The Thinking Woman's Guide To Skin Care
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Beauty and Brains
By Melisse Gelula
March / April 2006
The fountain of youth at $1,000 a pop. Worth it?
It's the first dermatologist-brand anti-aging product to break four figures. It costs more than a shot of Botox and Restylane combined, and as with those injectibles, its effects are temporary. It launched at Sephora and Nordstrom in September, unheralded by a splashy ad campaign, and by November it was already on back order, with a wait list of 30 days. And all signs are that it will get the same reception in select spas, such as Agua at the Delano in Miami Beach, where it debuted in January.
It is RMX Maximum, a biochem product that claims to rejuvenate skin by rousing and revving fibroblasts, connective-tissue cells in the mesoderm layer (midlevel) that have but one task--to produce smooth, firm skin--but which slow down with age. (RMX stands for upRegulating Metabolic compleX.) What's more interesting than the price tag is that the manufacturer, Doctor's Dermatologic Formula (DDF), has acted more like a pharmaceutical company than a cosmetic one in developing it. DDF ran its own eight-week double-blind clinical trial even though it didn't have to--RMX Maximum, like all cosmetics, is not subject to FDA approval--and had the results interpreted by an outside lab, Essex Testing Clinic, Inc. It reported that RMX Maximum produced a 34 percent improvement in skin moisture content and a 39 percent improvement in elasticity. Improvement in skin tone was 23 percent (which is modest), and for pore size it was 59 percent. Some test subjects saw benefits in the 90th percentile. For $1,000 a pop, you may be getting the luxury of hard science.
You don't actually walk out of Sephora or a spa with RMX Maximum--just the opening act, a seven-day beta-hydroxy-acid skin-prep kit. You place an order and it arrives on your doorstep within a week via FedEx, packed in dry ice, because the key ingredient is bovine colostrum, the first 72 hours' milk of nursing cows. (It can also be ordered at www.ddf.com.) Like all milk, it spoils unless it's kept cold. The product is packed in 28 lab vials that resemble those you see on CSI. You bring the substance to life by thawing a vial in your palm, shaking it, and then slathering half the contents on your face. The remainder goes on the next morning--and it's a case of use it or lose it. (DDF recommends two 28-day RMX treatments annually.)
Colostrum has long been thought to have rejuvenating powers because it contains growth-factor proteins, messengers that signal skin cells to produce collagen, elastin, and connective tissue, which we have in abundance when we're young. "The benefits of slathering colostrum on the skin had not been proven, though many skin-care products are based on it, and women starting with Cleopatra have used it," says RMX Maximum's inventor, French-Canadian biochemist Paul Brazeau, Ph.D., whose 35-year career in the field of growth factors and reproductive physiology led DDF to employ him on the project. "Only after years of research and testing did I find a way to get the anti-aging benefits from it."
Exactly how he culled the elixir from the milk is a state secret. "Extraction" is too coarse a description, says Brazeau. "It's a very gentle coaxing process. It's more of a filtration process that respects an optimal combination of growth factors at their optimal concentration."
So here's the biochemistry-for-dummies explanation of how RMX Maximum works: It uses a mild exfoliation with glycolic acid to get the growth-factor complex under the skin, where it orders the fibroblasts to secrete collagen, elastin, and other cellular and connective tissue--in short, to act like the skin of a teenager. "We're just telling nature, 'Why don't you do your job?' " says Brazeau. Or, rather, get back to work.
The colostrum in RMX Maximum is taken from cattle on a farm in Quebec. They're fed an organic diet and "raised in isolation from environmental pollutants," says Carson Gray, DDF vice president of public relations. It's the purity of RMX Maximum that has given it mystique in the eyes of spa directors. "We had been looking for paraben-free products for some time," says Terry Prager, the spa director of Agua, where RMX Maximum is offered in a facial called Beauty on Ice ($200). "But we had not found any until now that really delivered any significant results."
But why does RMX Maximum cost so much? Ingredient scarcity and biochemical sensitivity, says DDF. Growth factors make up a tiny part of the colostrum, which itself is limited in supply. The formulation process is delicate, chemical-free, and susceptible to going awry, meaning that batches have to be discarded. The company may not even make much money on the product. "We're hoping for a halo effect," says Gray, in a bout of candor.
And what convinced DDF that women wouldn't flinch at the price? DDF says the product's scientific-research aura played a role--after DDF cofounder Elaine Linker explained how RMX worked to an audience at a Chicago-area Sephora, the store sold 12 units.
The desire to avoid plastic surgery is an incentive, too. Considering that surgical procedures run $5,000 to $25,000, plus recovery time and discomfort, RMX Maximum may be worth $2,000 in your annual beauty maintenance budget.
Label Literacy: When The Key Ingredient Is Not The Main Ingredient
That's the case with this anti-aging cream by Allergan, the maker of Botox. It's been on back order since it was quietly released to dermatologists in early 2005. This month, a department-store formulation debuts at Elizabeth Arden Red Door spas, among other outlets.
