True biomimetics – what to look for
As with many cosmeceutical claims and trends, the term ‘biomimetics’ can sometimes be misused. True biomimetics is where there is biomimicry – a mimic of a natural system - for human benefit. Examples of true biomimetics include:
- The use of peptides to mimic those naturally produced by the body to compete for cell receptor sites in order to alter a normal cell function. One of the best-known class of peptide mimics out there are cosmeceutical botox alternatives. One of the first cosmeceutical active ingredients to enter the market mimicking a botox-like action was acetyl hexapeptide-8 - this peptide is a chemical replica (mimic) of a portion of SNAP-25, a protein involved in muscle contractions. Where SNAP-25 is successfully replaced by this analogue peptide (through absorption of the topically applied mimic in its cosmeceutical form), muscle contraction is greatly reduced for less facial expressions and less wrinkles. While there are several peptide materials like this that are synthetically produced, there is also a naturally derived peptide material (Gatuline Expression, Gattefosse) with a similar action.
- The use of peptides discovered in animal or plant sources with efficacy in human cell processes. In this case, the biomimicry is not to replace a normal human process but instead uses the discovery of an animal or plant substance that is of benefit to humans. These materials may then be produced in commercial volumes from natural or synthetic sources. For example, SensAmone P5 (Mibelle AG Biochemistry) is based on a protein from the venom of the leathery sea anemone that acts as an inhibitor of a pain receptor; and when reproduced synthetically, actually performs better than the natural source!
- Extracts from plant materials that survive extreme conditions and then provide similar benefits to the skin. For example, there are several plant stem cell extracts from plants that survive extreme cold, dryness and/or UV conditions – and then provide protective benefits to the skin from similarly adverse conditions.
- Extracts from plant materials that are cultivated when the plant is stressed – under such conditions, the extract is boosted in certain phytoactive elements that then impart particular benefits to the skin.
- Epigenetic actives. Epigenetics effects relate to the switching ‘on’ or ‘off’ of genes without affecting the DNA itself. In the personal care industry, epigenetic science works by stimulating cell proliferation to improve tissue and skin cell regeneration, where older skin cells are able to mimic the activity of younger skin cells including renewal and turnover. There is an ever-increasing number of epigenetic materials out there; two of my favourites are Reproage Peptide (Lipotec) and Chronogen (Ashland).
What is NOT true biomimetics?
So now that we’ve clearly identified what is considered true biomimetic activity, when should the term not be used? Two clear examples stand out:
- The application of materials that are normally found in the skin but are too large to actually penetrate the skin to provide a biomimetic effect. In this case, consumers will often think a product will have certain benefits from the presence of a material when in fact, it can’t provide this action because the substance being marketed can’t actually penetrate the outer layer of the skin. A classic example of this over-marketing is the use of high molecular weight sodium hyaluronate (hyaluronic acid) – while this is naturally occurring in the extracellular matrix of young, supple skin, sodium hyaluronate with a molecular weight of 1,000 kilo-Daltons (kDa) or greater is considered ‘high molecular weight’ HA. At this size, the HA will sit on the surface of the skin and provide a moisture protective film but not actually penetrate the skin to provide a biomimetic action within the extracellular matrix.
- The use of standard lipid materials. While many lipids will provide moisture protective properties, all too often we see claims of ‘biomimetic’ used to promote products that really should be marketed as bio-compatible with the skin. There are, however, some materials with a similar skin-lipid profile. One example is L22 (FloraTech) which uses a blend of botanically derived oils to mimic the skin-lipid profile of a 22-year-old.
Natural vs Synthetic Biomimetic Materials: What Works Best?
If a substance is truly biomimetic, it doesn’t necessarily matter if it is natural, naturally derived or synthetically created. As long as the biomimicry occurs in an efficient manner, and the material is able to get to the target site it needs to for its activity, it will provide the cosmeceutical benefit regardless of its starting source. When sourcing natural materials, however, companies can also market a bio-sustainability message which is almost universally appealing to consumers.