Claire Coleman is a freelance features journalist who has a particular interest in the science behind the beauty industry, and has won several awards for her writing on the topic. Alongside her journalism work, she also works as a consultant and copywriter for a range of brands, from small start-ups to international household names.
Words by Claire Coleman
What You — And Your Teenage Daughter — Need To Know About PCOSWhen you’re talking teen girls, and talking hormones, it’s hard to know what’s normal and what’s worthy of further investigation. And that’s why getting diagnosis and treatment for a condition called PCOS — Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome — can be so tricky, even though it’s something that an estimated 1 in 10 women in the UK suffer from. ‘It’s something that is diagnosed really badly and often not picked up as not enough is understood about the condition, and the fact that it can present in many different ways — not everyone will have all the same symptoms, and some people may only have one of them,’ says Dr Amalia Annaradnam of the London Hormone Clinic. ‘PCOS is a condition that’s related to an imbalance in your hormone levels which stems from a genetic predisposition in women to be insulin resistant,’ she explains. (In case you missed the biology lesson on what insulin is and what it does….Insulin is a hormone that’s produced by the pancreas, usually in response to you eating something that raises your blood sugar levels. Insulin’s role is to lower the level of sugar in the bloodstream, help the body store that sugar in your liver, fat and muscles, and also regulate your body's metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. So in the great scheme of things, it’s quite important.) ‘When you have PCOS, it’s not because of something you eat or do, it’s down to the fact that genetically your body does not respond to the insulin that is being produced in your pancreas, and so your body produces more insulin.’ As all of the hormones in the body are interconnected, high levels of insulin have a knock-on effect on the other hormones. ‘Excess insulin drives up testosterone and DHEA (often known as male hormones or androgens) and that’s what causes some of the symptoms that are associated with the condition,’ explains Dr Annaradnam. ‘Symptoms of PCOS include irregular or absent periods, acne, excess hair on the face, arms or nipples, thinning of the hair on the head, weight gain, and difficulty losing weight, as well as multiple small cysts on the ovaries [which give the syndrome its name], which can be seen via an ultrasound,’ says London-based GP, Dr Zoe Watson. ‘But as irregular periods can be quite normal in teenagers who have just started having periods, as can acne, one of the key things is actually noticing and questioning the symptoms, which I think can be harder for teens as they might be embarrassed to talk about it.’ Dr Claire Ashley, a GP from Bristol who has PCOS herself agrees that it can take ‘several months, if not longer, to ovulate regularly and develop a regular cycle’ but if, a year after starting her periods, your daughter still doesn’t have a regular cycle, and has any of the other symptoms, it might be worth getting things checked out. Dr Watson says that if you do suspect PCOS, it’s not actually that hard to diagnose. ‘The diagnostic criteria for PCOS that we use in medicine is called the Rotterdam Criteria, which essentially states if you have two out of the three diagnostic criteria then you have PCOS - those three things are: absent or irregular periods; evidence of raised androgen levels (excess body hair, acne etc - or indeed a blood test which shows raised androgen levels): polycystic ovaries seen on ultrasound scan.’ But, in order to get a diagnosis in the first place, you’d have to go to a doctor, and with teens, not only might you confuse the symptoms with ‘just being a teenager’, but actually making that diagnosis isn’t always as straightforward as it might be in older women. ‘PCOS is often not diagnosed until a woman is in her 20s or 30s and trying to conceive, as the condition can mean that it’s harder to get pregnant,’ says Dr Ashley. ‘It would be normal to do a blood test, in the first five days of her cycle, that looks at levels of three hormones — Luteinising Hormone and Follicle Stimulating Hormone, as an imbalance in the ratio of those two hormones can indicate PCOS, and testosterone which is often raised with PCOS — as well as an internal ultrasound that would show any cysts on the ovaries.’ However, she points out that one of the issues with diagnosing teens is that these approaches can seem very daunting. ‘If you have a teen who’s never had a blood test before and is scared of needles, that can be very intimidating. And if a girl is not yet sexually active, it wouldn’t be appropriate to do an internal scan.’ PCOS isn’t something that goes away — so once you’ve been diagnosed, it’s a question of managing the condition, and in some cases, treating the symptoms. ‘Insulin resistance is what drives the problem, and so for me, the key is to try to improve that,’ says Dr Annaradnam. ‘We know that being overweight compounds insulin resistance, and so if a patient is overweight, I will often talk to them about combining exercise with a low-carb diet — and/or intermittent fasting to try to get their weight down, which can improve things.’ However, Dr Ashley flags that while when you’re trying to lose weight, it can be tempting to go hard on the exercise, that’s not always the best idea. ‘A lot of high intensity exercise can lead to high levels of another hormone, cortisol, and that can have a knock-on effect on the other hormones in your body as well, further complicating things, so you need to make time to do exercises such as yoga that will lower cortisol levels.’ But, while in theory losing weight can be part of the solution, with PCOS it can be a bit of a vicious cycle, as one of the symptoms is an inability to lose weight. That’s the point at which Dr Annaradnam might prescribe a drug called metformin, a drug that is often prescribed for diabetes. ‘Metformin lowers your blood sugar levels by improving the way your body handles insulin, it also drives down testosterone levels, and can help to regulate your menstrual cycle, and help with fertility issues,’ she explains. When prescribed to treat diabetes, metformin is usually a long-term solution that patients have to take for life, and it’s possible that the same is true if you take metformin to treat PCOS, but this is something you would need to discuss with your doctor. While metformin treats the root of the problem, it isn’t the only solution and other drugs may be used alongside it, or instead of it, depending on the patient. ’Spironalactone can be a useful treatment for PCOS patients who are suffering from acne, hair loss or excessive hair as it’s an androgen blocker so if you have these symptoms because you’re sensitive to testosterone, or have high levels of testosterone, they can improve with the treatment. However it’s not appropriate for women who are trying to conceive or who are pregnant,’ says Dr Annaradnam. Other hormonal solutions that might be offered include the contraceptive pill. ‘The combined pill can be really helpful for young women who aren’t trying to conceive,’ says Dr Ashley. ‘It can regulate your cycle so it becomes predictable — although technically the withdrawal bleed that you have is not a period, and you can take the pill without a break and not have a bleed — and it can also be helpful in the management of acne.’ She points out that another reason that women may not be diagnosed until they are in their 20s and 30s is because the pill can mask the symptoms. ‘If a girl goes on the pill at the age of 16, it may be that the symptoms of PCOS have not yet had time to become apparent, so it might not be until they take a break from the pill, or try to conceive, that it becomes evident.’ Aside from drugs, excess hair growth can be treated with waxing or, more long-term, with laser treatment, although this is unlikely to be available on the NHS. And Dr Annaradnam also recommends a supplement called myo-inositol to patients. It’s available over the counter and has been shown in trials to improve some of the symptoms associated with PCOS. So, once you’ve been diagnosed with PCOS, and you’ve treated some of the more immediate issues that are having an impact on your day-to-day life, what do you need to know about how it’s going to affect your future health? Well for a start, while the cysts — technically small egg follicles that do not grow to ovulation stage — that give the condition its name sound worrying, the good news is that they’re not actually dangerous, and they’re not a risk factor for cancers. But beyond that it varies from person to person. ‘In terms of health implications, we know that people with a PCOS diagnosis are at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, as well as having an increased risk of developing heart disease,’ says Dr Watson. This is why trying to maintain a healthy diet and a healthy weight, while important for everyone as we age, is even more important if you’ve had a PCOS diagnosis. As is considering your fertility sooner rather than later. ‘Having PCOS doesn’t necessarily mean that you will automatically struggle with fertility,’ she says. ‘However we do know that it is a common cause of infertility - primarily due to the fact that women with PCOS don’t ovulate as often as women without the condition. That said, treatments for women with PCOS who are struggling to conceive are usually quite effective, and focus on triggering ovulation.’ One of those treatments might be metformin, mentioned above, but patients may also be referred to a specialist for a drug called Clomid which stimulates ovulation. While you might have PCOS for life, it’s very definitely not a life sentence. While it’s still not brilliantly understood, there are more treatments than ever available to treat it, and its symptoms. It just starts with getting a diagnosis.
Menopause: Hormones And Your SkinWe hear so much about how the menopause is catastrophic for skin - on a number of levels, but rather than accepting that it’s all doom and gloom, we thought we’d take a bit of a dive into what’s happening on a hormonal level, why it has such an impact on skin, and — crucially — what you can do about it... THE HORMONE FACTOR “You have hormonal shifts and fluctuations throughout your life,” explains consultant dermatologist Dr Alexis Granite. “Puberty is one of them; perimenopause is another.” The hormone that we tend to talk about in relation to the menopause is oestrogen. Known as one of the female sex hormones and produced largely by the ovaries, it’s the one that starts to rise when you hit puberty to give you breasts, mature the internal sexual organs and start menstruation. While it does fluctuate across the course of your cycle, it stays relatively constant until we get to the perimenopause. Exactly when that happens will vary from woman to woman, and there are several factors that can have an effect — some forms of chemotherapy, being a heavy smoker and having surgery on your ovaries can predispose you to an earlier menopause — but the most significant factor seems to be the age your mum was when she experienced the menopause. Although we talk about “hitting the menopause” or about “hormone levels falling off a cliff”, this isn’t something that happens overnight, as Alice