FAQ: What you need to know about Epigenetics

  • The word “epigenetics” is composed of the Greek prefix “epi”, which translates as “on”, “over”, or “in addition to”, and the word “genetics”. According to the most common definition, epigenetics is actually a type of additional genetics. It is considered a link between external influences, for example diet, sun exposure, pollution as well as stress, and our genes. Epigenetics helps to determine under which circumstances which gene is silenced and when it is switched on again. 

  • The discovery that there are some mechanisms in our genome that cause certain genes to be activated and others not, is more than 80 years old. At that time, the structure of human DNA with its approximately 23,000 genes was still unknown. The British developmental biologist, geneticist and philosopher Conrad Hal Waddington (1905-1975) is considered the pioneer of epigenetics. But it was not until the early 2000s, with the increasing importance of the so-called life sciences, that epigenetics moved into the focus of international research. Our Beiersdorf scientists have been active in this young field of research for more than 15 years – and have published numerous papers in renowned specialist media.

  • Epigenetic mechanisms are involved in determining when which gene is read or silenced. All this takes place without changing the genetic information in the genome (mutations). Instead, small, chemical molecules are attached to the DNA (cf. “epi”, Greek for “on”). This process, called methylation, can be reversed – in contrast to mutation. As we age, the pattern of epigenetic marks changes in characteristic ways.

  • The totality of the genes of a cell is called genome, the totality of its epigenetic structures is called epigenome. Every human being has an individual genome (“fingerprint”) and this is contained in all our body cells in the form of DNA. The epigenome of individual body cells can differ greatly from one another. It depends, for example, on the age of the cell and the type of tissue or organ from which it originates. Even neighboring cells can theoretically have a different past – and thus also different epigenomes. 

  • The chronological age is based on our year of birth. Biological age, on the other hand, describes our physical condition and – depending on our lifestyle – can sometimes differ greatly from our age according to our birth certificate. Very obviously, this is reflected by our largest organ, the skin: in the course of life, external factors such as nutrition, sun exposure, environmental pollution, stress, exercise have a positive or negative effect on it. The resulting changes form an individual epigenetic pattern that can reversibly turn on and off some biological mechanisms – directly affecting the biological age of the skin and its appearance. Our individual epigenetic pattern thus translates into the biological age of our skin and explains why some people look younger or older than they actually are.

  • Japanese people like to drink green tea. The fact that regular consumption has a positive effect on cancer statistics can be proven with the help of epigenetic research. When unfermented tea leaves are brewed, a substance with the complicated name epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) is released. EGCG reactivates cancer-fighting processes that are epigenetically silent, especially in older people. Green tea acts like a “peeling” for the gene sequence and reactivates these processes. Furthermore, studies have shown that a healthy lifestyle, including e.g., a healthy diet, sufficient exercise and sleep, can have a positive effect on biological age.2

    2 Source: Fitzgerald et al.: Potential reversal of epigenetic age using a diet and lifestyle intervention: a pilot randomized clinical trial, AGING 2021, Vol. 13, No. 7

  • Skin research has been our passion for more than 140 years. In 1911, Beiersdorf founded modern skin care with NIVEA, the world’s first stable skin cream. Numerous innovations have followed since then. For example, more than 25 years ago we successfully launched the first anti-aging skin care product containing the active ingredient Q10 on the mass market. We remain committed to this spirit of research and innovation to this day. We are convinced that our understanding of epigenetics will play a decisive role in enabling us to substantially influence skin aging. With new products based on epigenetically active substances, we want to come closer in the future to many people’s dream of turning back the skin’s “age clock” a little. Ultimately, the focus of our globally positioned skin care company is on maintaining skin health so that everyone feels good in their skin – no matter their age.

  • Beiersdorf scientists have decades of in-depth experience in skin biology and aging. Epigenetics is an important mechanism for the regulation of biological processes that contribute to aging. We have been conducting intensive research in the field of epigenetics since 2008 and are among the leading experts on skin epigenetics. We were among the first to identify comprehensive epigenetic changes during skin aging and published this as early as 2010. In 2013, we used transcriptome sequencing to explore for the first time how age-related epigenetic changes affect skin gene expression. In 2016, we developed a skin cell “age clock” for which we received a patent in 2021. This unique technology helps us find novel skin care solutions that make people look younger than they really are.

  • No, we can allay this possible fear of consumers 100 percent. A change in the genetic makeup is ruled out.

  • The development of so-called epigenetic clocks was a milestone in ageing research. According to this concept, an epigenetic clock ticks in every cell in sync with our life. Our skin code is the clockwork in this context. Over time, certain chemical modifications cause it to “rust”, so to speak, and the skin cells are no longer as functional. This phenomenon, known as methylation (DNA methylation is the longest known and best understood epigenetic mark), results in a pattern. To read and learn from it, algorithms have been developed to interpret epigenetic information holistically. The result predicts how old a cell actually is – and whether it corresponds to the year of birth.

  • The SKIN AGE CLOCK is a skin-specific age clock. It was developed by Beiersdorf scientists and is patented since 2021. The algorithm behind it is a genuine key technology: to date, Beiersdorf scientists have analyzed skin samples from over 1,000 people. They have measured over 850,000 methylation points per person to find out which of these blockages are associated with skin aging. In addition, by reading this epigenetic pattern, the technology allows us to predict the age of the skin very precisely. That way, we can identify natural agents that positively modulate the skin’s epigenetic pattern and turn back the skin’s biological age. We continue to optimize our AGE CLOCK technology through continuous training of the algorithm.