Here comes the science bit

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Skin care is a huge global industry, but how many of the claims made in the adverts are really true? Laura Howes investigates how chemistry is trying to roll back the years – or at least the appearance of them

The shiny vials and pots that seem to whisper promises of eternal youth as you browse are about as close as modern science gets to alchemy and magic. But beyond the promises and the packaging, the world of skincare and anti-ageing are starting to deliver clinically proven results.

Back in 2007, Chris Griffiths’ group at the University of Manchester, UK, caused an incredible reaction with the news that a certain skin cream was actually effective at causing changes in the skin of people who used it. When the news broke, via a BBC Horizon programme, queues of mostly female shoppers camped outside branches of Boots across the country to get their hands on the miracle cream that seemed to be backed up with science.

For many years, consumers have had little real evidence on which to base their purchases; small sample sizes of women giving their subjective opinions, reported by the very companies promoting their products, meant that products were often dismissed as ineffectual. And yet the cosmetics industry has continued to grow. Was Griffiths’ experimentation a new beginning for the skincare industry, with real evidence to back up the marketing departments’ claims?

The magic ingredient

‘Wrinkles are due to a loss of what we call the extracellular matrix,’ explains Griffiths. ‘This supplies skin with its tensile strength and elasticity.’ Sunlight, specifically UVA, and environmental factors, such as cigarette smoke, break down both the collagen and the elastic tissue around it and that is thought to cause wrinkling. ‘That’s our working hypothesis,’ says Griffiths, ‘and there is a rough clinical correlation between loss of collagen and fibrillin and severity of wrinkling.’

In the Boots product that Griffiths tested, the active ingredient was pro-retinol – a form of vitamin A. Topical retinoids were first used to treat acne, before it was noticed that female patients were coming back, claiming the treatments also improved their wrinkles.1 In the 1980s, dermatologist Albert Kligman, showing what Griffiths describes as a ‘healthy dose of scepticism’, reported this result, and the world of dermatology is still discovering how retinoids improve aging skin.

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