A rising class of beauty entrepreneurs is made up of celebrities and the demi- celebrities known as influencers. But perhaps the most promising source of innovation is an unlikely insurgence of scientists: PhDs, from all over the world, who studied things like gene therapy and hip-hop before homing in on a new research objective — to make you look more beautiful.
PhD, chemistry, and founder of Noble Panacea
The "Noble" in Noble Panacea was inspired by its founder's credentials in more ways than one. In 2016, Sir Fraser Stoddart won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his body of research that led to the discovery of a groundbreaking encapsulation technology known as OMV, or organic molecular vessels. He has also been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his chemical endeavors. Now Stoddart has put the culmination of all that research into precisely portioned skin-care. Each "dose," as the brand calls them, comes in a recyclable packet and contains enough OMV-infused serum or moisturizer for one application.
Here's the concept: These Organic Molecular Vessels are made up of a biodegradable, renewable carbohydrate and salt. When these OMVs come in contact with the water that's naturally in our skin, they start to break down, releasing their contents onto — and into — the skin, Stoddart explains.
Furthermore, the gradual way in which these vessels break down makes them ideal for keeping active ingredients stable and keeping a steady stream coming to the skin over time. While other gradual delivery systems exist, there are very few on the market, says cosmetic chemist Ginger King, explaining that others often give ingredients an unpleasant "coated" texture.
"If you could get different additives into different OMVs, we would not only have tunable release in terms of timing; we would have programmable release, in terms of which ingredient is delivered when," Stoddart says. "It's open to an enormous amount of sophistication and ongoing research."
New York City board-certified dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum is pretty floored. "I am extremely impressed that you can package two ingredients that would otherwise inactivate each other — like niacinamide and bakuchiol — into a novel ingredient system," she says. "I would love to see long-term results head-to- head with the same skin actives with and without the OMVs."
PhD, biomedical engineering, and founder of Eighteen B
We think of silk as satiny-soft. But it's much more nuanced than that. "A spider's silk web has to be elastic enough to catch insects but tough enough that they can't fly through it," Wray says. It was precisely those qualities that spurred Wray, and her colleagues at the Kaplan Lab at Tufts School of Engineering, to research silk's uses as a scaffolding for cell growth. It could be applied to the reconstruction of bones, ligaments, and even delicate corneal tissue.
"I was in the lab working on technologies I knew would not see the light of day for 20 years," Wray says. "I was like, 'How can I make an impact now?'" Wray realized then that she wanted to leverage silk's tissue biocompatibility in a cosmetic formula.
A few years later, she began working at a Silicon Valley materials company, Bolt Threads, that manufactured silk by relying on fermentation, not animals, as a vegan way to make large quantities of silk. Wray pitched them her idea for silk-based skin-care that would focus on skin barrier protection that creates a scaffolding to support the skin, rather than blasting it with active ingredients. And Eighteen B was born.
The line consists of a serum, moisturizers, and an eye cream, all of which contain the company's trademarked silk polypeptide, B-silk protein. This polypeptide forms a lightweight, breathable barrier on top of the skin that acts as a humectant. "Silk protein comes in powder form, and when it is activated by water, it puffs up and creates these water-filled pillows on the skin that deliver hydration while also creating a strong yet lightweight barrier," Wray explains. Other humectants hydrate, Wray says, but they don't also defend your skin's outer layer. With silk protein, you can get softer, plumper skin that's less vulnerable to environmental aggressors, like pollution, thanks to a beefed- up barrier function.
"People are like, 'What are you doing to your skin? It looks great!'" Wray says. "I'm just so happy that people notice."
It's not the first time fermented silk has been used in skin-care, says King, but these formulas can still be a valuable addition to your skin-care routine. "I love the idea of creating silk via fermentation as a scaffolding for the skin to create a thicker, plumper epidermal barrier," Nussbaum says.
PhD, American studies, and founder of Dehiya Beauty
Chae Reddy is an entirely different kind of scientist — she's a social scientist. She got her undergraduate degree in African American studies before earning her PhD in American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. "I decided I wanted to look at women of color, specifically black women, growing up in the golden era of hip-hop and how it formed their conception of who they are," Chae Reddy says.
What she didn't expect was to dive into African beauty rituals. But a couple of years after graduation, Chae Reddy was on vacation in Marrakech when she stumbled upon charming little knobby, cotton-covered disks in a market. She learned that they were called mihakkat and that they have been used by Moroccan women to add exfoliating benefits as they cleansed their faces and bodies. Chae Reddy immediately knew she wanted to make the mihakkat available to women in America, as part of a beauty brand that would contribute to a broader understanding of African beauty.
