When it comes to the integrity of the skin and how to delay the visible signs of ageing, it's for the most part to do with food and lifestyle. A good place to start is earlier my article here. Red light helps too! Also, putting the right substances on your skin will make a positive difference, however you might be surprised to learn that many of the commercial "anti-ageing" lotions are comprised of ingredients that can actually lead to accelerated ageing, and worse still, end up in your bloodstream and have systemic effects. Not long after my last conversation with Georgi Dinkov, Biochemistry genius, researcher and creator of Idealabs, I quizzed him on his clinical research regarding maintaining healthy, youthful skin, and the effects of what we use topically.
One of the major learnings for me since finding Ray Peat's work in 2011 was the importance of restricting polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) in the diet due to their volatility and subsequent detrimental effects on the metabolic rate, suppression of the immune system, how they accelerate ageing and promote stress (etc). When my clients start to become conscious of PUFAs and eradicate them from their pantry, they then begin to notice the ingredient lists of their skincare products too, for example oils such as sunflower, safflower, almond, grape seed (and others listed here). The skin being our largest organ, how important do you think it is that we avoid topical application of PUFAs?
Well I think it’s hugely important and I'll give you an example. If you went out in the sun to sunbathe and you got burnt, most of the damage that you see, the redness and then the swelling and the peeling of the skin, most of this is actually due to the sunlight reacting with PUFA to cause lipid peroxidation on the surface of the skin, and in the first half an inch or so under the skin. So it's actually the PUFA reacting directly with the sunlight that's causing this unpleasant reaction, this sunburn. So sunburn is mostly a PUFA reaction, and then because the sunlight causes the polyunsaturated fats to oxidize, it also causes them to react with iron and then this thing called lipofuscin, also known as age spots or liver spots. And these spots increase with age.
So these spots require PUFAs in order to form, not only on the skin but in the other organs too. Also they're powerful inhibitors of metabolism. So you can immediately see most of the ageing of the skin is actually driven just by PUFA being present. The sunlight is causing the PUFA to react with iron and then peroxidise, and also the skin cells, just like in almost every cell in the body, metabolise the PUFA into the fatty acid called arachidonic acid. This fatty acid is the precursor to the two powerful families of inflammatory mediators: the prostaglandins and leukotrienes; these are implicated in virtually every type of chronic disease from cancer to diabetes to cardiovascular disease to Alzheimer's etc…
So just by putting PUFA on your skin not only are you ageing your skin faster because of the reaction with the sun but even if you’re not exposing yourself to the sun that much you're basically supplying the cells with PUFA which then metabolizes into this inflammatory fatty acid arachidonic acid, and furthermore they’re metabolized into these other fatty derivatives; prostaglandins and the leukotrienes.
Therefore it’s really not a good idea to apply any kind of PUFA whether it’s an omega 3 or omega 6. And even if we forget about the inflammatory reaction and the lipid peroxidation reaction because of the structure of PUFAs and their unsaturatedness, they're actually in themselves estrogenic and it has been shown that if you apply estrogen to the skin it ages the skin very quickly because it stimulates the production of cortisol. Estrogen stimulates the very production of cortisol, and cortisol is known to induce every known symptom of ageing if its' elevated long enough in high enough amounts. This study basically confirms the lower your cortisol levels, the younger you look.
So by applying PUFAs to the skin you’re promoting more cortisol production in the skin, the skin being a very potent steroid synthesizing organ, actually your largest organ so to speak. You really don't want to give it estrogen or any kind of a signal to tell it to produce these pro-ageing hormones such as cortisol or aldosterone or even prolactin. Prolactin is produced by the pituitary, but also in some cells in the body. There is the suspicion that skin cells can also produce some prolactin by themselves. So we have another reason not to apply PUFAs to the skin. There is really nothing good about these fatty acids. We're just not meant to eat them and we're not meant to put them on our skin. They're created as a defensive mechanism for plants to protect them from pests, like us! And from animals like, for example, sheep, but sheep have the defensive ability to destroy these fatty acids; they have a three chamber rumen and they have particular bacteria in their rumen that enables them to saturate the PUFA from the plants they eat. Our bacteria cannot saturate PUFAs as far as we know. The only defence we have against the PUFA is vitamin E or eating saturated fat with it which can actually block the effects of the PUFAs to a degree. This is yet more evidence that tells us we don't need PUFA. It doesn’t do us any good.
Particularly in the case of body moisturisers, sunscreens etc. how much of a reality/concern is it that they end up in our bloodstream? Just to name a few particularly concerning ingredients contained in most commercial products: preservatives, titanium dioxide, aluminium compounds, polymers, silicones, petroleum derivatives, mineral oil etc. found even in "organic" products. Many see the dermis as an impermeable barrier so don't see this as a concern.
