It is no surprise, with a name like a spy who came in from the cold, that Dr Olga Garkavenko is a woman with a double life.
By day, she is a respected research scientist for a high-profile biotech company. By night, she pursues other secrets in her own laboratory - bringing her scientific methods and expertise to the formulation of designer cosmetics.
Based in Auckland, she makes to order for a small number of individual clients looking for a personalised product and willing to pay for it. They may have a skin problem or sensitive skin, so are reluctant to use off-the-shelf products.
Her De Novo brand is full of vitamins, active and rare ingredients with exotic names such as extracts of malotus bark, mulberry, aspen bark, wasabi, gromwell root and reishi mushroom powder. She uses plant oils such as kiwi seed, watermelon seed and camellia extracted by a CO2 process which preserves the fragile elements of the oil but is expensive and not suitable for a mass market.
"As a scientist, I have a strong affinity to cosmeceuticals, which are like pharmaceuticals plus cosmetics, so you are using really active ingredients in really high concentrations but still making a claim as cosmetic rather than medicinal treatment. That's what I understand as a scientist; that an active ingredient has to have not a story or anecdotal history but actual, substantiated data."
Garkavenko "came in from the cold" from Kiev, Ukraine, 16 years ago, (although she maintains a lilting Russian accent and intonation). Kiev was 100km from the site of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. "I used to work at the cancer research institute which received the first firefighters from Chernobyl. I saw them dying there and heard about the increased incidence of cancer and of different types, of immune deficiency."
She and husband Dr Vladimir Garkavenko left for a new life with 4-year-old Alexandra, who is now 20 and studying architecture in New York at Parsons New School For Design (where seasons 1-5 of Project Runway were based).
With a PhD in biochemistry and oncology, Garkavenko started work here as a laboratory assistant. It took time to confirm her degree and re-start her career.
About eight years ago she became interested in skincare because of her own European skin. "We all know the sun here is very harsh, so I started to use more and more cosmetics and I was absolutely not satisfied with the result. One day I thought, 'come on, I am a biochemist, I can do something about this'.
"Now I have all my friends engaged in my clinical trials and when I introduce something new that I think would work really well, I prefer to try it on myself first. If it's not suitable for sensitive skin I would definitely know."
It may take several tries before the client is satisfied with their formulation, with an initial cost of around $200 - not expensive compared to top-of-the-range commercial brands. The formulation may later be adjusted for weather or hormonal fluctuations - but it's yours and one cream is pretty much all you will need.
"My philosophy is to make one cream for skin 'maintenance' - to help your body's own resources to balance and renew skin. The cream should help to turn on the inner mechanisms - like to boost collagen production or melanin metabolism, or balance the skin's immune system, or ideally all these functions together."
In her ready-to-go De Novo skincare range, the top-seller Multipotent Intensive Face and Neck Complex ($140 for 100ml) is a non-greasy "cold cream" formulation using Garkavenko's original know-how to combine oil and water without emulsifier.
"We are using a special polymer that is able to mix water and oil phases. It's a reasonably new idea and it allows me to formulate my products at room temperature so I am able to introduce a very high percentage of active ingredients and keep it reasonably stable."
Preferred actives are vitamins - B5, B3, E, A, and vitamin C up to 15 per cent in a form that is stable and penetrates the skin. "I have a background in biochemistry, so I understand the mechanism and the benefits of vitamins."
So can cosmetics deliver - turn back the effects of age and harsh sun and trigger the body's own repair and defence mechanisms?
"I think you can restore the skin to some extent, but you have to be very realistic about it and understand that it's a complex problem, like ageing. It's not just your skin that's ageing, your whole body is, your metabolism is slowing down, you accumulate pollutants. I am more concerned about prevention."
Can products, for example, promote the production of collagen? "It is possible. For instance, with the vitamin C that I am using, there is very good clinical data that it does do this. But once again we have to be very, very careful to have real expectations."
She sells her ready-made range (just three items - the intensive face and neck cream, a day protection and a cleanser/moisturiser) to a number of boutique outlets, such as Remuera's Cotter House private hotel, and to a growing market in Russia. Ranges can be designed specifically for spas and beauty therapists and for growers who want to add value to crops such as olive, honey or lavender.
Garkavenko teaches cosmetics-making classes, using high-quality natural ingredients, in conjunction with her Auckland supplier, Aromatics & More, often to people wanting to use them within existing businesses. But can we at home make products anywhere near as good as hers or as commercials products?
"If you define good product as something that would definitely make a difference or maintain your skin health or ameliorate certain minor problems, the answer is, of course you can."
Has her own skin improved? "I do believe so. There is definitely much less pigmentation, my skin is much less sensitive, my oily patches, pores, are smaller. Definitely. I wouldn't be making the products otherwise, because I first started making them for myself."
* For products or personalised skincare click here.