When you slice a pear or an apple in half, that gentle blush of brown that spreads across the surface after a few minutes is called oxidation--a form of organic rust. And just like a sweet slice of fruit, our faces are oxidizing, albeit at a slower rate. The culprit behind this process is the highly reactive free radical, a molecular structure that interacts with skin cells and sets off a chain reaction that leads to the telltale signs of aging: wrinkled, sagging and stressed skin.
Antioxidants slow down or stop the free-radical-induced chemical reaction and may help skin cells regenerate. Their value is nothing new in the beauty biz. For the last 20 years, cosmetics makers have been adding antioxidants, along with vitamins, enzymes, amino acids, peptides and UV absorbers, to their products. The latest twist, though, has brought together oenophiles and cosmetics junkies. It turns out that the chemical contents of grapes, grape seeds and dark fruits, particularly the compound resveratrol, are effective antioxidants. Three French companies and one in California are now marketing wine and vine as the latest skin saver.
Their corporate hype is backed by numerous studies that tout resveratrol's antiaging qualities. Dr. David Sinclair, director of the Paul F. Glenn Laboratories for Aging Research at Harvard Medical School, published a study in 2003 showing that resveratrol helped increase a yeast cell's life span by 70%. Dr. Johan Auwerx of the Institute of Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology in Illkirch, France, found that resveratrol improved muscles in mice. Of course, there's no guarantee that resveratrol-rich products will do for human skin what the compound apparently does for mice muscles, but Auwerx is enthusiastic about the possibilities. In a 2006 interview he claimed that "resveratrol makes you look like a trained athlete without the training."
The original grape-based skin-care line, Caudalie, was the brainchild of Bertrand Thomas and his wife Mathilde (her parents had purchased the expansive Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte estate in Bordeaux in 1990). In 1993, the young couple met Joseph Vercauteren, an expert on polyphenols--plant-based antioxidants found in grapes, berries, olive oil and peanuts--while he was touring the winery. "He stopped in front of the big vat full of grape seeds and told us that we were throwing away the most important part of the vine," Mathilde says.
Vercauteren explained that antioxidants from grape seeds are 10,000 times more effective than vitamin E in fighting free radicals. Caudalie developed a grape-seed polyphenol serum for the face and later patented a stabilized form of resveratrol for its antiaging products. The company then developed other products from the winemaking process, including those made from wine sap (to lighten dark spots on the skin) and wine yeast (which softens and hydrates the skin). The Caudalie line has grown to more than 45 products.
Two other skin-care companies have developed products sprung from French vineyards. Dior's L'Or de Vie line, including its face cream and extract, uses a serum created from the shoots of Sauvignon grapevines in the fields surrounding Bordeaux's Chateau d'Yquem, a 16th century vineyard partly owned by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy.
The products in L'Occitane's Grape Body Care line are infused with juice--instead of wine--from organic black muscat grapes grown on a farm in Provence. The company also has created an organic grape-seed oil, rich in fatty acids and vitamin E, and a red vine leaf extract.
Closer by, in Marina del Rey, wine scion Carlo Mondavi is steering his own line of grape-based skin-care products into the marketplace. Mondavi, who joined with pro snowboarding buddy Josh LeVine to start the 3-year-old company, says "making a skin-care line is very similar to making a wine--it takes time." His line, called Davi Skin, features both men's and women's products that include an extract made from reserve-quality red grapes because, Mondavi says, they have greater concentrations of antioxidants.
The Caudalie line is available in the U.S. at certain Nordstom department stores, Sephora stores and Blue Mercury, an apothecary and spa in Century City. All nine of the Davi Skin products--including exfoliating cleansers, shaving creams, after-shave, Moscato purifying cleanser, toner, SPF lotion and the company's showcase cream, Le Grand Cru--are sold online through Bergdorf Goodman in New York as well as at the Meadowood country club in Napa and the Matador Alcove, a private men's club in Costa Mesa.
Dior's L'Or de Vie leads the pack on pricing, charging $350 for .5 ounces of serum and $320 for 1.7 ounces of cream, while 2 ounces of Davi Skin's Le Grand Cru cream costs about $175. Caudalie's Vinoperfect serum is a relative steal at $78 per ounce; L'Occitane's Grape Beauty Milk goes for $22.