The key ingredient in both the medical-grade and the retail version is an antioxidant called idebenone (ee-de-bi-nohn). But even though it's the star, it doesn't get top billing on the label. That's because FDA rules require that ingredients be listed in order of amount by weight, from greatest to least.
There's actually 50 percent less idebenone in the retail than the dermatologist version (0.5 versus 1 percent). Allergan says that's not important: Just a dab of Prevage will do you. According to a study published in the January 2005 issue of the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, idebenone in a concentration of less than 0.5 percent proved more effective than five other antioxidants, ranging from L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to tocopherol (vitamin E), known for preventing and reducing the appearance of fine lines.
There are about 40 ingredients in Prevage, many of them preservatives and emulsifiers. Here's what some other key ingredients do. The numbers indicate where the ingredient appears on the label.
No. 1, Aqua
That's right, water, but sporting the name required by the FDA-recognized International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary and Handbook. Often the main ingredient in skin-care products.
No. 2, cyclopentasiloxane
A nongreasy silicone that gives the new Prevage its silky, matte texture; needed as idebenone has a tacky consistency.
No. 11, Idebenone
(hydroxydecyl ubiquinone) A bio-engineered version of the body's free-radical fighter COQ10 and a powerful preservative. Was originally used to keep organs from decaying; Prevage brought it into skin care. Think of it as keeping the brown from appearing on a cut-open apple.
No. 15, Propylene glycol
Shuttles other ingredients into the skin.
No. 38, Titanium dioxide
A whitening pigment and mineral sunscreen, although this tiny amount doesn't afford much protection.
Beauty Contest: Two Ways To Win At Exfoliation
face scrubs They're virtually synonymous with exfoliation, the sloughing off of dead cells to cleanse the skin and reveal a new layer. Scrubs prevent clogged pores and improve skin tone, so they're well suited for oily, splotchy, and combination skin. But they're not appropriate for acneic skin or for use during breakouts--the friction can irritate pimples and make them cystic (containing sebum that's trapped under the skin). For the same reason, those with sensitive or rosacea-prone skin should eschew scrubs.
The kibbles and bits in scrubs vary widely. They include crushed apricot pits and walnuts, found largely in drugstore brands; diatomaceous earth, a superfine mineral, used in Astara's Daily Refining Scrub ($30, www.astaraskincare.com); and lab-created microbeads and microspheres, found in Dove Daily Exfoliating Cleanser ($4.69, www.dove.com) and Sisley's Gel Nettoyant Gommant ($75, www.saks.com).
With scrubs, natural is not necessarily better. The advantage of synthetic particles, which are typically made of polyethylene, a plastic derivative, is their perfectly spherical shape. "You don't want to rough up the skin you intended to smooth," says Robert Manzo, the cosmetic-chemist founder of the Skinprint skin-care company. "And unrefined edges from fruit pits and nutshells microabrade the skin." The lesson: The smoother the particle, the smoother the scrubbed skin.
exfoliating masks There are three key players on the chemical-exfoliation team: glycolic acid, the most effective of the alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which come from sugarcane, fruit, or the lab; lactic acid (from milk); and fruit enzymes. Lacking friction, chemical exfoliants are best for acne-prone, dull, uneven, and mature skin. Some of these products, such as Murad Exfoliating Fruit Enzyme Mask ($30, www.murad.com), may also be gentle enough for those with skin sensitivities or broken capillaries.
Unlike scrubs, glycolic acid also reduces the appearance of wrinkles and promotes cellular renewal, two reasons it has hogged the spotlight. But it has also taken heat for causing skin irritation. So natural-skin-care companies tend to favor papain, an enzyme obtained from unripe papaya that works like Pac-Man, gobbling up dead cells on the skin's surface. It's in Ren Skincare's F10 Enzymatic Skin Smoothing Facial Mask ($37, www.barneys.com).
But papain's no saint, either, says Skinprint's Manzo. It's an omnivorous molecule, happy to snack on live cells as well as dead ones. "Facialists are careful about the length of time it's left on the skin," says Manzo, who solved the problem by formulating an "anchored papain," meaning it keeps the molecule from live skin layers. It's in the company's Papain Exfoliator ($22.50, 800-234-1308 ).
Skin Tech: Oxygen Facials - Air Apparent?
Oxygen is the elixir du jour in facials, whether it's delivered through a mask, cream, or spray that blows it directly onto (and supposedly into) the skin. Bliss in New York City claims that the oxygenating mask in its popular Triple Oxygen Facial ($140) helps open pores and that the oxygen spray delivers vitamins into the skin and kills bacteria on it. The Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch Spa in Colorado says its Altitude Facial ($125/$175) boosts cellular metabolism by getting oxygen to skin cells. And Spa Montage in Laguna Beach, California, sells about 100 bottles each month--at $250 per--of
Spa Technologies' new Oxygenating Renewal Complex, which purportedly contains the liquid oxygen used in surgery. According to Spa Technologies, the oxygen promotes circulation and ferries in the vitamin C and marine extract in the solution.
