A new buzzword has emerged in the cosmetics world: liposome . Unlike collagen, elastin and even hyaluronic acid, liposome is not a word you'll find in most dictionaries. Nor is it a natural part of the skin. In fact, a liposome is nothing more than a delivery system. But what it delivers--and where--could have a profound effect on skin care, specifically the recently introduced product category called "anti-aging" treatments.
Discovered in London in the mid-'60s, liposomes are microscopic spheres that encapsulate and transport active ingredients into the skin. They speed the delivery of ingredients, penetrate layers of cells and may increase the effectiveness of whatever they carry. Their application in the pharmaceutical industry has been under study for years, though so far their use with drugs has been rare.
Meanwhile, two of the hottest-selling anti-aging products, Niosome Systeme Anti-Age from Lancome and Capture Complexe Liposomes from Christian Dior, have liposome formulas. The companies claim that the ingredient makes the skin look younger and feel firmer. Dior goes a step further, saying that Capture Complexe can reduce the size of wrinkles.
To understand how liposomes work, you must first know something about the structure of skin. The outermost of the skin's many layers of cells is the epidermis, which is about .1-millimeter thick. The stratum corneum is the visible layer of the epidermis, composed of dead cells ready to be sloughed off.
Under the stratum corneum are layers of cells that are still alive, but aging. Below those, but still within the epidermis, are healthy, living cells. A layer called the basement membrane separates the epidermis from the dermis, which is the four-millimeter-thick layer of the most active young skin cells.
According to Morris Herstein, vice president of research and development at Estee Lauder, which will release liposome products later this year, "Cosmetics science now has the tools to achieve target delivery of ingredients into the epidermis, into the basement membrane and into the dermis. If liposomes are properly designed, they can carry anti-aging ingredients deep into the skin and affect the reversal of aging."
Active ingredients in most moisturizers are suspended in oil or water. Because of the large size of their molecules, the "actives" in most products--such as collagen or elastin--are not able to penetrate the epidermis. Most remain on the surface. Lancome says its liposome product penetrates the stratum corneum to deliver its active ingredients between the skin cells. "If you picture the stratum corneum as an old stone fence that is losing mortar, Niosome gets into the crevices and fills them in," explains A. John Penicnak, a physiologist and senior vice president for research and development at Lancome.
Dior bases its claims on studies that it conducted in conjunction with Institut Pasteur in Paris. The findings show that the fluid membrane surrounding each skin cell becomes rigid with age because of built-up cholesterol. This accumulation reportedly slows down cell activity until the cell is no longer able to renew itself or to manufacture essential collagen and elastin. Dior scientists believe that returning this membrane to a fluid state will make the cell function like a younger cell. So they designed liposomes that penetrate beneath the stratum corneum and carry their ingredients into living cells, restoring the membrane's fluidity. Among the ingredients in Capture Complexe are water, thymus extract, collagen peptides and elastin peptides. The peptides are tiny amino acids that make up essential skin proteins. According to Penicnak at Lancome, the liposomes in Niosome contain a sunscreen in addition to other active ingredients.
Skin physiologist Gary Groves is director of Philadelphia's Skin Study Center, an independent facility that does studies for major firms, including Lancome and Dior. He says that the liposomes in Capture Complexe, which are a tenth of the size of other liposomes, make it "a breakthrough product that actually delivers collagen and elastin peptides into the cells of the dermis." Groves, who does not endorse products, says his research indicates that Capture Complexe does indeed reduce the size of lines and wrinkles. But some dermatologists aren't convinced. Dr. Albert Kligman, professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, also works with Groves at the Skin Study Center. He agrees with Groves that Niosome is "a very good moisturizer," but he calls the liposomes in the product "merely another interesting device. It would astound me if they can get in between the cells. They're too big. If you can get an elephant in your front door, then maybe you can get liposomes in between skin cells. This all sounds great, but the proof is nonexistent."