London - As a beauty writer I am acutely aware that much marketing guff and pseudo-science is spouted by face cream manufacturers in a bid to tempt millions of women to buy their latest wonder cream.
All moisturisers are essentially an emulsion of oil and water. The way this works is simple: putting it on the skin traps moisture to the surface, and stops the uppermost layers from becoming dry.
When Body Shop founder Anita Roddick famously dismissed those that made anti-ageing claims as “complete pap”, I for one cheered. At the time, 12 years ago, she was probably right. But not any more.
Moisturisers are no longer just hope in a jar. Today, anti-ageing products are increasingly high-tech, created using methods borrowed from advanced medical research. And they actually work, as I discovered when I put one famous Royal’s favourite face cream to the test.
For a month, I used the Duchess of Cambridge’s moisturiser of choice – from the Karin Herzog range – which you can pick up from hundreds of salons. Scientists analysing my skin then told me there was irrefutable evidence that my wrinkles had been reduced by 27 percent.
Experts call this “the age of the cosmeceutical”. That’s a term coined to cover high-tech skincare that falls into the gap between cosmetics, which by law should make only a very temporary change to the skin, and pharmaceutical products, which can be provided only with a doctor’s prescription, and bring about lasting changes.
Although it’s not a term recognised in law by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA), which licenses medicines in the UK, it is a useful description as the lines between cosmetics and medicines are becoming increasingly blurred.
Technically, any potion that makes a physiological change to the skin – reducing wrinkles and uneven pigmentation, and reversing sun damage and other dermatological problems – should be classed as a medicine.
But to put a product through medical drug-testing is a lengthy process costing millions, and not something that even the major cosmetics companies would want to do, not least because at the end of it you would have a product that could be sold only on prescription rather than over the counter. However, it is beyond dispute that today’s cosmetics can make significant changes to the skin.
In the past decade, skincare companies have been falling over themselves to provide credible proof of how well their products work to persuade us to buy them.
And this is not just the “surveys-show-that-nine-out-of-ten-women-thought-their-skin-looked-better” type of proof, but clinical trials where the product has been properly tested against a placebo under controlled conditions.
No 7’s Protect And Perfect line famously began to sell out repeatedly in 2007 after clinical trials on the product, which showed that it genuinely reduced wrinkles, were judged to be scientifically sound.
Olay’s Regenerist 3-point Treatment Cream caused a stampede the following year after trials confirmed it made skin firmer within 21 days. Two years ago, Clinique conducted trials to demonstrate that its Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector (a bit of a mouthful, but one heck of a product) produced comparable results in reducing skin pigmentation to hydroquinone, the standard prescription treatment for skin pigmentation.
And in the past few weeks, L’Oreal’s new Revitalift Laser Renew serum has been shown by a clinical trial to produce skin benefits comparable to treatment with a skin-resurfacing laser. You’d expect these new wonder potions to cost a small fortune, but all the above are priced between £20 and £40.
Because technically these creams are doing more than they ought, it has now led to a bizarre situation where companies don’t always want to let on just how extensive the effects of their products may be in case of calls for them to be recategorised as medicines.
It’s time the categories were redrawn, if you ask Dr Chris Flower, director general of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA), the industry’s trade body.
“We now understand better the physiology of the skin and its responses to ingredients and can see that where the borderline [between cosmetics and medicines] has been drawn is not necessarily the best dividing line,” he says. “Cosmetics aren’t watered-down drugs any more than they are beefed-up shoe polish. The key thing is that they are safe, effective and high-quality.
“We are trying to work out the best legal way of saying ‘Medicine takes ill people and makes them better and cosmetics take ordinary, healthy people and make them better”’ Ageing isn’t a disease but we can do things to improve it.
“Cosmetics used to be purely decorative but now we understand that even a simple moisturiser changes the way cells express genes and enzymes, so it’s interacting with the skin – but no one would seriously think that Vaseline should be labelled a medicine. Rather than arguing over the interpretation of legislation, we should take a common sense approach and look at whether a product is aimed at sick people or healthy people.”
In the interests of research (and, yes, of vanity) I make a point of trying interesting new skincare lines and using them diligently for a month – the length of time it takes for any beneficial changes in the skin to show up – just to see what they are like.
Last year, the selection ranged from Elizabeth Arden (lovely – its Prevage serum and SPF-fortified day cream suited my skin well) to No 7’s Lift & Luminate (not ideal for me), though the product that made my skin look best of all – glowing, vibrant, neither dry nor overly oiled – was Environ. This range has been created by a South African cosmetic surgeon and based on the benefits to the skin of high-strength Vitamin C.
But then I was persuaded to try Karin Herzog, a Swiss range of handmade products that have trapped oxygen within the cream (much harder to do than it sounds). The creams claim to infuse the skin with healing oxygen by a process that I don’t quite understand so I’ll spare you the details.
