It starts out like any one of a number of anti-aging treatments: rub some goo on your face, wait for it to dry. But this isn’t a skin cream or wrinkle serum, it’s an invisible polymer “second skin” that dries to tighten wrinkles and reduce skin sagging.
“You put it on as an ointment, and it becomes a patch,” said Robert Langer, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a founder of Olivo Laboratories, the company developing the fake skin. Researchers detailed the technology in a new paper published Monday.
Put on as a daily mask, the skin becomes a kind of temporary cosmetic intervention. Further out, its developers hope the fake skin could be loaded with medications that would be absorbed through a person’s real skin.
To put on the skin, you apply two gels. The first is clear; the second, cloudy. As the gels dry, they harden into a flexible film that sticks onto your real skin not unlike the clear part of a temporary tattoo. After a few hours, it’s difficult to see the boundary between the two — the silicon-based material is specially designed with a matte finish so that it doesn’t draw attention. This stands in contrast to conventional patches, which may be transparent but are still visible.
As the gels dry to form the artificial skin, it pulls on and changes the shape of the real skin, and, with the proper application, could hide wrinkles or other properties associated with aging skin. In the paper, the authors demonstrated that the artificial skin was effective at removing bags and smoothing wrinkles under the eyes.
“Nobody dies of under-eye bags,” acknowledged Dr. Barbara Gilchrest, a dermatologist at Harvard Medical School and author of the paper, published in Nature Materials. But they do have social consequences for people. “It makes them look old. It makes them look tired. It makes them look sad. In our society, it’s considered very unattractive, and it’s a marker of aging.”
For medical use, Langer said that the artificial skin has many advantages over products currently on the market. You can change the properties of the film — for example, its thickness, breathability, or elasticity — depending on the desired effect. You can also spread it over as large or small an area as you want. Currently, people who wear medicinal patches — like NicoDerm— are limited by commercially available sizes.
For some conditions, like eczema and psoriasis, the area needing treatment may span much of the body, in which case an easily applied, drug-laden artificial skin could be a much better treatment option than a current approach, of slathering on a cream and wrapping the body in a kind of plastic wrap, Gilchrest said.
Samir Mitragotri, who studies drug delivery through the skin in his lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said he hadn’t before seen any material so transparent and so effective at changing the mechanical properties of the skin. Mitragotri, who was not involved in the study, called the approach “radical and revolutionary.”
The fake skin is in human trials, with a couple hundred individuals already tested. The company is working on developing the skin as a platform, after which they could decide to customize it by adding drugs.
Amir Nashat, acting chief executive officer of Olivo and managing partner at venture capital firm Polaris Partners, said the company is spending the majority of its time focusing on the medical application of the second skin. On a further horizon, the paper noted, those might include “durable ultraviolet protection” or using the skin to conceal disfiguring birthmarks.
But at present, the main thrust of the research they’ve published is cosmetic. It’s part of an over $60 billion cosmetics industry, which taps into an age-old desire for humans to retain their youthfulness.
But focusing our attention on making us look younger doesn’t properly address the underlying discomfort we have with being old, argues Cara Kiernan Fallon, a history of science PhD candidate at Harvard studying attitudes toward aging.
The proportion of Americans who are over 65 is at an all-time high, “and yet this had not led to widespread acceptance of physical changes, but instead a massive market for all kinds of procedures and products to remain young,” she said.
“How can we age if, in essence, the only way to do it well is to not age at all?”