Why you should care
Because your spit could make you sexy.
For many of Dr. Sejal Shah’s dermatology patients, a consultation in her New York office involves more than a discussion of how to vanquish crow’s-feet. More than 100 of her clients at SmarterSkin Dermatology have willingly swabbed the inside of their cheeks in a quest to get skin advice tailored to their DNA. Most of the swab tests are included in a treatment package; if not, patients cough up $499 for the salivary analysis.
The concept of consumer DNA testing was popularized by 23andMe, which has earned more than $100 million since its founding in 2006. But there’s a growing demand for DNA deconstruction by beauty aficionados who care more about their skin quality than their ancestry. They think one-size-fits-all skin care is backward and believe — or hope — that their saliva holds the key to complexion perfection.
Everyone has experienced frustration when a skin care or beauty product works for our friend but not for us.
Robin Smith, founder and CEO, Orig3n
In response, a mini-industry now services this market. Companies like GeneU, SkinDNA and SkinShift happily provide DNA skin analysis, many selling personalized skin care that costs $50 to $250 per month. There’s even a Chinese company offering luxury tests for $554, which includes a session with a nutritionist or personal trainers. Globally, the DNA testing market is anticipated to reach $10 billion by 2022, according to Grand View Research. “The way we’re moving in, everything is customization,“ says Shah. “People [are looking for] a more objective assessment as to why you recommend certain things.”
On the budget end of the spectrum, there are several at-home DNA skin analysis kits available, such as the $99 Aura skin assessment from Orig3n, a commercial DNA company. They promise a report on the genes that affect skin aging, elasticity, ultraviolet sensitivity and hydration within four weeks of receiving a cheek swab. “Everyone has experienced frustration when a skin care or beauty product works for our friend but not for us,” Robin Smith, founder and CEO of Orig3n, tells OZY by email. “It can be hard to find the best options for our bodies because we’re all unique.” Smith envisages a future where personalized skin care is commonplace, and every DNA test spits out a perfectly designed product to treat individual issues.
The direct-to-consumer DNA landscape is varied, and it’s hard for the average person to know whether any of the help that companies profess to offer is accurate — or actionable. Sure, a board festooned with Stanford and Harvard degrees is nice, but with the Theranos scandal of last year, it’s important to be thorough. “There’s not a lot of strong data for this type of genetic information,” says genetic counselor Scott Weissman from Chicago Genetic Consultants. “And some studies on direct-to-consumer testing [show] most people don’t alter their behavior; they do it out of the curiosity factor.”
The more analytically minded can look to the TeloYears test from Telomere Diagnostics, which analyzes your aging based on your telomeres. Now for the science part: In basic terms, imagine telomeres as the caps at the end of your chromosomes. They shorten with age and poor lifestyle choices, but there’s some research on how you can reverse this contraction with good choices. The TeloYears test gives users a number that represents their cellular age, which can be very different from their chronological age. Telomere Diagnostics CEO Jason Shelton says his first result placed him at 34 years old (he’s 44). Six months later and post-workout regime, a second test pegged him as 27 years old. This isn’t pseudoscience; the company was co-founded by Elizabeth Blackburn, a co-winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for her work in telomeres (she has since left the company).
My test showed that my cells are one year older than my calendar age. Given my lifestyle choices and medical history, I’m surprised it’s not higher. “It’s not about more years in their life; it’s about more life in their years,” Shelton says, in perfectly scripted patter. He believes TeloYears is more actionable than other DNA tests, and that improving your health also affects your physical appearance.
In fact, the original DNA mapping company, 23andMe, is now getting more involved in the skin care market. It has partnered with the Procter & Gamble brand Olay to investigate which genes make people look younger and has found causal genetic relations between appearance and youth. “It was interesting to find specific genetic associations with skin aging and prove a long-held belief that part of looking younger is, in fact, in your genes,” Emily Drabant Conley, vice president of business development at 23andMe, tells OZY by email. In January 2017 Olay started selling reformulated products based on evidence from the research study.
Overall, taking action on any of the skin care suggestions from DNA tests is unlikely to have a negative effect — applying extra sunscreen never hurt anyone. Weissman says these tests are “more snake oil than actual clinical utility,” meaning beauty gals don’t need genetic skin care counselors. He only has a problem when they undergo major changes like mastectomies based on faulty DNA results.
For now, people getting a DNA test at the dermatologist are in the minority, but Shah sees growth here as inevitable. “Skin care in general is going to a custom level,” she says, ”whether or not they’re using skin DNA or other tests.”