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A genius, before-its-time scientific theory on aging is sparking cutting edge research on the role cells’ energy-making mitochondria plays in skin. And some experts say it’s big. While there’s not a ton of studies out there showing why this is totally legit—and more importantly, how to fix it—here is what researchers are all hyped up about right now.
Historic Findings in Skin Aging
But first, lets backtrack a bit so you get what we mean by “the genius, before-its-time scientific theory.” Denham Harman, Ph.D., M.D., a professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center proposed the free radical theory of aging in the 1950’s—which essentially is the same one we still swear by today. (In a nutshell: unpaired-electron molecules are the root of all early wrinkle, sagging, ugly, uneven skintone evil.) Harman, who was dubbed the “father of the free radical theory of aging” then extended his scientific breakthrough to include mitochondria, which are cells’ energy source, as the main culprit of creating reactive oxidative species (aka free radicals) and therefore renamed his theory: the Mitochondrial Theory of Aging (MTA).
Recently, MTA is wiggling its way to the forefront of researchers’ and skincare formulators’ minds—not only because they’re intrigued by it as a means of explaining all aspects of human aging, but also considering it could be the missing link to truly turning back the clock in regards to skin.
One such researcher is Leslie Baumann, M.D., a dermatologist and founder of Baumann Cosmetic and Research Institute in Miami Beach, Florida, who is known among her peers as well as beauty insiders as a pioneer in all realms of anti-aging research. Baumann has undoubtedly jumped on the mitochondria anti-aging bandwagon. On her site skintypesolutions.com she links to one of her many scientific papers: “Mutations in Mitchondria” as a Cause of Aging." It’s here that Dr. Baumann explains that just as your 5th-grade science class touted, mitochondria are crucial for cell health because they’re “responsible for energy production that drives all of the processes in the cell. Diseases of the mitochondria are devastating and dysfunction of the mitochondria is believed to play an important role in aging.”
Your Skin Is Its Own Enemy
However, in this paper Dr. Baumann also proceeds to take basic mitochondria knowledge one-step further into MTA territory—stating that it is the production of energy within mitochondria, proven essential for cell health, that is also the cause of a whole lot of chaos in cells. In order for mitochondria to produce energy, commonly referred to as ATP (adenosine triphosphate), it seeks the aid of oxygen as the carrier of electrons; therefore this energy synthesis results in excess electrons—some of which bind to oxygen in even numbers, others don’t—creating, wait for it—free radicals.
Right there inside the mitochondria of your healthiest cells, people. And then you know what happens? These out-of-control molecules go ahead and blindside the unprotected mitochondrial DNA, causing a full-fledged attack on cells. The bottom line: free radicals are raging an all out aging war on your skin inside its cell walls and out in the dermis.
Why exactly is this so darn groundbreaking (as well as disconcerting and possibly downright depressing)? Because dermatologists and researchers and well, beauty writers have gone on and on for years about how external factors, i.e. environmental exposure—specifically ultraviolet radiation from the sun—is the main source of free radicals. When in fact, our own healthy cells are completely two-faced; they go ahead and create nothing but good energy and then turn around and also spur crazy amounts of free radicals, sabotaging all that is right (and plump and smooth and youthful!) in skin.
The Man Who Might "Cure" Aging
Baumann notes the groundbreaking work of Aubrey de Grey, author of The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging (1999) and co-author of Ending Aging (2007). Scrolling through the aforementioned thesis, an almost 200-page paper, Grey, a true maverick in the world of science shares a balanced mix of research references and hypothesis on why and how mitochondria affects cell health and damage and aging overall.
One super interesting term to note is Grey’s “survival of the slowest” theory (which he shortens to SOS), of which he uses to hypothesize why mutant mitochondria are outliving those that are 100 percent a-OK. Basically, he says they don’t function properly anymore, so they can’t create as many free radicals. With fewer attackers hanging around them, the mutated mitochondria are safe from harm—which means they’re more likely to survive and be duplicated than plain healthy mitochondria. And more damaged mitochondria over time, clearly means more damaged cells and then, bam! You’ve got aging on overdrive.
What You Can Do to Save Your Skin
So what’s a girl to do after learning of yet-another-wrinkle-forming frenemy? Luckily as of right now, pretty much what you’re already doing—load up on antioxidants (in your skincare as well as your diet) and never, ever step outside during daylight hours without applying broad-spectrum sunscreen.
Marko Lens, M.D., Ph.D., a plastic and reconstructive surgeon in London and founder of Zelens skincare has tapped into the need for products to focus on protecting and repairing mitochondrial assaults. “The major factor affecting mitochondrial function and mitochondrial DNA health is the production of hazardous free radicals or reactive oxygen species (ROS),” he says. “Topical antioxidants can effectively fight against ROS and therefore prevent mitochondrial damage and delay cellular death.”
In a Zelens in-house, in-vitro (a skin culture containing human fibroblasts) clinical study, Dr. Lens measured the number of metabolically active mitochondria before and after product application and effect over 24 hours, as well as the level of energy produced by mitochondria. “There was a clear increase in the number of metabolically active mitochondria as well as an increase in energy production,” he says. According to the study, human dermal fibroblasts treated with his newest product, Z Matrix Energy & Moisture Infusion, showed “enhanced metabolically and energetically active mitochondria by13.6 percent after 8 hours of treatment; 18.3 percent in 24 hours.”
Baumann says for now, as research into mitochondria and how to topically protect them is ongoing, simply plan to stick to skincare basics: “Mitochondria play an important role in skin aging. But at this time, there are no effective treatments to repair mitochondrial damage,” she says. “There is much work in this area being done but no significant breakthroughs. For now, your best bet is to try and prevent damage to mitochondria by using sunscreen and antioxidants.”
Products On The Mitochondria-Protecting Forefront
These treatments are all about going right to skin’s energy source to prevent damage before it starts. Get ready to supercharge a radiant, youthful complexion.
La Prairie Cellular Power Serum (available September 1), is packed with antioxidants found in exotic plants (heart leaf globe daisy, blue lotus flower extract and giant knotweed extract, just to name a few) to trigger skin’s inherent defense system as well as supercharge cells’ mitochondria.
Zelens Z Matrix Energy & Moisture Infusion hits a trifecta of mitochondria protecting perfection—a pentapeptide that shields mitochondrial DNA from free radicals; hydrolyzed soy protein, which stimulates energy (you know, ATP) production while simultaneously acts as an antioxidant against the pesky free floating free radicals that form as a result, plus targets sirtuin 3 to help prolong cell life; and finally, a multi-mineral combo of magnesium, copper, zinc to join forces to spur energy production as well as showcase their proven anti-glycation and antioxidant qualities.
Nude Cellular Renewal Serum uses a purified probiotic extract (not a live probiotic, which is too unstable for topical use) to act on energy production in the mitochondria. Since mitochondria can be a source of free radicals, the supercharged serum also contains an antioxidant to counteract free radicals. So long, fine lines!
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