December 18 2011
You know you are looking old when, on telling someone your age, they answer, “Well, you don’t look it.” I suppose they are trying to be kind. I know, I have said it myself on enough occasions. Now people have started saying it to me.
I am 46 (not that old but not that young, either) and it is usually said with the mildly patronising “well done you” inflection that makes me feel like an octogenarian who has just been congratulated on the announcement that he wants to take up snowboarding.
It has already been established beyond doubt that I care about my appearance: I have written in these pages about my battle with hair loss and the concomitant reminder that time is passing. Of course, it does not do to dwell on these things for too long, not least because I am sure that existential angst furrows the brow and brings on wrinkles – and it is those wrinkles that have been exercising me of late.
My skin used to worry me when I was a teenager – acne vulgaris was a terrible trial. A stubborn spot or glowing red lump under the skin used to feel like walking around with a large sandwich board that said “Pimply Youth” in letters picked out in flashing lights.
I tried every remedy that I could, including washing my skin on the hour every day until it resembled a parched river bed during a prolonged drought. On one particularly desperate occasion, I applied cassette tape recorder head cleaning fluid to my facial blemishes. I reckoned that if I swabbed the innards of my cassette tape deck with this stuff and it removed built-up grease, grime and deposits of black stuff, it might do the same for my skin. If I am honest, it was reasonably effective.
Finally, when I passed (physiologically, at least) from adolescence, my skincare regime settled into a fairly traditional male pattern of negligence. For years I did nothing about my skin. I might have occasionally applied some of the free moisturiser that comes with the better class of hotel bedroom and, conforming to cliché, I may have swiped my wife’s beauty products from time to time: a dab of Eve Lom cleanser, a few fingers of Dr Brandt’s Microdermabrasion Exfoliating Face Cream. But that was about the extent of my skincare; until a friend of mine got involved with starting up a skincare brand called Zelens.
Created by Marko Lens, plastic surgeon, research scientist, skin cancer specialist and holder of numerous qualifications, including a DPhil from Oxford in skin cancer, Zelens products (from £40 for Radiance Luminous Facial Cleanser, 125ml) used to come in white and green glass pots, housed in pretty black-and-green boxes designed by Anouska Hempel (the “new improved” formula products are in unfussy white pots with a fresh green logo). Here was a range that combined style and science – and I like that. Some of the products in the range might be expensive, but even that is somehow a good thing as it slots into the virtuous mathematics of the price/efficacity corollary. And during the time I used it I do remember being asked whether I had had Botox – although whether this was meant kindly I cannot tell.
However, when my hair began to thin, my attention lurched dramatically to what was on the top of my head. Then, by the time I felt it was safe to look at my face again, the unforgiving glyphs of age had etched themselves into my features. On a good day, in bad light after a full eight hours’ sleep and awaking untroubled in the middle of my summer holiday, I might catch myself in the mirror and think that I was recognisable as the younger man I had once been. However, under the less benevolent, but more usual conditions of my working life I had, no doubt about it, become the sort of person to whom younger people would say, “You really don’t look your age.”
The corners of my eyes had concertinaed like a folded paper fan. I found that I had acquired quilted but sagging pillows of skin beneath the ocular orbit, the lines of which ran parallel to what were charmingly described to me as monkey lines: twin cicatrices that described a graceful parabolic furrow in my face connecting my nostrils with the edges of my mouth. I was also beginning to acquire the beginnings of a fine rooster neck.
But then that, I thought, is the nature of the human condition; you spend your pubertal years worrying about spots and blemishes and skin that is too greasy and then, after a brief holiday from epidermal horror, you watch the slo-mo collapse of your features as your complexion heads inexorably to a condition that resembles a Galápagos tortoise crossed with Somerset Maugham.
To be honest, it did not bother me as much as losing my hair, but I did begin to appreciate why older men have midlife crises and chase after the women and the toys that make them feel young again. At times I felt rather like David Bowie in The Hunger (an enjoyable 1980s pre-Twilight vampire romp), who plays a centuries-old vampire who believes he has to feed on youth to keep young and beautiful. I have to admit that, on occasion, I did find myself sizing up young people’s glowing, elastic, unlined skin. I began to appreciate how often we confuse good looks with plain common-or-garden youth.
And then I met Dr Erich Schulte, the founder of QMS Medicosmetics. At first sight, in his jeans and open-necked shirt, Schulte does not look like your typical plastic surgeon and traumatologist. He is simply too bonhomous. He takes an unfettered enjoyment in life – careering around southern Spain on his Harley-Davidson, sailing his yacht around Britain, skiing in Kitzbühel, piloting light aircraft and so forth. But this clubbable, boisterous exterior masks a professional and a scientist who has, if not discovered the fountain of eternal youth, then at least come up with some rather effective pump-action tubs of facial serum.
