Article by: Perry Romanowski

I was listening to one of my favorite skeptical podcasts, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, and they were talking about Deer Antler Spray.  Apparently, a player in the Super Bowl was rumored to have used the stuff to increase the speed at which he would heal from an injury.  The ingredient was applied topically and somehow was supposed to help him heal faster.  There is enough belief in it that the NFL has banned the substance.  But in true Skeptics Guide fashion, one of the hosts looked into the research and discovered that there really is no proven benefit to the use of deer antler spray.  The studies of the active ingredient showed some effect in lab tests but not in human trials.

This reminded me of most new anti-aging ingredients used in cosmetics.

Anti-aging cosmetic technology development

First, a scientist makes a discovery about how an ingredient affects the growth of skin cells in a lab.  It may speed growth, increase collagen production, increase elastin production, or have some other presumably positive effect.  This could be an accidental discovery (usually) or done on purpose.

Next, the scientist makes a presentation to the marketing group and spins an anti-aging story.  Marketing groups are constantly on the look-out for new anti-aging ingredients and R&D departments are keen to deliver something.

After that, the marketing group runs with the technology spinning stories about the new product, and putting them in product briefs that get read to consumers in focus groups.  In the meantime, the scientists try to incorporate the technology into a cream or lotion or whatever other product the marketing group wants to launch.  They also continue the process of claims testing.

When the market research and marketing group strike on a product story that resonates with consumers, they move ahead.  They hope that the scientists can demonstrate the effectiveness of the ingredient in a cream but it’s not really required.  The proof of effectiveness from the lab testing is enough to support most cosmetic claims.

What it means

So, what does this mean?

While there are some completely unsupported anti-aging ingredients, most of the technology in anti-aging cosmetics actually have some basis for functionality.  In theory, they can work…at least in the lab.

The reality is that most any cosmetic active ingredient that will affect skin cells is not likely to work.  There is a big difference between affecting skin cells in a lab than skin cells located in the body below the epidermis.  Most any active ingredient is too big to penetrate the epidermis.  And if an ingredient cannot penetrate, it cannot work.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that most anti-aging ingredients do not work.  They suffer from the same problem as topically applied Deer Antler spray.  No penetration…no effect.

On the plus side, there is benefit to moisturizing skin and this is what nearly all anti-aging cosmetics do.  Also, if a cosmetic was actually able to cause collagen production to increase or interfere with the skin cell metabolism that would make it a drug and would be illegal to sell as a cosmetic in the US.

12 comments

  1. Liliana Todorinova

    I found this article interesting for it helps understand what happens when the cosmetic is applied on the skin and why sometimes there is an effect and sometimes not:
    How the ‘Stuff’ in Formulations Impacts the Delivery of Actives
    By: Steven Abbott, PhD, Steven Abbott TCNF Ltd. and the University of Leeds
    http://www.cosmeticsandtoiletries.com/formulating/ingredient/delivery/A-Dermatological-ViewmdashInterpreting-Placebo-Response-in-Clinical-Trials-for-Psoriasis-189421241.html

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Interesting. Thanks for the link.

  2. Rob

    There was an issue over here with deer velvet spray. It is rich in IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor 1) although in this case, “Rich” meant ppm.

    The main issue is that IGF-1 is a banned substance in sports, irrespective of whether the ppm in a 500mg dose is likely or not to have a physiological effect on the body. This also means that Bovine Colostrum is banned in sports.

    Chinese used to love deer velvet and colostrum in Children’s supplements to try and make them grow taller, healther, more muscular etc. This has now come under CIQ control and these supplements are now banned in the under 3 year olds.

    I doubt whether IGF-1 would pass through the stomach un-digested anyway, but whether it does or doesn’t, it is still banned as a sports supplement.

    1. Perry

      I find it interesting that they ban an ingredient from sports even though there is no evidence that it works at all.

  3. Vitaly

    I guess, that the main target is to make the skin to penetrate the actives – it is possible only by more or less, but invasive procedures, which help to thin the epidermis. At the same time, many people rarely think why the actives have been put in cosmetics. For example vitamins – obviously they are not able to work as they supposed to work when they don’t even go thru the liver…. In this way we often use another properties of vitamins during skin penetration ( Vit C has nice whitening properties, for instance)… Or, people rarely think why they need to have some oils as deep as it possible- it is obvious that dermis doesn’t even has the structures where the oils would work. But, the cosmetic world has a magician, the Marketing, which solve any problems with actives – it gives a great believe to the most consumers that actives can work. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    1. Perry

      Skin penetration is a key driver in formula development. Although you still run into the problem that if the product worked, it would no longer be a cosmetic.

    2. Dragon

      Vitaly,
      You break my heart. lol
      You must know about the Youth Molecule â„¢ 😉

  4. Dragon

    “No penetration…no effect.”
    And several mechanisms that allow one to get around that problem to some degree as well as based on your second point.

    “You can’t make molecules smaller. ”
    Some are small enough and quite useful. And you are correct. Might want to inform some dead wrong ingredients vendors that liposomes of said molecules doesn’t shrink them either, they are using that as part of sales promo for their home brews. Rather hilarious and claiming to be cosmetic chemists at the same time.

    And a third point:
    “Also, if a cosmetic was actually able to cause collagen production to increase or interfere with the skin cell metabolism that would make it a drug and would be illegal to sell as a cosmetic in the US.”

    *oops*…but, you can get around that one as well. But you cannot legally sell it. DIY? for 1 doesn’t suffer this problem.

    1. Vitaly

      I would confirm any word I have read in your message.

    2. Perry

      Yes, there are not exactly strict rules for DIY products.

  5. Sara Hoag

    What do you we need to make the molecules more smaller? so can go inside the skin.

    1. Perry

      You can’t make molecules smaller. They are the size that they are. The best you can do is to find smaller molecules that have an effect.

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