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Genomics—Advanced Tools to Combat Aging

Steve Herman

“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” —Satchel Paige

Cosmetic chemists obviously use chemistry to formulate products, but the products themselves are directed at human skin where biology, biochemistry and genetics reign. And as the market for cosmeceuticals continues to expand at a healthy pace, the only way to understand how and if these products work is to delve ever deeper into the science of aging and the available tools to combat the ravages of time.

Decoding the human genome was one of the greatest scientific advances of recent times, and applications to medicine and drug discovery followed immediately. Almost as quickly, the beauty industry was investigating ways to apply the new science to skin care products. Research labs, raw material suppliers and brand owners have all played important roles in bringing genomic knowledge to the cosmetic counter.


The basic mechanism of DNA was discovered by Watson and Crick in 1953,1 and the Central Dogma of molecular biology was proposed by Crick in a classic 1970 paper in Nature.2 The essence is that DNA can copy itself and transfer information to mRNA, and the mRNA information can be used to make proteins. Genes are the functional areas of DNA and control only one specific task. Other than water, humans are mostly protein. After the genome was elucidated, the first wave of research focused on proteomes—all the proteins expressed by a genome, cell, tissue or organism.

Another area of investigation is the metabolome, which is the complete set of metabolites such as hormones and other signaling molecules found within a biological sample.

It used to be said a product stimulates collagen synthesis; however, it’s now said that a product up regulates a gene-controlling collagen synthesis. As always, a wall of nomenclature and acronyms face the novice. Starting with gene names, which surely look weird to the uninitiated, there is the HUGO (Human Genome Organization) Gene Nomenclature Committee providing the official names.4 For example, TUBB2C is tubulin, beta 2C, which may help a geneticist, but not you. It looks intimidating, but the details of gene names are irrelevant for skin care. The important point is different genes can make different things happen to the skin, and beauty products can affect their activities.

Skin care products affect your genes? Certainly. One antiaging regimen involves caloric restriction. Eat less and genes are affected. Eat more, drink wine, smoke, lie in the sun—virtually everything you do impacts your genome.

The genome, and with it all your genetic information, is not on one long DNA molecule. It is spread on 23 chromosomes, with one devoted to sex (two Xs in women; an X and a Y in men). One innovation that made rapid and efficient study of genomic possible is the DNA microarray (a gene chip). Research is now centered on using this tool to create a new generation of products. Another method, polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), is a common method for amplifying DNA, and it is a rapid and relatively economical way to test the efficacy of raw materials.

Practical Applications in Use; Personalized Products

There are two fundamental ways to use genome information. One is to create personalized beauty products. While this has been done commercially, the validity of the process with current technology is questionable. The alternative is using genomic information to refine the search for active ingredients for skin treatment, and this has been embraced by a number of major brand owners.

Retinoic acid is the gold standard of cosmeceutical ingredients. It has drug status and is commonly used for the treatment of acne. It also is a photoaging component of many products claiming to slow skin aging or remove wrinkles, and it is used to reduce the appearance of stretch marks by increasing collagen production.

Ingredient supplier Sederma’s Matrixyl 3000 is perhaps the most widely recognized active supported by genomic data, after retinoic acid. It is a blend containing the ingredients palmitoyl-GHK and palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7.5 The palmitoyl part makes the molecule water-soluble, and the amino acid chain triggers biological activity such as stimulating collagen synthesis.

P&G has assembled a collection of papers in Genomics of Skin Aging: Practical Applications,6 and many of the featured materials have antiaging properties established with gene-expression data.

Nu Skin has a line utilizing salicin as a key ingredient. This active is in willow bark extract,7 and is an anti-inflammatory chemical closely related to aspirin. Initial data on salicin was established for internal use, but further studies showed it to be effective on skin.

Note that up and down regulation of various genes is necessary for effective skin treatment—for example, down regulation of collagen degradation and melanin production, up regulation of hydration and cell turnover. Nu Skin has identified a “Youth Gene Cluster” as critical to the maintenance of skin and targets a number of genes for skin structure, pigment, cell turnover and hydration.

Another commercial example, Elina’s Bioenergetic Ambra-Lift Skin Elixir uses an ingredient to show increased expression of sirtuin-1 (proteins to prolong cell longevity), which in turn activated expression of specific collagens, keratins and matrix genes. Activity was also established regarding antioxidant and anti-inflammatory genes.8

There’s more, of course: Lancôme Genifique Youth Activating Concentrate, Olay Pro-X Deep Wrinkle Treatment, L’Oréal’s Biotherm Skin Vivo, Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair Synchronized Recovery Complex with Chronolux Technology … genomic applications are far from an obscure backwater of research labs.

For years the strongest area of the beauty market has been antiaging products. Traditional formulation and clinical methods have been used to develop and test most of the current products. Increasingly, products on the market are created and substantiated by genomic tools made technically and economically efficient by advances such as the gene chip. The science seems daunting, but it is essentially just a refined way of looking at what you always cared about—wrinkles, hydration, pigmentation. The goal is the same, youthful skin; it is just a quantum leap in technology that has brought the goal closer for consumers.


In March, the New York Society of Cosmetic Chemists (NYSCC) featured back-to-back presentations on genomics and aging skin from Anna Jelaso Langerveld and Helen Knaggs, which inspired this column. Thanks to them both for making their presentations available: AJ Langerveld, “Applications of Genomics Tools for Personal Care Product Development,” NYSCC Educational Hour, March 3, 2010, and H Knaggs, “Aging and Genes—The Link with Skin,” NYSCC, March 3, 2010.


  1. J Watson, The Double Helix, Norton, 1980
  2. F Crick, Central Dogma of Molecular Biology, Nature 227 561–563
  3. J Tiesman, From bench to beauty counter: practical applications, J Drugs Dermatol 8 (Suppl) (2009)
  5. S Herman, Wrinkle Free—Not Just for Shirts!, GCI magazine (Nov 2005)
  8. (All sites accessed Apr 16, 2010)

Steve Herman is president of Diffusion LLC, a consulting company specializing in regulatory issues, intellectual property, and technology development and transfer. He is a principal in PJS Partners, offering formulation, marketing and technology solutions for the personal care and fragrance industry. He is an adjunct professor in the Fairleigh Dickinson University Masters in Cosmetic Science program and is a Fellow in the Society of Cosmetic Chemists.

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