Iron in skin aging: less is more…

Last week was one of my favorite weeks in June, the week of HBA in New York City. As I have done for the past three years, I moderated a session on the theme of “The Changing Face of Beauty Distribution” (read about the highlights in the upcoming September issue of GCI Magazine). This year, my colleague Catherine presented for the first time – doing an amazing job on a social media panel (in case you pre-program your Tweets, she says “don’t do it – just don’t”). Also, this year, my Mom, Dr. Barbara Polla presented again.

Her presentation was about one of my favorite scientific topics, one that she has specialized in and published dozens of scientific papers about: iron chelation. At the core of our Alchimie Forever formulation technology, iron chelation is based on the premise that excess iron accelerates aging, in particular skin aging.

Riddle me this: why do women live longer than men? One of the leading theories is that we (women) on average have a lower quantity of iron in our bodies. Why? Because we lose iron regularly during our menstrual cycle and during delivery.

Indeed, while iron is essential for aerobic life, oxygen transport, energy production, and red blood cell function (if you suffer from anemia, please follow your doctor’s recommendations), iron is also involved in the oxidation processes, increasing the production of the hydroxyl radical (remember, oxygen radicals are involved in all signs of skin aging). Indeed, iron plays a major role in oxidative stress via Fenton chemistry, where iron(II) is stoichiometrically oxidized by H2O2  to iron(III), producing the highly damaging oxygen radical .OH (Gutteridge and Halliwell, 2000).

Translation: excess iron acts as a catalyst in the production of damaging free radicals, which are responsible for the creation of fine lines, wrinkles, and other signs of skin aging.

The most extreme clinical case that illustrates the damaging role of excess iron is a condition known as haemochromatosis. This disease involves a disorder in the gastrointestinal absorption of iron, which leads to iron accumulation in internal organs and in the skin. The skin, specifically, then presents highly accelerated signs of skin aging.

Studies have been conducted to show that treating the skin with synthetic iron chelators (molecules that neutralize iron, thus making it unavailable to act as a catalyst) will delay the onset of redness and wrinkles after UV exposure for up to 11 weeks (study on hairless mice, Bissett et al., 1994).

Translation: skin exposed to UV first treated with iron chelators does not get as sunburnt or as wrinkled as skin not treated with iron chelators.

So what does this mean for you? Two things.

  1. Look for skin care products that contain natural iron chelators, such as quercetin (present in blueberry, grape seed, and green tea extracts).
  2. Unless your doctor recommends you take iron, favor supplements (e.g. multi-vitamins) that do not contain iron. My favorite? Emergen-C Super Orange.
  3. Last but not least, donate blood – it can save others, and can be good for you too!

In the case of iron and skin aging, less is truly more. To learn more about the role of iron in skin aging, please watch this video.

Antioxidants for anti-aging

At Alchimie Forever, we believe phyto-antioxidants are the most powerful way to prevent and repair signs of skin aging. Indeed, antioxidants are not new to beauty and skin care industries and have been on everyone’s lips over the last few years, touted to be the latest “miracle in a jar.” But what exactly are antioxidants? What do they do? How do they work? And which ones should you use?

To understand antioxidants we must understand oxidants

Oxygen, essential to life, is metabolized in the body by successive reductions, leading to superoxide anion (O2.), hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), and hydroxyl radical (.OH) generation. These different molecules are named reactive oxygen species (ROS), or oxidants; some are free radicals (defined by the presence of an unpaired electron), whereas others are non radical (such as H2O2, singlet oxygen 1O2).

Oxidants, when present in significant quantities, lead to oxidative stress which in turns damages cellular structures.

Exposure of the skin to UV is the main cause of oxidative stress: UV exposure induces the production of high quantities of oxidants, which damage DNA, lipids, membranes, intracellular and extracellular proteins, and sugars. Oxidants have both immediate and long lasting deleterious effects to the skin, including the appearance of actinic keratoses,  a  citrin coloration of the skin (lipid peroxidation), a loss of collagen and elastin (protein alterations), and finally skin cancer (DNA alterations).