What did make me prick up my ears was the quiet aside that these are the products that the Duchess of Cambridge has been using for years, and to which she is apparently devoted. If they’re good enough for her outstandingly beautiful skin...
The packaging is old-fashioned and the products weren’t particularly nice to use – the roller-ball that dispensed the facial oil was reluctant to roll, the serum bottle had a savage squirt, and the peroxide in the main cream turned my eyebrows ginger.
As usual, I couldn’t see any difference in my skin but I’d taken the precaution of getting a professional before-and-after assessment with Nick Miedzianowski-Sinclair at the 3D Cosmetic Imaging Studio in Wimpole Street, Central London.
Nick’s specialist Visia camera took detailed photographs of my face, noting the exact extent of my wrinkles, pigment patches and so on, and after five weeks of using Karin Herzog there was a measurable reduction in wrinkles, age spots and red areas of the face. As Nick put it: “There’s some good evidence of efficacy.”
It was genuine evidence that using this range will make your skin look younger. I could have stuck with Herzog but I’ve been tempted away by Neo Strata, an ‘advanced anti-ageing regime’ from America – studies showed that after four weeks, 93 percent of users saw improvements in wrinkles, skin texture and forehead lines. Because the brand contains high levels of active ingredients such as glycolic acid (which helps plump the skin), it is sold only through skin clinics, where the staff can keep an eye on how your skin is responding.
These clinics are a halfway house between the prescription skincare that a doctor or dermatologist could provide and over-the-counter products.
And more developments will arrive thick and fast. To find out what the future holds for our faces, I visited the Episkin Predictive Evaluation Centre centre on the outskirts of the French city Lyon, where scientists have cloned human skin to test new face cream formulations.
Episkin is owned by L’Oreal, the world’s biggest cosmetics company, and this is where the ingredients, and later the formulations, that will comprise many of the world’s best-selling skincare products are put through their paces on the reconstructed human skin – bionic skin, if you like – that is made in the lab.
The building looks unremarkable. There is no perimeter fence or security guard at the entrance, just a metal gate set in a high white wall. Inside, technicians, gloved and covered from top to toe in blue-hooded suits are hunched over pots containing small, wet, white, floppy discs. This is Episkin – living, human skin.
I get to handle some. As I prod it with my latex-gloved fingers, the scientists regard me with tolerant amusement. “It’s quite strong,” I say.
“It’s a bit like blister skin,” says Dr Estelle Tinois-Tessonneaud, director of the Centre and the woman who, as a PhD student 30 years ago, invented the process by which the skin is created. “It is white because it has no blood supply and this version has no pigment, either.”
It is grown from skin cells taken from off-cuts donated by local plastic surgery clinics then developed into discs of tissue.
As well as Episkin, which is used as the epidermis, or outside layer of the skin, the centre makes other skin models including ‘”ealSkin”, which adds a dermis (the lower layer) to the epidermis. Staff have even developed corneal (eye) and gum tissue.
Episkin has been authorised by the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods to replace animal testing – something L’Oreal has been working towards, and investing £25 million a year in, for 20 years.
Of the 130,000 samples of tissue now made in Lyon, 30 percent are sold to other cosmetics companies to use as alternatives to animal testing. (Animal experiments have been banned in the EU since 2009, although some tests, for which alternatives have yet to be established, are still allowed.)
The rest of the tissue is used by L’Oreal for testing ingredients and the finished formulae for safety and effectiveness. Since 2008, some 13,000 formulae have been evaluated in this way.
At Boots, you can now find BioEffect, a serum containing a substance called epidermal growth factor (EGF). The scientists who discovered EGF won a Nobel prize for their work. Numerous peer-reviewed trials have shown a measurable effect on the skin, reducing the number of wrinkles.
There’s nanotechnology (the science of using molecules measured in millionths of a metre) in sunscreens. These microscopic particles of the sun-blocking ingredient titanium dioxide make sure your face won’t be left ghostly white.
Stem cells – plant and human – have been investigated for their regenerative power and put to work in serums. Genomics research, the study of the whole gene, has been used by skincare companies to work out which ingredients will “switch on” genes within the skin that become less active with age – and the results are on sale in Olay’s bestselling Pro-X range and Lancome’s Genifique line.
Avon ladies will soon be selling a serum containing a new molecule called A-F33, which helps older skin regenerate itself as quickly as younger skin does. Again, there’s Nobel prize-winning research behind this molecule.
It’s an expensive business; L’Oreal’s research and innovation budget for 2010 was £525 million. But with the British skincare market set to top £1 billion this year, there is a vested interest in being at the vanguard.
Rather than taking the old-fashioned route of mixing up trial formulae and seeing what they might do for skin, scientists are now doing this virtually, using computerised data from previous experiments to evaluate new ingredient molecules and formulae for safety and for beneficial effects, before mixing up a batch.
Because the computer models can whizz through this process, it’s fair to assume the pace of change is only going to accelerate in future. Watch this face... - Daily Mail