The Sunday Times 21 July 2013
Many women who have been quietly appalled by friends’ forays into plastic surgery are starting to place their faith elsewhere. Not anywhere outlandish, mind you; they’re simply placing their bets on skincare once more. That’s because there’s a new generation of scientifically validated skincare innovations that offers ways of countering the ageing process.
Keen to persuade us to consider spending our youthifying money on pots of cream instead of surgery, cosmetics manufacturers are realising that they need to prove that their products really can make a difference, and to do this they need to show that results from laboratory experiments can be replicated in “real” women.
To that end, last year a group of 38- to 65-year-old female healthcare workers agreed to take part in an independent experiment at a British university that has dramatically raised the bar for non-partisan demonstrations of the efficacy of cosmetic skincare products.
The three-month study involved the group of 86 randomly selected volunteers applying a different moisturiser to either side of their face, twice a day, every day. None of them knew the properties of either cream, or even why they were being tested — they just knew that they must not mix them up.
The study was intended to prove that a breakthrough compound called Glycanactif, a key glycan-based ingredient in the new Yves Saint Laurent Forever Light Creator Skintone Corrector Serum (catchy name, right?), could really make a difference in correcting and preventing the uneven facial skin pigmentation that increases with age in white women.
To explain a little bit of the science, glycans are types of sugar molecules that are involved in cell-signalling mechanisms — essentially how the cells in the skin communicate with each other to signal regeneration. As we get older, these signals can slow down and be inhibited. Seven Nobel prizes have been awarded for discoveries around these mechanisms. The technology has led to the development of the Hib vaccine against fatal infant flu, and is expected one day to lead to the creation of vaccines against cancer and tuberculosis. But on less of a changing-the-world-order scale, it has also been applied to skincare.
The decline in glycan concentration and efficacy with age is a significant factor in skin deterioration. Glycanactif contains three different glycans that have been found to be particularly important in skin maintenance, thanks to a collaborative project between YSL’s parent company, L’Oréal, and scientists from the prestigious Max Planck Institute in Berlin.
The team believes this is probably one of the most important advances in skincare science to date, because it has enabled the production of a cosmetic that acts on the deeper, living layers of skin rather than merely on the surface.
The study was performed under the direction of DesmondTobin, Bradford University’s professor of cell biology and director of its Centre for Skin Sciences, who is a world expert in anti-ageing skincare. The project is investigating the effect of glycans on genes, as well as finding out what happens to real women if they try to interrupt the ageing process — specifically, the way skin colour becomes progressively more uneven as melanocytes (the freckle-causing cells) migrate more easily to the surface.
Tobin’s team is still conducting a detailed analysis of the results, but he says the product works. “We are hoping this research will take us to a whole new level of understanding of the mechanism of glycans, and give us access to more sophisticated ways of rebalancing skin regeneration,” he says. “This is the first time L’Oréal has taken a key product to an independent university and given us free rein to do an assessment of this kind.”
He has now turned his attention to investigating the genetic effect of glycans: “It is possible there will be a cluster of genes whose activity is altered by Glycanactif,” he says. He refuses to reveal details of the human study ahead of publication in a scientific journal, but will reveal that the best results occurred in women under 45. “We can say these younger participants showed the biggest improvement in visible skin features, such as brown/red spots on their cheek area and fine lines and wrinkles around the eyes.”
Tobin says the results are a strong indicator that women who start taking care of their skin at an earlier age are going to reap the greatest benefits, but gene studies will provide more information on exactly why that is.
Julie McManus, L’Oréal’s scientific director, is less guarded. “When I went to see them [at Bradford] to talk about the final results, I was delighted — and actually quite relieved,” she says. “It was a noticeable difference.”
Meanwhile, other skincare manufacturers are also investigating glycation — the age-related decline of glycans in the skin — and testing anti-glycation agents. French researchers have published evidence of compounds that can slow this process, but no resulting product has yet been independently tested on humans.
For anyone who wants to get a personal analysis of the effects of a skincare product, there is now a system called Visia available at the Cadogan Clinic in London. It uses multispectral imaging — varying types of pulsed light — to measure six different parameters of skin damage. It gives you a percentage score against all the other women of your age who have been assessed by the system. For instance, a score of 75% for wrinkles would put you in the top 25% of women of your age with the smoothest skin. Such technology is expected to make it to the high street within the next few years, meaning we will be able to verify the value of scientific advances on our own face.