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Epigenetics as the Future of Skin Care

Steve Herman

There is always a big new trend in skin care. Twenty years ago, alpha hydroxy acids burst on the scene and kicked off a new era in skin treatment products. A decade ago, it was peptides and beauty from within. But where is the next big trend?

Now may be the time for epigenetics to become the new paradigm. Cosmetic science is increasingly driven not by chemistry but by biology, and the science of skin care keeps getting more and more sophisticated. Epigenetics certainly conforms to that trend, and the time has come for everyone involved in beauty product development to brush up on DNA.

Decoding Epigenetics

We all know what the famous double helix looks like. In that twisted genetic vine, Watson and Crick felt they had discovered the secret of life.1 DNA contains the coding information for about 20,000 genes, which in turn direct the process of creating the proteins that are the building blocks of all organisms. DNA in humans contains about six billion base pairs divided between 46 chromosomes, 23 each from the mother and father, plus a small DNA molecule in the mitochondrion. Stretched out, the DNA chain would be two meters long, but it is intricately folded so it can fit within cells with diameters less than 10 μm.

Short sections of DNA are wrapped around proteins called histones, similar to how thread is wrapped around a spool. The protein-coding parts of the genome are called genes. In a process called gene expression, a specific section of DNA is exposed to encode a strand of messenger RNA, which is the final template for protein synthesis. Different sets of genes are turned on or off in various kinds of cells at different points in time, and differences in the types and amounts of proteins produced determine how cells look, grow and act.

Epigenome means “above” the genome. It consists of chemical compounds that mark the genome in a way that tells it what to do, where to do it and when to do it. The marks can be passed on from cell to cell as cells divide, and from one generation to the next. Each person’s body contains trillions of cells, all of which have the same genome. Each cell is optimized for use in a different way. The epigenome influences which genes are active—and which proteins are produced—in a particular cell. The epigenome is what tells your skin cells to behave like skin cells.

Accepted wisdom is that there is no control over the genes inherited at conception. Research that started in the 1980s by Lars Olov Bygren indicated changes in diet—specifically feast and famine patterns in Norrbotton, Sweden, in the 1800s—dramatically affected life expectancies generations later. Changes in gene expression not caused by changes in the DNA sequence is the domain of epigenetics. The magic of epigenetics is that it may give us some control where we thought there was none, and this opens new opportunities to influence health, including the health of skin and hair.

Possible Beauty Applications

Many reactions take place in the epigenome, and two of the most important are acetylation and methylation. Enzymes attach to the DNA, often near the beginning of a gene. If the enzyme can’t attach due to a blocking methyl group, then the gene remains off. Scientists call this process methylation. The arrangement of these methyl groups can change in the course of a lifetime. Diet and environmental stress are two significant factors in determining epigenetic change, and altering methylation patterns is the key for skin care products targeting the anti-aging market.

It’s increasingly clear that epigenetics hold obvious potential for skin care, and as long ago as December 2007, L’Oréal submitted an EU Trademark application for a “Lancôme Epigenetic Cosmetic.” This may be used in Génifique Youth Activating Cream, although the technical details to verify this are lacking. In fact, all the commercial products claiming to use epigenetics are vague in describing the relevant science.

Estée Lauder entered the fray with its Re-Nutriv Ultimate Lift Age Correcting Collection,2 hedging its bets with the phrase “inspired by”: “Inspired by the field of epigenetics, Estée Lauder Research further advances its decades of scientific expertise and innovation with our exclusive Life Re-Newing Molecules. The Life Re-Newing Molecules combine proprietary, rare and precious extracts from sea plants plus some of the most scientifically advanced technology—all meticulously sourced from across the globe, then brilliantly intertwined to create a skin-renewing breakthrough.”

Some HAVVN DNA skin care products also cite “The Science of Epigenetic Skin Care” while going very light on details. Developed by Croatian physics professor Dubravka Pavelic and her brother Kresimir Pavelic, a molecular biology professor, the collection consists of three all-natural skin products, and the line extends out to also includes nutritional products and stresses the importance of lifestyle.3

Among current brands, Christie Brinkley Skincare is perhaps the most forward in promoting “Active Epigenetic Technology.”4 On its website, the skin care brand describes, “The Epigenetic process is constantly interacting with our genes by continuously transmitting information that affects cellular function. Restoration, repair, nutrition and cellular division activities can all be impacted by negative Epigenetic interactions. However, by applying both the Daytime and Overnight Treatments specifically formulated to promote and restore positive Epigenetic gene interaction, the positive genetic markers are switched on and the negative markers are switched off. This amazing new science delivers younger, healthier and more radiant looking skin in just 14 days!” This is achieved using a brew of natural actives, including Laminaria digitata extract, ergothioneine, plankton extract, Arabidopsis thaliana extract, Limonium narbonese extract, micrococcus lysate, aminoguanidine, decarboxy carnosine HCI, and Citrullus vulgaris fruit extract.

Those looking for hard science can consult a paper by Beiersdorf researchers where epigenetic changes in skin caused by aging and sun exposure were studied.5 Their results identified age-related DNA methylation changes that may contribute to the changes associated with skin aging.

Skin Care of the Future?

Cosmetic science used to resemble cooking, making simple recipes of hand lotion or shampoo. Now, it is increasingly looking like peer-reviewed genetic research squeezed into a jar. Functionality is being directed to fundamental processes at the cellular and genetic levels. It is exciting but also a bit scary—are we sure that “cosmeceuticals,” a category with no legal standing, should aspire to altering our genes? Some would say that in reality, beauty products have always done that to a certain extent. We are now just more aware of the mechanisms and can thus create more efficacious products.

One thing is certain, however—if skin care continues to target the epigenetic material to achieve results, it will launch an exciting new era in product development.


  1. J Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (Norton Critical Edition), WW Norton & Company, New York (1979)

(All web addresses accessed Mar 20, 2013.)

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 the New York Society of Cosmetic Chemists' 2013 chapter chairman and an adjunct professor in the Fairleigh Dickinson University Masters in Cosmetic Science program. He is also a Fellow in the Society of Cosmetic Chemists.


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