It is important, however, to educate consumers that with certain formulations “all-natural” does not always equate to a product being safer or more effective. In fact, it is rare to get an ingredient straight from its natural source and have it be tolerable or effective, and many compounds as they exist in nature cannot even be formulated into skin care products. They often must be chemically altered prior to being integrated into any cosmeceutical-grade formula.
So what role does science play in skin care and nature? Simply stated, the marriage of nature and science allows us to build effective formulations that are typically more stable, better penetrating the cells, and have more long-term effects on the skin.
Blending Nature and Science
The primary function of our skin is to protect the human body from harm caused by environmental and extraneous “attacks,” like UV rays, peroxide, bacteria, toxic chemicals in the air and water, and the list goes on. For this reason skin acts as a protective barrier, prohibiting ingredients – even the beneficial ones – from penetrating the body. While nature has provided us with some powerful ingredients, science has in essence cracked the code on getting around this protective natural property to allow those ingredients to penetrate the skin.
Using science we now have methods that aid in the absorption and penetration of the beneficial natural ingredients via topical formulations. These scientific methods that improve or enhance the performance of natural ingredients are called “delivery systems.” Mother Nature provides exceptional skin care ingredients and science provides the delivery system, creating a hand-in-hand, functional approach to skin care.
Using chemical modification to improve absorption or reduce the skin irritation potential of certain ingredients is directly contributed by modern science. For example, Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is water insoluble, meaning it does not dissolve or liquefy. Science has provided derivatives of CoQ10 that are more soluble. Thus, these derivatives are better absorbed by the skin when used in appropriate topical formulations.
In another example, we know D-Tocopherol is biologically more active. Natural synthesis however, blends both the D- and L- forms of Tocopherol, but using science we can separate the two to single out the more beneficial D-form. Similarly, with ascorbic acid, we can separate the L- form, which is better for skin care applications. Science has enabled us to take most natural chiral ingredients and improve their effectiveness via the separation and utilization of ingredients of correct molecular geometry.
The Evolution of Science in Skin Care
Blending science and nature is not a new phenomenon, though methods for research and development have come a long way. Ancient Egyptians were among the first to recognize the benefits of science in skin care, and the science of chirality even has roots tracing back to the early 1800s.(1) (2)
It was not until the 1960s that the term “cosmeceutical” was coined by a member of the U.S. Society of Cosmetic Chemists. Then in the 1970s science in skin care brought about the use of retinoic acid to reverse the signs of aging after discovering its benefits through the work of Kligman and Fulton who had originally developed this for acne. This quickly expanded the cosmeceutical category and led to the use of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) in the 1980s.
Science in skin care is constantly evolving. We are discovering new uses for time-tested ingredients and developing more efficient and effective formulations everyday. Today, more so than ever, the idea of intelligent skin care has taken center stage. This represents the merging of time-tested, proven ingredients and scientific advancements to produce higher quality, results-oriented cosmeceutical formulas. Using nature and advances in science we can inhibit the cell’s aging process, reduce age spots and hyperpigmentation, and enhance cell regeneration.
A few intelligent skin care ingredients coming out of the lab today include organic stem cells, which are extracted from plant and apple stem cells and have the ability to promote longevity in human cells; new-generation peptides, including one called Palmitoyl Tripeptide-38, which promises 70 to 100 percent reductions in line formation and works to smooth wrinkles from the inside. This is making its way into formulations now, but even as this article is being read, science is discovering more ways to utilize natural and lab-derived ingredients!
Other ingredients that are only possible because of science include:
- Thermus Thermophilus Ferment Extract – a deep-sea microorganism used to fight free radicals. This however, is an example of a prohibitively expensive ingredient when obtained from natural sources, but using chemical synthesis we can create nature-identical versions that are just as effective.
- Tetrahydrocucuminoids – a potent antioxidant compound from turmeric that provides natural UV protection, reduces inflammation, and reduces aging. Using science this compound can be isolated from turmeric.
- Retinol – a vital ingredient to skin rejuvenation, but to be used in skin care applications (retinoic acid), retinol typically requires retinal synthesis. This ingredient is also continually being boosted by scientific advances by discovering new uses and strengths.
- Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF) – an essential protein and powerful cell regenerator that supports cell renewal and wound repair. While EGF naturally occurs in the body, production slows significantly in the presence of UV rays. Using science, we now have EGF via a lab-derived oligopeptide.
- Resveratrol – a potent antioxidant found in red grapes and wine that delivers polyphenols, anti-inflammatory properties, and UV and free-radical protection. This ingredient can be produced using chemical synthesis, but even in its natural form it must be isolated from the skin of the red grapes.
Spotlighting Stem Cells
Organic stem cells, which I mentioned earlier, exemplify the benefits coming out of the marriage between science and nature. Through meristem cell culture biotechnology, a plant’s cell cultures can be extracted from the stem cells. These stem cells are essential to plant growth and the rebuild of damaged tissues.
