I was asked by the Guardian to write an online story about the new ‘youth cream’ from L’Oreal. I think they were anticipating a debunking job, but I guess I learnt here the difference between skepticism and cynicism. I’m not really interested in whether these things work or not (whatever ‘work’ can mean in this instance), but I had to admit that there was some kind of science behind this stuff, even if I see no proof yet that it has any lasting effect on wrinkles. So I was overcome by an attack of fairness (who said "gullibility"?). This is what resulted.
I don’t suppose I’m in the target group for Yves Saint Laurent’s new skin cream Forever Youth Liberator - but what if I did want to know it’s worth shelling out sixty quid for a 50 ml tub? I could be wowed by the (strangely similar) media reports. “It is likely to be one of the most sought after face creams ever”, says the Telegraph, “5,000 women have already pre-ordered a face cream using ingredients which scientists claimed would change the world.” Or as the Daily Mail puts it, the cream is “hailed as the ‘holy grail’ of anti-ageing.” (You have to read on to discover that it’s Amandine Ohayon, general manager of Yves Saint Laurent, who is doing the hailing here.)
But I’m hard to please. I want to know about the science supporting these claims. After all, cosmetics companies have been trying to blind us with science for years – perhaps ever since the white coats began to appear in the DuPont chemical company’s ads (“Better living through chemistry”) in the 1930s. Recently we’ve had skin creams loaded with nano-capsules, vitamins A, C and E, antioxidants and things with even longer names.
“The science behind the brand lies in the groundbreaking technology of Glycobiology”, one puff tells us. “It’s been noted as the future in the medical field, the fruit of more than 100 years of research and recognized by seven Nobel Prizes.” The Telegraph, meanwhile, parrots the PR that, “the cream has been 20 years in development, and has the backing of the Max Planck Institute in Germany.”
I rather wish that, as a chemist, I could say this is all tripe. But it’s not as simple as, say, claims by bottled-water companies to have a secret process that alters the molecular structure of water to assist hydration. For example, it’s true that glycobiology is a big deal. This field studies an undervalued and once unfashionable ingredient of living cells: sugars. Glycans are complicated sugar molecules that play many important biological roles. Attached to proteins at the surfaces of our cells, such sugars act as labels that distinguish different cell types – for example, they determine your blood group. Glycans and related biochemicals are an essential component of the way our cells recognise and communicate with one another.
Skin cells – essentially, tissue-generating cells called fibroblasts – produce glycans and other substances that form a surrounding extracellular matrix, Some of these glycans attract water and keep the skin plump and soft. But their production declines as fibroblasts age, and so the skin becomes dry and wrinkled. Skin creams routinely contain glycoproteins and glycans to redress this deficit.
Fine – but what’s so different about the new cream? It’s based on a combination of artificial glycans trademarked Glycanactif. Selfridges tells us that they “unlock the cells to reactivate their vital functions and liberate the youth potential at all levels of the skin”. Well, it would be nice if cells really were little boxes brimming with ‘youth potential’, just waiting to be ‘unlocked’, but this statement is basically voodoo.
So I contact YSL. And – what do you know? – they sent me some useful science. It’s surrounded by gloss and puff (“Youth is a state of mind that cannot live without science” – meaning what, exactly?), and exposed as the source of that garbled soundbite from Selfridges. But it also shows that YSL has enlisted some serious scientists, most notably Peter Seeberger, a specialist in glycan chemistry at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Berlin. And it explains that, instead of just supplying a source of glycans in the extracellular matrix to make up for their reduced production in ageing cells, Glycanactif apparently binds to glycan receptors on the cell surface and stimulates them to start making the molecules (including other glycans and related compounds) needed for healthy skin.
Tough-skinned cynic that I am about the claims of cosmetics manufacturers, I am nonetheless emolliated, if not exactly rejuvenated. True, there’s nothing in the leaflet which proves that FYL does a better job than other skin creams. The science remains very sketchy in places. And (this is true of any claims for cosmetics) we’d reserve judgement until the long-term clinical trials, if it were a drug. But I’m offered a troupe of serious scientists ready to talk about the work. I’m open to persuasion.
Still, it puzzles me. How many of the thousands of advance orders, or no doubt the millions to come, will have been based on examination of the technical data? I know we lack the time, and usually the expertise, for such rigour. So what instead informs our decision to shell out sixty quid on a tiny tub of youthfulness? And if the science was all nonsense, would it make a difference?