Beauty

It's all in the genes: How scientists are finding ways to make you look younger

Our genes dictate everything from our eye colour to our sense of humour. But can they also be the key to turning back the clock?

Alex Sarginson/FolioID.com

Julia Roberts recently revealed her secret weapon for being able to stay slim in her 40s after having three kids: “It’s 97 percent genetics and three percent just get your ass moving,” the Eat Pray Love star told Vanity Fair. And she isn’t the only celeb who clearly has good DNA on her side. (We’re talking to you, Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep.) For those of us who haven’t been as genetically blessed, there’s good news: After decades of research, scientists have discovered which genes are responsible for aging. They’re also learning how topical products, like your daily moisturizer and eye cream, might be able to stimulate gene renewal to help you look younger.

If it’s been a while since high-school biology class, here’s a quick refresher: The science we’re talking about is called genomics. Thanks to breakthroughs like the Human Genome Project, which identified more than 20,000 genes in human DNA, it’s one of the fastest-growing areas of research. It also happens to touch many areas of our everyday lives — from solving crimes to developing new drugs and providing early diagnosis for genetic diseases like Parkinson’s.

In the beauty industry, where skincare companies are eternally on the hunt for the elusive fountain of youth, genomics involves studying how our genes react to things like pollution, UV rays, aging and the products we put on our skin. So, which genes are getting all the attention? First, there are the ones responsible for making collagen and elastin, two proteins our body produces that give skin its texture and elasticity, but diminish as we age. And of course no science-fiction novel would be complete without a villain. In this case, it’s the genes that cause blotchiness, age spots and other complexion red flags that give away our age.

“Researchers are using genomics to determine if certain ingredients can influence the genes associated with elastin and collagen production, skin pigmentation, redness or inflammation,” says David Zloty, a Vancouver-based dermatologist and clinical associate professor in the Department of Dermatology and Skin Science at the University of British Columbia.

Other experiments, Zloty explains, involve looking at the negative genes that are activated as we age and developing products to stop them. In other words, not all genes have the best intentions, but scientists are weeding out our friends from our frenemies. And they claim to be finding ways to kick-start the genes that help us turn back the clock and turn off the ones that speed up aging.

Although a handful of luxury beauty brands already incorporate genomic research for a hefty price tag, the newest gene-targeted creams, like L’Oréal Paris Youth Code, over a much more affordable way to test out this technology. Bonus: You can find them on drugstore shelves. “We discovered that, in response to daily aggressions, older skin is slower to activate the ‘recovery genes’ needed for repair,” says Françoise Cabanne, international director of product development for L’Oréal Paris.

Once they figured that out, the next step was to find the ingredients that would help those genes get back on track. In this case, it’s a probiotic (similar to those found in dietary supplements) that tells genes to speed up this recovery process, and a molecule our bodies already make called adenosine, which stimulates collagen.

Repairing our genes is not the only way to tackle aging skin from a genomics perspective. The cult anti-aging cream StriVectin, for example, takes a much broader approach: It aims to target the structure of our DNA, which resembles a ladder featuring chains of nucleic acids that hold our own unique genetic code.

StriVectin’s secret ingredient is niacin (a.k.a. vitamin B3). “Think of niacin as the maintenance man in an apartment complex,” says Kristine Cryer, vice-president of product development for StriVectin. “Once it’s absorbed into skin cells, it activates DNA-repair proteins that move down the DNA strand, looking for mutations and damage. When they see something, they fix it; or, if the damage is beyond repair, they cause cell death so that the bad cells don’t replicate.”

The science sounds impressive, but do these products really hold the key to deleting crow’s feet and frown lines? “Companies are now beginning clinical trials with facial creams,” says Juan Enriquez, one of the world’s leading authorities on genomics and the managing director of Excel Venture Management, a firm that invests in technology to solve health-care problems. “Once we know the outcome of those trials, we’ll have some evidence to help us answer that question.”

Enriquez says that over the next five to 10 years, scientists will have the ability to develop products that really can help regulate gene activity to improve skin health. “But until then, there is very little research to confirm that manipulating these age-sensitive genes actually translates into positive, visible effects on the skin.”

In the meantime, these gene-targeting creams might be able to hide skin sins like spending too much time in the sun. “The people with the most potential to benefit are those with mild to moderate sun damage, which is observable as blotchiness, fine lines and the loss of skin lustre,” says Zloty.

Keep an eye out for the next wave of products, which sound as futuristic as flying cars. In about two decades, Zloty says, we can expect to not only see skincare targeted to specific genetic profiles, but also products that have the ability to insert new genes into our DNA to achieve better skin. “Beauty products have always been based more on marketing than on science,” says Enriquez. “Companies have been promising the fountain of youth for years, but now we’re beginning to find ways of actually delivering.”

Everlasting youth may prove to exist with these new advances in skin regeneration:

Sacred serum: This formula promises to lighten sun spots and protect against cell damage and wrinkles.
Dermaglow Derma DNA Advanced Cellular Repair Cream, 30 ml, $120.

Sun-care essential: This moisturizer contains folic acid and firm skin by improving its tone and texture.
Nivea Visage DNAGE Day Creme, $24.

Morning lift: This rejuvenating eye cream works to reboot our overtired DNA. For a soothing effect, store the product in the fridge.
L’oreal Paris Youth Code Eye Cream, $30.

Mega-moisture: This lotion is the ultimate combatant for a dull complexion.
Lancome Genifique Nutrics Nourishing Youth Activating Cream, 50 ml, $85, lancome.ca

Instant youth: This powerful brightener uses caffeine to calm puffiness and reduce the look of dark circles.
StriVectin-SD eye concentrate for wrinkles, $71.