The quest for the elixir of eternal youth
The search for effective products to combat the ravages of ageing has gathered pace alongside the rapidly expanding population of wealthy older people not prepared to accept the fate of their parents.
In the past, anyone aged 60 or more, was expected to disappear quietly into gardening or bridge clubs.
Today’s rising generation of older people wants the same treatment, lifestyle and choices as are on offer to much younger people, and that includes looking younger too.
The pitfalls of unregulated cosmetic surgery have been made all too clear by the growing number of women with leaking breast implants or anti-wrinkle fillers, which have set into concrete lumps under their skin.
The rejection of such risky measures to reduce the effects of age is fuelling a much more considered push to find products that have a biological, anti-ageing effect well beyond the simple moisturisers marketed since the beginning of the 20th century.
We are now seeing the advent of cosmeceuticals or “interventional cosmetics” – that is, compounds which have a biological effect, but which have so far managed to stay the right side of the line which divides them from medicines, which necessarily are much more closely regulated and expensive to develop, and require a licence to be sold.
The growth of the new class of cosmeceuticals is being driven by serious investment in laboratory research by companies such as L’Oreal, Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, Boots, and now Fujifilm.
Results are sent out for peer review, and if the science is considered sufficiently robust, the findings are published in research journals in the same way as news of advances in any other branch of science or medicine.
L’Oreal the world’s largest cosmetics company which employs 3,400 scientists and is sponsoring research projects in universities around the world, is leading the field, with studies to investigate skin cell regeneration, gene expression, the processes of burn repair and skin pigmentation.
Its researchers are even predicting they will soon be able to demonstrate how to turn off the genes involved in greying hair.
Unilever has recently published research showing the nature of the link between high blood sugar, obesity and premature skin-wrinkling, while Proctor & Gamble has published clinical trials favourably comparing its new cosmetic with retinoic acid, a vitamin A derivative, which was previously the only really effective anti-wrinkle agent, but one which had the unfortunate side-effect of causing skin-thinning.
Even Boots the Chemists, best-known in Britain for its chain of more than 2,000 high streets pharmacy stores, is not being left behind in the new age of skin science, and is investing heavily in laboratory research.
It was arguably the BBC which gave the nascent field of cosmeceutical research its biggest boost, when in 2007 its science programme Horizon, showed a skeptical female senior doctor being confronted with research evidence that a Boots produce also had better skin-smoothing properties than retinoic acid.
If the BBC was endorsing an anti-wrinkle cream on a respected science programme despite its strict brief to remain commercially neutral, people not unreasonably assumed that it had a biological effect.
Nevertheless, there remain substantial hurdles to cosmeceutical development. It is one thing persuading people to apply skin smoothing agents, but quite another to convince them that long term use of dietary supplements will make their skin younger than it might otherwise have looked.
L’Oreal’s cosmeceutical product Inneov has never been launched in the UK.(1) principally because we don’t have the networks of cosmeceutical pharmacists that exist elsewhere in the world.
Far more likely then, that the next step will be disseminating more results from long-term studies demonstrating benefit, at the same time as promoting cosmeceutical yoghourt drinks or something similar, containing the magic youth-promoting compounds.
Getting this nascent field off the ground however, will depend completely on producing the research findings showing such products work.