Spa Products: A Tale of Telomeres

The science community’s heightened focus on telomeres may lead to new discoveries in antiaging, general wellness and increased life span. Here’s what you should know.

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At first glance, the subject of telomeres appears to belong in the realm of research scientists and medical professionals. However, the increasing buzz about the potential power of these microscopic structures has brought the topic front and center in antiaging and wellness circles around the country. Just ask the growing number of skincare companies that, convinced by several years’ worth of scientific studies, have jumped on the telomeres bandwagon and launched products designed to maximize their suspected ability to ward off age.

DAYSPA’s editors have had our eye on the telomere trend, and how it may impact the future of your antiaging and wellness efforts. Here’s what we’ve learned from experts in the field about telomeres’ implications in the spa world.

What Are Telomeres?

Richard Cawthon, M.D., Ph.D., a research associate professor in The Department of Human Genetics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, describes telomeres as “specialized protein DNA complexes at the ends of chromosomes.” These structures have a protective function—much like aglets, the plastic ends of shoelaces. But telomeres shorten as people age, and this process “contributes to some age-related chronic diseases and death; we know that people who have longer telomeres live longer,” adds Cawthon. For example, he cites, in one study with 143 subjects, researchers found that people 60 years or older who had telomere length in the top half lived five years longer than those who had telomere length in the bottom half.

Telomeres shorten each time a cell replicates, and when a cell can’t replicate, it dies, explains Mark Anderson, M.D., managing partner at Executive Medicine of Texas in South Lake, Texas. “The aging process at the cellular level dictates how old a person is physiologically versus chronologically,” he explains. “It affects skin and affects all cells.”

Everyone has telomeres, but not everyone’s telomere lengths are the same, or shorten at the same pace. “Telomeres are at the end of all chromosomes in healthy cells, and they function in two fairly different ways,” explains David Woynarowski, M.D., Philadelphia-based author of The Immortality Edge: Realize the Secrets of Your Telomeres for a Longer, Healthier Life. “Structurally, they keep chromosomes intact and prevent them from unraveling; biochemically, they work in cell cycle regulation—how many times the cell can reproduce.” If the telomere is short, the cell goes into “park,” a process known as senescence, and eventually apoptosis, which Woynarowski refers to as “cellular suicide.” This ultimately contributes to the aging process.

“Removing sick, dead or dying cells from the pool causes a loss of cell mass and organ function, which creates a domino effect leading to inflammation; the aging process is inflammatory,” says Woynarowski. “Telomeres serve as a biological time clock, dictating how many times cells can divide and what happens when they’re no longer healthy.”

“Removing sick, dead or dying cells from the pool causes a loss of cell mass and organ function, which creates a domino effect leading to inflammation; the aging process is inflammatory.”

Practical Applications

Telomeres are implicated in the aging process by both the percentage of short telomeres in the body and the rate at which short telomeres increase; a rapid increase in shortened telomeres can lead to accelerated aging. The good news is, it’s possible to impede this sequence of events.

“There are a few things your clients can do to slow down the telomere shortening process: Get the proper amount of sleep, eat a well-balanced diet, meditate, and consume omega-3 fatty acid and antioxidants—since telomeres are very sensitive to oxidation,” relates Woynarowski. “Second, it’s possible to improve telomeres’ length by activating the enzyme that exists in all cells but gets turned off: telomerase.” Telomerase lengthens telomeres and slows breakdown, and blocks the gene codes for aging.

Woynarowski cites the supplement product TA-65, owned by T.A. Sciences, which purchased the rights to telomerase activator technology from biotech company Geron in 2002, as a breakthrough in this arena. TA-65 is currently the only telomerase activator that has supporting lab data on human subjects, and 8 to 10 years of data accumulated on humans, mice and cells. “TA-65 improves several biomarkers: insulin/glucose levels, oxidation levels and skin/bone/immune system health,” Woynarowski says.

But supplements aren’t the only vehicle being explored. Anderson predicts that telomere-targeted strategies to slow the aging process will develop into pharmaceutical agents. In one study using mice, he notes, the botanical substance resveratrol, derived from the skins of grapes, appeared to increase telomerase and add the human equivalent of 10 to 15 years of life. Astragalus root is another ingredient being tested to increase telomerase.

Meanwhile, topical products that target telomeres have started to roll out. However, as Anderson points out, cosmetics products are approved by the FDA only for safety—not for efficacy, as a pharmaceutical product would be tested. “Manufacturers are now looking at using these products for wound healing, but it’s simply easier to get something to market as a cosmetic,” he says.

Certainly there is a great incentive to bring effective, topical telomerase-activating products to a beauty-seeking public. In addition to shortening life span, deficient telomere lengths cause premature baldness and gray hair, and lead to poor skin healing. “Boosting telomeres even in those with normal lengths might postpone baldness or grayness, or keep skin younger or healthier,” speculates Cawthon, “but no public studies have tested those with normal telomeres.” He recommends treading cautiously with all topical products that make claims pertaining to telomeres.

“I haven’t yet seen any studies for applying products to the skin or scalp,” he says. “It’s a rational thing to try, but I’d wait for trials and results to be published first.”

Woynarowski agrees, and notes that although such products are safe and well-tolerated they’re also pricey. “Telomeres are getting so popular that companies are using them to push their own agendas, so be careful about what you believe,” he says.

Client Solutions

How should you tell your clients about telomeres—and the products that claim to help lengthen them? First, says Woynarowski, know whether any human studies have been done with the product in question. Second, become familiar with supplements and their effects. TA-65 is an expensive supplement that has been studied on humans, but he also recommends N-acetyl cysteine, a derivative of the amino acid L-cysteine, more commonly used to address lung and bronchial-related conditions, and high levels (six grams or more) of omega-3 fatty acids, as found in fish oils.

“The main thing spa owners should know is that the percentage of short telomeres a person has is key to driving aging,” Woynarowski concludes. “Research is upcoming as far as whether telomerase extends life span (it has been shown to slow and reverse aging and increase life span in mice), but studies say that stress reduction, exercise and diet can also help.”

Cawthon also warns that telomeres are not the be-all and end-all in the fight against aging. “They’re not the only cause of aging; other biochemical pathways are crucial,” he notes. “Damage accumulates in
mitochondrial DNA with aging, and a lot of cells (such as nerve and cardiac muscle cells) don’t divide, so their telomeres aren’t getting shorter. With cells that divide, cell damage in mitochondrial DNA leads to loss of function in nondividing cells, so other processes need to be targeted.”

“Telomeres are getting so popular that companies are using them to push their own agendas, so be careful about what you believe.”

Ultimately, arming yourself with information and providing practical tips will go a long way toward helping your clients sort out the science-speak—and help make your business an authority on overall wellness. “Spa professionals should educate themselves and tell clients that cells can’t do what they need to do if they’re unhealthy,” says Anderson. “That’s why we hydrate skin, keep healthy with proper nutrition and incorporate exercise.”

With telomere-focused products, as with all cosmeceuticals, look for those that have scientific research behind them, “which will distinguish you from your peers and put you at the forefront of spas,” assures Anderson. The good news is that with people living longer and wanting to stave off the aging process well into their later decades of life, spas’ services will continue to be in high demand. “The facial and spa business is going to be strong for the next 40 to 50 years,” he predicts, “because there are going to be healthy 70-, 80- and 90-year-olds running around who still want these services!”

Tracy Morin is a freelance writer based in Oxford, Mississippi.