"I wanted to illustrate the diversity of African beauty," she says. But that wasn't the only gem Chae Reddy encountered in the medina that day: "I met a fourth-generation herbalist who taught me everything there was to know about ancient beauty rituals in Morocco," she says. "Not being Moroccan myself, I have a responsibility to honor the history, so I got the herbalist's input [on local beauty traditions]."
She applied that knowledge when sourcing materials for her brand, Dehiya Beauty, to use for its then-nascent mihakkat (above) and companion cleanser. She used clay from the Atlas Mountains to form the hard disk of the mihakkat; plant-dyed organic cotton for the scrubby outer cover; and argan oil ethically sourced from female-owned co-ops for the cleanser. And she learned as much as she could about Moroccan culture too. "The word Berber is actually considered derogatory, and it means 'barbarian.' I've seen skin-care brands inspired by Moroccan traditions and they use the word Berber," she says. The correct name to use? "Amazigh. It means 'free people.'"
PhD, pharmaceutical sciences, and founder of Good Science Beauty
Saffie-Siebert spent most of her career doing research at the intersection of gene therapy, oncology treatment, dermatology, and drug delivery systems. It's as difficult as it sounds. Maybe more. Saffie-Siebert recalls the day she was approached to turn a dark, chunky metalloid (something that's not a metal but looks like one) into a new method of drug delivery: "I thought, There is definitely a language problem here. Do they realize that drug delivery means inside or on the body?"
That metalloid was silicon, a semiconductor used in everything from mobile phones and laptops to military-grade weapons. It can also be found in nature (e.g., in sand) and in our own bodies. Because of those qualities — and the fact that silicon is an essential micronutrient for collagen production and healthy skin — Saffie-Siebert decided to put it to use in skin-care formulas. It's capable of delivering active ingredients, like hydrating hyaluronic acid and skin-softening omega 3s, into the dermis of skin, she says.
The resulting line of topical creams, masks, and serums is called Good Science Beauty, and each product contains silicon. "We wrap silicon in lipids and amino acids, and the combination acts like a 'carrier bag' for ingredients. Once we have built that up, we put more [active ingredients] inside of the bag," Saffie- Siebert explains. It's more sophisticated than a lot of the other ingredient- delivery systems you'll find in skin-care.
As an independent study from the University of Helsinki explains, silicon leverages a "controlled-release carrier function" to "target [delivery to] specific cells" (a property that translates to skin-care, says Saffie- Siebert). When we first tried Good Science Beauty's vitamin C–containing 004-Br: Skin Brightening Cream, we noticed how quickly it sank in and how it made skin look instantly plump (thanks to a hefty dose of hydrating glycerin) without any slippery layer. (Another standout is the 001-Pu: Purifying Face Cream, which contains astringent willow bark and antimicrobial oligopeptide-10.)
Though there are other skin-care lines with silicon, Nussbaum says the deeper penetration this product aims to provide is crucial. "As we age, the epidermis becomes harder to penetrate; therefore, this may be more effective at delivering these ingredients to the desired location," she says.
PhD, biological science, and founder of Acaderma
It was clear Hu was a rising star in the scientific community: By the third year of her doctoral studies at the University of Hong Kong, she'd won an award from the International Federation of Societies of Cosmetic Chemists for her discovery of novel ingredients for treating hyperpigmentation. "The award encouraged me to do more, and not just keep all these discoveries in academia," Hu says. "There are thousands of [phytochemistry] publications [about cosmetic ingredients], and very few of them are applied to any beauty products."
So Hu decided, over the next few years, to skip an associate professorship she'd been offered and instead turn the unique ingredients she'd researched during her time in a lab into a series of serums and (new this month) cleansers and toners called Acaderma.
Her award-winning, spot-fading ingredient, an extract from the Morus root, is in the Star Light Spot Corrector. To soothe, calm redness, and repair the skin barrier, an extract from the Kinkeliba plant that she discovered in Senegal is in the Oasis Barrier Booster (she isolated a special group of polysaccharides from the plant that have water-binding properties on skin). And her skin- smoothing Chrono Warp Restoring Essence features another ingredient she worked with, a polyphenol from the Picea leaf, that can prevent the cross-linking process known as glycation that causes your collagen and elastin to harden and lose their bounce.
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