When skincare meets cell biology

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Once upon a time, not so long ago, the term “anti-aging” was as ubiquitous in the beauty industry as “hydrating” or “brightening.” These are words that promise a plumper, more radiant complexion, but also offer a solution. To moisturize is to eliminate dryness; brighten, eradicate dullness. But to oppose aging, well, that’s to fight biology.

Aging is a privilege. It beats the alternative, after all. And yet, the societal obsession with youth, especially for women, remains intrinsic to our very definition of beauty itself.

So in 2017, Seduce did something big: it banned “anti-aging” from its content, for good. “Repeat after me,” then-editor Michelle Lee wrote in her September 2017 letter. “Getting old is a wonderful thing because it means we have the chance, every day, to live a full and happy life.” Give us crafty octogenarians with wrinkled smiles and silver braids over bouncing pre-teens whose prefrontal cortices are still dabbing. Fountain of youth, consider yourself exhausted.

What if, at the molecular level, some of the effects of this complete and happy aging process weren’t so good for your skin? What if there was something you could do to change that – and if that “something” actively reduced cell damage in your skin and could, in theory, be used to help prevent other forms of aging in the body too?

That’s the rather lofty claim of OneSkin, which claims to be the first “topical supplement” designed to prolong skin health by targeting aging from within. The Silicon Valley-based brand does not define itself as a conventional skincare brand, but rather as a “longevity company” for which skincare is merely a vessel for the important scientific development of the operation. Founded by a team of four women with PhDs, OneSkin creates “technology” – not just products – that they believe can transform the way humans experience aging.

Those are big promises, and not just for a company that ultimately sells moisturizer. But that’s what the OneSkin team set out to do, years before they got into skincare.

“To be honest, when we started we didn’t know we were going to develop a product,” says co-founder and CEO Carolina Reis Oliveira, who earned her doctorate in immunology at Brazil’s Federal University of Minas Gerais, in collaboration with Rutgers University. “It finally made sense that way, but it was more of a consequence of that original goal of finding something meaningful in terms of reversing skin age.”

Oliveira has always been fascinated by how scientific research can radically improve the quality of life of living beings. That’s why, while still in Brazil, she founded a separate biotech startup called CELLSEQ, which grew human tissue using stem cells, effectively eliminating the need for animal testing in pharmaceutical, cosmetic and food industries. In 2016, a year after completing her PhD program, Oliveira put her talents to use at IndieBio, the world’s leading biotechnology accelerator, where she fell into this “longevity” space. She couldn’t believe how fleeting the existing industry was: temporary claims that rarely, if ever, addressed the biological origins of skin aging.

“Aging is the main root cause of most of the diseases we encounter as we age,” says Oliveira. “So, as a scientist, I had this mission to treat diseases in order to improve people’s lives.”

The skin is, it is well known, the largest organ of the body. It makes up about 15% of your total body weight. The average adult has nearly 21 square feet of skin that contains over 11 miles of blood vessels. And he has many, many and a lot of cells, hordes of which become inflammatory over time as we age.

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As Oliveira explains, this is characteristic of a pattern called senescence, a natural cell cycle mechanism that protects against cancers. The cells multiply, mutating more and more with each iteration until a point where they become so mutated that they stop dividing, otherwise they could lead to cancer, but on the other hand they start secreting inflammatory signals in the skin. When we are young, our immune system helps eliminate mutated (senescent) cells to make way for healthier replacements. But the older we get, the more difficult this routine maintenance becomes. Senescent cells can accumulate in our tissues, accumulating to the point of tissue damage and even cancer, the very disease against which cells are meant to protect themselves.

Enter OneSkin, which after five years of development claims to have discovered the antidote to this process – the buildup of senescent cells – with its own proprietary peptide, OS-01, a building block of certain proteins needed by skin. Peptides in skincare products are common; At press time, a search for the word “peptide” on Sephora.com yielded 446 results. And for good reason: they’re not only incredibly versatile, able to mimic collagen, but they’re also extremely effective, boasting a particle size small enough to actually be absorbed into the skin.

How is OneSkin’s peptide, OS-01, different from what’s already on the market? In a 12-week clinical study on a test group of 22 women aged 47-65 (and conducted through a third-party contract research organization), research found that OS-01 improved visual and functional health markers of the skin. Take elasticity and hydration: Blinded experts detected improved skin firmness in 95.5% of women treated with OS-01 peptide. Over the 12-week test period, women treated with OS-01 peptide showed a 15% lower transepidermal water loss (TEWL) measurement compared to baseline. So even if OneSkin is not literally turn back time on your skin, research shows is making it healthier.

In 2020, OneSkin launched its flagship product, the OS-01 topical facial supplement. It’s vegan and cruelty-free and fragrance-free, and comes in a futuristic packaging more reminiscent of a sketch of a Pierre Cardin cocktail napkin than a functional cosmetic. It retails for $120 (compare that to $280 The Cream by Augustinus Bader), where its companion product, OS-01 Topical Body Supplement, retails for $99.

Then there’s OneSkin’s middle-aged demographics: Gen X core, with the core consumer falling around 50, though Oliveira notes the brand’s customer base ranges from 30 to 80 – and beyond. Men represent 30% of the brand’s buyers.

“That’s one of the reasons we call it the ‘topical supplement,'” she adds. “Men are very in supplements.”

That OneSkin considers its products to be “supplements” is not technically Incorrect; by definition, supplements are considered something that, added to something else, complements or improves it. By that explanation, then, wouldn’t all skincare—biotech varieties, at least—fall into this bucket? To say the least, this nomenclature is a clever marketing ploy when the products to date are, in the simplest terms, moisturizers.

Eventually, the plan is to expand OneSkin’s technology beyond skin health and into areas that haven’t necessarily been ignored, but also haven’t been carefully placed on a pedestal. Oliveira mentions scalp health, and right now she’s particularly interested in fertility. By preventing senescence, can this peptide technology prolong the health or functionality of our eggs? Can it even delay menopause? These are questions OneSkin hopes to answer later, but Oliveira is in no rush.

There’s something good about savoring the growth of your business with as much fondness as you can afford each year on your birthday – one year older, but also wiser, happier, more alive.

“Who are these people crushing it in their 50s, 60s, 70s? How do we get everyone to live like them? How do we tap into our own biology so we can make it work properly longer? So we’ll be regardless of age and have them still look and feel great, performing in every way,” says Oliveira.

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