From DNA testing to popping pills, beauty editor Janetta Mackay explores what's next in the world of skincare.
Imagine a day when your genome reveals your future face. Would you want to know what's down the track? What if you could arrange early intervention on any potentially unbecoming issues?
Like so many aspects of DNA testing it's a fascinating but fraught subject. With work going on apace to make such testing not only feasible but affordable, skincare speak is set to become ever more scientific.
If we can understand what is being said this would make a nice change from what Josephine Fairley, British co-author of The Anti-Ageing Beauty Bible, described to me as a "lot of pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo" spouted to sell some cosmetic products. As a fellow beauty writer I concur that sometimes it's hard to separate marketing speak from genuine innovation - or work out when airbrushing has gone from a little aspirational licence to downright fantasy.
But skincare and science are far from odd bedfellows, they're constant companions, with marketers making up the menage a trois. The biggest beauty companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on research and development while consumers spend billions on the resultant products.
Meeting the scientists behind the latest heavily hyped must-haves is an interesting exercise. Their focus can be somewhat singular - years of research into one arcane area - and occasionally madly theoretical, but behind the product development and marketing teams that determine what research is acted on, the scientists are the ones delivering a future where the quantifiable and the creative can coalesce.
A groundbreaking figure in the skincare sector predicted to me several years ago that mainstream "bucket" DNA testing leading to prescription by genotype was only a decade or so away. Dr Joe Lewis talked of how customised skincare was the future. It would allow the development and selection of products that were most applicable to consumers' needs, including the skincare most suited to an individual's ethnicity and genetic code.
As the American chemist behind the introduction to the cosmetic market of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and the super anti-oxidant Idebenone (which he licensed for use in Elizabeth Arden's Prevage), Dr Lewis has been at the forefront of innovation for 30-plus years. His own Priori brand is a leading exponent of so-called "nature-ceuticals" in which natural ingredients are bio-engineered.
A South African company called Nimue is now talking of making the kind of testing Dr Lewis spoke of available much sooner. Though vague on detail and prices, Nimue's Dr Gys du Plessis spoke enthusiastically in Auckland this year of DNA ageing tests, whereby a swab would be taken and analysed against a healthy ageing list, looking out for signs of dietary and degenerative deficiencies. Nimue reckons it will introduce this to the New Zealand market next year, looking to sell clients tailored nutra-ceuticals or dietary supplements said to offer anti-ageing and detoxifying benefits. "It's about diminishing risk with lifestyle intervention," says Dr Du Plessis.
Clever, but, it must be emphasised, untested stuff, this taps into a marketplace where an obsession with looking good is cunningly being converted into an exhortation to enhance your well-being.
Well-being and healthy living messages also resonate with the growing number of natural skincare fans. They have a glamorous champion in former Miss Universe Lorraine Downes, who is an ambassador for the Living Nature company. Downes, who went along to learn more about traditional Chinese medicine at a weekend talk at the Langham Hotel's Chuan Spa is a good example of a LOHA. Living Nature has identified LOHAs - the contraction of an influential new market segment of people known as those pursuing Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability - as a key market in its export expansion. They're mainly women of a certain maturity and education with a questioning, holistic approach to everything, including their skincare choices.
Unsurprisingly then, that the still stunning Downes might consider an acupuncture facial, but not Botox - though with her bone structure and smooth skin she needs neither.
What she and others like her like are natural products. But, says the Antipodes company "it's not good enough now to just be natural". The Wellington-based firm has been commissioning independent research on its products to get the message across that they are effective. Living Nature eschews the "70 per cent noticed a visible difference" approach, saying it buys into the games "big beauty" marketing plays, while at Trilogy being natural, environmentally friendly and researched is the mantra.
"The future for natural ingredients will be in the actives and the mechanics," says Triology co-founder Catherine de Groot. That means proven plant power and a look and feel that matches the mainstream. A little less green-washing by some who have jumped on the bandwagon wouldn't go astray either.
The mainstream itself is looking hard at the effectiveness of botanical ingredients, though usually in synthesised form. Stem cells (especially from peculiarly tough Swiss apples) are creating a bit of a buzz, adding to the main anti-ageing armoury of peptides and anti-oxidants, including the proven rejuvenator that is vitamin A - the question being whether it is delivered in effective form. Human growth factors are also an area of interest - they occur naturally in the body, can be synthesised and used in medical wound healing and they speed up cell turnover, but their effectiveness in skincare is yet to be fully established.