He did not set out to create a new cosmetic. Rather he was looking for something to assist his work in cosmetic and reconstructive surgery. “When you do a facelift the only thing that you do is stretch old skin. But you don’t do anything for the quality of the skin. But it’s very obvious that when you have skin that is well nourished with a good blood supply, the risk of unwanted scarring is much less than with dry skin.”
With this in mind, he set about preparing the surface on which he was to work, much as an artist might prepare a canvas. Before any surgical intervention he wanted skin that was in as good condition as possible, the inescapable logic being that this would lead to a quicker recovery.
Having been involved in research into the effects of collagen in wound healing, he decided to look into the application of this protein. He gets quite messianic about the stuff: “Collagen is the most important protein in your skin: 65 per cent of the body’s proteins are collagen. They are responsible for the elasticity of the skin.”
The problem, he said, was that collagen molecules are too big to get into the skin cells and if you slap on a topical collagen cream it just knocks about on the surface, doing little or nothing. This probably accounts for a national newspaper headline earlier this year: “Collagen creams branded a sham”.
Schulte explained that there are three layers to the skin: the outer protective barrier is the epidermis, the top of which is known as the stratum corneum, composed of dying cells called keratinocytes, generators of the protein keratin, which forms the protective carapace (without which I presume we would look like one of the bodies in Gunther von Hagens’ workshop). As the older cells die and are sloughed off, newer ones replace them. However, it is the dermis, the layer below, that holds the key to a more profound change. It is here that cells called fibroblasts secrete collagen and where elastin, in conjunction with collagen, gives skin its elasticity. Over time, our ability to generate collagen diminishes. If you are over 25, the chances are that your collagen production capacity has peaked – a great selling point if you are in the collagen-replacement business. It is by working at this level of the skin that Schulte effects the changes.
His most significant claim is that he is able to make the collagen small enough for it to get into the epidermal skin cells, rather than hang around outside. Called micellised molecules, they are made by disentangling the strands of a collagen molecule in a centrifuge that spins at somewhere between 300,000rpm and 400,000rpm; apparently, once in the cell they recombine and plump up the skin.
In an effort to differentiate himself from the big cosmetics companies, Schulte calls his approach “medicosmetics”. If he delved deeper than the epidermis, he explained, he would be carrying out a medical rather than a cosmetic procedure and for that a whole different set of rules applies, presumably ruling out over-the-counter sales of what are, to me at least, far from cheap products. The basic set of Day Collagen, Night Collagen and Exfoliant Fluid come in at £171 for three 30 ml helpings. But Schulte is keen to point out that he is not selling products but offering a system, and he guarantees that if it is followed, the quality of one’s skin will improve.
He is also reasonable in his claims: he does not say the effects will be quick – he gives a timescale of 120 days for the changes to become apparent. The improvements need to be maintained, and if you do not use the products – sorry, system – they are not permanent but, then, what in life is? And, while he might be able to soften them, he told me that the monkey lines were there to stay – only subcutaneous injections of filler would sort them out.
Crestfallen, I was nevertheless curious. I had anecdotal evidence from people who used QMS products that they worked – that their friends, hairdressers and colleagues said they looked younger. The only way, of course, would be to test the stuff myself. I don’t recall how we arrived at the plan, but Schulte acquiesced, providing that as well as following the system at home day and night, I submitted myself to a facial once a week or so.
I agreed, and on a regular basis I turned up to have my face cleaned, toned and exfoliated. The exfoliant dissolved the intercellular “glue” that keeps the dead cells on top of the epidermis in place; then, unglued, an algae mask was painted over my entire face – eyes, nose everything – which dried into a rubbery coating and was peeled off, bringing with it those dead cells. After that, the collagens that I was using at home were smeared on and then a spraygun of chilled, 95 per cent pure oxygen was worked over my face; the idea here is to increase the rate at which the skin cells metabolised the mini collagens.
At home I agreed to follow the Schulte system, which ran to the use of a milk-like Deep Cleansing fluid (£36, 200ml), followed by a Freshening Tonic (£36, 200ml) and a blue exfoliant Dermabrasive Gel (£80, 50ml), which I painted on with a small fan-shaped brush. I should not be alarmed, I was told, if my skin turned red when I put this on – the effect was, and remains, that of a newly boiled lobster. And that was just the preparation.
After leaving it on for a minimum of 10 minutes, I was to rinse off the Dermabrasive Gel and apply Night Collagen (£75, 50ml), supplement this with Cellular Alpine (£100, 15ml), a light cream made with alpine rose stem cells to be massaged into the skin around the eyes and then Cellular Marine (£200, 30ml), a moisturiser with stem cells derived from sea fennel.
