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(R)Evolution in Skin Care through EpigeneticsEpigenetics Research | Expert Interview

More than 80 years ago, British scientist Conrad Hal Waddington recognized that there is a kind of link between our genome and the environment. He coined the term “epigenetics” to describe this connection. But it was not until the early 2000s that epigenetics became the focus of international research. Beiersdorf AG, which invested 291 million euros in research & development (> 1,000 employees) in fiscal year 2022 alone, is one of the pioneers in skin epigenetics. Dr. Marc Winnefeld, the Head of the Applied Skin Research Department at the company, and Dr. Elke Grönniger, Laboratory Manager for Skin Aging, explain in the following interview what is behind the patented SKIN AGE CLOCK technology – and what effects epigenetically active substances might have in skin creams. 

You have been researching epigenetics at Beiersdorf since 2008. What makes the job so exciting?

Marc: I am fascinated by the work because we constantly gain new insights into the way our skin works and the causes of its functional limitations during aging. Epigenetics is an important mechanism for the regulation of biological processes. You have to bear in mind that skin aging is a highly complex, multifactorial process that the scientific community still does not understand 100 percent despite numerous valuable findings. For example, it has long been assumed that the way we age is more or less genetically set in stone. But the field of epigenetics has permanently disproved this. In our research, we aim to further decipher aging and recognized the potential of epigenetics early on. This is why we have been active in the field for many years.

Identical genetic material does not automatically equal identical biological age. This is due to our individual epigenetic patterns.

Elke: Let me add an example: Identical twins have the same genetic material, i.e., identical prerequisites to age in the same way, if this were genetically preprogrammed. This was the assumption for a long time. But the aging of identical twins can be quite different, which is due to the deviating external factors, meaning our lifestyle, nutrition, stress, UV radiation, etc.
The mechanism by which environmental factors can influence the activity of our genes is described by epigenetics. We were among the first to identify extensive epigenetic changes during skin aging. We published these results in the scientific journal Plos Genetics in 2010.1

Beiersdrof Epigenetic expert Marc Winnefeld
We have now reached a stage of research that brings substantial epigenetic rejuvenation of skin cells within reach.
Dr. Marc Winnefeld

How does this mechanism that is responsible for the different types of aging work precisely?

Marc: Our skin cells “use” more than 15,000 genes. These genes can also be thought of as our individual “skin code” that is read out by the cells as they go about their daily tasks – renewing, repairing, producing collagen etc. As we age, and depending on external factors, blockages appear on the skin code. This phenomenon is also known as “DNA methylation” and leaves an individual epigenetic pattern. These blockages can cause individual genes to be silenced, resulting in “readout errors” of the code, so that the cell can no longer fully run its biological processes. But the good news is that this silencing is reversible, and numerous studies show that positive external influences can reactivate the silenced genes. So, the vital appearance of our skin is, to a great extent, the result of a precise regulation of its epigenetic pattern and its skin code. It is a matter of switching on the positive mechanisms and switching off the skin-aging mechanisms. And this can include, in addition to a healthy lifestyle, epigenetically active ingredients in cosmetics.

Does that mean we will soon look like we did when we were 40 although we are 60, thanks to a cream?

Elke: This would indeed be asking a bit too much. We probably cannot fulfill the dream of “eternal youth” by reaching into the cream jar, at least not yet. But I am convinced of one thing: With our epigenetics expertise, we will significantly change the way skin ages. Our aim is not just to compensate for individual deficiencies in skin cells, but to rejuvenate them from the ground up. Beiersdorf has a unique selling proposition in this context: We have developed and patented a biological “age clock” for the skin, our SKIN AGE CLOCK technology. 

Our aim is not just to compensate for individual deficiencies in skin cells, but to rejuvenate them from the ground up.
Dr. Elke Grönniger

Could you please briefly explain for “layperson“ what this means?

Elke: Yes, sure. This algorithm is a real key technology: By reading out the epigenetic pattern, we can determine the biological age of the skin very precisely. What’s more, it enables us to identify and select active ingredients and create product solutions that positively modulate the epigenetic pattern. In fact, this means not only slowing down aging processes, but also turning back the skin’s biological clock, thereby substantially improving the functional capacity of the skin cells again. That way, we can make a significant contribution to “healthy aging” for our consumers. 

Beiersdorf Epigenetic Research
Using a chip, scientists measure around 850,000 methylation sites in the genome to better understand the blockages responsible for skin aging.

Marc: Allow me to back this up with a few more figures: We can now measure around 850,000 so-called methylation sites in the genome using chips. This helps us understand which blockages are responsible for skin aging. We identified the first model active ingredients with epigenetic activity back in 2012. Since then, our experts have scrutinized more than 50,000 substances and extracts. The development of the skin-specific “age clock” is an important milestone in anti-aging research. We received the patent for this at the end of 2021. And we have been steadily developing this technology further ever since. We are now at a stage of research that brings substantial epigenetic rejuvenation of skin cells within reach. 

What is the greatest challenge in the development of novel skin creams based on epigenetically active substances?

Marc: As researchers you need plenty of perseverance and a certain tolerance for frustration. At first glance, one works many hours in vain, but progress can only be made because of failures or setbacks. Once you find a suitable active ingredient that has successfully overcome all of the “hurdles” in various test series, the next big challenge follows: How can this natural substance be stably integrated into a cream base so that, on the one hand, the product develops its full effect over a longer period of time and, on the other hand, a pleasant skin feeling is created after application?

Elke (adds): We can draw on our more than 140 years of expertise in the development of high-quality skin care solutions. This close collaboration between application-oriented research and product development is also what makes our job so exciting. 

Thank you both so much for these fascinating insights.

Find out more on our fascinating Epigenetics research on our website.

1 Grönniger E, Weber B, Heil O, Peters N, Stäb F, et al. (2010) Aging and Chronic Sun Exposure Cause Distinct Epigenetic Changes in Human Skin. PLoS Genet 6(5): e1000971. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1000971

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Kathrin Erbar

About the editor:

Kathrin takes us on a journey to the fascinating field of research and development at Beiersdorf. Before exploring Beiersdorf’s DNA, she was doing the communication for HR related topics, such as diversity, leadership or New Work. She also used to be responsible for financial communications at Beiersdorf for several years.