Fight Aging by Healing Damaged Skin
September 18th, 2013
BY Maggie Bullock
From battery-powered, cell-zapping salves to wound-healing proteins, the latest anti-aging products take a first-aid approach to younger-looking skin Avon’s global research center in Suffern, New York, a small town about 45 minutes north of New York City, feels like something Walt Disney might have built had he been into skin care instead of talking mice. Not only does this $100 million facility boast state of- the-art labs, but it also features an “inventables” bar stocked with swatches of odd, apparently cutting-edge industrial materials (honeycomb cardboard; something called “ceramic foam”) intended to keep employees’ minds nimble during coffee breaks, and science-themed rooms that got their names through a staff contest The entrance to the “Dermal Junction,” for instance, is wallpapered with a blown-up photo of cross-sectioned skin. “Blue Sky,” more appealingly, is a domed, all-blue chamber; a literal interpretation of the words think tank. It was in this room, on a recent visit, that Avon’s latest breakthrough— a way to make skin heal itself in order to reverse aging—was revealed.
Turns out, the latest developments in skin care share a basic theory that actually isn’t all that new: the notion that skin aging isn’t just one more example of the body’s gradual, inevitable decline, but rather the result of a series of mini injuries—as if skin cells were constantly inflicted with microscopic tears or cuts—which never heal properly and, over time, add up. What is new? The rather promising science and the novel ingredients—emergency proteins, electric charges—companies are injecting into your daily dollop of skin cream in order to teach your face to resolve these insults as they occur. Eliminating damage before it can build up? You do the math. In Avon’s case, its team of
scientists has spent the past five years zeroing in on activin, one of several proteins that are alerted when our skin is cut or wounded, instructing cells to produce fresh collagen.
Like so many things, our activin emergency system slows with age. Just think about how fast your skinned knees healed when you were a kid—how long does it take now?
Activin itself is too bulky a molecule to breach skin’s security system; instead, Avon Anew Reversalist contains the extracts of two plants that have been used medicinally in Southeast Asia for generations:
the mellifluously named Amorphophallus and Sesbania. This cocktail, the company claims, can charm skin into producing its own activin supply. (No word on whether Reversalist helps with skinned knees. I, for one, will be keeping an extra jar on hand just in case.)
As for those aforementioned electric charges? Cosmetics formulators are tapping into a rather kooky-sounding—but increasingly promising—corner of scientific research: bioelectricity, a version of the energy that fuels our households and reboots our gadgetry, which is also the driving force behind our skin, heart, and nerve cells. When your brain tells your big toe to point or your ears to wiggle, it does so with electricity: Tiny pulses leap from one nerve tendril to the next, and, voilà, you point and wiggle. If you’ve visited an ER (or tuned in to House, M.D.), you’ve witnessed bioelectricity in action: The peaks and valleys on an electrocardiogram are, in fact, a chart of the perfectly coordinated electric charges we know as heartbeats.
Almost every living cell, in fact, has an essential electric charge. Cells’ outer membranes are permeated with tiny, high-traffic tunnels, which conduct charged ions—primarily sodium, potassium, and calcium—
in and out. “Cells are like tiny batteries,” says Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, PhD, a professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University. “There’s more sodium outside the membrane and more potassium inside of it. This generates polarity, or voltage, which is essential to the normal function of the cell.”
Bioelectricity, as it happens, is also a key factor in wound healing. As early as the 1830s, it was observed that injured tissue generates an electric current—though no one was exactly sure why. Scientists now know that these currents fuel repair by moving cells to where they’re needed. “The charges send signals that instruct the cells to move toward them,” says Alexa Kimball, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School and consultant for Neutrogena. Kimball says cells are surprisingly mobile; in some studies, the cellular movement that occurs during healing has appeared almost as if a magnet had pulled the cells into position.
According to Vunjak-Novakovic, externally applied electricity can have profound effects on skin cells’ function, too, either stimulating or suppressing proliferation. Indeed, in her lab at Columbia, electricity is being used to help individual stem cells mature into potentially lifesaving heart, bone, and blood vessel tissues.
But what about the idea that a jolt might be good for your face? That will come as no surprise to celeb-beloved facialists such as Susan Ciminelli, and Joanna Vargas, who have used microcurrent treatments in their regimens for years. At her wildly popular L.A. clinic, Kate Somerville gently squeezes and prods cheeks and jowls using two sets of metallic prongs, crafting perfectly—if temporarily— sculpted cheekbones, lifted brows, tightened turkey necks. (It sounds about as fun as waterboarding, but produces, at most, a painless tingle.)
Somerville believes the microcurrent revs up collagen production, enhances circulation, and acts as a “gym for the skin,” causing minute, toning muscle contractions. Without ample studies to back them up, Kimball says the first two claims are tough to evaluate. “And the concept that muscle contractions are helpful is likely not correct,” she says. “After all, Botox works by preventing muscular contractions.” Still, Somerville devotees (certain ELLE editors among them) anxiously await the at-home version she has in the pipeline; the DermaLucent Handheld, a palm-size microcurrent gizmo, is currently up for FDA approval.
As for creams with a little extra zip, La Mer first tapped piezoelectricity—in which mechanical energy is converted to an electric charge—back in 1997. Last year, the company introduced The Body Refiner, a diamond-dust-flecked scrub that contains piezoelectrically charged bits of tourmaline. According to La Mer, rubbing the product into skin converts the gemstone’s charge into electric energy, which acts as a mini generator, not only stimulating microcirculation, but also potentially changing skin’s bioelectric current. (Again, Kimball says she has seen scant clinical data on piezoelectric ingredients— not that La Mer addicts are likely to be deterred.) Also charging ahead: L’Oréal’s new Ideal Skin Genesis Complexion Equalizer is sprinkled with micronized pink tourmaline from Brazil, while By Terry’s superluxe moisturizing balm, Or de Rose Baume Précieux, owes its glow to 24-karat pink gold flecks that the company claims “generate electromagnetic microstimulations.”
But Neutrogena is the first brand to go deep on bioelectricity; in particular, they’re tapping into biomimetics—the science of using technology to copy biological systems. The new Neutrogena Clinical collection contains zinc particles that are coated in copper. Though you can’t feel them, the company claims these microbatteries— each roughly the size of a skin cell—create a current that revs up cells’ abilities to communicate with one another, just as they would in normal wound healing (telling one another, for example: Make collagen!). Duracell-inspired skin care certainly sounds like science fiction, but Vunjak-Novakovic seems remarkably optimistic that it might actually work: “The idea is to wake up the native mechanism that the body already knows but, over decades, has forgotten.”
Of course, exactly how it works isn’t completely understood. “The charge sits on top of skin. It’s superficial, but the cells can still detect it, like wireless technology,” Kimball says. And though Kimball confesses that she was skeptical at first, she says the proof is in the pudding. According to the brand’s studies, testers’ skin formed up to 20 percent more collagen after sticking to the regimen for eight weeks. Aging skin? Heal thyself.