But is it air or hot air? There's real debate about whether oxygen actually does any of these things. There are no studies that prove topical oxygen is beneficial to the skin, although there's plenty of anecdotal evidence about the post-treatment glow it imparts.
Brad Katchen, M.D., the founder of New York's SkinCareLab, doesn't believe that creams or sprays deliver oxygen to the skin--although his spa offers an Oxygen Facial ($125). "Very little can penetrate the skin, even when it's left on overnight," he says, "so oxygen blown over skin isn't going to be absorbed or do much to enhance cellular growth." Israel Dakar, the head of R&D for Sonya Dakar Skin Care, says, "Products can promote the skin's ability to absorb oxygen, but they don't deliver it to the skin." Skin can absorb pure oxygen, but only in high concentrations, as in a hyperbaric chamber. "It's hard to get that much oxygen in a spa," says Leroy Young, M.D., the chair of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery's hot-topics committee, "and because too much is toxic, you wouldn't want to."
The other proven way to get oxygen into the skin is by applying hydrogen peroxide. It's the key ingredient in many oxygenating products and facials, including SkinCareLab's Oxygen Facial, but Dr. Katchen likes it for another reason. "Hydrogen peroxide is an exfoliator, good for use before extractions," he says. But hydrogen peroxide as a source of oxygen in a rejuvenating facial is a contradiction in terms: It actually intensifies signs of aging by causing oxidation, or free-radical damage. "You're not doing anything harmful to the skin with oxygen mists, but you might be with hydrogen peroxide," says Dr. Young. "You're essentially rusting yourself."
There is one surefire way to get the oxygen your skin needs: Take a deep breath.
Five Questions for Yael Alkalay, Founder, Red Flower
1. Red Flower products are always created around a bathing tradition. The first line was inspired by Japanese practices. The latest range (bottom) draws on the Middle Eastern hammam. Why? I'm fascinated by the idea of ritual, recognizing that the most simple things you do every day can be elevated to the realm of pleasure.
2. The new line is pretty involved. Go over a few of the steps in the Red Flower hammam ritual. The first step is a cooling Moroccan Mint Tea Silt Purifier wash, and then you use the scrub. Next you apply the Rose Jasmine Rhassoul Clay Polish over the hair, face, and body. (In a hammam, this is done in the central hot room.) The last layer is Tangerine Fig Body Cream with shea butter. I should clarify, there's nothing this aromatic or rich at the basic hammam.
3. How closely do you mimic the hammam experience? I find black soap to be very drying. And the quality's not there. So we draw on the traditions more than the products, and also on our experiences in Turkey and Morocco--on memorable meals and spice markets.
4. Give me an example of translating a practice into a product. The Lemon Coffee Blossom Olive Stone Scrub uses crushed olive pits and ground coffee to exfoliate without drying the skin. It's based on the traditional scrub with a camel-hair mitt, which is very rough. The hydrating olive butters and oils have benefits I wanted to keep, and the rest is inspired by my grandmother's Turkish coffee, served with lemon, sugar, and a cardamom pod.
5. You're a product anthropologist. What went into the hammam research? Hammam practices are not well documented, so it's very difficult to find the details by reading about them. I've been all over Turkey. There are many active hammams in Istanbul, and one in Bodrum that's a favorite. And Layla Childs, an experienced massage therapist who codeveloped the spa treatments, really knows Morocco and the hammams there. If we hadn't experienced these ourselves, we would have had difficulty scripting the treatment ritual.
13 Prince St., New York City, 212-966-1994, www.redflower.com
My Spa Rolodex: Louise Galvin, International Hair Color Consultant
Galvin has a chair at the high-end Daniel Galvin Salon in London (owned by her father, also a famous colorist) and at Bergdorf Goodman's John Barrett Salon in New York City, plus her own natural hair-care line, Sacred Locks, which is sold around the world. She looks forward to solo spa breaks to regroup. "I'll either put myself out of the way of temptation at a serious medical spa or go for total pampering." Here's a short list of her recent favorites.
Clinica Buchinger, Marbella, Spain, for the strict dietary regime tempered by "indulgent treatments" such as lymph drainage and Thai massage. "I don't feel deprived in spite of the program's rigors. I give up coffee, alcohol, dairy, and wheat. And I always come back with my skin glowing, energy high, and body lighter." 011-34-95-276-4300; www.buchinger.es
Soneva Fushi Resort & Spa, Maldives Islands, for a "truly tropical seaside escape." The Maldivian body scrub, Galvin's favorite, uses white sand and seawater and is given at the water's edge on a fluffy white towel. The finale, a lemongrass-oil massage, is done in a treatment cottage with water views. firstname.lastname@example.org; www.sixsenses.com
Mayr Health Spa, KArnten, Austria, for the weeklong Regeneration program, which includes Kneipp baths, a diagnostic stomach treatment, and Dr. F. X. Mayr's distinctive diets. "I did the Candida diet, which included potatoes at every meal. My friend did the spelt and herbal tea diet. We both felt cleansed and healthy for a long time afterward." 011-43-4273-2511-0; www.golfhotel.at