Spa Technology: Following the Blueprint

Is DNA-informed testing forging the future of skin care?

Photo Researchers, Inc.

We’ve all heard the expression that someone has “good genes.” Maybe they can eat anything they want without gaining weight. Or perhaps they can sustain a fall without breaking a bone. When a little girl has her dad’s perfect nose or her mom’s shiny hair, we note these factors as genetic; i.e., examples of someone’s DNA in evidence.

Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, is material that determines the distinguishing characteristics found in living organisms. Strands of DNA contain the chromosomes on which thousands of genes are contained. The genes are actually codes that determine everything from our height to our probability of developing certain diseases to how we respond to environmental triggers. DNA information can rule out a genetic health condition or pinpoint our likelihood of developing it. There are more than 1,000 genetic tests currently in use, with more being developed every day.

Experts say that, in the not-too-distant future, genetic testing may be routinely called upon to inform us about a client’s skin. It may come in the form of geneticists partnering with skincare professionals or industry leaders, or through the creation of its own industry. Regardless, it will enable us to learn which conditions an individual is predisposed to develop, to which therapies her skin will best respond, and which modes of prevention will prove most effective. DNA-informed programs may become the gold standard in customized skin care.

The Genetic Factor

Let’s begin by looking at genomes, the complete set of DNA. All of the genes located on chromosomes make up a human genome. The 13-year Human Genome Project began in 1990, as an international research collaboration led by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health. The project’s goals were to:

  • Identify all of the 20,000 to 25,000 genes in human DNA
  • Determine the sequences of the three billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA
  • Store this information in databases
  • Improve tools for data analysis
  • Transfer related technologies to the private sector
  • Address the ethical, legal and social issues that may arise from the project

From predisposition to skin cancer to extreme sun sensitivity to age-related decreases in DNA repair capability, the practice of genetic skincare may help clients in ways never before thought possible

Quite an undertaking, yes? And not only does DNA research help us to address health and human conditions, but understanding an organism’s capabilities may also lead to advances in agriculture, energy production, forensics and environmental stewardship. The project spawned a worldwide expansion of the medical field known as genomic medicine, as genetics now factor into the diagnosis, prediction, intervention and treatment of hundreds of diseases. And from predisposition to skin cancer to extreme sun sensitivity to age-related decreases in DNA repair capability, the practice of genetic skincare may help clients in ways never before thought possible.

Not Just Skin Deep

Heredity does, in fact, determine a lot about skin. The inherited trait of thick, olive skin will spend its life behaving and reacting completely differently from skin that is pale and translucent. Aside from what’s visible on the outside, DNA mapping can dictate a lifetime of skin care.

“DNA information can reveal genetic tendencies or variations, known as single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, which are relative to firmness and elasticity, wrinkling, sun damage and free radical damage,” says Judith Steinhouser, Ph.D., clinical director at Dermagenics . “This information can reveal what some of these higher risks may be at a younger age. Knowing what tendencies are present can determine the skincare products, nutrition and supplementation needed to stabilize skin health and prevent issues such as hypersensitivity reactions, premature aging and the risk of developing skin cancer, to name a few factors.”

In addition to genetics controlling the function of all cells, DNA information also directs cell division. For instance, individual cells separate into two sets in a process called mitosis, and the resulting “daughter” cells contain the same number and type of chromosomes as do their parent cells. The health of those cells can be protected as well.

Additionally, like plastic tips on shoelaces, there are regions of repetitive DNA at the end of each chromosome called telomeres. The telomere protects the chromosome and helps determine how many times a cell will divide. So the telomere itself needs protection. “If DNA blueprinting is in-depth, it will be able to access the state of the telomeres, which are what project the longevity of the cells,” says Kris Campbell, CEO of skincare manufacturer Tecniche. “This, in turn, can indicate the grade of therapeutic skincare products required to offer cells maximum protection.”

Imagine being able to observe, and then re-observe, skin health at the DNA level! “It would be helpful to have a baseline,” notes Steinhouser, “to be able to follow and use products that prevent skin health issues from becoming problematic.”

Predicting Skin Response

What is more important to DNA skincare research than what someone’s genetic make-up reveals, is how those genes behave. “DNA blueprinting may tell us how a person’s skin responds. For instance, a person with a particular type of melanin gene may be more susceptible to getting sunburned,” says Jay Tiesman, Ph.D., principal scientist at Proctor & Gamble. “However, just like a blueprint doesn’t tell you how well a house is built, the DNA blueprint can only tell what genes you have, not how they work. This is why we study gene expression, which tells us how your DNA responds when your skin is exposed to the environment. This gives us much more power than simply looking at the DNA blueprint alone.”

Additional methods of studying gene performance are leading to a better understanding of skin needs. “One of the most important technologies in the genomics toolbox is the gene chip,” says Karen Asquith, director of education at G.M. Collin Skincare. A gene chip is a postage-stamp-sized, glass device that scientists use in genetic testing. “This allows us to determine which genes are turned on and up—or turned off and down—in response to different biological conditions,” Asquith continues. “Epigenetics is the study of how the epigenome, a set of chemical compounds that sits on top of the genome, turns the gene on or off with the influence of our lifestyle, diet and environment.”

Knowing one’s specific genetic tendencies can determine the skincare products, nutrition and supplementation needed to stabilize skin health and prevent issues.

Skin cells sustain the most free radical damage of any cell in the body, explains Charlene DeHaven, M.D., clinical director of Innovative Skincare. “This damage results from intrinsic cellular metabolism as found in all cells.”
But with skin, additional and consistent free radical damage occurs from sun exposure. “Free radicals strike DNA within cells, causing progressive damage,” continues DeHaven. “Over time, DNA gives incorrect signals to direct skin-cell functioning and also gives instructions to reproduce disordered cell lines. Cancer is the eventual result.”

Keep in mind, DNA tests can only reveal the potential for skin conditions, not the certainty of their development. But, armed with that information, consumers can try to stack the odds in their favor via protective steps. “A good example is the MC1R gene,” says P & G’s Tiesman. “MC1R makes a type of melanin in your skin, and if you have a certain type of this gene, you are more susceptible to sun-induced melanoma. This danger can be significantly reduced through the use of topical sun protection products.” (For more on the latest in SPF science and cutting-edge products, read our web exclusive, “Sun Screening”.)

The Product Connection

Countless new DNA-based products are on the shelves and in development. Clock genes, explains G.M. Collin’s Asquith, regulate epigenetic expression of more than 20% of the genes locked within a cell’s DNA. They regulate the on/off repair functions. And with age and repeated exposure to UV, they become de-synchronized. But newly developed ingredients in topical products can boost the clock-gene expression and cellular rhythm to protect and preserve the cells. With epigenetic research, Asquith says, “we are no longer condemned by our genetic fate; we can literally turn on our good genes while silencing our bad ones.”

Another area in which the genetics of all organisms give us clues to inform skin care is botanicals. According to DeHaven, some of today’s botanical products actually “borrow” from the genetic diversity of plants that have learned to adapt and thrive in extreme environments.

Determining the authenticity of products based on DNA science can be tricky, as “DNA” is an overused marketing term. “DNA research is only the first step,” says Proctor & Gamble’s Tiesman. “The most important thing a consumer should know about a skincare product is not whether DNA research has gone into it—but whether that product actually works for him or her.”