Smellie, co-author of “Cracking the Menopause: While Keeping Yourself Together”, a new book on the subject due to be published this September, explains. “It’s a really gradual process. The official age of perimenopause is 45, but in fact symptoms may begin in your late 30s or early 40s and last for a few years, as the number of eggs declines, and oestrogen levels start to fluctuate. These can go up as well as down, but the general trend is downwards.” And that, as you’ve probably heard, is not good news for your skin. “Oestrogen and oestrogen receptors are found in all types of skin cell, so it’s likely that oestrogen influences most structures of the skin,” explains Dr Sajjad Rajpar, a dermatologist with a special interest in perimenopausal and menopausal skin. “And the skin is the body’s biggest organ — the skin of an average woman weighs around 15kg! So that’s a lot of oestrogen that’s required to keep it functioning properly.” Depressingly, he points out that, from a purely biological perspective, we weren’t meant to live much beyond our child-bearing years and that it’s only as life expectancy has increased that we’ve started to appreciate the importance of oestrogen. AGE IS MORE THAN JUST A NUMBER We can argue about whether it’s OK to use the term “anti-ageing” or not, but can we agree that using the term “ageing” when it comes to talking about skin is just a convenient shorthand that covers a lot of the ways in which skin changes with the passage of time? It just means that we don’t have to say “wrinkles, changes in skin colouration, sagging skin, loss of volume etc” every time. So, with that in mind, it’s time to break the bad news that the menopause is really ageing. “Essentially you have a few things going on when it comes to skin ageing,” says Dr Rajpar. “There’s chronological ageing that happens in men as well as in women. That happens because, as we age, our cells don’t live as long, so there are fewer cells, and they also function less efficiently. When it comes to skin, you can speed up that process with external lifestyle factors, such as the sun, smoking, stress, and bad diet. But, in addition, there’s the skin ageing that is caused by oestrogen deficiency and, in women, that’s actually more important than the chronological age of the patient.” Research suggests that the number of years women are post-menopause is a better indicator of how aged their skin is likely to appear than their actual chronological age. This doesn’t necessarily apply in women who are taking HRT (see below). But, while the menopause really does stick the boot in on a number of aspects of skin ageing, there are things you can do. TURNING DOWN THE VOLUME Collagen is one of the proteins that give skin that firm, bouncy, juicy, plump appearance and, as one of the roles of oestrogen is to stimulate collagen production, a loss of oestrogen means a loss of collagen. There are some studies that suggest that you can lose around 30 per cent of the collagen in your skin in the first five years after the menopause. And the thickness of the skin also reduces by around two per cent each year. Some of that is down to collagen loss, but other skin structures will also diminish with age. So, not only are you likely to lack volume, but your skin will also be thinner and so may bruise more easily. From a skincare point of view, to tackle issues like this, you want ingredients such as retinoids and peptides, which will stimulate collagen growth. But that’s only part of the issue because, as Dr Rajpar explains, the collagen in your skin seems to be less well organised so the same mass won’t give you the same sort of volume-boosting as it might have done ten years before. “Topical products can help, but they have their limit,” says Dr Alexis Granite. “That’s when clinic treatments can come in. Fillers can help replace lost volume, while radio frequency treatments, such as the Morpheus 8 and Ultherapy, can help boost sagging skin.” HUNG OUT TO DRY “The number one complaint I get from my menopausal patients is about skin dryness,” says Dr Rajpar. And, he explains, there are several mechanisms at play here. “Oestrogen is required for the quality and quantity of ceramide production — ceramides are your skin’s in-built moisturising system. But they’re not the only ones — there’s also sebum, another form of oil or moisturiser that is also stimulated by oestrogen.” Add in the fact that hyaluronic acid, an ingredient found naturally in the skin that helps the skin hold onto water, is also stimulated by oestrogen and you can see why, if you diminish the supply of oestrogen, you're choking the pipeline of all these essential skin moisturisers. The solution? Look for good moisturisers, that might feel slightly heavier than what those you’ve used in the past, to help replenish levels of oils and ceramides, and layer these on top of a good hyaluronic acid serum. In a clinic, skin boosters, such as Profhilo, that inject lots of hyaluronic acid at a superficial level, can help increase moisture levels and give you back your glow. FEELING IRRITATED? We’re not just talking about your mood. “In healthy skin, ceramides and other fatty acids, coat the skin cells and help to form the skin barrier, but when skin is lacking in those moisturising factors, the barrier is compromised and you’ll find that skin is more sensitive or reactive as a result,” says Dr Rajpar. “Many women might find that products that they’ve happily used in the past suddenly start irritating the skin as. its threshold for injury is much lower.” If this is happening to you, he advocates simplifying your routine and avoiding anything that could be an irritant. “Use gentle cleansers, avoid over exfoliating and scale back the number of products you’re using. More