A good example: the ingredients in sunscreens absorb systemically, and show up in the bloodstream for days. The American health authorities have been telling people for decades that there's absolutely nothing to worry about, just keep splattering that toxic sunscreen all over you and your children and babies. It's perfectly safe! And then we're excusing it by telling ourselves that nothing absorbs. I mean if there's any toxicity it's only going to be on the surface anyway. But guess what: That's not what this study found.
And unfortunately some of the things that are used to make sunscreens are known endocrine disruptors. So now people are freaking out and the FDA is actually scrambling to work with the major vendors and say you've got to do something and limit the absorption of these chemicals because you're not going to be able to completely remove these chemicals from the sunscreen, because that's what actually gives sunscreen its ability to block the sunlight. But at least you've got to do something to limit its absorption.
When this study was published, the FDA did a public solicitation for comments on this topic and it was completely flooded; the web page that the FDA set up went down because so many people went on it and tried to submit a comment. So it is a big deal. I mean it's not on the news but I went to that page and there was a message from the director of the FDA saying thank you for coming but unfortunately we can't take your comment right now because we're overwhelmed. And they said they received something like 11 million comments. That's massive.
What do you say to those who make claims of 'benefits' of the so-called "Essential Fatty Acids" and other Polyunsaturated oils applied directly to the skin?
Well I want to see the mechanism of action. If it's a legitimate claim it must include a very specific definition of what “beneficial” is. For example are they measuring some biomarkers? Are they measuring things like skin elasticity, skin thickness? Or are they measuring the turnover of the skin cells. Some companies are particularly nefarious; they will set up two groups and then they'll ask people to subjectively rate which group looks healthier. But the problem is that initially the PUFA can actually, because it thins the skin, make the skin look deceptively a little better. But in the long run that is actually really detrimental because by thinning the skin it compromises the protective barrier and also reduces the capacity of the skin to synthesize steroids.
And this: * Later on I had further discussions with Dr. Peat on this topic, in particular regarding the popular skincare claim that linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated "Essential Fatty Acid" is necessary and beneficial applied to the skin, that it's "healthy" because it's found in our sebum, and that oils high in linoleic acid improve skin conditions:
"The first thing is that arguments should be rational. Newborns generally have some Mead acids (saturated) in their tissues, and that’s taken as a sign of an essential fatty acid deficiency, but the tissues, especially the brain, progressively lose Mead acids as the PUFA content increases, with the mature and senile brains containing massive amounts of PUFA; the metabolic rate and usable energy production decline in proportion to the increasing PUFA. The smell of freshly cut grass consists of breakdown products of oxidizing PUFA; old people are often said to have “green smell,” i.e., to emit oxidized fragments of PUFA. Acrolein, that damages the aged brain, is derived from omega-3 fats.
George Burr thought he had explained why linoleic acid prevented skin disease, and based the idea of “essential fatty acids” on that. He showed, but misinterpreted the experiment, that the added linoleic acid drastically decreased the metabolic rate. Later experiments showed that his diet was deficient in nutrients including vitamin B6, and that lowering their metabolic rate cured vitamin decifiencies, that were cured by the vitamins, without the supposedly essential fats. His work was disregarded as mistaken for almost 20 years, then it was revived by the seed oil industry that wanted justification for selling their products as food."
In contrast, what are the effects to the skin of the highly saturated fats? The fact that they are stable when exposed to heat light and oxygen, and not readily oxidised, they're be an obvious and attractive choice for the base of a skin-protective, moisturising potion.
Firstly regarding saturated fatty acids. There was a study in Japan (links here and here) of the saturated fatty acid called Pentadecanoic Acid. It's a 15 carbon long saturated fatty acid. They found out by accident that when applied to rats it caused increased hair growth. So in Japan Pentadecanoic Acid is actually a patented pharmaceutical drug for treating hair loss and then the two studies that were published about it showed that applying this fatty acid to the skin dramatically increased the rate of ATP synthesis in the skin cells. Skin cells are just like any other cell in the body; the more ATP they synthesize through oxidative phosphorylation via the Krebs cycle and the electron transport chain, the healthier they are. So ultimately it all comes down to how much energy they are able to produce. The same effects were not seen with the polyunsaturated fats which is not surprising of course, as PUFAs raise inflammation and cortisol and act like estrogen, etc.. We don’t expect PUFAs to be beneficial for metabolic health and that's exactly what the Japanese studies found. So first of all it does look like saturated fats increase energy production of cells, including skin cells. Secondly, the more saturated fat you absorb in your skin, the less lipid peroxidation you will have occur from the stored PUFAs, even if you expose yourself to intensive sunlight without sunscreen. And that's really probably one of the major ageing factors to the skin: being exposed to sunlight while having too much PUFA in/on the skin. Saturated fat can actually block that effect. So the more saturated fat gets in to your skin cells the less lipid peroxidation you’ll have.
