptive in their approach. Here’s what we know about the technologies:

1. There is no such thing as a single “Youth Gene.”

A product that shall go nameless recently advertised that it is clinically proven to turn on the “Youth Gene.” Unfortunately, the Human Genome Project has affirmed there are 19,599 protein-coding genes (Ornl.gov), and it is likely that the expression of nearly all of them decreases with age. Furthermore, there are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of genes targeted towards manufacturing proteins that can help make you look younger. It is the decrease of function a number of genes, not just one, that contribute to aging. So beware of any product that claims to target a single gene. It may have other redeeming factors, but this should not be your primary reason to buy.

2. The secret to red wine is not just resveratrol.

Want to know why people are so excited about resveratrol? Although resveratrol is a noted antioxidant, its main benefit is that it may upregulate proteins called sirtuins, which in turn prolong the life of your skin’s collagen-producing fibroblasts. Sirtuins do this by turning off unnecessary gene expression, so when the fibroblasts aren’t expending more energy than they need to on unnecessary tasks, they will theoretically last longer. This means that your fibroblasts enable you to make collagen naturally for more years than if you did not treat your skin with sirtuins.

Unfortunately, numerous studies suggest resveratrol does not influence sirtuin production, including a 2005 study in the Journal of Biological Chemistry2009 study in Chemical Biology and Drug Design, and 2010 study in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. It is also hard to know for sure if sirtuins in skin care products are able to diffuse through the your skin’s cellular and nuclear membranes to affect the genetic material within in the first place. Preliminary data from companies like Avon, who feature the ingredient in their Ultimate Age Repair Elixir Serum and Night Cream, seem to suggest that sirtuins applied topically may have an effect. However, there may also be confounding variables, as the other ingredients in the products have previously been proven beneficial for the skin. Clearly, more research needs to be done.

Three more facts you NEED to know! 

3. Not all creams that claim to contain growth factors actually do.

Granted, true growth factors do exist; biologists define them as substances capable of stimulating cellular growth, proliferation, and cellular differentiation. Most established growth factors are proteins or steroid molecule that include epidermal growth factor (EGF) and fibroblast stimulating factor (FGF), or anti-inflammatory cytokines like TGF-β or IL-3.

Some skin care creams, like Vitaphenol Cellustructure Serum and Skinmedica TNS Skin Recovery Complex, actually contain the anti-inflammatory growth factor TGF-β. However, other companies advertising that they contain “growth factors” may instead include ingredients like Glutamylamidoethyl indole that are proven to stimulate the production of growth factor, not growth factor itself. While this would still be somewhat effective, I would choose a product with 2% “growth factor” over a product with 2% “ingredient that may stimulate growth factor” any day.

4. Telomeres are likely to play a role in anti-aging in the future, but not yet.

A telomere is a piece of DNA at the end of your chromosomes. It protects the ends of your chromosomes from being lost through DNA replication. As we age, it has been noted that telomere length naturally shortens. It is no wonder, then, that many scientists (and drug companies!) are interested in developing agents to increase or preserve the size of your telomeres.

One agent, telomerase, is a natural enzyme that increases the size of your telomeres. Unfortunately, no forms of telomerase in skin care products to date have been found to preserve telomere length through DNA replication cycles in human skin in vivo. Furthermore, it’s hard to say how much we want to increase telomerase in the first place: patients with lupus have increased amounts of telomerase, though not enough to overcome telomere shortening. And even though we know that shortening a telomere in an individual contributes to aging, two different people who are of completely different stages of aging can have telomeres that are the same size. (!) In other words, telomere technology has a long way to go before we can be confident about its effects in skin care.

5. Certain DNA repair enzymes might be effective in fighting UV damage.

As dermatologist Dr. Helen Torok, M.D., once told me in an exclusive interview, enzymes like photolyase and endolyase have been shown to decrease the number of UVB radiation-induced dimers by 45% and increase UV protection by 300%. Apparently, DNA enzymes contained within skin care products may be able to diffuse through cellular and nuclear membranes to affect the cell’s natural machinery. As to whether or not this is dangerous, Dr. Torok replied, “We cannot say with complete certainty but most likely not. The DNA repair enzymes detect DNA damage, remove the damage and then assist the body’s own natural repair mechanisms in restoring healthy DNA. The body can do this on its own, but repeated sun exposure – whether or not a sunburn forms – lessens the skin’s ability to repair itself. The DNA repair enzymes help to promote the recovery process.”