Over the course of four months I really never got to grips with the routine. The idea that women view this as a desirable activity to rival a good night out at Mark’s Club beats me. So, of course, I cheated. I gave up on the Deep Cleansing and Freshening Tonic after about six weeks – I really couldn’t continue to wipe bits of cotton wool over my face; it was boring and a little too feminine. The real killer was that my wife would be in bed asleep before I had even exfoliated and seen my skin redden up through the Pantones to the bold carmine of a lottery winner on an all-inclusive Caribbean holiday.
But, even with a less-than-total regime (I was conscientious in my application of collagens, and stem cells alpine and marine) the results were noticeable. The area around my eyes in particular looked as though it belonged to another person; the fissured appearance of the corners, those inaptly named laugh-lines corresponding to a lifetime of hilarity that, strangely enough, I cannot recall, were smoothed away, with only the faintest craquelure remaining. The baggy, quilted region beneath the orbital area had improved as well. While still betraying a disappointing tendency to obey the commands of gravity, my skin had surrendered its withered quality and the general sagginess had been ameliorated, too. I may not be possessed of a skin that Schulte enthusiastically hailed as being like that of a baby, but I no longer saw Hanna and Barbera’s basset hound Droopy gazing balefully back at me from the mirror.
The most impressive change was definitely around the eyes, but based on an entirely subjective and unscientific examination of me by me in the mirror, there were other changes, too, that betokened a general improvement in the health of my skin: an elasticity about the cheek that had ceased to behave like a recently vacated bean bag – poking a finger into that area no longer left a dent – and, it may be my imagination, but even the monkey lines seem a little less mocking. Perhaps the surest indicator of some form of cutaneous progress was that the focus of my attention on my ageing skin slowly began to shift from the disappointing assessment of the physiognomy to the effects of time on my hands.
The science around this range of products is what Schulte describes as messenger technology capable of creating “effects beyond the basal barrier”, the layer between the epidermis and dermis beyond which most cosmetic formulations are unable to go. Nevertheless, by some opaque biological magic, to me at least, these products were able to get in touch with the collagen generation centres in the dermal layer and instruct them to step up production.
And it seems that this sort of technology is going to become more mainstream. In April, the L’Oréal-owned Vichy came out with LiftActiv (from £22, including Serum 10, £29.50 and Derm Source Night Cream £28), which uses something called rhamnose – this was described to me by Julie McManus, L’Oréal’s scientific director in the UK, as “a simple sugar monosaccharide R” derived from plants and that, she claims, uses similar messenger technology to stimulate collagen production.
But the really exciting stuff is yet to come, when groundbreaking technology developed by Professor Chris Toumazou appears on the cosmetics counter. Toumazou is a genius who has an entire periodic table of letters after his name to prove it, among them FRS, FREng, FIEEE, FIET and CEng.
He is the sort of man who put Britain at the front of the science race, the heir to the likes of James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, the old-school molecular biologists who discovered the genome and gave the appearance of having strayed from the pages of a John Wyndham novel. There is a great picture of Watson and Crick in tweed jackets in front of some Cambridge chapel or other, Crick looking squirearchal in a waistcoat and Watson in a V-neck and the sort of mad professor hairdo for which you would need planning permission today. There is also a picture of them in white tie picking up their Nobel prize, and it was at another white-tie event, Elton John’s annual White Tie and Tiara party, that I found myself seated next to Toumazou, who turned out to be a genuinely fascinating dinner companion.
Given that my ignorance on matters scientific is pretty impressive, I can only convey the gist of what he told me, but it seemed revolutionary enough. Thanks to genetic profiling, the prescribing of certain medication, notably the blood-thinning drug Warfarin, is already being improved. Initially, the work he has done has related to the rate at which an individual metabolises a drug and therefore has a direct effect on the correct dosage.
But, from what I could gather, this was just the beginning and that he has come up with a way of using the kind of microchip found in mobile phones, PCs and other common electronic items to analyse a saliva sample to produce an instant genetic profile. Now that is progress. In a generation we have gone from instant passport photos in booths at railway stations and airports to an instant portrait of your genetic profile.
Toumazou is keen to stress the serious medical benefits of his handheld genetic test device. One of the greatest benefits is the way it could revolutionise how drugs generally are prescribed. By matching a patient’s DNA with that of a medicine most likely to be beneficial in treating a particular medical condition, an accurate assessment can be made of how effective the drug is likely to be and at what dosage. Patients will like it for obvious reasons and it could have huge cost benefits for state-run medical services in that, in theory, wasteful, inaccurate prescribing could be a thing of the past.
But Toumazou is not the typical research scientist and he is well aware of the wider commercial applications. He sketches an Elysian picture of the cosmetics counters of the future, equipped with his technology, capable of matching skin types to the exact medi-cosmetic; or better still, providing the necessary information for a bespoke product.
Talking to him about the cosmetic applications was, I sensed, a bit like asking Houdini to perform a card trick, but I can’t wait to introduce Schulte to Toumazou as I think that together they represent the best chance I have of being returned to that blissful state I used to know, before people started telling me that I looked good for my age.