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Can a Skin Care Cream Really Alter Your Skin’s DNA?

Posted Dec 14 2009 9:01pm
Thanks largely to the conclusion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, scientists have a plethora of applicable data, renewed hope for stem cell research, and, quite frankly, a lot more jargon to throw at the public.  A few skin care companies have started to use biological sciences-like terms in their skin care, and so it doesn’t take a college degree to make smart shopping decisions, I’ve provided some insights.

The Basics

Without getting all Bill Nye on you, I will say that genes (DNA) encode RNA, which in turn is made into proteins.  Skin care companies are claiming that their ingredients are able to manipulate the genes, the proteins, or the rate at which the cell cycle (DNA-> RNA-> protein-> birth/survival->reproduction->cell death) occurs within the skin cells.  I’ve listed a few of the most popular technological claims below.


Sirtuins, activated by resveratrol and found in products like Avon Anew Ultimate Age Repair Elixir Serum and Night Cream are hoped to prolong the life of the fibroblasts by turning off unnecessary gene expression. When the fibroblasts aren’t expending more energy than they need to on unnecessary tasks, they will theoretically last longer.  This means that sirtuins should prolong the life of the fibroblasts in your skin, enabling you to make collagen naturally for more years than if you did not treat your skin with sirtuins.

Sirtuins are great in theory.  However, retinoids are arguably the gold standard of anti-aging right now, and the JAAD acknowledges retinoids do just the opposite, increasing cellular turnover rates.  So with that said, do we really want to keep our cell cycle rates high (and genes turned on), or do we want to use sirtuins?  It seems as though we are getting two different messages right now, and truth be told, I don’t think we know the entire answer just yet.

Clock Genes

Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair Synchronized Recovery Complex ($74.50, features Chronolux™ technology to “repair past damage” and “prevent signs of future damage.” This is theoretically accomplished by adding tripeptide-32 and Lactobacillus ferment to the original Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair Protective Recovery Complex.  According to the official company patent, the aim of the product is for tripeptide-32 to activate the clock gene PER-1, which regulates the normal sleep cycle, or Circadian Rhythm.   The theory is that when you apply tripeptide-32 before you sleep, the PER-1 gene activator will activate your skin cell (keratinocyte) genes at a time when they would normally be less active or inactive in the normal sleep cycle.  Which is pretty genius in theory, except is there evidence that tripeptide-32 is able to penetrate through the cellular and nuclear membranes to affect the actual genes in the skin cells?  Time (i.e., further research) will surely tell…

DNA Repair Enzymes

DNA repair enzymes naturally exist in the environment of each of our cellular nuclei,  repairing DNA damage through mechanisms like direct reversal of mutations, repair of single- or double-strand breaks, and translesion synthesis.  In skin care, arguably the most popular product containing DNA enzymes is Remergent DNA Repair ($49.95,, with its repair enzymes delivered in liposomal microspheres.

While it certainly has been established that liposomal microspheres improve delivery of key ingredients to the skin, the fact remains that the U.S. FDA maintains that over-the-counter skin care products can only affect the epidermis, not the underlying dermis.  This means that even though Remergent DNA Repair may repair the epidermis, it cannot technically be repairing the dermis, where skin cell regeneration occurs.  (If Remergent DNA Repair does do this, it would have to be classified as a drug).

Still, many customers (and a few derms I have interviewed) experience great results from Remergent DNA Repair, so even if the DNA repair enzymes are only delivered to the epidermis, they are making amends, so to speak.

Human Growth Factors and Cytokines

One product that contains human growth factors and cytokines is SkinMedica TNS Recovery Complex ($92.90,   Growth factors are proteins that bind to receptors on the cell surface, while cytokines are a unique family of growth factors that are secreted primarily from leukocytes and normally stimulate immune responses.

SkinMedica TNS Recovery Complex contains a complex called Nouricel MD, which contains a variety of human growth factors and cytokines.  According to the company, “NouriCel-MD is the first ingredient derived from the manufacture of bioengineered human skin which contains an array of natural human growth factors and other compounds produced by healthy new skin.” Dr. Neil Sadick, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist, affirms, “Recent studies have documented that by utilizing topical HGFs extracted from bioengineered skin, one can improve photodamaged skin.”

As with DNA repair enzymes, the evidence of skin improvement is clear; however, it is unknown just how much human growth factors and cytokines can change your DNA  - and how much change you even want.  It is wise to keep on the lookout for new research as it arises, and of course, to talk to your dermatologist about the best course of treatment.

Telomere Degradation Protection

Recently, a reader sent me information about Jeanne Piaubert products, which are very popular in Europe.   While the products attempt to preserve fibroblast function through a sirtuin-like compound called apha-phytodormin, they also contain terprenone, a state-of-the-art ingredient designed in part to prevent the degradation of telomeres at the end of the chromosomes.  This is a novel concept in skin care that has been utilized in other medical research studies, as telomere shortening occurs with age; with each round of replication, telomeres shorten in length.   As such, it is conceptualized by many that by preserving telomere length, aging will be delayed.

However, there are several points against using telomere-preservation skin care right now.  First is that telomere shortening has been found by von Zglinicki et. al. (1995, 2000) to be particularly susceptible to oxidative stress, indicating that antioxidants may help to preserve telomeric length.  Second, I could not find any peer-reviewed, company-independent, published literature establishing that terpenone preserves telomeric length.  This does not mean that the ingredient is ineffective; however, I simply prefer to use the ingredients that are backed firmly by scientific research.  Lastly, and perhaps most poignantly, it is possible that telomere shortening is not the reason for aging, but rather may simply be an effect of the aging process.  Therefore, it is possible that aging simply takes place, and even if you put the ideal protective cap on your telomeres, you could potentially still age.   There are still a lot of questions in this arena!

The Bottom Line

DNA-altering skin care is certainly popular right now.  While I certainly would not say any of these products are necessarily ineffective, I would keep in mind that they must only directly affect the uppermost layer of the skin, or else they would have to be classified as a drug in the United States.  Furthermore, more research needs to be conducted to answer some of the aforementioned questions.

Still, this type of technology is certainly going to revolutionize the future of skin care.  With that said, I currently am sticking to loads of sunscreen (including in the winter), which protects the skin from proven DNA-damaging UV rays.  If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, surely that applies to skin cell DNA…at least for the time being.  :-)

I’ll keep you posted with new research as it comes my way.  Let me know your thoughts in Comments below!

Image source (Flickr):  DSC03891adjlomo Infinite DNA, Originally uploaded by ftoomschb

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