Bottom Line

DNA in skin care is certainly a very interesting subject, and we are likely to hear about it many times more in the future. For now, beware of products that claim to turn on or regulate a particular gene, be careful when shopping for “growth factors,” and know that the current research looks most promising (right now) for growth factors and DNA repair enzymes. I’ll keep you posted when more research emerges!

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25 thoughts on “5 Things You Must Know about DNA and Beauty Products

  1. AnGeLwInGz

    Very interesting. I enjoy reading about how these products work, not just their texture and fragrance.

  2. Lisa

    Hey Nicki Z.,

    As a biologist, I really like your post. I’m often wary of skincreams that use their word “bio” in their advertisting; especially if the word “bio” is related to a product claim that ingredients target specific genes. While the claim may be true, it is very difficult to predict whether targeting those genes would actually have a statistically significant positive effect on your skin.

    However, I think that next time you do a more scientific post, you should simplify it more. Not very many non-bio people know what “upregulation” is.

    Hope you are having a good time in med school :)

    • Melissa

      I agree! I absolutely loved this article, but feel it would go over the heads (just a little bit!) of those without a bio/pre-med background. Great job! :)

      • mary

        I personally really enjoyed this post, and I am glad that this blog has incorporated some of the real science behind beauty products in addition to articles about specific products and how they perform color- and longevity-wise, etc. I would agree that the average person might not understand this, but rather than simplify what you wrote, maybe have a simplified summary at the end of each section describing in lay terms what you said. As a makeup and beauty fan with a significant background in biochemistry and research in the like, I actually want to read about the pathways and specific enzymes you mention, and I would be sorely disappointed if you altered your writing to make it more “simple” and vague. I have a hard time trusting articles that claim to be scientific but don’t include any trace of real data and specificity about how things do/don’t do what they claim.

  3. Alison

    Yay, a scientifically accurate article! Hard to come across :P

  4. Iris

    This is a really nice article. I’m impressed. Please keep up your good work.

  5. Rachael

    This is possibly the most interesting article I’ve ever read on this website. Thank you so much!

  6. Aleonushka

    I absolutely loved this article!! <3 I remember a teacher telling us about telomere fibers getting shorter and how we couldn't do much about it,except deal with it haha…such is life, and info like this will save us a lot of money, besides learning :). Anyway…I'd love to see more articles like this, thanks Nicki Z and Christine :D

  7. Nazyra

    i love how informational this post is. i’m a life science undergrad and i hope to work in the beauty industry in the future. so i’m loving how you really explain the science behind all the claims that companies seem to make. hopefully, when i graduate, i can make one of those claims a reality and take beauty a step further.

    I have a few queries that would mean a lot to me if you replied. :)

    1) i have my doubts about telomerase-extending enzymes in beauty products because as i remember in high school, cancer cells have overly active telomerase that causes the cell to, in that sense, “live forever”. especially with the UV rays that our skin is so exposed to with the depleting ozone layer and such, do you think such research in developing a telomere-targeting drug would be worth it with such high chances of mutation?

    2) what are your views on nanotechnology used in cosmetics?

    sorry if i don’t quite make sense, >< it's just jumbled up thoughts going through my head right now and they haven't really been processed by my brain. haha xD

  8. Martina

    This article is so interesting!! Thank you for sharing these informations!!!

  9. Missy

    Thank you SO much for this! We need more experts speaking the truth, and less spokespeople trying to convince us they “want the best for us”.

  10. Eileen

    Informative, concise, well-written post. Thank you, Nicki. I’ve read Future Derm for quite awhile and always find your articles comprehensive, grounded in fact, and easy to understand. It’s good to see you on Temptalia.

