The search for the Fountain of Youth has been an allusive quest for all who have searched it out. To remain eternally young, or at least to look eternally young, is the stuff of myth and legend except, it seems, for those in the cosmetic and health food industries and the celebrities who hawk their products. Most of us remember story about the adventures of the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, Puerto Rico’s first Governor, who explored present day Florida in 1513 in search of the Fountain of Youth. Juan was not the first to try to find “youth in a bottle”, Herodotus mentions a fountain with very special waters somewhere in Ethiopia and thought this is what gave the Ethiopians exceptional longevity. Myths abound about healing waters dating from at least the time of Alexander the Great who, together with his servant, crossed the land of darkness in search of healing waters. Such stories also appear in the Qur’an as well as the New Testament in the Gospel of John when Jesus heals a man using the curative waters from the Pool of Bethesda.
Today youth and beauty have become interchangeable and according to Wikipedia, beauty is a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure. As a cultural phenomenon, beauty has been extremely commercialized and to look young is to be beautiful. However, it has not always been that way. In Classical Greek times the word for beautiful originates from the Greek word “ripe” or “of its time”. A ripe fruit was considered beautiful, whereas a young woman trying to appear older or an older woman trying to appear younger would not be considered beautiful. The concept of beauty involves interpreting whether an object, inanimate or animate, is in balance and in harmony with nature. However, this interpretation is subjective in nature and, as is often said, “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”. The general concept of beauty appears to be similar amongst different cultures and genders and may be linked to the concept of symmetry because it suggests the absence of flaws or defects. The Western idea of beauty emerges from the early Greek philosophers before the writings of Socrates. This pre-Socratic school of thinking saw a strong relationship between mathematics and beauty with the “golden ratio” being the standard.
The “golden ratio”, 1:1.618 was the ratio between the length and width of a rectangle. The more an object exhibited the proportions of this ratio the more beauty it possessed. Although first applied in architectural terms, this ratio was the standard for Greek buildings and temples like the Parthenon. Later, Greek sculptors like Dorifor and Policlet used this ratio to create statues of the human form. The ratio of the height of statue versus the distance from the navel of the sculpture to its feet was in the “perfect” ratio of 1:1.618. Statues from this period that depicted the human form were produced according to these philosophical tenets of symmetry and became the ideal for beauty re-discovered in Renaissance Europe. Women whose appearance demonstrated these characteristics were said to possess “classical beauty”, a concept that still exists today. Of course the concept of beauty has more than a purely aesthetic quality. There are social and psychological factors in play as well when we as individuals or as a culture defines beauty. One cannot exclude the Inner Beauty, possessed by individuals. Qualities like grace, charm, personality, honesty, integrity, congeniality, and humor combine with an individual’s physical characteristics to mold our opinion as to what is beautiful.
Attempting to define a cosmetic product as a “beauty” product is a virtual impossibility when one considers all the factors that make a person beautiful. Maybe the ancient Greeks had it right, and trying to equate youth with beauty is a fatal flaw in the way we think about beauty today. Unfortunately, the consumer has been brainwashed to believe in this false assertion. This is why there is so much emphasis placed on products claiming to have anti-aging benefits. We, as formulators of products, are obliged to help dispel this myth when we make claims about the products that we create. There is no product, whether a cream, serum, or pill that will halt the march of time. The best that we can hope to achieve is to try to maintain skin health and to slow the effects that the normal aging process. After all, wrinkles are nothing more than the service stripes of life. We can reduce them but we cannot eliminate them permanently and their existence does not make a woman any less beautiful. Our concern should be to provide cosmetic products that do what they say they are going to do and not false hopes and promises. There are many products on the market that claim to have health benefits, and it is up to the consumer to do a little research to see if these products do all that they claim to do.
Antioxidants are a case in point. It is widely reported and accepted by the general public that antioxidants are important in preventing disease and reducing the effects of aging. One of the most widely used marketing phrases is “clinical studies have shown”. Nevertheless, what does that really mean? It is important for the public to understand that there are many types of clinical studies. There are studies done on animals, studies using human subjects, and studies that are just done on cell cultures in a petri dish in the lab. Therefore, not all studies are created equal. Just because a natural product or drug is shown to be effective in animal models this does not mean that it will be effective in human beings. We know this from countless animal studies using anti-cancer drugs. There are many substances that prevent or reduce tumor growth in mice but have no effect on solid tumors in human beings. When it comes to cosmetics, there are very few clinical human studies that are statistically significant. However, one natural product, lycopene, has been widely studied and has been shown in human studies to be effective in reducing the damage caused by UV radiation and may help to prevent certain skin cancers when applied topically. Lycopene, however, when taken in pill form does not seem to build up high enough levels in the skin to have any protective value. Resveratrol, an antioxidant extracted from grapes, and is widely touted by celebrity physicians on some very popular television programs as well as the internet as being the anti-aging miracle product, has never been shown to be of any benefit in any human studies when taken orally. There is a body of evidence that does suggest resveratrol to be of benefit when applied topically to the skin surface.
Biopsy specimens taken from the skin of patients who have undergone cosmetic laser therapy and have applied antioxidants post-operatively to the treated areas, have demonstrated an increase in both collagen and elastin production in the sub-cutaneous dermal layers. The increased production of these two substances is responsible for an increase in skin thickness and tone with an accompanying decrease in fine lines and wrinkles. Patients who received cosmetic laser therapy alone did not show this increase. These results confirm that the application of skincare products containing these two antioxidants can be of significant benefit in maintaining skin health and appearance.
Another claim that is often made is that the less expensive products are just as good as the more expensive ones. This may or may not be true. It all depends on the ingredients and the results that you are looking to obtain. For the most part, products containing organic and natural ingredients will cost more than mass produced cosmetics made with synthetic ingredients. Products containing parabens may plug pores and lead to skin outbreaks. Products containing preservatives may cause skin reactions and redness. It is a popular misnomer that products containing sodium laureth sulfate may cause cancer. In fact, there is not a single clinical study demonstrating this to be the case. It is up to the consumer to research exactly what ingredients are contained in a particular skincare product, do those ingredients exert a beneficial effect, are there any side effects to any of the ingredients, and is there a less expensive product that will really do the same thing as the product in question. In the area of marketing, “a picture is not always worth a thousand words”. When you see before and after results from the use of a particular product it is important to ask yourself if the photos were taken under the same conditions. Is the “before” photo taken without makeup and “after” photo taken with makeup. Has the “after” photo been re-touched to improve its appearance? This information will certainly make a big difference in the perception a consumer has about a particular product, but perception does not always equate to reality.
Once the consumer understands what to expect from a product and what questions to ask, the risk that they will be disappointed by that product should be greatly reduced. Manufacturers of cosmetics should, in my opinion, explain to consumers the benefits of each of the ingredients contained in their products and if the results that were obtained are backed by human clinical studies. By the same token, the consumer should not expect un-realistic results from any cosmetic product or aesthetic procedure. They should do their homework and try to research the best that they can to see what product is best suited for their skin needs and what results they can realistically hope to achieve. I do not know if this article will ease the pain of getting older but, hopefully, it will help you to make more informed choices about skincare products, what results you should expect to obtain and most importantly be happy with who you are. Remember, getting older is better than the other alternative.