Saturated fats also raise cholesterol. So when you apply saturated fats to your skin, the skin being the largest steroid synthesising organ, the skin cells will take the saturated fat and synthesise more cholesterol. And it's been shown that one of the most reliable biomarkers of not only skin cell ageing but any cell ageing in the body is the decrease of free cholesterol inside of the cell. So even though the cholesterol in the bloodstream rises with age the actual free cholesterol in your cells gets lower and lower with age, and by providing saturated fat you actually kind of reverse it by giving the cells the raw material to synthesize it. Also cholesterol in itself has a very protective stabilizing effect against lipid peroxidation as well as against many other damaging things like nanoparticles that float around in our increasingly polluted air. There are these things called micro particulate matter; they're basically these tiny particles that can get inside you pores and over time cause a chronic inflammatory reaction in your skin . Read here. That's why it's very common when you go to a beauty salon for them to want to exfoliate your skin. They will sell you these products and brushes to clear out the pores. Well when you have plenty of cholesterol in the skin cells, the cells are much more resistant to having these things get inside the pores which cause inflammatory reactions such as pimples. And finally cholesterol is the raw material for synthesizing the steroids, and as this study and this, found, when they applied steroids such as progesterone, testosterone and pregnenolone to the skin of elderly people, there was a remarkable decrease in visible skin ageing (based on the number of wrinkles per square millimetre). Really remarkable. You can see it clearly in the pictures; those not treated had marked wrinkling and crows’ feet, and then the people who were treated, their skin was pretty much smooth.
So yes there’s multiple beneficial effects of saturated fat. And if you can combine that with things like cholesterol, and perhaps Vitamin E, these protective effects only increase.
And this: * Comments on topical cholesterol from Dr. Peat:
“In the cosmetic industry they are starting to put cholesterol in cosmetic products. In effect it does rejuvenate the cells; it restores their ability to divide healthfully.
Experiments show that if you add cholesterol to the skin it restores the cell function: the live cells become energised and the dead, flaky cells aren’t produced when there’s adequate cholesterol. So they are actually adding cholesterol to the cosmetic creams, and that biologically is very appropriate because the reason old people need more vitamin D is because vitamin D is made when sunlight hits the cholesterol in the skin, and if you’re old the skin has only half as much cholesterol as a young person’s, you produce half as much vitamin D, so an old person needs twice as much sunlight as a young person.”
Moisturisers made of exclusively highly saturated fats are hard to come by in the skin care market, thus why we're making our own. Was it a similar thing for you when you decided to start making your own supplement line Idealabs? Was it out of frustration due to the lack of supplements available that not only do what they claim to do but were free of unhealthy excipients?
For me, it was a combination of frustration that the vast majority of products on the market were full of toxic stuff, and worse even – contained ingredients with little to no evidence behind them. In addition, I like to experiment as this is always a source of more direct knowledge than reading about other people’s experiments. Finally, my relatives, friends and members of the Ray Peat forum where I often post had been asking me for years to develop something out of my biochemical “hobby” and come up with products that would benefit various issues they have been struggling with. There is also an old saying that “those with the knowledge to act have the duty to act” and assuming I have any knowledge, I thought the time is right for me to do something about this “hobby” of mine.
How is it that these kind of old fashioned ingredients (like cholesterol, lanolin, urea, camphor) really lost favour with manufacturers over the decades? Is it purely a profit thing?
Camphoric acid was actually once a common drug in the United States, it was part of the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Book which included all the drugs at the time and it was approved as a drug in the 1890s and it was used all the way up until the 1940s. And that's around about the time when Ray said things started to get really commercialized, autocratic. So he was saying that around the 1940s the pharmaceutical industry took over and all of these generic things that people had access to, were suddenly less available. There was a period when they basically destroyed the supply line so that people no longer had access to them. Little by little, it was a very deliberate decision. Also just because something is old fashioned, used maybe one hundred years ago, that shouldn’t make it irrelevant. If it worked and made your skin healthier back then, it’s probably going to work the same way today. Long story short, these ingredients disappeared because a very concerted effort was made by large companies that went out to destroy the supply (from the small grocery stores they put out of business) and eventually make these things unavailable. It takes about a generation on average to forget about a product. So after one generation, people simply stopped asking for them, the pharmaceutical industry could replace them with whatever they wanted to, and nobody asks any questions.
You can find more of Georgi's work at:
his research website
IdeaLabs supplementson the Ray Peat Forum posting as @Haidut.