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For skincare companies, finding new places to harvest rare and exotic ingredients is like a beauty version of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? It's not uncommon for beauty brands to look to far-flung locales for inspiration, but the latest trend in sourcing is about as out of the way as you can get: space.
Sounds like a total marketing gimmick, right? Turns out that there’s a lot the beauty industry can learn from astronauts. So much so that NASA itself created a research program, the imaginatively named SkinCare, in 2008 to investigate the effects that microgravity has on the skin.
The study focused on just one astronaut, but scientists were able to track notable decreases in the skin’s hydration, elasticity, and barrier function. These manifested themselves as an increase in dryness, sagging, and wrinkles. Also, itchiness. So much itchiness.
Christine Falsetti, the co-founder of C2 California Clean Skincare (more on them later) and former internet program manager at NASA, spent over 10 years working closely with the agency’s space and life scientists. In the ’80s she helped with Spacelab, a habitable lab on shuttles that allowed scientists to experiment with everything from the Earth’s atmosphere to growing crystals to microgravity’s effect on its own crew. “What was interesting was that microgravity acts as an accelerator on everything from bone density to skin elasticity,” she notes. Meaning the longer they were up there, the faster the astronauts’ bodies aged. Kind of makes me glad I skipped out on Space Camp.
“But Megan,” I hear you saying, “I’m not planning a Star Trek expedition anytime soon. What’s this got to do with me?” Well, my earthbound friends, these findings mean plenty for your skincare routine. You see, what happens in the cosmos at an accelerated level happens here on terra firma over a longer period of time. So any ingredients that can help an astronaut fight skin damage in microgravity is going to do a bang-up job on those of us stuck in regular old gravity.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that NASA used some type of next-generation, Mars-mined gemstones to counteract that aging acceleration of the astronaut in their study. The reality is bit less far-fetched. The answer was plain old hydration. Scientists noted that by applying a simple emulsion, their subject’s skin had markedly improved hydration and moisture retention. Proof positive that slapping on some moisturizer really does have a quantifiable effect on the skin.
Falsetti, along with her pharmacist co-founder Clarissa Shetler, used that research to inform the creation of their own skincare line, the aforementioned C2. Their research-backed approach led them to same conclusion as NASA: “Skin needs healthy, clean hydration,” says Falsetti. To that end, they looked to hydration staples like hyaluronic acid and squalane. These ingredients are “bioactive and already in your own tissue,” she says, “so your body doesn’t fight it.”
Another facet of space aging involves wound healing. In normal situations, the body stimulates its fibroblasts to produce collagen that will help the skin repair itself. In microgravity situations, that collagen production is actually inhibited. “Here on Earth, when you get a paper cut, it usually heals in a few days,” says Falsetti. “In space, it could take a month.” And since collagen is an integral part of skin's structure — i.e., it keeps wrinkles at bay — this inhibited production spells trouble for skin.
That’s what led UK-based plastic surgeon Yannis Alexandrides to create his 111Skin line. The good doctor had a happenstance meeting with some former Soviet space program scientists and successfully inspired them to create a custom molecule. “They took the knowledge they had from protecting astronauts from sun damage and healing wounds on soldiers to create the NAC Y2 molecule,” says Alexandrides. The molecule is the foundation of his luxury products.
“If you are accentuating the skin's own healing mechanism, you keep the skin younger,” he says. “[If] you keep the skin healing every day a little bit, it will never potentially grow old.” That’s a bit of a stretch, but the science is sound — the slower your skin barrier and collagen production decrease, the longer you can stave off wrinkles and droopiness.
While the above brands focus on earthly ingredients that are informed by space data, men’s grooming brand Lab Series takes it one step further by using ingredients that are actually from space. For its ultra-luxe Maxellence collection, the brand took extracts of calcium and magnesium from meteorites, ground them up into a powder, filtered and sterilized them, then popped them into a liquid solution and added it to its Dual Concentrate and Singular Cream.
“We have a sample of a meteorite and we were able to identify the source, we know where it landed, we know how big the crop is, we know how old the crop is,” says Matt Teri, Lab Series’ vice president of global product development. “The meteorite is rocky in appearance, but like all rocks from earth, it has a really high essential mineral content.”
Both calcium and magnesium are already used frequently in skincare products, so it is worth noting that there is currently no research that supports the theory that outer-space minerals are more beneficial for skin than rocks found on our own planet.
But Lab Series doesn’t stop there. The products contain yeast, another proven skincare ingredient — in this case, a superhydrator. However, it’s the way the brand fermented the yeast that makes the difference. Lab Series used a bioreactor, a vessel created by NASA to simulate microgravity, to create a more potent extract. “It’s a specialized environment that actually keeps the material in a free-fall suspension,” says Teri. The claim is that by keeping it in this suspension, its actives become more concentrated, resulting in a more effective product.
If these advances are any indication, there are many chapters to come in the beauty industry’s romance with all things intergalactic. “There’s definitely an attraction to what’s happening in the sky,” says Teri. He expects more companies to jump on this bioreactor method to create a host of ultra-powerful extracts.
“Space has become a medical laboratory of the aging of the body and skin,” notes Dr. Alexandrides, who believes that observations from space agencies will only continue to inform us on how to take care of our skin.
Falsetti agrees, noting that there is so much more that can be learned from NASA. Her bets for the next big thing? “There's some research that's been done that says using lightwaves, particularly in the red and blue spectrum, can have great anti-aging effects without having to be invasive,” she says. “There are some home versions where we're trying to see how effective they are.” She also notes that NASA has developed small sensors that she sees as having the ability to measure everything from wrinkle depth to hydration levels, allowing people to track their skin health and determine how well their skincare products are working. (This technology is actually already starting to roll out. Next month, a popular skincare brand is debuting an at-home sensor device that allows you to track your hydration levels through an app.)
“One of the biggest learnings that I had from NASA was that collaborative science leads to powerful innovation,” says Falsetti. Ball’s in your court, beauty experts — let’s see where infinity and beyond takes you.