products mean more ingredients, which means more potential for problems.” IT’S IN YOUR BONES You might think that even if your skin is giving up the ghost, at least your bones are underneath it all as a strong foundation. Sadly, that’s not true. You might have worried about post-menopausal bone density and being more prone to breaking a leg or a hip, but it seems you also need to worry about your jaw. “If we look at men and women, the facial skeleton ages at a similar rate until you hit around 50 when we see an accelerated rate of ageing in women in the lower face due to a loss of bone mass,” says Dr Rajpar. “There is more bone loss with low oestrogen after the menopause and some bones — including those in the lower face — seem more prone than others to density loss.” The result can be jowliness and heaviness in the lower face. Judiciously placed filler can help to counteract this, as can other skin-tightening treatments, or procedures such as thread lifts. SPOT THE DIFFERENCE Just as not all teenagers will get acne at puberty, so not all perimenopausal or menopausal women will suffer this condition. But if you do, you’re not alone. The mechanism behind why it happens is not clearly understood, although there is one theory that the drop in oestrogen means that testosterone, one of the hormones associated with acne, is relatively higher. There are several dedicated ranges on the market designed to treat acne (which is normally associated with oily skin) without drying out already dry menopausal skin. But if you’re really struggling, speak to a dermatologist as acne can be very distressing. IS HRT THE SOLUTION? Taking HRT (aka Hormone Replacement Therapy) where, using patches, pills, or gels, to increase your levels of oestrogen to offset the natural drop, could help with pretty much all the above. As yet, there’s not enough research to know, (as I’d like to), whether sticking a 40-year-old woman on HRT and maintaining “youthful” levels of oestrogen for the rest of her life will mean that she will never show any of the symptoms of ageing that are associated with a lack of oestrogen. But, as Dr Rajpar explains, “we know that women who take HRT have better skin than women who aren’t taking it.” Of course, improving — or preserving — your skin quality isn’t the only benefit you’ll get from HRT. It’s also been associated with a reduced risk of dementia, heart disease and fractures. But a lot of people are worried about it because, says Dr Rajpar, “we’ve been subjected to two decades of misinformation, much of which was based on old studies done on synthetic oral oestrogen. “But now, the application of HRT is increasingly likely to be topical (delivered through the skin rather than as a pill) and body-identical (meaning it’s in exactly the same form as the hormones women produce naturally in their bodies) so it’s much safer.” Let’s get things straight, HRT isn’t going to be for everyone. However, according to Dr Rajpar, there are actually very few women who can’t take HRT. “Only one in eight people who are eligible for HRT are on it,” he says. “That’s a lot of women who are missing out.” And, interestingly, he advises it’s never too late to start. “Some women think that if they’re more than ten years post-menopause, there’s no point taking HRT, but actually even at that point, you will get some benefits — for example studies show that you’ll get some bounce back in your levels of collagen.” Ultimately, only a medical professional can help you decide whether HRT is right for you personally and, if you’re not getting the answers that you need from your GP, ask to be referred to a specialist. It’s not a silver bullet for every woman, but it could make a significant difference to the appearance of your skin.
Meet The FounderCaroline Hirons was always destined to go into the beauty industry – she just didn’t know it. “My earliest memories are of my nana taking her makeup off,” she says. “Both my mum and my grandmother worked in beauty, but weirdly it never occurred to me that I would. Because I just couldn’t see myself doing it. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a teacher, but that went out the window when I saw, as a teenager, how teachers were treated. Then I wanted to be a midwife. Then I had a kid and that went out the window,” she laughs. But after she had children, retail seemed like a good option: “part time, ad hoc, the sort of thing you can’t do with a newborn but when they’re six months and you want to get back to work for a couple of hours on the weekend.” She’d previously done stints in Liberty and Harrods – “all over the shop, including haberdashery. There is nowhere you want to be less than the haberdashery department on stock-take day. I cannot tell you how many buttons I’ve counted in my life” – but beauty appealed. A quick call to a contact in the business landed her with a weekend job on the Aveda counter in Harvey Nichols, and the first Sunday she was working on her own, she took more money than the whole team had taken the day before. “I just felt I knew what I was talking about when it came to skincare, because I’d grown up listening to my mother and grandmother talk about it.” She swiftly moved through the ranks, becoming a manager on the counter, then being poached by Space NK. “I was obsessed with research and I would just read everything – if it was skincare. Colour, I couldn’t care less, I was all about skincare. And I realised that if I was going to do this seriously, I needed to learn more.” And so while juggling three children, pregnancy and a full-time job, Caroline went to night school, studying anatomy and physiology and eventually qualifying as a therapist. A chance meeting with the founder of Chantecaille led to her joining the brand