  11. Lia

    Great post! Definitely appealed to the inner scientist in me. And thank you for the citations, now I don’t have to hunt them down myself!

  12. Abby

    Thanks for this, Nicki!

    Working as a grad student in a molecular biology lab, I can safely say that getting things into cells can be an extremely arduous task– and that’s when the cells are naked on a petri dish, not even protected by layers of skin cells! Cells have evolved to keep most foreign materials out and, with the exception of water and some simple molecules/ions, most things have to be specifically taken up, if they’re taken in at all. Thus, I’m also extremely leery of any over-the-counter skincare products that claim to have any sort of profound cellular effect, especially if the main ingredients are just water, glycerin, and mineral oil/petrolatum.

  13. nice work! Can u do an indepth report on exactly how retin a works on the skin? thanks

  14. Jasmine

    This is a great article! It’s rare to read a beauty article where you actually learn something these days :)

  15. Brian aka Roulette

    Wow!! Please write more articles. I am going to scour your website now. I am a total science nerd AND a makeup artist and I find that clients LOVE when I explain the scientific nature of products as I am applying them, and it gives them a sense of trust. Thank you so much to both you and Christine for this kind of real information being readily accessible. Two huge thumbs up!!!

  16. Maggie

    Yay! It’s nice to see you over here on temptalia. I love your blog!!!

  17. Leila

    Good article Nicki. I am so glad to finally see an article addressing these sort of claims from cosmetic companies. As a science graduate (specializing in genetics), it makes me sad to see all this misinformation on repairing DNA damage or activating genes, being thrown about by companies that should know better. The worse thing is that many times, a consumer would need a science degree to see through these claims and that’s just not right.

    I wanted to add another point to your list, if I may. Many times I see a skin care product claim to repair DNA damage. DNA damage is impossible to repair. If we could do this, it would win the Nobel Prize; it is that big a breakthrough. Cancer could be easily treated, as would many inherited disorders.

    About the telomeres, I actually think the opposite to what you’ve said, because what we know about telomeres is still quite uncertain. When you consider cloned mammals who have tend to have shorter lifespans than normal (and longer telomeres than usual due to telomerase refreshing them when they are “conceived”), it throws that into doubt. Also, messing with telomeres could be dangerous as cancer cells tend to have longer telomeres to keep on dividing.

    Then again, genetics is such a rapidly evolving field (these days, what we know today, could quite likely be obsolete in six months!), that there are many conflicting opinions available at any one time.

    Many times, I have considered doing an article like this, explaining why any claims by cosmetic companies that involve gene and DNA technology are mostly untrue. The only reason I haven’t done so yet, is I’m not sure I have time for my own blog, but I may consider writing a guest post somewhere, as I have so much to say on the subject and really want to get it out there.

    In the meantime everyone, wear sunscreen everyday. It’s the only truly anti-ageing action you can take. (My professor’s words!)

  18. Eva

    Thanks so much for this great post! As a grad student in the sciences, I get a little perturbed by companies and the media when they manipulate research findings to fit their own agenda.

    I never believed all the hype about the Youth Gene and I’m glad that this article can inform others about how companies sometimes misuse science.

  19. Tamara

    I loved this article because I’m kind of a science geek too but you make it very easy to understand, even for those who aren’t. Thank you so much for taking the time to write it :)

  20. This was a great scholarly change of pace, LOVED it!

  21. Lark

    This is interesting, but also very broad. The Psych and Oncology people are finding that certain bits of genetic profile indicate wether you fall into the group that will respond best to Treatment A, B, or C, etc. Even if a product ingredient claim is true- it may only be true for certain people, ethnic groups or even groups within racial or ethnic groups. Others will want a different active ingredient. Or may not get one for wrinkles until actual diseases are seen to…
    So, the miracle cream for people who got the right chunk of genes from Northern European Celts may not work for their siblings who have a Semitic or Native American bit involved. The US, and ever more so the world, is a melting pot. And this is years away, so a really good daily sunscreen and quitting smoking still come before Hocus Pocus sounding creams.

  22. Sarah Cormier

    What a fantastic post! Great work Nicki! Please do more like this in the future!