For centuries, mankind has been devising ways to improve upon beauty - to extend the benefits of youth and suspend the evidence of time.
Recent efforts to do this have focused on cosmetic surgery, injections, laser treatments, implants, and other medical procedures. But for those who want to avoid "the knife" or expensive treatments, the cosmetics industry is constantly developing more sophisticated age-defying creams and potions.
There are many different varieties of creams and lotions available. Some use all-natural ingredients, like fruit and plant extracts or even mud. Many combine antioxidants, acids, and oils in an attempt to offer wrinkle relief that mimics Botox injections. Now, cosmetics companies are seeking the fountain of youth in an unexpected source - pearl.
The nacre of a pearl-producing oyster, whether found in pearls themselves or in the oyster's shell, contains the same essential amino acids that heal and maintain cells in the human body. Deficiency of any one of these key amino acids can cause skin to look coarse and wrinkled. Researchers who have worked to develop skin creams based on nacre claim that various components of pearl can stimulate the metabolic activities of the genetic material in a cell - the DNA and RNA - and thus can promote and accelerate cell renewal.
Independently, two different companies in the gem and jewelry industry have entered the cosmetics market with high-end skin care products using mother-of-pearl as an active ingredient.
Mother-of-pearl - also called nacre - is produced by certain species of oyster to line the inside of their shells, preventing irritation from the rough outer shell and helping to protect against parasites. It is so named because when an irritant gets inside of a shell, the oyster protects itself by coating the irritant with the same material as its lining, creating a pearl.
Mother-of-pearl is composed of alternating layers of conchiolin and calcium carbonate crystals in the form of aragonite. Conchiolin is one of a category of proteins called keratin; other types of keratin are major components of hair, skin, and horn of all vertebrates.
Robert Wan Tahiti , the largest single producer of Tahitian cultured pearls, markets an anti-aging skin care line called Marutea (originally marketed as Aqua Perla), made from mother-of-pearl taken from the species of oyster that produces black pearls, Pinctada margaritifera .
The main ingredient of the Marutea skin care line is a mixture of active proteins found in nacre. Like human tissue, nacre stores in its mineral-based organic structure a variety of bioactive molecules. These molecules contain proteins that have been proven to have beneficial effects on the skin: reduce wrinkles and firm, tone, and illuminate.
The technology used in the Marutea line - their method of extracting proteins from mother-of-pearl - is patented through the French National Scientific Research Center (CNRS) and the National Natural History Museum (MNHN). The process was developed based on experience gained from research into joint and bone therapy by Evelyne Lopez, a professor at the MNHN in France.
"I did research along these lines before, [for] other cosmetics lines," says Lopez. For more than 10 years, she has been studying mother-of-pearl and its effects on skin, bones, joints, and cartilage. During this research, she discovered molecules in the mother-of-pearl that act to rejuvenate the skin, and the Marutea line was born.
Although still in the early stages, the research continues on mother-of-pearl and its possible medical applications.
"We are definitely continuing the research applied to repair bones and joints. The first outcomes should arrive within a couple of years," says Emmanuéle Notari of the cosmetics division of Robert Wan Tahiti. In the meantime, the collaboration between Lopez and Robert Wan Tahiti to advance skin care continues. "We are now working on additional skin care lines, still using the mother-of-pearl, but in different forms. . . . The first, to be released in early 2006, will be a spa line," adds Notari.
A second anti-aging skin cream, based on similar principles, was introduced jointly by pearl giant Golay and Helena Rubinstein , an international cosmetics and skin care brand that is part of the L'Oréal group.
The inspiration for the product, Life Pearl, was the science behind pearl farming: the process of creating a pearl. Life Pearl's catalyst is micronized pearl powder - that is, nacre crushed to powder only a few microns wide, small enough to be absorbed directly into a cell. Representatives for Helena Rubinstein claim that the pearl powder strengthens the internal structure of the cells responsible for skin nutrition and density.
Like Lopez, researchers at Helena Rubinstein have found that the unique biological properties of nacre are also compatible with complex tissues such as tooth and bone, which can be useful in surgery, bone grafts, and bone repair.
Although at one time offered in North America, the Helena Rubinstein brand is currently marketed in Asia, Europe, and South America, with plans to return to the North American market in the future.
Likewise, the Marutea line is currently marketed in several European countries, as well as Hong Kong and French Polynesia. The company is in the prospective phase for additional European, Middle Eastern, and Pacific countries, and expects to market Marutea in North America by the second half of 2006.
While these pearl products are relatively new to the gem industry, using pearls in skin care is not a new idea. Many modern cosmetics already include mother-of-pearl powder - also known as conchiolin powder - as an ingredient.
For centuries, Asian women have used powder made from crushed freshwater pearls in an effort to maintain their youthful appearance. Royal inhabitants of the Chinese Imperial Palace swore by the miraculous rejuvenating effects of pearl powder, which they used for healing, skin brightening, wrinkle prevention, and sun protection. The last Empress Dowager of China during the Qing Dynasty not only used pearl powder on her face, but she ingested it daily. She and other women of the time found that it improved their complexion, softened their skin, and gave them a more youthful appearance. The Empress Dowager was famous for her beauty and her childlike skin even at the age of 74.
Pearl powder is recorded as a medicine in the Pharmacopoeia of the People's Republic of China, a national code of standards for the quality of drugs that serves as a regulatory basis in drug production, distribution, application, and management. It has been widely used by doctors and herbalists who practice traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). According to the July 2000 issue of Nutrition Science News , "Doctors who practice TCM believe the calcium and other valuable minerals and amino acids from pearl powder can also be absorbed through the skin. They have found pearl powder, applied externally, speeds the skin's natural metabolism to tone and rejuvenate complexion, heal blemishes, minimize large pores and reduce redness. A pearl facial pack is said to rejuvenate dry, dull skin."
In studies conducted at the Institute of Endocrinology at Zhejing Medical University in China, powdered sea pearl, mother-of-pearl, and freshwater pearl demonstrated systemic anti-aging and tonic actions. Other clinical studies in Japan and France have shown pearl powder to increase bone density and even aid in bone formation.
Although natural pearls were traditionally used in making pearl powder, the lack of supply and the high cost of natural pearls resulted in the need for an alternative. Cultured pearls are not considered to be of the same medicinal quality as natural pearls, so Chinese technicians began to hydrolyze pearls - that is, to break their protein molecules down into their component parts. Users say the resulting amino acids are easier for cells to absorb and therefore more effective.
Modern skin care companies - many of which specialize in herbal remedies - combine hydrolyzed pearl powder with herbal ingredients like green tea, gingko, and other extracts, as well as vitamins A, C, and E. This combination is used in creams and brightening lotions intended to rejuvenate dull, dry skin; reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles; smooth and firm skin; regulate discoloration and scarring; and even reduce blemishes.
Does it work? Despite the mountains of anecdotal evidence - and the long history behind it - there's no proof that such cosmetics have anything other than a temporary effect. Nacre may contain some of the same proteins as human skin, but the two cannot bond, so any benefits that may come from adding it to the skin, such as firming of the cellular structure or stimulation of new growth, are likely to stop as soon as the cream is no longer used. None of this will stop the $100-billion-plus global cosmetics industry from trying. And who knows? Maybe one day pearls really will help you look younger, too.