Antioxidants: a way to fight oxidants

Antioxidants, as their name indicates, are the opposite of oxidants. What oxidants break, antioxidants can repair.

Endogenous antioxidants

The first key distinction in the family of antioxidants is whether they are endogenous (those produced by the human body) of exogenous (those not produced by the human body). Indeed, human cells are equipped with a series of endogenous antioxidants to deal with the damages caused by oxidants. Such endogenous antioxidants include the following enzymes: superoxide dismutase, catalase, glutathione peroxidase, and thioredoxine reductase. As we age, these endogenous antioxidants are gradually depleted over time; this consumption is accelerated by an increased production of oxidants. Hence the importance of exogenous antioxidants.

Exogenous antioxidants

          Synthetic antioxidants: the case of Idebenone

Idebenone is one of the better known synthetic antioxidants. It is an organic compound of the quinone family and promoted commercially as a synthetic analog of coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). Idebenone’s antioxidant role involves both the scavenging of oxidants as well as a preventative role in lipid peroxidation. It seems idebenone’s antioxidant properties function by virtue of the electron-donating properties of the hydroquinone form.

Idebenone is present in skin care products from brands such as Prevage (owned by Allergan) and True (which licenses idebenone from Allergan).


The alternative to synthetic antioxidants are natural antioxidants, namely those derived from plants. Plants, like human beings, suffer from UV-generated oxidative stress – they live in the sun after all! Plants are, however, unable to protect themselves by moving into the shade or by using sunscreen. Consequently, plants have developed effective antioxidant strategies to protect themselves against the oxidizing stress induced by their environment, in particular UV exposure.

Phytoantioxidants fall into four main groups, namely enzymes, terpens, polyphenols, and vitamins. Some of the best known, and most studied phytoantioxidants are carotenoids (a terpen), and flavonoids and anthocyanins (polyphenols).

Green tea

Green tea contains four major flavonoids: epicatechin, epicatechin-gallate, epigallocatechin, epigallocatechin-3-gallate. These molecules have the ability to scavenge oxidants including O2.-, .OH, H2O2 and 1O2. It has been shown that epigallocatechin applied topically with exposure to UVB inhibits the production of H2O2 in the dermis and epidermis. Numerous skin care brands use green tea, including Elizabeth Arden and Replenix.


Rosemary contains various antioxidants, in particular phenolic diterpens: carnosol and carnosic acid represent over 90% of the antioxidant properties of rosemary extract. These lipophilic molecules scavenge lipid free radicals, thereby enabling the reduction of lipid peroxidation and inhibiting oxidative damages to skin surface lipids. Carnosic acid also has photoprotective potential. Alchimie Forever and Clarins are two brands that use rosemary in their skin care products.

Grape seeds

Grape seeds are major sources of resveratrol and quercetin. The stilben resveratrol inhibits lipid peroxidation induced by UVB and significantly decreases UVB-induced skin thickness and oedema. The iron chelator flavonoid quercetin maintains and protects the activities of glutathione peroxidase, catalase, and superoxide dismutase after exposure to UV radiation. Caudalie is an example of a skin care brand using grape seeds (and grapes) as its signature ingredient.


Tomato is rich in lycopene, a widely studied powerful antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic carotenoid with strong reducing ability and the most effective carotenoid in the scavenging of the oxidant 1O2. Lycopene also scavenges lipid radicals, reduces lipid peroxidation and prevents erythema caused by UV radiation on the skin. Kiehl’s and Alchimie Forever both use tomato extract in their products.

Antioxidants represent a key therapeutic approach to preventing skin aging. More specifically, research indicates that the combination of multiple antioxidants at low concentrations represents the most effective approach. Indeed, different antioxidants (whether synthetic or natural) have difference mechanisms of action and target different parts of the cell, thus offering synergies when combined. In the world of antioxidants, 1 + 1 is not 2 but rather 5. As such, the more antioxidant products you use, the better off your skin will be!