Using DNA Tests to Personalize Skin Care

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LONDON — What’s being billed as the future of skin care starts suspiciously like a visit to the dentist: with a mouthwash gargle. That’s to eliminate debris that may interfere with a good saliva sample, from which DNA will be extracted and serums tailored to one’s genetic blueprint.

The test is from a company called GeneU (pronounced “gene you”) and performed at its nine-month-old shop on New Bond Street, which looks like a cross between a science fiction movie set and a silver-gray-and-red-dipped Apple store — perhaps fittingly, because the DNA test is done by a flash-drive-size microchip. It’s administered by one of a handful of improbably dewy-skinned beauties who also happen to have Ph.D.s.

Unlike other DNA tests, which are sent to labs and take at least two weeks to complete, GeneU’s in-store test is done in 30 minutes. Currently, it looks only at variations in two genes: one that contains instructions for how fast your body degrades collagen and the other for antioxidant protection.

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Nick Rhodes, left, and Christofer Toumazou of GeneU. Credit Lauren Fleishman for The New York Times

Results are fed, along with answers to a short lifestyle questionnaire, into an algorithm, which produces the two of the company’s 18 serums that are the best match. (The formulations are based on ingredients and concentrations drawn from peer-reviewed research.)

The cost: £600, or roughly $940, for the test plus a two week’s supply. For reasons of privacy, test results are destroyed; only the recommended serums are saved.

The theory behind GeneU is that out-of-the-box (or really, jar or pot) skin care may be loaded with potentially beneficial ingredients, but they are not necessarily what your skin specifically needs. If you are, say, someone whose MMP1 gene is programmed to degrade collagen slowly, GeneU’s theory is that it’s a waste of time (and money) to spend years slathering creams that claim to boost its production; doing so won’t turn the clock back at warp speed (if at all), and may even clog your pores or cause other damage. It seems that in skin care, as with medicine, more is not necessarily better.

“For us it’s about giving people the right concentrations that their skin can metabolize,” said Christofer Toumazou, the company’s founder and a professor at Imperial College London.

Dr. Toumazou is not a dermatologist; he’s an electrical engineer by training, one who has developed an artificial pancreas for Type I diabetes, an artificial ear implant that allows deaf children to hear and a wireless heart monitor. He became interested in DNA more than a decade ago when his son was found to have a genetic disease.

The company’s creative director is — wait for it — Nick Rhodes, Duran Duran’s keyboard player, who’s no stranger to beauty products. He wore the same pink Yves Saint Laurent lipstick as his bride on his wedding day in 1984.

Double-blind clinical trials over 18 months suggest that GeneU reduces fine lines and wrinkles by up to 30 percent in 12 weeks, Dr. Toumazou said. The results have not yet been published. Still, Dr. S. Tyler Hollmig, an assistant professor of dermatologic surgery at Stanford University, is skeptical (though he described what GeneU is doing as “really cool and admirable”).

“It’s the environment that drives aging,” Dr. Hollmig said. “If you have one identical twin growing up in Belize and the other in Belgium, their skin is going to look completely different.” He also pointed out that despite the fuss about antioxidants (raise your hand if you’ve increased your blueberry intake in the last decade), there is, somewhat unbelievably, no strong peer-reviewed research showing that they actually do much to stave off signs of age.

Dr. Toumazou plans to better address the environment issue with the next iteration of his DNA test, which will focus on epigenetics (that is, whether and how your genes switch on and off because of your lifestyle). He also plans to add even more options for customization by including tests for other genes related to skin health, like those that control skin’s elasticity and hyperpigmentation.

GeneU isn’t the only company offering skin care tailored to genetics. SkinShift in Austin, Tex., outsources its $99 DNA test, then suggests, based on what it determines is the highest priority for your skin, some combination drawn from an available pool of four serums and five nutritional supplements. None cost more than $75. Like Dr. Toumazou, SkinShift’s founder, Dr. Ruthie Harper, is not a dermatologist; she’s an internist.

Dr. Hollmig is equally skeptical about SkinShift and, though he was more impressed with GeneU, admitted that the only major difference between the two may be the cost. GeneU’s technology is shinier, and it offers more options for customization, but skin-aging studies with many ingredients (like antioxidants) have mostly not been well-controlled for specific formulation and dose, adequate sample size or randomized design, so it’s not known for sure if they work. The idea, then, of a carefully tailored amount is almost irrelevant.

GeneU grew out of a chance meeting about three years ago, when Dr. Toumazou was seated next to Mr. Rhodes on a private jet from London to a sheikh friend’s birthday party in Venice. (Dr. Toumazou had no idea who Mr. Rhodes was until his wife whispered it.) Mr. Rhodes encouraged Dr. Toumazou to start his own company, instead of just licensing technology.

“I’ve used everything from the cheapest thing you can find in the drugstore to the most expensive top-of-the-line serums,” Mr. Rhodes said. “This to me was like a magnet. You’re taking out all the guesswork.” He said he has seen an improvement in fine lines since using GeneU’s products. (The company has been pleasantly surprised by interest from men; Mr. Rhodes thinks the techie aspect of it appeals to them.)

Mr. Rhodes designed the shop, including its Mondrian-esque photographs on the wall (actually enlarged images of Dr. Toumazou’s microchips) and recruited Antony Price, the designer of Duran Duran’s fluorescent suits in its “Rio” video, to create staff uniforms of silver silk pants and matching tops with standing collars.

Mr. Rhodes also nixed Dr. Toumazou’s original name, Genonics. It “wasn’t as hook-y,” he said, ever the songwriter.

Courtesy The New York Times