In contrast to human stem cells, plant stems cells are totipotent, which means every cell has the ability to regenerate, be it a leaf, flower, stem, or the entire plant. When a plant suffers a wound, the surrounding cells will revert back to stem cells to form callus cells. Following the healing phase, cells return to their original state and begin building new tissue. This is where the technology behind organic stems cells resides – plant cells replicate their protective and healing ability to promote longevity in human cells.
Most of the molecules produced in nature are chiral. Our skin is also chiral, therefore it responds best to chirally correct ingredients.
This process is particularly beneficial to human cells as the body ages and cell proliferation slows. Human stem cells are continually making identical copies of themselves, and separating to form specialized cells, but growth slows significantly and longevity is reduced with age. The stem cells are rich in epigenetic factors and metabolites, which further promote the perpetuation and vitality of skin cells.
Taking an apple in its natural form, it reaps several healthful benefits to our bodies. Applying it in its raw form to the skin will produce little effect, however, and could potentially irritate skin. When we apply science to apples we can derive L-malic acid, used for exfoliation and regeneration, skin smoothing and cellular renewal, as well as the fruit’s stem cells using the meristem cell culture biotechnology.
Labs are also doing similar work with Buddleja Davidii (Butterfly Bush). In nature it provides nourishment to butterflies, bees, and moths, but in skin care it boosts cellular defense against oxidative stress, and prevents aging and photo-aging effects. Its true treasure can be found in its cell cultures, which are extracted from the meristematic (stem) cells. These cells have proven to be highly effective in preserving lipids, increasing antioxidant resistance, and inhibiting the production of collagenases, the enzymes responsible for breaking down peptide bonds in collagen.
Science of Chirality
We can not talk about science and skin care without touching on the science of chirality. The term chiral is generally used to describe a molecule or material that is non-superposable on its mirror image. Our hands, for instance, are chiral. The left is a non-superposable image of the right. This is evident when trying to use your left hand to shake someone’s right hand… it does not quite fit. Achiral describes a material or object that is identical to its mirror image. Incidentally, the word chiral is derived from the Greek word “kheir,” meaning hand.
In our cells, all the amino acids (L) are left-handed; no protein in the body will contain a right-handed amino acid. Sugars (D), however, are right-handed. You will notice many of the ingredients denote L- or D-forms. Most of the acids and amino acids – malic, lactic, mandelic, ascorbic, arginine – use the L-isomers. While many of the skin strengtheners, protectors, and hydrators – tocopherol, beta glucosamine, fructan – use the D-isomers. For ingredients to be effective they must be isolated to work with the appropriate isomers in our skin, rather than inundate it with both forms, which can lead to unwanted side effects or few results. Science is absolutely essential to isolating the two forms.
Chirality is an important aspect of ingredient efficacy. Using ingredients with specific chiral orientation appropriately target cells, are more effective, and produce a more results-oriented response.
Using the right- and left-handed glove analogy, this property becomes more apparent, since you can not wear a right-handed glove on your left hand. This is similar to how a right-handed molecule fills a need in the body where the left-handed molecule may not and vice versa. Just as we are either right-handed or left-handed and perform tasks more efficiently using our strong hand, right- or left-sided natural ingredients perform in much the same manner.
We know, for example, never to use the D-form of ascorbic acid on the skin, because it can cause extreme irritation, but the L-form is a wonderful antioxidant that strengthens collagen and brightens the skin. Here it becomes clear that unfiltered, raw ingredients are only partially effective since it in essence contains both the “correct” and “incorrect” molecules.
Ingredient purity will impact a product’s efficacy significantly. Using science we can pinpoint a raw ingredient’s “incorrect” molecules and isolate them so the formula is not diluted or weakened in its effectiveness.
Without science we would not be able to extract specific molecules from ingredients, determine proper levels for blending or how to combine them to strengthen their effects. We would not know the benefits of retinols, AHAs, spin traps, vitamins, antioxidants, and even peptides and its various chains – oligo, penta, hexa, and others. While nature is essential to life, it is important to talk to clients about the role of science in skin care, understanding ingredient labels and where those ingredients came from.
With more than 30 years in the skin care industry, I have witnessed many changes and discoveries. I have learned that natural- and lab-derived ingredients, and the science that goes into appropriately using them provides us with formulations that make a difference to the health of our client’s skin. Be sure to do your own research and due diligence when it comes to ingredients – this knowledge could make a world of difference in your practice.
1 Lakhtakia, A. (ed.) (1990). Selected Papers on Natural Optical Activity (SPIE Milestone Volume 15). SPIE.
2 Pasteur, L. (1848). Researches on the molecular asymmetry of natural organic products, English translation of French original, published by Alembic Club Reprints (Vol. 14, pp. 1–46) in 1905, facsimile reproduction by SPIE in a 1990 book.
Rhonda Allison, a pioneer in the skin care industry, is the Founder and CEO of Rhonda Allison Cosmeceuticals, as well as an author and internationally known speaker with more than 30 years’ aesthetic experience. Allison is an international educator in the field of advanced clinical skin rejuvenation. She developed the first video of its kind “The Art of Skin Peeling” and has written the book “Cooking with Acids.”