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Genetic Linkage

Make-up: What's DNA Got To Do With It?

I couldn’t help but stare at the ad: the sleek double helix winding behind the coiled container of makeup looked eerily like the covers of my human genetics textbook and upcoming book about gene therapy, both of which have DNA as a backdrop to faces. The standard beige goo that is Revlon’s Age Defying with DNA Advantage™ cream makeup swirls symmetrically upward, resembling more a soft-serve ice cream cone before the indentations are licked away than it does the molecule of life. I decided to investigate.

Anti-aging claims on cosmetic products have long intrigued me, for the only real way to stop the aging process – changes to the body over time -- is to die. The FDA apparently agrees, having maintained a “Yellow List” of companies presenting “skin care products labeled as anti-aging creams” since 1987, the agency’s most recent warning issuing on April 8, 2011. But as a geneticist, I’m willing to forgive the time stoppage; I’m more interested in how my DNA might benefit from makeup.

I emailed Revlon, curious as to the nature of the trademarked substances supposedly advantageous to my DNA. And I got an answer! “Our data is (sic) proprietary, however, the scientific literature is full of information discussing the protective benefits of sunscreens and antioxidants on prevention of cellular damage including DNA. Both of these ingredients are in our product,” wrote Mary M. Daniel, Senior Consumer Information Representative.

The label, in print so small that anyone concerned about aging couldn’t read it, indeed lists two active ingredients (octyl methoxycinnamate and titanium dioxide) that are sunscreens found in many cosmetics. These would block the ultraviolet radiation that could kink the DNA of skin cells still alive, those beneath the scaly keratinocytes, if one could smear and keep on enough of the stuff for it to work. An article in WebMD says this is in fact impossible.

Missing from the ingredient list is the antioxidant, which is either the proprietary mystery substance, or used in such small amounts that it doesn’t merit mention in the label. Since antioxidants are abundant, in nature and in cosmetics, it could be most anything – a splash of orange juice or berries, or perhaps fish eggs or eye of newt.

What “DNA advantage” is in the product that isn’t also in dozens of others? According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, a trademark is “a word, phrase, symbol, or design, or a combination thereof, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.” While none of the competition claim anything to do with DNA, a trip to CVS quickly revealed shelves of similar products, such as Cover Girl’s “simply ageless” offering or Almay’s SmartShade™. In fact, it’s difficult to find makeup that doesn’t contain sunscreen and/ or antioxidants.

Is invoking the double helix to make more of a makeup wrong? Not really, because the FDA doesn’t approve cosmetic product labeling. However, the labeling can be “misbranded,” meaning that it’s false or misleading. The trademarked DNA Advantage isn’t false, because antioxidants and sunscreens can, at high concentrations, protect DNA. But I think it’s misleading in implying that the product offers something unique. It doesn’t.

P.S. I tried it. Time did not stop.
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