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I Tried the New Skincare Line Loved by Oprah — and the CIA

Future offerings from Clearista.
Future offerings from Clearista.
Photo: Clearista

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Last week, news dropped that the CIA's venture capital arm (!) had invested in a skincare company (!!) called Skincential Sciences, which makes a consumer product called Clearista. The firm, In-Q-Tel, an amazingly named entity that could have come right out of The Americans, hopes to utilize the company's unique skincare technology, which somehow reveals DNA biomarkers. This is potentially scary stuff, but my bigger concern was whether or not exposing my biomarkers could make my skin look better. Because, priorities.

The company sent me a few samples of its two products, a retexturizing gel and a pen, which have been reviewed favorably in Oprah Winfrey's mag, O, on various blogs, and from reviewers who received samples from Glossybox. I hopped on the phone with Kristie Colon, the brand's marketing director, to see what this company was all about.

In 2011, a group of scientists from MIT and UC Santa Barbara got together to work on creating a new system for performing less painful skin biopsies on patients. It didn't work, but they realized they had a product that could affect keratin (more on this in a sec), which could be useful as a skincare agent, especially in the treatment of disorders like seborrheic keratosis (SK), which causes raised dark spots on the skin. In 2014, the company soft-launched Clearista for dermatologist use, but it didn't really take off there either. In 2015, Skincential released the products for consumer and pro use; they're currently used in about 50 spas. Spa and home versions seem to be where the momentum lies.

Right now, the company offers two products, a Retexturizing Gel ($52) and the Refining Pen ($56). (You can buy them on the company's website, as well as at Joyus and AskDerm.) The ingredients are "nothing special," according to Colon. The magic apparently lies in how these ingredients — which include water and capryl sultaine, "a detergent used for gently breaking up membranes" — are combined and formulated. The products specifically break up and solubilize keratin, a protein on the outermost layer of the skin that binds dead skin cells together and protects the lower layers from contaminants. Too much keratin causes seborrheic dermatitis, keratosis pilaris (otherwise known as chicken skin), and various other lumps and bumps that can prevent your skin from looking radiant. And radiance = youthful. After breaking the keratin bonds, the water in the product can then hang out in the area and hydrate and plump it, all without the irritation that sometimes comes with acid peels, which work deeper.  (It should be noted that there aren't any peer-reviewed studies proving any of this, only clinical studies and some impressive before and after pictures of SK patients.)

I don't have either of the two disorders above, but I could definitely use a little more radiance. The gel actually feels like any one of hundreds of scrubs on the market. It contains eco-safe microbeads, which Colon says will not be in future iterations of the product, because consumers have been confused about why Clearista is different from any other run-of-the-mill exfoliating scrub. Moving the ingredients around is important to break up keratin, though, so future products will include a silicone brush to differentiate the product from its competitors. After massaging it into my face and upper chest, which looks a good ten years older than my face because I've had so many sunburns there, I rinsed. After drying my face, I then applied the liquid from the flat, felt-tipped pen, which contains the same ingredients as the gel but in a different concentration. It's meant to be used as a spot treatment after the gel. I tried it on a few flat dark spots on my face, a small raised acne scar on the side of my nose, and on some rough, tiny bumps on my chest, and repeated this routine for five days.

Conclusion: The gel is fantastic. My face and chest both felt the smoothest they've felt all winter, and not dry or tight at all, and the bumps were definitely diminished. I had less luck with the pen, though. It possibly shrunk my raised acne scar a tiny bit, but didn't do anything for the dark spots caused by sun damage, and in fact left a red, irritated area near one dark spot, which essentially just shined a spotlight on it: "HEY, CHECK OUT THIS UNSIGHTLY MARK CHERYL HAS!"  Colon says that she would expect it probably wouldn't work well on age spots, which are primarily melanin; acne scarring is made up of collagen, so it makes sense that it didn't work there either.

There's also a big caveat here: you need to keep using the products for them to work. If you stop, the keratin will come back because that's what skin does. If you already have a dedicated skincare routine, it's probably not a big deal because you're used to using products regularly. It's potentially more of an issue for the spot treating, in cases where you're trying to get rid of a specific blemish. I also had concerns about using my usual Dr.Dennis Gross peel pads, but Colon says that anecdotally Clearista is safe to use with acids, Botox, and retinol, though, again, there are no studies to back that up. I didn't have any issues or side effects, except for the glowing dark spot.

Currently, the brand seems like it's transitioning and having a bit of an identity crisis. I'd recommend waiting for the next generation of products to come out, because there's definitely potential here. Colon said Clearista has separate lines for brightening, anti-aging, and oil control in the pipeline which will contain the brand's unique technology combined with other ingredients to pack more of a punch.

Hopefully the CIA won't confiscate them first.