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Secret of youth? Anti-ageing treatments

By Ayshe Ismail

With consumers and scientists alike all looking for the secret of youth, anti-ageing and skin care in general is big business in the cosmetics industry. The shelves of many pharmacies are filled with products claiming to help turn back the clock, but how credible are the claims made?

Typically, skin care products work in a superficial way. Creams sit on top of the skin and create a barrier to prevent skin from drying out or to give the appearance of skin that is plump, firm and wrinkle-free.

Aged skin typically has reduced levels of collagen and elastin, responsible for skin firmness and elasticity. Although there is a genetic element to ageing, lifestyle choices can contribute to making skin dry and prone to pigmentation (see Panel).

External factors that contribute to ageing

•    Smoking Cigarette smoke is damaging and ageing to the skin, increasing wrinkles and dryness.
•    Sun exposure Unprotected skin that is exposed to the sun is at increased risk of sun damage.
•    Exposure to cold weather Cold winds and low temperatures contribute to ageing by drying out the skin
•    Alcohol Alcohol contributes to ageing by drying out the skin and can also lead to the permanent dilation of small blood vessels
•    Lack of sleep Lack of sleep can result in dark circles under the eyes and sagging skin

“Cosmeceuticals” (a term coined by the cosmetics marketers rather than the pharmaceutical industry) refers to the combination of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. These are cosmetics products that contain biologically active ingredients that are believed to have drug-like benefits to the skin or hair.

Cosmeceuticals that fight the signs of ageing typically contain ingredients such as vitamins, enzymes, peptides, stem cells, antioxidants, retinol, ceramides, minerals and essential oils. These ingredients are believed to alter the skin structure and improve its function, for example, by encouraging collagen growth.


Facial serums come in many different varieties and are designed to target specific skin care concerns. The ingredients contained (and their concentrations) will depend on the specific purpose of the serum. Unlike moisturisers, which only penetrate the first layer of the skin, serums are finer in texture and are more readily accepted into all three layers of the skin, due to their smaller molecule size and delivery system.

Anti-ageing ingredients

Topical retinoid, available by prescription only, is used as treatment for photo-aged skin. Retinol is a vitamin A compound and anti-oxidant found in many anti-wrinkle creams. Products that contain retinol target photo-damaged skin for the treatment of fine lines, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. Anti-oxidants act to neutralise free radicals — unstable oxygen molecules that break down the skin and cause wrinkles. Other antioxidants found in skin care products include vitamin E, caffeine, green tea extract and coenzyme Q10.

Alpha-hydroxy acids, beta-hydroxy acids and other exfoliants are typically derived from fruit sugars and help to remove the upper layers of dead skin cells. These are able to penetrate the skin and stimulate the growth of new skin cells. Many serums/creams, which contain these ingredients, will also contain sunscreen to protect the skin from sun damage.

Peptides, also found in many anti-ageing products are short chains of amino acids. Depending on the combination of amino acids and the addition of fatty acids (lipo-peptides), peptides can stimulate collagen production, regulate collagenase production, stimulate growth factors, stimulate antioxidant enzymes, enhance matrix proteins, enhance wound healing and cell repair and modulate pigmentation.

Stem cell-based creams

The potential of stem cells derived from plants is also being harnessed. These are thought to interact with the skin’s stem cells to protect and stimulate cell growth. In the past two years Superdrug has launched two stem cell-based products, Swiss Apple Stem Cell Serum and the Super Antioxidant Grape collection. The main ingredient used in these products is the result of PhytoCellTec biotechnology, developed by researchers at Mibelle Biochemistry in Switzerland, which generates and cultivates plant stem cells.

The active ingredients PhytoCellTec

PhytoCellTec Malus Domestica and PhytoCellTec Solar Vitis are based on stem cells from the Uttwiler Spätlauber apple and the Gamay Teinturier Fréaux grape, respectively. The apple stem cell ingredient promotes the longevity of skin stem cells, protecting them from environmental stress, and has been clinically tested. The grape stem cells appear to protect the skin from photo-ageing.

Here’s the science bit

In 2007, the BBC’s Horizon programme reported Boots No7 Protect & Perfect serum, designed for women aged 25 to 35 years to address the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, to be the only product to have anti-ageing effects.

In 2009 Boots released the No7 Protect & Perfect Intense Serum, for women aged 35 to 45 years to target deep lines and wrinkles. The product is believed to be one of the first non-prescription, anti-ageing products subjected to rigorous testing and a clinical trial, the results of which were published in the British Journal of Dermatology (2009:161; 419).

In a double-blind randomised control trial 49 women and 11 men with photo-aged skin, aged between 45 and 80 years, were randomly assigned to use the Boots serum or a placebo moisturising cream every evening for six months. Clinical assessments of the face and dorsal hands were performed at baseline and following one, three and six months of product use. At six months, 43 per cent of the participants who received the test product showed improvement in facial wrinkles compared with baseline, whereas 22 per cent of participants showed an improvement using moisturiser alone. For participants using the test product, this improvement was significant (P=0.013). A significant difference was also seen after 12 months’ use between the test and control products.

The study found that skin treated with the Boots serum contained more fibrillin-rich microfibrils in the papillary dermis layer of the skin, responsible for making the skin more elastic, compared to baseline and control skin. The authors of the study had previously shown that certain ingredients, contained in the serum, such as retinol ester, retinyl palmitate, peptides, lipo-peptides and antioxidants work by preventing degradation or stimulating the repair of skin.

This year Boots released a third serum, targeted at women aged of 45 years, to reduce appearance of age spots and firm the skin. Clinical trial results were presented at the British Society of Investigative Dermatology, demonstrating that use of No7 Lift & Luminate Day & Night Serum, produced a significant fading of age spots after two months. The study used 4 per cent hydroquinone as a positive control, deemed to be the “gold standard” treatment for hyper-pigmentation.

Cosmetics company L’Oreal Paris employs over 3,500 researchers and publishes around 80 papers a year. The group focuses on three key stages in its research: active ingredients, formulation and evaluation. L’Oreal considers its pioneering work to be the use of tissue engineered skin models for in vitro testing, which allows it to test its products without the use of animals.

With consumers becoming more demanding of their skincare products and questioning the claims made by cosmetics companies, there is a pressure to prove that products really work. This, in turn, furthers scientific understanding of ageing and the effect that ingredients have on the skin.

An interesting point to note is that the catch for cosmetics companies is that, if they can prove that a product can really heal damaged skin, there is a chance that the product could actually be considered a medicine, requiring more rigorous testing and clinical trials before the product could be launched on the market.

Citation: Community Matters URI: 11103561

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