Science behind hi-tech skincare

Gone are the days when skincare was simply about emulsifying different proportions of oil and water. Ingredients are now infinitely more sophisticated, relying on scientific and mathematical modelling, as Claire Coleman reports

Ingredients must not only be employed in the correct combinations, they have to be presented in a way that ensures they can penetrate the skin and get to where they are needed.

According to Frauke Neuser, principal scientist at Olay, new technologies have taken the guesswork out of formulation.

“The future of ingredient identification lies in connectivity mapping,” she says. “This means that, now we know which genes are expressed in healthy young skin and how ageing or disease affects that gene expression, we can look at the genetic profile of various ingredients and find one that does the opposite.

“So if, say, there are 1,000 genes involved and 300 are up-regulated, that is they work harder, while 700 are down-regulated and work less efficiently, using a bank of ingredients whose genetic profiles we know, along with algorithms and data crunching, we can find an ingredient that will down-regulate those 300 and up-regulate the 700.”

And once an ingredient is identified, it has to be packaged in a way that the skin can use and sometimes this takes time. In the case of a molecule called LR2412, the key ingredient in Lancôme’s Visionnaire, it took more than a decade, as L’Oréal UK’s director of scientific affairs Katriona Methven explains.

“We were interested in a compound called jasmonate, which is present in plants and has a role in repair and regeneration. We thought it had potential to play a similar role in skin, but we needed to remodel it in such a way that it would be able to penetrate it.”


In many ways LR2412 typifies the sort of ingredients that are increasingly at the forefront of cosmetic chemistry – derived from, or inspired by, nature and synthesised in such a way that they are highly effective in humans. Because, whatever the “nature’s best” brigade might argue, the line between “natural” and “synthetic” is very fine.

The focus on ingredients reflects an increased consumer appetite for knowledge about the contents of their cosmetics

Salicylic acid, long heralded as a gold standard in the treatment of acne, is originally derived from willow bark, while star anti-ageing ingredients, retinoids, are found in cod liver oil.

The focus on ingredients reflects an increased consumer appetite for knowledge about the contents of their cosmetics. In 2011, Mintel’s Facial Skincare – UK report showed only 7 per cent of consumers were interested in ingredients, while just a year later, that figure had increased by more than a quarter to 9 per cent.

But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, as exemplified by the parabens story. Parabens, natural preservatives found in fruit such as raspberries, were demonised by a combination of scaremongering celebrities and a widely reported, yet potentially flawed, piece of research linking them with breast cancer. Rather than educating consumers about the science, most manufacturers bowed to public pressure and started going “paraben free”.

But as Sam Farmer, whose range of toiletries for young people does include parabens, explains this caused problems of its own.

“When companies moved away from parabens, they needed another inexpensive and effective preservative. Methylisothiazolinone (MI) had long been used in shampoos and other wash-off products, but formulators knew it was not advisable to use it in leave-on products, such as moisturisers and sun cream. However, in the rush to replace parabens, this seems to have been forgotten,” he says.

The result is consumers buying paraben-free products are leaving MI on their skin and getting sensitivity reactions, so they can no longer use any products that contain MI.

But new technologies should make such problems a thing of the past. Computer modelling is so sophisticated it can show not only how safe and effective a product might be, but also if the active ingredient will penetrate to where it needs to get. This means it will take less time to develop molecules like LR2412.

And, according to Dr Neuser, future wonder ingredients could replicate natural mechanisms, such as hormones, but with modifications to avoid the accompanying systemic effects. “We know what the gold standard is in existing ingredients,” she says. “Now it’s about finding something just as good, but without side effects.”