as they were launching skincare, and roles with Liz Earle and Clarins followed until, in 2009, she set up her own consultancy, advising beauty brands. But, if it hadn’t been for Twitter, you probably wouldn’t be reading this now. “I was on Twitter in the early days when you just used to follow your friends. And occasionally people would ask me questions about skincare but you only had 140 characters back then and you can’t tell someone how to wash their face in 140 characters. So when someone said ‘just blog it’, I did. And my very first post was on how to do a cleansing massage – it’s still up there! I remember sitting in front of a table lamp and getting my son to click the camera when my hands were in the right position. And once it was up, I kind of thought ‘Oh this is a nice avenue to put out good information, not rubbish and following the trends’.” Slowly the blog grew, but it wasn’t until industry friends told her that her recommendations drove sales that she realised quite how successful it had become. “I remember when I was in Space NK and Nigella Lawson had a beauty column for The Times. And if you were on shift on a Saturday, the first thing you did was get the magazine to see what she’d recommended and if you had enough stock, because you knew it would sell out. So when I started to get that kind of feedback from brands, I realised what I had on my hands.” As a result of the blog, Caroline was asked to put together boxes with other brands, and the hugely popular seasonal kits – collections of products on sale at a far lower price than the individual components – came from there. “I knew how the system worked, I knew how to put it together. I already knew warehouses and packaging people and graphic designers from working in the industry with brands. I thought, ‘Why don’t I just do it myself?’.” Because Skin Rocks started with the monthly boxes, it would be easy to see it as being an extension of the kits, but Caroline is adamant that it’s not “a kit brand.” “Purely and simply, it started with the boxes because the website wasn’t ready and the boxes were.” But while the kits are “a great offer”, the boxes are designed to be educational. “They’re not for everyone: they’re target-driven, they’re treatment-driven. So I hope it’s really clear that the very first one was about acids, and the idea was that: ‘You need acids in your skincare routine if your skin is like this, you don’t want acids in your skincare routine if your skin is like that, and if you do want to start using acids in your skincare routine, here’s not just an acid product, but an entire regimen to complement it’.” And that sense of education is really the cornerstone of Skin Rocks. “Skin Rocks came from wanting to get across a message about skincare in a way that wasn’t about me. I’m still going to have my blog, I’ll still be reviewing products, but I want Skin Rocks to be a resource. There is so much fear-mongering misinformation that, in recent years, has been left unchallenged and allowed to gather momentum as fact, and I wanted something that would be the counterpoint of that. I want it to be somewhere where people can learn about skin, about what they need for their skin and, more importantly, about what they don’t need.” And for Caroline, it was important that that message came from a range of voices. “Not everyone is going to like me. Why would they? I don’t like everyone. So if someone who doesn’t like me sees me talking about the importance of SPF, they may take absolutely no notice. But if 15 different derms are saying it on Skin Rocks, I’d hope that they’d pay more attention to it.” So, on the Skin Rocks site, you’ll find the same core values that the blog has always had, fact-led, no-nonsense skincare advice, but with a range of experts delivering authority, authenticity and science. And for Caroline, that collectivity was important. “If you’re a single person, you’re easily dismissed, but if you’re a website or a movement, you hold more sway. I want to have people on board who, if a story comes out or if there’s an ingredient everyone’s raving about, or if, for example, the Gwyneth SPF situation happens, we can react to that. I would like it to be a place where people go to find out ‘What does Skin Rocks have to say about this? What do the professionals have to say about this?’” She also wants to reinforce how professional the beauty industry can be. “Everyone who answers a skincare question on the Skin Rocks Instagram page is a qualified facialist. There’s a customer service team, but if it’s a skincare question, it goes to a professional. “I want people to know that beauty isn’t a game, people aren’t just after your money. It’s not all about marketing. My friends in the industry have no interest in putting people down, especially women. They have no interest in making you look or feel older, but it is dictated to and the language is still largely dictated by sales and corporate retail. And that is what I would hope to leave some dent in. I would like to just dent their bumper. You know, I’m not for a second thinking I’m going to change the way of the world, but I would like to be an irritating mosquito in the ear of big corporate.” I can pretty much guarantee a number of big corporates will confirm that she’s already succeeded in that, but the boxes and the website are just the beginning… “I don’t want to be one of those people who says ‘I can’t say any more…’ but basically until it’s ready, I’m not going to say any more. But there’s more to come, much more.”
