By Joe Schwarcz PhD, Author, USASEF Expo Performer, AT&T Sponsored Nifty Fifty Program Speaker
They sold out after just four hours. And they weren’t even hotcakes. They were just little capsules. But these capsules came with a nifty promise. Pop some, and wrinkles, those fearsome hallmarks of aging, would be ironed out from the inside! Cleverly named “Strength Within,” the contents were the product of at least five years of research by a team of scientists at Unilever’s laboratories in the UK.
When word leaked out last September that the beauty pills would be test-marketed for two weeks, they were scooped up like candy. After all, no prescription was needed. The ingredients, soy isoflavones, omega-3 fats, lycopene, vitamin E and vitamin C all occur naturally in food and can be marketed as supplements. No further approval is necessary unless there are claims of treating, preventing or curing a disease. Wrinkles may terrorize, but they can hardly be regarded as a “disease.” So treating them is not a medical claim, hence “Strength Within” is regarded as a cosmetic, not a drug. “Cosmeceutical” describes such products that blur the line between cosmetics and drugs.
Improving the skin’s appearance from within is not a novel idea. After all, acne medications do exactly that. And a plethora of dietary regimens have claimed to reveal the secret of achieving beauty by the bite. Many of these also take a big bite out of the pocket book with Dr. Nicholas Perricone’s “Wrinkle Cure” being a prime example. Perricone is a dermatologist with frequent TV appearances in which he outlines his formula for reversing wrinkles and sagging skin. He claims that increasing protein intake, while avoiding foods like bananas, bread, rice, beets and sweet potatoes is the key to healthy skin. Perricone is high on salmon, which he calls “your magic bullet for great skin tone, keeping your face firm and contoured.” My face changes its contour when I hear stuff like that because there is just no evidence for such assertions. And his costly dietary supplements and creams may be “designed to reduce the appearance of loss of tone, sagging skin, and fine lines,” but there is no peer-reviewed evidence to show that they actually do. The Perricone regimen will, however, reduce one’s bank account to the tune of over $400 a month. Not only in appearance, but in substance.
None of this is to suggest that diet doesn’t play a role in the condition of the skin. Indeed, it plays some role in virtually everything that goes on inside of us, since food is the only raw material that ever enters our body. Rosacea, for example, can often be triggered by alcohol or spicy foods, lack of niacin can cause dermatitis and acne can be exacerbated by specific foods, depending on the individual. Furthermore, a balanced diet can have a major impact on how skin ages as well as on the risk of skin cancer. The biggest factor in skin aging is the damage carried out by free radicals generated by exposure to sunlight. Vitamins C and E along with beta carotene can sop up the nasty free radicals and vitamin C also plays a role in building new collagen, the protein that gives skin its resilience. A diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables, especially beta carotene-rich ones like sweet potatoes (one of Perricone’s supposed nemeses), while reducing fats is the way to go. A Baylor University study effectively demonstrated that patients who had been treated for skin cancer were able to significantly reduce the chance of recurrence by maintaining a diet in which only 20% of the calories derive from fat as opposed to the North American average of 38%.
Being told that the route to healthy skin involves eating a balanced diet, shunning smoking, getting plenty of exercise and staying out of the sun is not what some people want to hear. Swallowing a few “Strength Within” capsules seems a more attractive proposition. This, however, is not the first product to offer hope in a bottle. Imedeen tablets, developed by the Danish healthcare Company Ferrosan (recently acquired by Pfizer), have been around since 1991. And unlike most “cosmeceuticals,” they have placebo controlled randomized trials to back up the claims of improved skin appearance. A mix of soy extract, fish polysaccharides, white tea extract, grape seed extract, tomato extract, vitamins C and E and Zinc, Imedeen was tested in eighty post menopausal women. Observations by independent evaluators, as well as objective data from ultrasound measurements, backed the claims of improvement when compared with placebo. But, there is a but. It took six months for Imedeen to work, and the effects could hardly be described as spectacular, but at least they were statistically significant. But there is a difference between statistical significance and practical difference. Especially when it comes to forking out $500 for a six month supply.
The new kid on the block, Strength Within, is very similar in composition to Imedeen, but it adds a new wrinkle of its own. Researchers managed to show that this particular chemical mix activated genes responsible for collagen synthesis, and even confirmed through biopsies that new collagen had formed in the dermis, the skin’s deepest layer, one that is generally not reachable by creams. Of course the real question is whether this “gene food” treatment will elicit “gee, you look great” type of comments. Judging by the Unilever’s double-blind trial I would put that in the doubtful category.
After 14 weeks the “crow’s feet” wrinkles around the eyes became on average 10% shallower in subjects treated with Strength Within. Frankly, that is not a very gripping difference. But it is proof of concept. Maybe improved versions of the capsules will produce improved effects. It would also be interesting to see trials comparing oral supplements to the effects of topical treatments with moisturizing creams, some of which have also been shown to help reduce wrinkles. All in all, though, it is a person’s inner beauty that is attractive, and that cannot be obtained from a pill.