Serious Face-Saving

The prospect of living for a good long time loses its lustre for a lot of us when we consider the toll all those years can take on face. Luckily, in a kind of modern-day alchemy, researchers are blending romance with science to create products that prolong the look of youth. Part cosmetic, part pharmaceutical, “cosmeceuticals” promise, for example, to slow the accumulation of wrinkles on a woman’s face or to cement the bond between a man and his hair.

Strictly speaking, a cosmetic is a product that cleanses or beautifies the skin, hair and nails. Its action is barely skin-deep, according to the technical definition in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. A pharmaceutical is a drug, either prescription or over-the-counter, with the proven ability to treat or prevent disease or to affect some bodily structure or function. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calls products that combine the two definitions “drug and cosmetics,” and insists that they meet the legal requirements for both categories. The word cosmeceutical is a mixture of things both old and new, full of possibility.

MEDICINE FROM THE MAKEUP COUNTER

Credit for making up the word generally goes to Dr Albert Montgomery Kligman, the University of Pennsylvania dermatologist famous for discovering that retinoic acid (Retina-A) helps both acne and wrinkles. He defines it as “an agent that has both cosmetic and drug effects, or a topical preparation that is neither pure drug nor pure cosmetic.” Other researchers use the term for everything from dandruff shampoos to souped-up skin creams and a host of items.

Cosmeceuticals are the products that will provide immediate positive benefits, and their effects will build up over time. In other words, they won’t altogether wash away with makeup remover but will have a cumulative effect, as do certain pharmaceuticals. The more you use them, the better your skin will look. But… isn’t that what cosmetics companies always claimed?

Yes, and yet there is some substance behind the style. “Traditional cosmetics couldn’t do more than try to keep moisture in the stratum corneum [the outermost layer of the skin, consisting of dead cells],” says Dr Peter Elias, a dermatologist in San Francisco. But in the past few years, a new generation of over-the-counter products has actually begun influencing how skin functions. New treatments can change not only the physical properties of the stratum corneum, but the metabolism and function of the living layers of the epidermis as well, enhancing the skin’s ability to retain water and protecting cell membranes from damage, for example.

Although you’re likely to hear the term cosmeceuticals more and more – and hear its meaning debated – when it comes down to it, who cares what they’re called? Makeup or medicine or both, the point is what they can do for you: change appearance in ways that earlier potions and creams could only dream of.