The History Of PeptidesThe first most beauty fans heard about peptides was in 2006 when, in a subsequently much spoofed Olay TV ad, celebrity beauty editor Nadine Baggott told viewers “Right now, I think the hottest anti-ageing ingredients around are pentapeptides.” Back then most of us didn’t know what a peptide was or what it could do, but in fact, peptides had been floating around in the world of skincare since the 1970s. (If you’re still none the wiser, it’s basically a small protein, composed of two or more amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. A pentapeptide is a peptide made up of five amino acids, while a dipeptide is made up of two, and a tripetide from three). “One of cosmetic science’s best approaches is to look at how the body does things, and bottle it,” says Daniel Isaacs, director of research at Medik8. And that’s exactly what happened in the early ’70s when someone called Loren Pickart identified and isolated a copper peptide in blood plasma, and discovered that it was present in greater quantities in young people than it was in older people. Mike Bell, who is head of science research at Walgreens Boots Alliance, says that this discovery was “probably the inspiration for peptides in cosmetics,” although its application in skincare didn’t happen until some years later. “In the 1980s, it started to become apparent that this peptide was important in wound healing,” explains Mike. Basically, when skin is injured, the proteins in the skin break down into peptides and, at some point, they establish a feedback loop that tells the body: “Hey, there’s damage here that we need to repair.” Part of the way that the body responds to that damage is to produce more collagen – one of the proteins that is involved in helping the skin repair itself, but also the protein that’s responsible for keeping skin looking plump and feeling bouncy and firm. As we get older, the levels of collagen in our skin decrease, and the speed at which we make new collagen decreases too – can you see where this is going? Ultimately – as is often the case with technologies found in skincare – research that had initially been carried out with a view to medical applications started to be incorporated into skincare. We’ve really got a company called Sederma to thank for that – but unless you’re a real skincare geek, you’ll never have heard of this ingredient manufacturer who, in 2000, created a synthetic (ie. made in a lab) peptide which they called Matrixyl. This was designed to work like one of the peptides that occur naturally in the body and signal to it to make more collagen. This is quite common in the skincare industry – there are specialist manufacturers who develop ingredients, which they then sell to the beauty brands that you see on the shelves. Sometimes, one beauty brand will buy exclusive rights to use an ingredient, but very often they are widely available to a number of different brands. And so you undoubtedly will have heard of Olay, who was one of the first mainstream companies to incorporate Matrixyl into skincare when they launched Olay Regenerist in 2003 – Matrixyl is the pentapeptide referenced in that infamous advert. And actually, it’s probably the reason why another of the UK’s most popular face creams was found to be so effective. In 2007, a Boots No7 serum, Protect & Perfect, hit headlines after a BBC Horizon documentary showed scientists at the University of Manchester proving that the serum could rejuvenate photo-aged skin. Effectively you had a bunch of independent professional scientists (rather than those paid by the skincare companies) saying: “Actually, skincare isn’t just oil, water and snake oil; some of this stuff really works and can even turn back the clock, just like they promised.” At the time, it was believed that it was the retinyl palmitate – a form of vitamin A which is a much-studied, gold standard anti-ageing ingredient – in the formulation that was responsible for the effects, but Mike Bell admits that, in subsequent tests on the individual ingredients: “We never found that the retinyl palmitate does much at the levels we use it: it’s the peptides driving the changes we saw.” Perhaps not surprisingly given the success of the original molecule, Sederma went on to create other similar peptides in the Matrixyl family, and the credibility – and validity – of the ingredient was rubber-stamped in 2013 when independent research at the University of Reading found that, used in the right quantities, Matrixyl can almost double levels of collagen in the skin. And this sort of proof is essential for brands like Medik8. “The main advances we’ve seen in this area are clinical data to support ingredients, which means brands like us can pick apart those that have genuine effects rather than those that just have a theory,” says Daniel Isaacs. “Our heritage is in vitamin C, vitamin A and sun protection, because there’s a wealth of science behind these three areas. Matrixyl was the first peptide we really invested in because there are published studies behind it with fantastic data.” But peptides that tell the body to make more collagen are only the start, as Prudvi Kaka, chief scientific officer at Deciem, explains. “Peptides in skincare currently can be classified into four different categories including: signal peptides, carrier peptides, neurotransmitter inhibitor peptides and enzyme inhibitor peptides." Matrixyl falls into the signal peptide category – peptides that tell the body to do something (like make more collagen). Carrier peptides deliver trace elements, which are important for the healthy function of skin, and copper peptides – which you may have heard of – are part of this group. Then there are the neurotransmitter inhibitor peptides – they’re the ones that get called “Botox in a bottle” and one in particular, Argireline, pops up a lot in skincare. The idea is that peptides like this can actually target muscle movements, potentially decreasing the facial muscle