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At-home treatment for wrinkles has come a long way since grandma slathered on Pond's. The old standby is still around, but it's now just part of the mix of over-the-counter and Rx beauty salves as researchers worldwide race against the (biological) clock—to find ways to slow the march of time and the tracks it leaves on the skin.
Competing for a piece of the $1.6 billion that U.S. consumers spend annually on anti-aging skin care, major cosmetic makers worldwide now all have staff scientists researching and developing anti-aging technology to incorporate into products. It’s no longer enough to simply slather some creamy concoction on dry skin.
"We are trying to gain a deeper, molecular understanding of the skin aging process," says Jay Tiesman, a biologist and genomics research group leader at Procter & Gamble (P&G) in Cincinnati, which makes beauty products under the Olay brand. Researchers are exploring the use of such biological tools as stem cells and gene triggers to prevent—and even reverse—the ravages of time.
As we age, cells typically begin to regenerate more slowly and those known as fibroblasts produce less collagen, a protein that keeps skin firm and supple. These changes may be hastened by environmental factors such as the sun's ultraviolet rays, pollution and smoking, which can trigger free radicals or unstable molecules that prematurely damage DNA (genetic material) in cells.
The most effective ways to prevent premature signs of aging is to wear sunblock, skip the smokes—and eat a diet rich in fruits and veggies such as blueberries and artichokes that contain antioxidants, molecules that can block free radicals from damaging cells. In an attempt to spare the skin, Daniel Yarosh, a photobiologist and senior vice president of research and development at Estée Lauder Companies in Melville, N.Y, says his company and others are now including antioxidants in some topical creams to disable free-radical attacks on the epidermis (outermost skin layer).
Researchers are also exploring new ways of boosting the skin's ability to retain moisture as well as to keep germs from seeping into the body. "You want a nice barrier to protect the living layers of the dermis [the layer beneath the epidermis] to protect the skin from dehydrating and [from] external threats such as bacteria and other things we come into contact with on a daily basis," says Greg Hillebrand, a biochemist and principal scientist at P&G.
He notes that P&G scientists are also examining DNA in skin cells from the arms and backsides of women of different ages in an attempt to figure out specific genes that get turned on and off over time and when exposed to the sun, smoke and other environmental factors.
Researchers at L'Oréal's labs, meantime, are conducting research into the role that adult stem cells may play in the aging process in the hope of coming up with therapies designed to keep them functioning at their full potential.
"Stem cells are at the origin of regeneration of skin," says Jacques Leclaire, a biochemist and vice president of L'Oreal's life sciences division in Clichy, France, so "it's important to understand" how they behave during aging. He notes that the number of stem cells in skin stays essentially the same, but that their function changes over a lifetime. In an attempt to keep stem cells at the top of their game, Leclaire says his team is trying to develop products that protect the cells' "environment," most notably where the epidermis and dermis (middle skin layer) meet.