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The New Buzzword in Anti-Aging: Mitochondria

Skin’s ultimate defender may also be its worst enemy. Here's what you need to know about the next frontier in anti-aging skincare.

August 15th, 2012

Courtesy of Nude, Zelens, and La Prairie

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).

MORE: Slow Skin Aging Here

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.

QUIZ: How Old Is Your Skin?

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.

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