contraction, reducing dynamic lines and wrinkles. Finally there are enzyme inhibitor peptides and these work to prevent certain enzymes from breaking down components of the skin that you might want to keep such as collagen, for example. However, there’s more to it than just finding a peptide that works on paper. In order to get the proof that Daniel Isaacs was talking about that something works IRL, you have to formulate the product in such a way that means the peptides get to where they need to get to, so that they can do what they need to do. And that’s not always straightforward, as Frauke Neuser, senior director of scientific communications at P&G, which owns Olay, explains. “The original pentapeptide doesn’t penetrate skin very well because it is attracted to water, and skin tends to be oily, so to get it to penetrate, a compound that is attracted to oil had to be added.” And that’s another area where Daniel says there’s been a lot of innovation since the early days. “Another of the advances that we’ve seen is cool penetration and bioavailability technology that ensures that the peptides can carry out their role.” But once the scientists have sorted the technical side of things, as a consumer, they’re a bit of a dream ingredient. “They’re well tolerated,” says Daniel. “They don’t tend to disagree with other ingredients or skin types, so they’re easy to add into your routine and pretty much anyone can benefit from a peptide. If we’re talking about signalling peptides, we know that cellular communication starts to decrease from around your 30s and peptides can counter that, so as you get older, your skin can continue to behave the way that younger skin does naturally.” And, when it comes to the future, well, for peptides, it looks pretty good. “The big advantage peptides have over vitamin C or retinoids is that there are thousands of possibilities, both in terms of the amino acids that can be combined to make a single peptide, but also in the way you can combine them and have them work together synergistically. Meaning two together has an effect that’s better than you might expect – and better than both individually,” says Frauke. Mike Bell agrees that “there’s loads of opportunity” when it comes to peptides. “With peptides, we’re trying to mimic the natural processes that happen in the body and the skin. And, as we know that different types of peptides play a number of roles in skin, it could be that, in the future, we see peptides that can help with a range of skin conditions, including rosacea, pigmentation, sensitivity and much more.” And the good news is that, from an environmental point of view, things are only going to get better. “Peptide manufacturing is becoming more sustainable and avoiding the use of harmful solvents,” says Prudvi Kaka. “Peptide computing is also progressing with custom-sequencing of amino acids, which makes the process of synthesising new peptides easier and faster.” And that’s the exciting thing about peptides. It feels that while there are some – hey Matrixyl family, looking at you – that we know and understand well, there are huge areas of opportunity for innovation and development. And in the world of skincare, to find a group of ingredients that are both proven, and have genuinely exciting potential that we have yet to uncover, is a rare and wonderful thing.
A Brief History Of Acids In SkincareIf you’re a woman of a certain age, then your introduction to acids in skincare was probably that infamous episode of Sex And The City when Samantha Jones tries a “freshening chemical peel” and ends up with a raw, red face that genuinely frightens children and causes Carrie to compare the results to “beef carpaccio”. The episode originally aired in 2002 and really reflected the fact that, back then, most people who encountered acids from a skincare perspective did so in clinics or doctor’s offices. And, by acids, in this feature, we’re really talking predominantly about AHAs — although BHA- and PHA-based products do get a brief look-in too. “At first, acids were definitely not a retail ingredient,” says dermatologist Dr Dennis Gross, who launched his skincare line at almost exactly the same time that Samantha was showcasing the results of her peel. “They were used by derms and, occasionally, plastic surgeons, as in-office procedures. We used TCA (trichloroacetic acid) and phenol (carbolic acid), but they were very harsh and quite radical in terms of downtime (ie You looked bright red and had to hide yourself away for days if not weeks). There were also the risks of scarring and, while the results were good, they were not something I thought was great.” That said, while most consumers would only ever encounter acids in a professional setting, since the 1970s, there was one cult product that, in certain circles, had become legendary and could well lay claim to being the first ever acid skincare product for home use. That product was Biologique Recherche’s P50. P50 was created by French biologist, Yvan Allouche, for his wife, Josette. The original formulation used phenol and was intended to gently exfoliate the skin. Dr Philippe Allouche, Yvan and Josette’s son, who is one of the co-owners of the brand, told Refinery 29 that his parents began sharing the product with their friends in France and abroad, before launching it to the press in the late 1970s. While the original is still available in some parts of the world, it’s now known as P50 1970, and you won’t find it in the EU or Canada where phenol is not allowed to be used in cosmetic formulations. Instead, you will find four other versions, including P50, the most powerful and the closest to the 1970 version but without the phenol; P50W, for sensitive skins; P50V for older skins and P50 PIGM 400 for