In the basement of the cosmetic labs of LVMH, about an hour and a half outside of Paris, I spent an afternoon watching skin cell samples light up neon green under a microscope. “You’re seeing the skin cells’ mitochondria,” says Anne-Laure Bulteau, the biologist for skincare brand Fresh. “Your mitochondria naturally produce the energy for skin cells so they can function. When you see them turn green here, it means they are making more ATP.” ATP stands for adenosine triphosphate—the fuel for the cells in our bodies—and Bulteau’s team spent years looking for skincare ingredients to create this exact reaction in mitochondria. Under the microscope, they glow like amorphous fireflies.
“Skin energy” has a nice ring to it, and for good reason. Scientists know that mitochondria can become dysfunctional due to stress, smoking, sun exposure, age, and, according to a recent study, even blue light exposure, among other instigators. To aggressive of skincare can also be disruptive to your skin’s natural energy-making process. So if you can improve your ATP output, the logic goes, you can help skin cells do their jobs better: create collagen and elastin, use antioxidants, metabolize damage, and much more. According to a 2020 study published in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, mitochondria play a “critical role” in wrinkle formation and uneven pigmentation, as well as hair graying and hair loss. Admittedly, skin energy also just sounds appealing—I want firefly skin!
Clearly, I’m far from alone in the desire to super-charge my skincare, as multiple “skin energy” products have come to market this year. This summer, Fresh launched its Fresh Tea Elixir Skin Resilience Activating Serum, a milky serum powered by a super nutritious tea grown in the intense terrain of Mauritius island. This summer, an at-home laser from the UK called LYMA launched in the U.S. to a 5,000-person waitlist with claims its diffuse laser and LED technology can “unlock” mitochondria. The members-only hospitality group Soho House also just launched SohoSkin, a line with topical ATP, vitamin C, and fermented ingredients.
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“The best analogy is to think about mitochondria like the battery in a cell phone,” says Daniel Whitby, chief scientist at SMINK Labs, which developed SohoSkin. “A new phone battery charges quickly and the charge is maintained for a long time, but after we have had the phone for a while it takes longer to charge and the charge runs down quickly. In our phone, we can replace the battery, but in our cells we need to focus on restoring mitochondrial function.” Bulteau offered another analogy: “Think of Fresh Tea Elixir like cruise control on a car. No matter what you encounter on the ‘road,’ your skin cells have the energy to maintain healthy function.”
“Think about mitochondria like the battery in a cell phone…In our phone, we can replace the battery, but in our cells we need to focus on restoring mitochondrial function.”
If this is sounding familiar, you’re not mistaken. This year isn’t the first time the beauty industry has zeroed in on skin cell energy. The first time I heard about ATP was from the microcurrent skin care device NuFace, which is designed to stimulate the facial muscles and ATP production. (Their newest high-end model, Trinity+, comes to market next month). It’s also one of the ideas behind red light LED masks. Studies on ATP and skin care go at least as far back to 1982. “The research around mitochondria has been around for forever and there’s constantly new research about what mitochondria do,” says Florida-based cosmetic chemist Krupa Koestline. “But the thing is even though brands have been doing this for a while, you just haven’t heard as much about it because it’s really tough to explain.” (This journalist would agree.)
Most derms I spoke to approach the concept with a healthy skepticism. In fact, I had a few derms decline to comment on it at all. “Despite the seemingly good science between skin aging and mitochondrial damage, the skincare claims are … pretty simplified and overreaching,” Dr. Ranella Hirsch, a Cambridge, MA based dermatologist, wrote to me in an email. I also asked New York dermatologist Dhaval Bhanusali, MD: “I looked into it previously and didn’t see any good evidence on, one, whether they worked or, two, if they did, what did that improve in terms of clinical outcomes,” he wrote.
As a beauty editor, it reminds me of the buzz around the skin microbiome years ago—the concepts sound tidy and the research is substantial relative to most of the beauty claims I hear about, but there has yet to be big definitive research to convince the dermatology community of its efficacy at the same level as, say, retinol or vitamin C. But the body of research continues to grow with more brands and even some of the skeptical doctors giving it more consideration. “My hope is that there is expansion of this into more therapeutic realms,” says Hirsch.
Mitochondria are also a huge focus across medicine, not just dermatology. In fact, mitochondrial dysfunction is one of nine Hallmarks of Aging that can result in “major human pathologies including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases.”
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve discovered ways to revitalize mitochondria in interesting ways,” says Dr. Anant Vinjamoori, the chief medical officer of Modern Age, a “well aging” studio that opened in Manhattan earlier this year. “One of the most exciting [ways] to me is a new molecule called urolithin-A made by Mitopure, which is an oral supplement that can clear dysfunctional mitochondria—this is called mitophagy.” In the future, we may even be able to do mitochondrial transplants both to treat disease and for cosmetic reasons.
In the meantime, we have a little bit of hope in a jar. Or, rather, in a dropper. Clinicals on the Fresh Tea Elixir Skin Resilience Activating Serum measured 51 percent more glow, 38 percent more bounce in skin, 38 percent smoother skin, and 31 percent stronger skin barrier. “We’re helping the skin make its own components, like its own antioxidants, proteins, and fatty acids,” says Bulteau. “Rather than replacing what our skin makes with chemistry, what’s made by your own cells is often better.” Maybe I’ll get my firefly skin after all.
Katie Becker is the Beauty & Health Director of ELLE Magazine.