Shop Our Blog Call Us: 01925 730343

The History of Cosmeceuticals

The science of great skin: it’s as old as the history of beauty itself, illustrated by Cleopatra’s reputed love for milk baths to smooth her skin (Lactic Acid was the secret)… But the proof behind great skin? That’s a much more recent discovery.

It’s not that proof wasn’t available in ancient times – some of the earliest clinical trials were recorded during the Roman Empire – but, since skin care was considered a feminine and decorative domain, proof wasn’t so important. The promise of science was enough. The 17th century gave us the science that white lead and mercury could lighten the skin. However, proper studies would have shown its deadly effects (ultimately they did). The 19th century then offered us arsenic wafers to remove freckles and imperfections, much to the same conclusion. 

Even the modernity of the 20th century, marked by safer, more reliable products sold by established beauty brands still had its share of questionable science and limited proof. For example, science-driven radioactive beauty, sold in the early 1900s in Harrods and Selfridges, promised to improve luminosity through radium-enhanced skin care (it didn’t), while placenta-enriched creams, introduced in the 1950s, claimed a ‘sensational cosmetic discovery – tell-tale wrinkles removed!’ I’m pretty sure no wrinkles were erased.  Yes, these examples are on the end of extreme, but you get the picture. The promise of science throughout history has rarely been supported by proof never mind safety.

The introduction of government oversight throughout the 20th century played a large role in instituting regulations on labelling and safety to tame these scientific promises. And while safety improved dramatically, scientific proof in skin care was lacking, especially in the world of anti-aging. Until a pivotal discovery helped to show its promise through the creation of cosmeceuticals.

Cosmeceutical as a word may sound like more scientific promises, but it’s not. Coined by Raymond Reed, the founding member of the United States Society of Cosmetic Chemists in 1962, cosmeceutical was a way of describing active, ‘science-based’ products offering biological benefits somewhere between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. He pointed to cosmeceuticals as a way to describe modern results-focused products to control ‘such phenomena as the moisture balance of the skin, the prevention of perspiration, the acne process, minor inflammatory reactions and dandruff conditions.’  Yet it was the dermatologist, Albert Kligman, who really made cosmeceuticals famous and laid the groundwork for anti-aging. His academic research on skin ailments uncovered that the keratolytic action of Vitamin A (also known as Retinoic Acid) could be very useful in treating acne. After extensive clinical studies to prove that Retinoic Acid indeed improved acne, the ingredient was approved by the FDA in the US in 1971 and marketed under the name Retin-A. This in itself isn’t that revolutionary – modern science allowed for the investigation of many dermatological concerns. But here’s where it gets interesting: older patients using Retin-A reported that the product reduced the appearance of their wrinkles and improved their overall complexion. Kligman began clinical tests on older women to understand more and alongside additional research by the American Academy of Dermatology and Harvard Medical School, the dermatological community proved that the nightly use of Retin-A resulted in better tone, texture, firmness, and overall quality of the skin. Supplementary research on mechanism of action showed that the Retinoic Acid did more than stimulate cell turnover; it increased blood flow to the skin, while thickening and reorganising surface layers and increasing the production of collagen and elastin. As a result, the product improved the appearance of ageing skin, especially signs of photo-aging and sun damage. And just like that, Retinoic Acid became the first real cosmeceutical, shown to be efficiently absorbed by skin, to have a scientific mechanism of action, and be backed by peer-reviewed, double-blind, placebo-controlled, statistically-significant clinical trials to substantiate the claims. Suddenly there was proof behind a scientific promise to remove ‘tell-tale wrinkles’. Hooray! But, thankfully, our story doesn’t end there.

I am sure these findings were not lost on one Dr Sheldon Pinnell, a collagen chemist and dermatologist at Duke University in the 1980s who was studying Vitamin C and its role in wound healing, skin ageing, and skin cancer prevention. Through diligent scientific research, he was the first to discover the parameters to deliver pure Vitamin C effectively into the skin, to elucidate its mechanism of action as an antioxidant, and to substantiate it through peer-reviewed, placebo-controlled studies as to its efficacy in neutralising free radical damage, both alone and in synergy with other antioxidants. Importantly, his trials were done in-vivo, meaning proof was obtained using live skin cells instead of cell cultures to reflect real-life usage. Quite simply, Dr Pinnell was using the rigour of academic research and the methodology of Retinoic Acid and applying it to an expanded world of skin care. He helped to further the learnings on cosmeceuticals and establish the field of evidence-based skin care – so much so that for many physicians today, antioxidants are the cornerstone of healthy skin, alongside sunscreens and Retinoids.

Fast forward to today and it makes sense why cosmeceutical brands are popular: we rely on technology for daily living, scientific advances point to solutions in diseases and global problems, and as a society we are on the defence against fake news and big corporations. We want proven ingredients and proof of efficacy. SkinCeuticals is a brand that was built on the academic science of antioxidants but, more importantly, it was built on an obsession with proof, achieved through rigorous methodology in live skin rather than quick-to-market shortcuts. Over 30 years later, we still follow Dr Pinnell’s approach to proof, painstakingly testing for absorption and mechanism of action, alongside strictly-controlled clinical studies. This doesn’t always mean quick. In a fast-paced world, however, we believe that good science and good proof are more valuable than ever before, worth waiting for, and the best recipe for great skin. 

Even the modernity of the 20th century, marked by safer, more reliable products sold by established beauty brands still had its share of questionable science and limited proof. For example, science-driven radioactive beauty, sold in the early 1900s in Harrods and Selfridges, promised to improve luminosity through radium-enhanced skin care (it didn’t), while placenta-enriched creams, introduced in the 1950s, claimed a ‘sensational cosmetic discovery – tell-tale wrinkles removed!’ I’m pretty sure no wrinkles were erased.  Yes, these examples are on the end of extreme, but you get the picture. The promise of science throughout history has rarely been supported by proof never mind safety.

Even the modernity of the 20th century, marked by safer, more reliable products still had its share of questionable science and limited proof. For example, science-driven radioactive beauty, sold in the early 1900s, promised to improve luminosity through radium-enhanced skin care, while placenta-enriched creams, introduced in the 1950s, claimed a ‘sensational cosmetic discovery – tell-tale wrinkles removed!’ Yes, these examples are on the end of extreme, but you get the picture. The promise of science throughout history has rarely been supported by proof never mind safety.

By Leslie Harris, Global General Manager for SkinCeuticals

Looking to Buy?

Leave a comment

All fields marked (*) are required

*