Not only are new products coming to the market, but new, more advanced ingredients are being incorporated into the latest launches, which often make almost drug-like claims. This column will discuss key issues surrounding DNA repair and its role in anti-aging benefits. It is important to understand two key words: DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid), because DNA repair-based products are slowly taking roots in skin care. Both are universal components important to all living cells, helping to rejuvenate and improve the skin. Human behavior is guided at every turn by genetic programs. DNA is a complex substance that makes up genes. It contains the genetic information for all organisms. RNA is one of the molecules involved in carrying out a cell’s DNA instructions for reproduction, growth and maturation DNA provides the blue print for any living organism.
DNA Damage and Repair
Although free radical oxygen atoms are by-products of many normal chemical reactions within the body, free radicals are also formed from smoking, pollution, alcohol, stress and other environmental factors. The fibroblasts and their DNA that produce both collagen and elastin are prone to damage from UV radiation. When a cell is no longer desired, the DNA within it will start to clump, the membranes will leak and the cell will shrivel and die, medically known as apoptosis.
Whereas free radicals can affect all body cells and are probably significantly responsible for the aging of the entire body, they have a particularly strong adverse effect on the skin. One of the major causes of free radicals is sun exposure. Whenever a free radical robs an electron from a DNA molecule, the DNA is essentially attacked. On any typical sunny day, such attacks happen thousands of times. This cumulative damage over the years is responsible for aging.
Progressive damage created by free radicals activates messenger chemicals that tell DNA to switch on inflammation. Every time this command is executed, a small residual scar occurs post inflammation. When many such scars coalesce, sagging of the skin occurs in the form of a fine line or a wrinkle. This is why chronic unprotected sun exposure leads to wrinkled and leathery skin. If the DNA is not repaired, it could lead to disease and cancer. Aging is thus a result of free radical damage inside the cells, notably DNA.
With cumulative attack on DNA, every cell would be decimated if it were not for our DNA-repair system—a built-in antioxidant defense composed of antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione peroxidase. These repair enzymes replace damaged bases, splice DNA fragments and break up mismatched connections.
DNA constantly reproduces itself with exact precision under the watchful guidance of these DNA-copying enzymes which provide instant repair if needed. Cells are equipped to repair some of the damage that may have occurred through environmental factors. Although this outstanding DNA repair mechanism is ever-present, DNA deteriorates with aging. As a result, the gene on/off mechanism gets sluggish, resulting in genetic aging. There is probably no single mechanism of aging, in fact there may be more than 100 different theories and no single gene responsible for aging.
“We have entered the era of genetic aging,” observed Daniel Maes, VP-R&D, Estée Lauder.
At the moment, beauty companies are diving into gene-targeting territory with incredible optimism, not to mention speed, and they are beating big pharma to the punch.
“Beauty companies are able to get products on the market early because they are not regulated by the FDA. In a way, they (act as a) vanguard,” said Leonard Guarente Ph.D,an MIT biologist and genetics researcher. “No known substance can cause genes to repair themselves. There are a lot of things going wrong at the same time in cells. You could repair one thing, but something else could be just as bad.”
“A lot of people have the idea that aging is the accumulation of wear and tear on the body, and that is certainly true, but besides accumulated damage, there is also the idea that some genes might actually be controlling the overall lifespan of an organism by coordinating the rate of aging,” said Howard Chang, MD, Ph.D, an associate professor of dermatology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. When he applied a specific chemical to the mice’s skin to block NF-Kappa B, a signal that turns on with age and controls the activity of hundreds of genes, the mice’s skin looked and behaved like that of newborns; it was thicker with more cell division and the same active genes seen in young mice genetically engineered to respond to the topical chemical applied to their skin.
Still, “aging is surprisingly plastic; tissue can revert back to its youthful state,” said Dr. Chang.
A Lot of Skeptics
The FDA does not prevent companies from using the DNA language of genetics, claiming their products could reverse UV damage, promote new skin cells growth, stimulate collagen to sell skin care products because, technically, they are not drugs. But many academic and cosmetic industry researchers remain skeptical that a topical product can repair DNA. They insist that true DNA repair is difficult to achieve with gimmicky delivery systems using typical cosmetic ingredients, whose end benefits remain unproven. The cosmetic industry should focus on DNA protection, a more reasonable, achievable goal.
Nevertheless, more multinational consumer health care companies are becoming DNA obsessed because the field seems to hold much promise. Of course, it would be a huge challenge for companies to change the mindset of consumers, who believe that if the new product works by modifying one’s DNA, it should require a prescription. There are several prestige DNA products on the horizon; their review will be the subject of a future column.