Do ‘scientific’ cosmetics really work?

WHEN Stanley Cohen and Rita Levi-Montalcini won their Nobel Prize for medicine in 1986, for the discovery of substances that regulate cell and organ growth, they must have had some concept of its future potential in our understanding of diseases such as dementia and the healing of wounds.

What they were probably not imagining was its most recent use – in space-age skincare that, ounce for ounce, is more expensive than diamonds (in real terms, Bioeffect’s EGF serum costs £125 for a 15ml bottle).

The market is now groaning under the weight of products that claim to use increasingly hi-tech research in the quest for youth and beauty, and it seems we can’t get enough of it, lapping up the glycolic acid, AHA and retinol terminology quicker than you can say, “Here comes the science bit.”

More than a third of women believe skincare products developed by dermatologists and facialists are better than common or garden ones, and one in ten of us like to try products that contain the latest scientific ingredients. And when you consider Mintel’s estimate that £1 billion will be spent on facial skincare products in the UK this year, growing to £1.2 billion by 2015, there’s a lot at stake.

Science has responded with new technology in molecular biology, stem cell research and the Human Genome Project. In L’Oréal’s laboratories in France, for instance, the team of scientists grows reconstructed, living human skin on which to test its new products. And the next big thing is said to be glycobiology, which looks at lipids and sugars and their role in our bodies.

YSL’s Forever Youth Liberator is the first range of products on the market based on that science, and L’Oréal, YSL’s parent company, is currently undergoing a major UK-based clinical trial of its effects. “We’ve only just scraped the surface of what we can achieve with glycobiology,” says the company’s Dr Mark Donovan.

“In the coming years, we will see new products based on these emerging areas of science that will deliver new ways of keeping skin looking healthy at all ages.”

Elsewhere in the market, there’s 111 Skin, developed by two chemical engineers who have spent their lives testing ingredients in the extremes of space – where there is no ozone layer, so astronauts are exposed to high levels of radiation and free radicals – and deep sea – where the pressure puts strain on submariners’ cells and weakens their natural defences.

Through this research, they claim to have discovered an ingredient that can slow down the ageing process – something called NAC (n-acetylcysteine). Their newest addition to the 111 Skin range, Celestial Black Diamond night cream, goes on sale this month for a whopping £599.

Then there’s Astalift (£84 for 60g), a red pot of jelly that targets dark spots, lines and dull skin. The magic ingredient is Astaxanthin, an antioxidant its makers say can penetrate deep into the skin’s cells – though the technology was first developed by parent firm Fuji as a way of preserving valuable photographic film.

NeoStem Serum (£59 for 30ml) uses ingredients called omega statine and Z-dronate to slow down the ageing process – molecules so small, its makers claim, they are able to penetrate the skin more deeply than other anti-ageing products on the market.

And the new Platscription cream from Origins uses 300,000 raspberry stem cells in each pot (£46 for 50ml), while O-Placenta goes one better, taking the stem cells from sheep and incorporating it into a skincare regime whose entry point is around £100.

Even the modern delivery system of our skincare is changing, as seen in the new Clarins Double Serum (£55 for 30ml), which uses a unique pump to dispense precisely the right amounts of two products into the hand at once.

But with all this appliance of science in skincare are we in danger of being blinded by the gobbledegook? How many of us actually know what words like retinol and CoEnzyme Q-10 actually mean? And, in the end, does any of it even work?

“Most of the terminology on packaging is correct and does mean something,” says Nicola Bristow, manager of Edinburgh’s Beyond MediSpa, “although it isn’t always directly related to information that is useful to the consumer.”

For instance, when you see the words ‘increases elasticity’ on a bottle, what it really means is that the product inside helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. And ‘signalling proteins’ means it is designed to make the skin more radiant. “The terms that are most meaningful to the customer relate to the level of absorption we can expect, what protection it provides – the SPF – and the direct benefit the product will essentially give us.”

“There is definitely a tendency for beauty brands to blind us by science,” adds Pamela Kharikhou, managing director of Stem Cell Beauty Innovations, the firm behind O-Placenta. “It is so annoying when companies claim their skincare will treat ageing skin when the percentage of ingredients in the products are so small that all it is doing is softening the skin. We should always look at the first ingredient on the label – by law that has to be the ingredient with the highest percentage in the skincare, or any product.”

“Science within the beauty industry is evolving all the time,” says Bristow, “and in the last five years we have really perfected the ability to penetrate the skin to a far deeper level. It is all very exciting.”

Sisley’s skincare expert in the UK, Lesley Clough, demystifies the lingo.

Poly-collagen peptides

These are powerful stimulators that work with the cells’ natural manufacture of collagen in order to boost collagen production.

Pentapeptides Peptides are chains of amino acids. There are many different peptides, all with different functions. A pentapeptide has five key elements, whereas a peptide has only one.

Glycolic acid

Often used in a chemical peel, this works to provide skin with a topical exfoliation.

Hyaluronic acid

This is found naturally in our skin and acts like a sponge, giving the skin moisture, plumpness and density.

Alpha-lipoic acid

Found in skin cells, this is an anti-oxidant that protects and defends against potential damage.

Ferulic acid

A super-antioxidant found in the cell walls of plants, this is effective in fighting free radicals and helps to prevent damage to our cells caused by ultraviolet light.


Alpha hydroxy acids help to refine surface texture and smooth skin by dissolving the ‘glue’ that keeps dead skin cells stuck together.


Beta hydroxy acids work within the pore itself to help minimise blockages and breakouts.


This means the product won’t clog pores, so there is a lower risk of developing breakouts and spots.


A form of vitamin A, this works to stimulate cellular turnover within the skin.

Co-enzyme Q10

An antioxidant that is found in every cell in the body, this helps promote cellular energy and protects the DNA of the cell.


Powerful antioxidants found widely in the plant world – black rose, red grapes, blackberries – these are added to creams as a powerful age defence and protect against free radicals.


Twitter: @Ruth_Lesley