Can the Genes Responsible for Aging Be Altered by a Face Cream? These Skin-Care Companies Say Yes

Photographed by Keirnan Monaghan and Theo Vamvounakis, Vogue, July 2018

Discreetly cloistered in a 19th-century hôtel particulier on Paris’s Champs-Élysées, the Biologique Recherche store displays its creams under bell jars like rare specimens in a laboratory. Which is fitting, since the skin-care company’s white-coated scientists have been pushing the boundaries in the superhot field of epigenetics.

Proposing a more nuanced narrative than conventional wisdom about the immutability of our DNA, the epigenome has been identified as the control panel for our genes, determining which of them is turned on or off at any given time. The research has been moving forward for the last few decades across the medical frontier, including in the fields of cancer and autoimmune diseases, but it’s in the skin that it is showing particular promise. Environmental factors such as diet, stress, and sun exposure can affect the epigenome. As can time: A gene that plays an active role in producing a crucial protein for skin elasticity at age 20 may have powered down by age 40. “It’s like a light switch,” says Sabita Saldanha, Ph.D., a researcher at Alabama State University. “If something is blocking that switch, you cannot turn the light on.”

Navigating and correcting those impediments is where epigenetics comes in. At the Salk Institute for Genetic Expression, in La Jolla, California, scientists tweaked epigenetic markers in live mice with progeria, a disease of premature aging, to revert adult cells back into their embryonic state. The groundbreaking findings, published in 2016, revealed potential that goes beyond a longer lifespan for the mice. “The evidence we have now indicates that, yes, altering the epigenetics of the skin may have a big effect on its rejuvenation,” says Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, Ph.D., a professor at the Salk Institute and principal author of the study.

In May, Biologique Recherche released La Grande Crème, a peptide-powered formula engineered to address the genes involved with wrinkle formation and hyperpigmentation. And it’s not the only innovative company aiming to tinker with our genes. Sisley recently debuted Sisleÿa L’Integral Anti-Age Firming Concentrated Serum, which acts on the enzyme linked to elastin; and Estée Lauder’s Perfectionist Pro serum targets skin’s firmness and spring, while La Prairie boosts collagen with its Platinum Rare Cellular Night Elixir.

It’s a whole new way to bounce back, according to experts. “Think of it as a train that knows exactly who needs the goods on board and where to deliver them,” says Augustinus Bader, a Leipzig-based molecular biologist and professor who produces a namesake duo of creams that has fast garnered a devoted following. After fellow German Diane Kruger was introduced to Bader’s Rich Cream by a friend, the actress was sufficiently bowled over that she became an equity partner in the line. “I was so impressed with the philosophy, the research, and the approach to skin care,” Kruger says, going so far as to call it a “breakthrough.”

So far, beauty formulators are avoiding controversy by making cosmetic, rather than medical, claims about the potential to alter timeworn complexions on a cellular level. And Belmonte stresses that the Salk Institute study was done on mice; it takes time to replicate such findings in humans. But his assertion that aging could be reversed has infused the skin-care industry with rare excitement. “It is something unbelievable,” says internist and Biologique Recherche CEO Philippe Allouche, M.D., whose parents founded the brand. “This broadened vision will guide us for decades.”

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How to Cure Tired Mom Skin—Yes, It’s a Thing

Photographed by Steven Klein, Vogue, September 2017

Lately, Facebook’s handy Memories feature is reminding me of a lot of things I’d long forgotten. For one, I apparently didn’t have a care in the world in the summer of 2007—on any given day of that season, I seemed to be at a bonfire on the beach with the 20-some-odd members of my Amagansett share house. Life is a different kind of fun now that I’m a married mother of two small children, which brings me to another revelation courtesy of these vintage photos: My skin used to be considerably . . . brighter? Fresher? More alive? Peering at my online memories at close range, I find myself marveling that my eyes in particular used to look not just, okay, younger, but twinklier. Clearly, these were not just the golden years for my social life, but also for my skin.

In the years since, I’ve come to suffer from a condition I call Tired Mom Skin™. Symptoms include but are not limited to dark circles due to lack of sleep, the sudden appearance of fine lines and creases, and an overall dullness and dryness of complexion, as the one-two punch of careers and children don’t leave a ton of time for exfoliating, hydrating, and skin care in general. Tired Mom Skin is a look that screams, “I haven't slept past 6:30 a.m. in almost five years,” and, “What is a facial again?” Or, as new mother Cardi B recently put it on Instagram: “A bitch look fucked up in the game. My hair’s fucked up, my eyes are so dark and puffy . . . like, I’m wild pale.”

“I always look exhausted,” Lauren Gores Ireland, cofounder of skin-care brand Summer Fridays and the mother of a 1-year-old son, commiserated with me. “It’s just mom life.”

