There’s a new buzz word in medical circles that is beginning to make waves in the world of beauty, and if you haven’t heard of it yet you very soon will. The word is epigenetics, and to put it at its simplest, it is the science that enables us to switch genes on and off. In the domain of medicine it is being explored in the treatment of certain cancers and autoimmune diseases, but scientists are discovering that there are significant spin-offs in skincare, where the idea is to discover ways in which the genes associated with ageing can be turned off and those that speed up cell regeneration can be activated.
The huge excitement in aesthetic circles revolves round the fact that epigenetics has been shown to be able not just to stop further ageing but also to reverse the effects. “Think of it,” says Geneva-based Dr Phillip Levy, an aesthetic dermatologist most famous for inventing the Nefertiti Lift (for which he uses Botox to lift the jawline and firm the skin), “as a light switch – you can switch on the light (in other words, the good genes) and you can switch off other lights (the bad genes).” In this way, skin that shows all too clearly the passage of time might once again have a youthful firmness and glow. Dr Levy explains it thus: “As we age, the switches that keep our skin young and regenerate cells gradually go off, but the important thing is that they’re still there. Just as importantly, genes that damage our skin are switched on as we get older, so we need to find ways to switch them off.”
DNA was identified back in 1869 by Swiss scientist Friedrich Miescher and, of course, Watson and Crick discovered the double-helix structure in 1953. We have something like 25,000 genes in our cells’ 23 pairs of chromosomes, of which at least 1,400 are linked to ageing. For years it was generally assumed that our DNA and the effect that it had on our lives was fixed. The discovery of epigenetics has literally upturned scientists’ thinking, for we have now learnt that all sorts of factors can influence the expression of our DNA.
As Dr Levy puts it, “It became progressively obvious to genetic scientists that possessing certain genes was in itself not enough – the genes needed instructions on when to express themselves. Those instructions are found not in the letters of the DNA code itself but rather on it, in an array of chemical markers and on-off switches known collectively as the epigenome. This matters because it’s not enough to have the genes programmed to offer a long, healthy life – they can only manifest themselves if they are turned on. Almost more importantly, if certain genes will shorten life or cause diseases, it then becomes important to be able to keep them switched off.” What is interesting is that much of what we do in our daily lives can modify our epigenome – for instance, diet (caloric restriction and decreasing sugar intake switch on some genes and switch off others), exercise and stress can affect the expression of our genes.
When it comes to improving our skin, Dr Levy created a patented plant-derived stem-cell complex called ArganCellActiv back in 2012, and it is this that laid the foundations for the powerful skin-activating products that can now potentially boost major anti-ageing epigenetic switches called Sirtuin-1 and Sirtuin-6.
This is best found in his R3 Cell Matrix Mask (£69 for 50ml) and, having seen a remarkable photograph taken by one of his patients who decided to use his serum and cream every day and mask three times a week on one of her hands as a control experiment against the other, untreated one, I would be slathering it all over mine if it weren’t a rather expensive habit to indulge in. As well as the mask the range includes Eye Booster Concentrate (£165 for 15ml), Booster Serum (£280 for 30ml), Booster Cream (aimed at younger skin, £290 for 50ml), Enriched Booster Cream (for older or dry skin, £310 for 50ml) and Décolletage Regenerating Silk (£290 for 50ml).
While Dr Levy is one of the foremost promoters of the use of epigenetics in skincare, other companies are beginning to catch on to its transformative powers. Biologique Recherche is one of those niche companies that is known about in France, where it has a store in a hôtel particulier on Paris’s Champs-Elysées, but is known much less well outside the country. Five years ago, the UK’s Liberty started selling its hero Lotion P50 collection of exfoliators, which also hydrate and balance the skin’s pH, but now offers a full range of products, plus face and body treatments. In October, however, Biologique Recherche opened its own clinic – the Embassy of Beauty – on Kensington Church Street, and at the same time brought La Grande Crème (£650 for 50ml), an epigenetic anti-ageing cream, to the UK. It was inspired by research done at the Gene Expression Laboratory in San Diego, which found that it was now not only possible to fix negative traits within cells so that further ageing was blocked, but also, even more excitingly, to rejuvenate cells and reverse DNA damage. Biologique Recherche then identified a peptide, EpigenActiv, that acts on epidermal growth factor receptors, which are needed to promote cellular regeneration. Epigenetic tests were carried out on 90 genes using skin samples to establish that it combated signs of ageing. Separately, tests were carried out on 22 women aged between 47 and 65 who had the normal signs of ageing such as wrinkles and pigmentation marks. They used the crème for a month morning and night and 95 per cent reported that their jawline was improved, 82 per cent that their complexion was more radiant and their skin looked regenerated, 86 per cent that their skin looked younger, 91 per cent that their skin was firmer and 82 per cent that pigmentation irregularities were diminished.
The long-established Spanish company Germaine de Capuccini, which sells either online or through salons and spas, is also exploring the transformative potential of epigenetics on skincare. Its Pro 60+ Extra Nourishing Cream (£95 for 50ml) has an exclusive ingredient called Epigenol, made from a species of Calendula flower that grows in Egypt and reactivates dormant genes that have been switched off over time. Once these genes are active again, zinc-glycine complex prevents further cell damage, while hyaluronic acid keeps the skin hydrated. The cream is therefore an all‑round anti-ageing product that provides firming, wrinkle reduction, revitalisation, improved pigmentation and hydration. Epigenol can also be found in its High Repair Hands & Décolleté cream (£65.75 for 75ml), which additionally contains Plantago lanceolata extract to reduce pigmentation and plump the skin.
Another recent entry to the field of epigenetics is Damien Zannetou, founder of British-based Aenea Cosmetics, who had, like many others before him, observed that skin ages at very different rates, depending upon a host of environmental factors such as pollution and stress. In order to counter these negative influences, he set his formulators the task of finding key ingredients that could actively work on DNA to stimulate the rejuvenation of cells that help firm and strengthen the skin. They sourced a key active, Epigenomyl, which works at the cellular level to support the skin’s natural defence against UV damage and pollution. It has been incorporated into six Aenea products – the Anti-Pollution Guardian, Anti-Stress Super Hero and sun-damage-fighting Lifestyle Enhancer (each £150 for 15ml), muscle-relaxing SuperBoost Serum (£93 for 15ml), healing-promoting Oxygen Plasma Serum (£71 for 15ml) and cell-longevity-extending Apple Stem Cell Serum (£87 for 30ml).
Dr Levy makes it clear that epigenetics is not the be-all-and-end-all of skincare. “It is hugely important and we are only at the beginning of what it can do, but it is one among many therapies that may have a role to play, such as stem-cell therapies, growth factors, drugs like metformin, and genetic reengineering of genes – which is scary as hell.” He warns, too, that there are many “hoax” products. “Just because a product contains, say, Sirtuin-1 or -6 or resveratrol, that doesn’t mean it is active or effective. Getting the mechanism to work is very complicated.”
But what is clear is that, while primarily important in medicine, the discovery of epigenetics has some lovely benefits for those of us who, as the years roll by, like to look our best.