Lucky few have gene recipe for youthful looks

The Sunday Times 7 June 2015

(The model Iman may carry genes allowing her to look far younger than her age of 59 Photograph: Celebrity Monitor, PacificCoastN/Celebrity Monitor, PacificCoastNews)


SCIENTISTS believe they have identified a group of genes that allow some people to look far younger than their true age.

A project involving almost 1m people led by scientists at Harvard University and 23andMe, a private genetic database, found that 10% of white and 20% of black Americans carry the “genetic recipe” for youthful skin.

The researchers believe its presence can result in people looking up to 10 years younger than they really are, potentially explaining the youthful appearance of celebrities such as the actress Halle Berry, 48, and the model Iman, 59, the wife of the musician David Bowie.

Some of the findings are being presented this week at the World Congress of Dermatology in Vancouver, Canada. More details will appear in a series of publications, including the International Journal of Dermatology, later this year.

The findings include details of specific versions of genes from among 2,100 that age and repair the skin, which have been identified by the teams from Harvard and 23andMe and are carried by people who age exceptionally well.

The genes, according to the researchers, fit into seven categories that govern functions such as DNA repair, the maintenance of the junctions between skin cells, and the performance of the skin’s barrier against damaging environmental factors.


Another category covers the production of elements in the skin called lamellar bodies that produce lipids, molecules containing fats, waxes and nutrients that help to keep the skin moist.

The researchers have been collaborating with scientists at Procter & Gamble (P&G), the cosmetics giant that has funded their work. Nine other academic institutions are also involved.

With sales of facial skincare products estimated by Mintel, the market research firm, to be worth more than £1bn a year in the UK, the potential rewards from identifying an effective way to maintain youthful skin are enormous. P&G already produces Olay, a skincare line worth an estimated £2bn a year globally.

Rosemarie Osborne, a senior research fellow in P&G’s beauty technology division in Cincinnati, Ohio, said: “We expect that anti-ageing skinare regimes will become increasingly tailored to individual gene profile, leading to personalised skincare, in the same vein as personalised medicine.

“Ultimately, anti-ageing treatments may include tablets. I can’t see them replacing creams, but it is possible.”

Alexa Kimball, professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School and a member of one of the research teams, said: “Many of us felt that people with darker skin aged better because of more pigment and better photo [sunlight] protection, but we have found there is much more to it than that. They have other characteristics in their skin which confer good ageing, which until now we had no idea about.”

As well as spawning a multi-billion-pound cosmetics industry, the search for youthful looks has resulted in soaring use of Botox, which temporarily paralyses facial muscles, and dermal fillers.

The actress Felicity Kendal, 68, best known for her role in the BBC sitcom The Good Life, was among those who used Botox, but photographs taken last week show that, after she discontinued their use from 2010, wrinkles have appeared.

The notion that black skin ages better than white skin is not new. Chris Griffiths, professor of dermatology at Manchester University, has shown that the extracellular matrix, a spongy material between skin cells, retains a better structure among black people.

However, Emily Conley, a spokeswoman for 23andMe, warned black people against assuming their skin would age slowly. “We have found that many people who identify themselves as ethnically black often have mostly European DNA,” she said.