As well as being sold creams and serums or appearance medicine in a quest to maintain a youthful appearance, we should expect more appeals to our inner selves. Pop a preservation pill, try a beauty drink. Of the latter, UK consultancy firm Zenith International reported the global market swigged US$1.5 billion ($1.79 billion) worth of drinks marketed specifically for beauty benefits last year. Popular ingredients in beauty drinks include collagen, hyaluronic acid, ceramide and carotenoids.
Dietary supplements are bigger in the West, with Asia accounting for 65 per cent of the world's beauty drinks. Zenith says this is due to the region's "long-held awareness of the role that food and drink plays in health". This adds up to growth worldwide in nutri-cosmetics, that is, ingestibles sold primarily for their claim of beauty benefits. More local clinics are selling these products. (And the Green Party is calling for greater regulation of health supplements.)
The slick American doctor behind the Osmosis skincare range, Dr Ben Johnson, was on a promotional visit to Auckland last month and spoke at the Beauty Expo trade event. I glazed over when we met beforehand and he gave a somewhat mystical pitch about his line of "harmonised" beauty waters, but his advanced skincare certainly taps into current thinking that inflammation and breaking down the surface barrier are best avoided. He adds exfoliation to the list, saying this and many popular treatments simply aggravate inflammation.
This is a big switch from a decade or so ago when acid peels, dermabrasion and "feeling the burn" were the rage, along with high doses of sometimes photo-sensitive topicals.
Attention has gone a little deeper now with efforts focusing on using anti-oxidants (applied topically and ingested) in a bid to neutralise free radicals and prevent skin oxidation and premature signs of ageing. Prompting collagen regeneration and cell turnover are also key to keeping skin looking healthier for longer.
Dr Du Plessis from Nimue dubs this the "generation of inflammation" and considers exposure to the many chemicals in modern life may have something to do with the extent of damaging internal skin activity and incidence of adult acne.
He says he still meets medical professionals who ask what free radicals are and are less receptive to his messages than beauty therapists.
Du Plessis speaks of the importance of sleep, exercise, diet and detoxification. In an ageing population individuals will be judged less by their years, he says, than by their condition: "Are we mobile, bright, aesthetically acceptable?"
Dr Johnson also believes in managing the ageing process. He says America won't give up its love affair with needling out its past, but "being a partner with the skin" is the way forward.
Expectation and reality
There is much talk these days of intrinsic (read inevitable) versus extrinsic (read avoidable) ageing. Research by cosmetics company Clinique has shown women are more concerned about their skin's tone and texture, especially age spots, than they are with wrinkles. There has been an explosion in products and treatments aimed at lessening unwanted pigmentation and conditions such as rosacea and in improving skin clarity.
This quest for clearer complexions extends to modern makeup with primers, light-reflecting foundations and transparent finishing powders new favourites.
"It's about texture, it's about refinement, it's about having products that will make your skin look the colour that you want without it looking like it has product on, says M.A.C makeup man Luc Bouchard (see more on page 8).
"Futuristic skin is luminous and transparent at the same time."
Auckland plastic surgeon Stephen Gilbert says people's expectations of what their skin should look like are not purely cosmetic. "Patients are often not just interested in tightening the skin to a more youthful position. They are also aware of how a healthy looking skin reflects youth and vigour, a good diet and a fit, intelligent approach to life."
People from all walks of life sign up to pay off treatments, says the Caci clinic's Jackie Smith, because they don't want to put up with looking tired and rundown if they don't feel that way. "Just as dyeing grey hair has become part of routine maintenance for many people, we are beginning to treat appearance enhancement the same way."
Dr Romanowska says sun-protection is still the most important message she can give those wanting to maintain healthy skin.
"I first became aware of this while working in central Canada where it is winter for six months of the year and there is no sun-worshipping culture: the women all looked 20 years younger than I was expecting due to their low levels of sun-damage (they basically stay indoors through the bitterly cold winters). The men, in contrast, mostly farmers outside in all weather, looked much older and weather-beaten.
"In New Zealand, I notice a difference between patients from the northern hemisphere (where they still have some ozone to protect their skins) in how youthful their skins look versus the New Zealanders, who look significantly older.
"Physically staying out of the sun is the best thing anyone can do to delay the ageing process and to prevent the development of some skin cancers... And it's much cheaper than trying to correct the damage once it shows up on the skin."