Your genome is your body’s instruction manual. There is an identical copy of it in almost every healthy cell in your body. It is unique to you, containing all the information needed to make you, run you and repair you. Reading the first human genome cost $3billion and involved tens of thousands of scientists, taking 13 years. Today, a whole genome sequence costs around $1,000 and can be done in a day, making it available to a wider audience. And for those in the business of making skincare more effective and more personalized, the race was on.
“The Human Genome Project,” says Dr Veronique Delvigne, scientific director at Lancome, “allowing us to go back to the fundamentals and to start to understand skin.” Establishing that around 700 genes are active in normal skin, Lancome launched the first mainstream genomics skincare, Genifique in 2009, with Advanced Genifique, a youth-enhancing serum, following soon after.
“Older skin has a different genetic signature to younger skin,” explains Delvigne, “and genomics has rewritten the beauty bible on the cause of age spots, which are not caused by over-synthesis of the pigment melanin as previously thought, but are the result of activity by firbroblasts, (responsible for maintenance and tissue metabolism) in the dermis, Lancome’s Dream Tone pigmentation serum, for example, harnessed this finding by targeting fibroblasts. For the most part, though, claims center around altering “genetic expression” – not to be confused with the actual altering of genes themselves. There is never likely to be a single gene for youth, or collagen or dark spots or, indeed, anything else (apart from well-known single gene diseases such as Hungtington’s).
Rather, beauty companies are seeking to influence the activity of key groups of genes that have been identified as important in a particular skin process, be it hydration or aging. The way they do this is generally by increasing the signals to get them to switch on. Amore Pacific’s best-selling Time Response range, based on gene science, claims to reverse aging at a genetic level by, for instance, increamins hyaluronic acid production. Founded in Korea, the brand’s high-level research and development has led to it gaining a cult following in the USA.
Knowing what genes you have, or being able to increase their activity, will only take you so far, however. Knowledge of the genome is nothing without looking at the external factors that affect it. To which end we have epigenetics, which is essentially the way your genome makes sure you are best adapted to the environment you are exposed to.
Extra instructions in the form of chemical ‘marks’ are added to your DNA, particularly to those bit between genes (less than five percent of your genome is made up of genes. The DNA between genes is now known to be crucial in controlling gene activity). These might prevent or slow down one gene’s activity or enhance another’s. It allows your genome to be interpreted in a different way. It is why identical twins with identical genome can behave differently if they’re raised apart. The most obvious environmental markers are UV light, smoking and pollutants, but equally emotions – especially abuse in childhood – stress and diet can trigger epigenetic change.
Beauty companies are trying to mobilise epigenetic knowledge to increase activity of genes, particularly those whose activity has slowed with age. One of the best known epigenetic ‘marks’ is when a chemical methyl group gets attached to the genome. Amore Pacific’s Prime Reserve Epidynamic Activating Creme claims that by binding a methyl group to its formidable patented green tea extract it will latch itself onto the genome to “awaken the longevity gene… to prolong cell life”.
The marketing phrases are bold, but the fantastic reception for this product may be down to something far simpler – it contains and even more potent version of green tea extract, which has solid evidence behind it in terms of prompting cell activity. Chanel’s new “smart” cream Le Lift, has a different approach, aiming to reduce the number of epigenetic ‘marks’, thus neutralizing the skin’s ageing mechanisms and reactivating the production of good proteins.
Estee Lauder, too, has been looking at epigenetics. Its research into sirtuins (a family of genes that plays an important role in cell metabolism) forms the backbone for its skincare, including the new Re-Nutriv Ultimate Diamond Sculpting/Refinishing Dual Infusion serum. However, it is very early days for epigenetics in skin formulations. As Dr Nessa Carey, author of The Epigenetics Revolution, points out, companies “will find epigenome changes if they leave their cells [that they are using for testing] out of the incubator for too long, sprinkle crackers on them or add some aspirin… Almost everything will cause a statistically significant epigenetic change if you look hard enough.
But it doesn’t mean that the change has any real biological impact.” And there’s another truth here. We all have favourite brands and, yes, culture plays its part, but it is all about what works for us. No skincare is universally effective, in the same way that in pharmaceuticals one drug may work brilliantly for one person but cause another unwanted side effects. We are all different.
The Australian pharmacogenomics company, SkinDNA, founded by leading researchers and specialists in genetic analysis and skin therapies, takes a different approach (and, by the way, provides some of the best information of the effect of genes on skin on its website, skindna.com.au). You are sent a DNA swab kit and lifestyle questionnaire (costing between $299 and $399), with 16 SNPs within five different areas affecting skin health: firmness and elasticity, wrinkling, sun damage, free-radical protection and sensitivity and inflammation. The results take a week and are presented as a low, medium or high risk in the five areas.
You are then advised about available products that are suitable for you, either through partner companies or from off-the-shelf brands. Founder Stefan Mazy says, “First and foremost, the advice provided is intended to answer the ‘whys’. Why should someone use this ingredient instead of another? Why is it beneficial?
The advice at the end of the day is designed to help justify the need to use specific ingredients rather than focus on brands and ‘product of the month’ advertising.” So what if you luck out and you are low risk for everything? Mazy is stern. “If you want to consume of box of donuts everyday, you override your luck.” SkinDNA’s technology is licensed to various partners including Dr Ruthie Harper of SkinShift, as well as DNAge and a number of other dermatologists worldwide. This approach is clearly gaining in popularity.
One person who is not 100 percent convinced is Margo Marrone, the highly-respected founder of the Organic Pharmacy group, who flirted with gene testing and was involved with IMperial College in early trials, Organic Pharmacy initially offered gene testing along with a 90-minute advice session, but now chooses to focus on changing the way genes are expressed in skin by looking at a client’s lifestyle. “It’s going to take quite a long time for people to get their heads around this,” says Marrone. “Our approach has always been holistic; genetics alone is not sufficient. It’s a balance between repair of damage and tissue longevity.
We can all see what stress does to people’s faces.” Her Gene Expression Lifting Serum has been clinically tested and in Marrone’s own words “works very well”. The use of genomics has already had a profound influence on our understanding of skin, leading to highly effective products. Epigenetics may yet emerge as a major force in skincare, but for my money, it has to be combined with knowledge of the genome – precision skincare based on an individual’s DNA and linked to lifestyle information. The future of beauty, it seems, is truly personal.