Ireland was pregnant when she and Summer Fridays cofounder Marianna Hewitt formulated their debut product, the rich, hydrating Jet Lag mask. “It was meant for tired skin, and especially for people on the go,” Gores Ireland said. “It really helps with your under eyes, with fine lines, with giving a little more ‘bounce’ to your skin.” She likens it to a “giant glass of water” for your complexion, which feels necessary, because who actually makes it to the requisite 64 ounces per day? The best part, which I later learn myself, is that, for the ultimate in exhausted people—that would be mothers—the mask doesn’t even need to be rinsed off: “It just kind of sinks into your skin. You don’t have to take 30 minutes to have a spa night in your bathroom, as much as we would all love that.” Perfect for applying and promptly passing out at 9:00 p.m.

It turns out using masks as super-hydrating moisturizers is an insider trick of the trade for Tired Mom Skin sufferers. I learned that Clark’s Botanicals Deep Moisture Mask can double as a daytime moisturizer if swiped on in a thin layer. I alternated using it as an overnight mask, and patting it on as a moisturizer under light makeup by day. After a few days, my Walking Dead complexion began to return to the land of the living, and I was officially hooked.

For the Tired Mom Skin–afflicted, regular spa appointments are few and far between. “My child is an insanely cute 20-month-old vampire who has never been a big fan of sleep and has probably stopped moving for approximately five minutes since she was born,” said Vogue’s Beauty Director Catherine Piercy. “Therefore I rely heavily on faking it.” Piercy reaches for La Prairie’s Cellular Three-Minute peel once a week, “because all I actually have is three minutes and it does the work of a 60-minute facial in terms of getting the tired, dead skin off and all the stuff out of my pores.”

Michelle Kennedy, cofounder of the moms’ meet-up app Peanut, has created her own rapid-fire, at-home spa routine to combat Tired Mom Skin (“Dry, dehydrated skin: that’s my worst look as a mama who is working, hustling, and raising a little man,” she said). She swears by “one of those weird ’80s gel masks in my freezer, which I apply to my eyes to take down puffiness” and Rodial Dragon’s Blood hydrating eye mask strips.

I’m lucky to squeeze in semiannual facials at this point, so at the subconscious urging of pretty much every woman in my Instagram stories, I turned to Drunk Elephant’s T.L.C. Sukari BabyFacial, which promises to transform “dullness” into the “youthful radiance” of yesteryear. I was skeptical that 20 minutes of this grainy, tingly mask would return immediate results—but lo and behold, after rinsing it off, I was thrilled to be proven dead wrong. BabyFacial is a magic skin genie in a little pink bottle. My skin looked suddenly smooth and even, like I just strolled out of the esthetician’s chair (minus the blotchy red patches from extractions). This, without ever leaving my pajamas! Spritzing on Herbivore’s Rose Hibiscus Coconut Water face mist, at the suggestion of my local Sephora rep, completes the warm, fuzzy, “I just got a fake facial” feeling.

“We all want a glow from within, which starts with your skin-prep routine,” said makeup artist Patrick Ta, who works with gorgeous, glowing actresses, models, and mothers including Adriana Lima and Jenna Dewan. Ta uses La Mer oil on clients “because it instantly makes the skin look hydrated and luminous; you end up needing much less makeup to get that effect.”

But of course, makeup is a major line of defense in the war against Tired Mom Skin. “Le Metier de Beaute foundation has a bit of glimmer in it, which makes everything bad disappear for special occasions,” said Jessica Sailer Van Lith, creative director at Maisonette and a mother of two girls.

After a decade backstage with makeup artists at Fashion Week, Piercy has picked up the masters’ secrets to glowing—yet quick—makeup. She uses Tom Ford Bronzing Gel on the apples of her cheeks and just around her hairline “to give me a really natural, healthy, outdoorsy effect”—all in 60 seconds flat. Glossier’s Lash Slick mascara gives her eyes some definition, while still looking natural.

Her true secret weapon, though, is Pat McGrath Labs Skin Fetish highlighter, which she applies on the tops of her cheekbones, down the bridge of her nose, on her cupid’s bow, in the center of her chin and at the inner corners of eyes. “That takes maybe 10 seconds and I just instantly look glowing and awake,” Piercy said. “I have literally been hanging on to sanity by the edge/slept two hours/had a toxic flu and put this stuff on and I looked fine.”

And of course, if all else fails, there is the entirely free, all-natural, age-old cure for Tired Mom Skin, which may, incidentally, be the hardest one to execute: Put down your phone, turn off the TV, and for the love, just go to sleep. For Sailer Van Lith, “going to bed an hour earlier usually solves everything.”

Part of CN Fashion & Beauty