pigmented skins. All of them contain lactic acid, malic acid, citric acid, salicylic acid and gluconolactone: a combination of AHA, BHA and PHA exfoliants. Part of the mystique of the legend of P50 was that you couldn’t just pick it up off the shelf, you had to see a professional — a facialist or aesthetician — and buy it from them. (You can now buy it online but it’s not as easy as click and go, you have to sign up and take a skin analysis, etc). So, while there’s no doubt that P50 was the brand that first put acids in the hands of consumers for home use, it doesn’t really count as the first commercially available acid skincare.That honour goes to Avon who, in 1992, became the first beauty company to bring alpha hydroxy acid technology to the mass market, with the launch of the ANEW skincare line and the Perfecting Complex for Face, which contained glycolic acid. “Having uncovered the benefits of AHAs, we immediately partnered with the scientists who discovered them to bring them to the masses with our award-winning brand: ANEW”, says Anthony Gonzalez, current head of skincare R&D at Avon. “This was a pivotal moment in skincare history”. ANEW remains Avon’s biggest skincare brand and, when it comes to glycolic, they’re still innovating. They claim their new Revival Serum Lipstick is an industry-first, combining colour payoff with efficacious skincare ingredients, including AHAs, to help treat not just the symptom but the cause of dry lips.Other big brands followed Avon’s lead and, by the mid 1990s, AHA-based products from Estée Lauder, Prescriptives, Elizabeth Arden, Decléor, Murad and many more were popping up in our bathrooms. But, for Dr Dennis Gross, the issue was that these were all one-step treatments that echoed the approach that was still being taken with peels in doctors’ offices. “I set out to create an AHA peel with no downtime. For me the ‘Aha!’ moment [he doesn’t say ‘pun intended’ but I totally think it was] was when I realised that you have to neutralise the acids to stop them working, and that second step is the key to making it effective, but gentle”. He started out by working with a blend of acids that he used in a professional treatment before thinking about formulating it for home use. “I had a client take home two canisters of pads. There was acid in one and neutraliser in the other, and they were designed to be used two minutes apart. The first step exfoliates, removing the top layer of dead skin and bringing the younger epidermal cells to the surface, but that’s the least of it. Like all tissues in the body, those fresher, younger cells are more avid to take up nutrients, so that’s when the second step does more than just neutralise the acid. It also includes anti-ageing ingredients, antioxidants, vitamins, soothing ingredients”. And so the two-step peel pads were born. They’ve recruited an army of followers, including Naomi Campbell and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley — and apparently a pack now sells somewhere in the world once every three seconds.While pads continue to be a staple in many skincare routines, a smart bit of marketing saw acids in skincare reborn as the modern form of toners. The original toners of the cleanse, tone, moisturise routine have become somewhat anachronistic, as dermatologist Dr Zoe Draelos explained in a piece for Dermatology Times. “Toners were originally developed to remove soap scum from the face when lye-based soaps, combined with hard water, left a sticky residue post-cleansing. The alcohol-based toner removed the soap scum, eliminating irritation and contributing to cleanser mildness”. These days, as our cleansers are decidedly more sophisticated than lye-based soaps, they’re not necessary, but that stage in the routine is the perfect place to slip in an acid. Add to that the fact that, over the last ten years, dermatologists have increasingly warned against the use of physical exfoliants — anyone remember that apricot scrub that genuinely scoured the skin? — and encouraged the use of chemical exfoliants, aka acids, that do a similar job, just in a more uniform and gentle way. It’s easy to see how acid toners became “a thing”. One of the brands at the vanguard was Pixi Beauty, whose Glow Tonic sold out in 2012 after Caroline Hirons raved about it on her blog. Other brands have since developed their own, with Medik8, Ren and The Ordinary among many brands giving you the option to swipe a glycolic-soaked cotton pad across your skin post-cleanse. So what’s the future for acids in skincare? Perhaps understandably given that the concept is his baby, Dr Gross feels that consumers haven’t yet got the message that two steps are better than one and that more education is needed here. But, more broadly, he is also wary of the trend for plastering percentages on labels, which seems to result in a race for brands to outdo each other with ever higher percentages of acids. “It’s gamesmanship — fundamentally there are laws that govern what concentrations are included in over-the-counter products,” he says. “And, when it comes to acids, more isn’t necessarily better. More can cause damage”.He also points out that without knowing the details of a formulation or its mechanism of action, the numbers are meaningless. “You might claim a very high concentration of acid on your label, but the formulation might mean that that’s not the effective concentration”.However, he also believes that consumers are: “smarter than ever, they’re doing their research, looking to learn, and not being spoon-fed commercialism and marketing jargon”. And, as he puts it, “truth prevails, honesty prevails and results prevail” — which is why there will probably always be room in your regime for a well-formulated, effective acid product.