The secret of beauty
Forget wrinkles – scientists have shown that maintaining your allure has more to do with the colour and tone of your skin.
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:/ Its loveliness increases; it will never/ Pass into nothingness," wrote John Keats in Endymion. Unfortunately for the beautiful, their beauty will eventually fade into nothingness with the passing of time. Nor, say scientists, is there such a thing as beauty in the eye of the beholder. Rather, men and women have remarkably similar views worldwide about what constitutes human beauty, and it is tightly linked to health, youth and, as new research shows, skin condition.
Research into skin colour is controversial, but there seems to be a great deal of consistency, with men tending to prefer lighter-skinned women. This can be explained, in evolutionary terms, by the fact that women’s skin colour fluctuates according to their menstrual cycle. It is lightest, smoothest and most free of blemishes when they are about to ovulate; biologists surmise that men subconsciously use this signal to assess the fertility of their potential mate.
However, others argue that lighter-skinned women produce more vitamin D (through the action of sunlight on skin), which also helps to boost calcium reserves (the absorption of vitamin D and calcium are linked) for pregnancy and breast-feeding.
Dr Bernard Fink, an evolutionary psychologist from the University of Goettingham, in Germany, and Dr Paul Matts, a research fellow at Procter & Gamble, the company behind Olay beauty products, have taken this further. They are looking at skin condition as an indicator of "good genes".
The cosmetic industry has long pushed the view that, at any age, skin that appears youthful is what we should all aspire to. Much of the focus has been on ironing out wrinkles. "In my industry, anti-ageing equals anti- wrinkle," says Dr Matts, "but what has emerged from my work with Dr Fink is that there is a lot more to skin ageing." His paper on the subject will shortly be published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science.
In order to better understand skin condition, Dr Matts has drawn on techniques used in car manufacturing. The sheet steel used for car body panels needs a certain degree of smoothness and Dr Matts has applied the methods used for examining steel to inspecting skin – by, for instance, projecting a pattern of light on to the surface, measuring how the skin distorts the pattern and then calculating what the topography of the surface must be in order to have created that distortion. "It takes less than a second and gives a 3D profile of the skin’s surface," he says.
As well as looking at the roughness of the skin, Matts and Fink have worked out how to measure its coloration. The main pigments that provide flesh tones are melanin, which is brown, and haemoglobin, red. The scientists predicted that skin colour, which changes with age, could be another key to our perception of ageing.
They took high-resolution digital images of 170 women between the ages of 11 and 76. Because they were interested only in skin coloration, without the distraction of features and hair, they created 170 identical virtual skulls with standard hair, bone structure and features and then electronically draped their subjects’ skin over the skulls. When these images were shown to 430 members of the public, they were able to guess how old the original women were from their skin coloration alone.
The reason is that melanin and haemoglobin are distributed unevenly as we grow older, giving us brown age spots and spider veins. "In a young, healthy face, the only contrast is due to the features – the mouth, nose and eyes – but as you age, you acquire concentrations of haemoglobin and melanin, and shadows due to lines and wrinkles, and it is this contrast that gives a major cue to our perception of age," says Dr Matts.
In a later study, the scientists showed that our eyes are drawn automatically to smooth, flawless skin. "Like it or not, if you walk into a room full of people, your eyes will focus on the face with the most even skin coloration," says Dr Matts.
In collaboration with colleagues, the pair have published more studies suggesting that while both wrinkles and uneven skin colour indicate age, wrinkles are what Dr Matts refers to as "the dominant driver for age", whereas uneven skin coloration is a dominant indicator for health.
"Fertility drops with age, giving us a subconscious determination to have a partner who is healthy because they are young,’’ says Dr Matts. ''And it is no secret that as we age, our health degenerates. Clear, unblemished skin is an indicator of health and, consciously or unconsciously, we want to signal our health by looking attractive.
"When people are going for cosmetic procedures, they might fix one aspect, but research shows you have to take both into account – which may explain some of the strange sights in Hollywood," adds Dr Matts.
So how, without the aid of a scalpel, can you best achieve the goal of looking youthful and healthy? Dr Matts believes the key is to protect the face from harmful rays. "I’m not talking about time on the beach, this is the stuff of life,’’ he says. ''Skin never forgets – chronic sun damage is cumulative. If you are interested in looking good for your age and having a blemish-free complexion, moderating sun damage is the biggest thing you can do – through changing your behaviour and using sun cream with an SPF of at least 15 and both UVA and UVB protection."
In the short term, cosmetic products with light-diffusing particles, such as micas and titanium dioxide, can help because they scatter light and create a softer focus on wrinkles. A well-applied artificial tan will also even out skin colour.
In the long term, Dr Matts says products with niacinamide are useful, as the chemical moderates melanin, eliminating blotches and brown age-spots and giving a more even skin coloration. Niacinamide reduces the transportation of melanocytes (the cells that produce melanin) to the outer layers of the skin. It also makes skin smoother by increasing the rate of cell turnover.
Other key chemicals in modern skincare are vitamin A derivatives, such as retinoic acid, which also promotes skin turnover, and peptides, some of which – like carnosine – are antioxidants that defeat damaging free radicals. Pentapeptide KTTKS, a protein used in cosmetics, helps to improve firmness by boosting collagen levels in the skin. Moisturisers that contain humectants, which pull in and retain water, such as hyaluronic acid, are also recommended by skin scientists.
There are others, though, who argue that a back-to-basics approach is best, using little more than cold water and natural oils. Emma Newman, a biochemist and project manager of Nude Skincare – a brand created by Ali Hewson, Bono’s wife – says: "You can use plant oils as cleansers and moisturisers. They are amazing as they contain omega oils. We’re told to eat them all the time, but you can also put them straight on your skin."
Procter & Gamble may not agree but, just as it’s questionable as to whether beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too are the merits of each person’s beauty regime.
* Sanjida O’Connell’s latest novel, The Naked Name of Love (John Murray), is due out this month in paperback.
(C) The Telegraph Group London 2010