Maybe we can blame snakes for our wrinkles. After all, as the story goes, it was a snake that tempted Eve, getting her expelled from Eden and doomed to a mortal life filled with fine lines and wrinkles. So isn't it about time that the slithering serpent made amends? More than a half-dozen skin-care companies think so, incorporating a synthetic venom into their formulations to help diminish signs of aging.
The products sprang from an "aha!" connection: When poisonous snakes strike, they paralyze their prey by injecting them with a toxin through hollow fangs. And if snake venom can paralyze muscles, couldn't a targeted version work like a topical Botox?
Enter Syn-ake, a compound developed by Swiss pharmaceutical company Pentapharm, to mimic a protein found in the venom of the temple viper.
"I wanted to develop a Botox alternative for my clients who complained of side effects or wanted to avoid the injections all together," says Sonya Dakar, co-founder of Sonya Dakar Skincare, who incorporated Syn-ake into her UltraLuxe-9 cream. According to Phentapharm, the ingredient works as a neuromuscular block, preventing sodium ion uptake in the muscle and keeping it in a relaxed state. Relaxing the facial muscles can help prevent deeper expression lines, while smoothing skin in the process, says Sean Campbell, director of Syence Skin Care, which produces Skin Venom.
Pentapharm measured the smoothing effect of a Syn-ake-infused cream compared with a placebo in a 28-day trial. According to the company, 67% of the participants using the cream reported a decrease in muscle contraction, and wrinkle size was reduced by 52%. Borba, which incorporates Syn-ake into its Advanced Aging Reverse & Tone Serum, did its own blind consumer testing study. "Seventy-nine percent of women reported they could feel the product working, tightening and firming the skin," says the company's founder, Scott-Vincent Borba.
But experts wonder whether the topical formulations penetrate deeply enough to effectively inhibit muscle contraction. After all, Botox is injected for a reason -- to deliver the compound directly into muscle tissue.
"Is the active ingredient really absorbed into the skin like Botox?" asks dermatologist Dr. Vermen Verallo-Rowell. "The action may just be as a good moisturizer, which does soften wrinkles."
"Skin is programmed to keep proteins out," adds Dr. Leslie Baumann, author of "The Skin Type Solution." And the chemical must travel through several layers of skin and subcutaneous fat to reach and penetrate the muscle.
"The smaller the molecule and the more fat-soluble, the deeper that chemical can get into the skin," says Dr. Corey Maas, fellow of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. After evaluating Syn-ake, Maas says the molecule appears to be small enough theoretically to penetrate; however, without more studies, he says, it's difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the ingredient.
He also points out another dilemma for skin-care companies incorporating the synthetic venom formulation. Once a compound "goes through the skin and becomes pharmacologically active working as a drug to relax muscle, it could in theory be absorbed through the body and affect other" areas, Maas says. "It's a Catch-22. It goes from the cosmaceutical-you-don't-need-FDA-approval range to a range where it needs to be studied for its safety and its efficacy."
Skin Venom's Campbell, for his part, compares Syn-ake to retinol, the less active version of Retin-A found in many beauty products, and not regulated by the FDA.
With so many skin-care companies using Syn-ake, what sets one cream apart from another? "You can make two cakes and have the same ingredients, but it's the way in which these ingredients are put together that makes the difference," says Caroline Clapperton, founder of Planet Skincare. Planet Skincare's daily moisturizer incorporates argireline and GABA to help relax muscles, antioxidants such as vitamin A and C, and retinoic acid, which speeds up cell renewal. The creamy formulation spreads easily, comes packaged with a plastic scoop and smells like roses.