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Confessions of a DNA Face Cream User

By Kate Ruder

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I admit it. I am one of those women who enjoy cosmetics. I am not obsessed, but I have had spur-of-the-moment makeovers at the department store on Saturday afternoons, and I'll spend $25 on a good lipstick. So when I heard about DNA face cream, I was intrigued…and skeptical.

Among the dozens of face creams purporting to include the latest scientific advances, there is a new generation of cosmetics with a novel marketing twist—genomics.

Now you can buy face cream that prevents the signs of aging using discoveries from the Human Genome Project, the companies say. Forget about micro-dermal abrasion and antioxidants. What you need is genomics to reduce fine lines and wrinkles and restore a youthful glow.

To find out more about the latest in genome cosmetics, I visited an upscale department store in Manhattan where the New York-based company Lab21 sells a custom-formulated face cream based on your DNA.

At the cosmetic counter, I completed a questionnaire on the computer with a representative named Traci, regarding everything from my past sun-exposure to my pore size to the oiliness of my chin in the late afternoon.

Then Traci used two swabs to scrape cells from the inside of my cheeks. She put the swabs in a laboratory beaker before transferring them to an envelope with a bar code that would anonymously identify my DNA samples. The whole presentation was slick, seemingly scientific, and surprisingly entertaining.

The envelopes with my DNA would be shipped to Lab21's headquarters in Long Island where technicians would personally formulate my face cream. I was assured that my genetic information would remain confidential. But specifics of the genes they would analyze are also confidential—“hush-hush,” Traci said.

Three weeks later, I received my small blue jar of DNA face cream, with a 12-digit formulation code printed on the silver label. The package also included a note explaining that the cream had been “formulated based on precise information derived from your Skin DNA Test. We have analyzed, for example, your genetic propensity to breakdown collagen.”

The marketing, rather than the science, is the most interesting angle. --Leslie Baumann, M.D. What, I wondered, was in my DNA face cream? At $250 for 1.7 ounces, I must admit my expectations were high.

When I spoke with the president and CEO of Lab21, Nathaniel Benson, he was similarly hush-hush about the trade secrets behind his face cream. Not surprisingly, Benson would not disclose the biomarkers that the technicians analyze or the ingredients that they use to formulate the cream.

“Our patent filings are so important to our company that we don't want to jeopardize them,” said Benson.

The company does provide a complete money-back guarantee if consumers are unhappy with the product. Most of Lab21's sales are made in dermatology offices, and they currently sell most of their cosmetics in Brazil, a country often featured in fashion magazines for its emphasis on youth, beauty, and plastic surgery.

But is DNA face cream really genomic?

Leslie Baumann, M.D., a dermatologist at the University of Miami in Florida , and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, is skeptical about the company's claims, saying that scientists do not have the ability to use genetics to design custom cosmetics. The marketing angle, rather than the science, she says, is the most interesting aspect of these products.

In her opinion, “Although [the company] can obtain DNA from a cheek scraping, it is impossible, at this time, to create a cream to meet an individual's needs based on her genetic make up.” For example, even though scientists have identified some of the many collagen genes in the human genome, they don't know how these genes are expressed in individual cells, or how to formulate a skin product that would interact with these genes.

Another dermatologist, Zoe Draelos, M.D., of Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston Salem, North Carolina, said in an email that she is investigating the product and had recently sent a sample swab of her cheek cells to the company.

Despite my skepticism in the company's claims and their refusal to explain them, I am enjoying my face cream. The light pink lotion smells delicious, and it seems to be working just as well, if not better, than other moisturizers I've tried. At least I like to think that.

Lab21 isn't the only cosmetic company that says its consumers are enjoying fruits of the Human Genome Project in a bottle. Genome Cosmetique in Miami Beach , Florida , makes skin care products that it says contain DNA repair enzymes and technology straight from the sequencing of the human genome, although it doesn't smell much like fruit.

Genome Cosmetique's scientific director Daniel Davidson is unspecific about the company's formulation. “Our ingredients are all part of our secret sauce and I'd rather not have that data published,” he says. Genome Cosmetique's Altero lotion sells on the Web for around $60 for 1.76 ounces.

“It [Lab 21] sounds like a nice marketing story,” says Jean Krutmann, a dermatologist at Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf, Germany, who acknowledges he is not familiar with the specifics of Lab21. Krutmann studies the role of DNA repair enzymes to prevent DNA damage and premature skin aging.

“The question is, is there any science behind it?” he asks.

Until companies such as Lab21 and Genome Cosmetique are willing to support their scientific claims, the consumer won't know the answer to that question.

The potential of human genome research to improve skin care and prevent aging is indeed exciting. Genes and environment are likely the two most important factors in how we age and repair our skin. And that's why personalized cream tailored to our gene profiles is an enticing concept. But right now, scientists do not have the ability to tailor a skin care regimen based on our genetics.

Will face cream that claims to be based on your genetics harm your skin? Probably not. Will it spice up your love life, nail down that promotion, and make all of your other dreams come true? Probably not that either.

But for $250 a pop, they must put some pretty good ingredients in their face cream. And that's why I'm dreading the day when my pretty blue jar of cream runs out.

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