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Beauty Serums                                                                     September 2009 


serumsSerum is a new word on the beauty scene but something that all the top cosmetic and skin care companies are chasing after.

My dictionary defines the word as the water part of a body fluid remaining after clotting or curdling, especially the protein rich fluid constituent of blood. Doesn’t sound great does it! But it seems this word has now been hijacked by the beauty industry into something offering a ground breaking and intriguing new treatment.

Without doubt modern beauty serums are new high tech products; they contain a range of deep medically sounding ingredients such as molecules of hyaluronic acid (these trap moisture and pump up skin); peptides (to relax and reduce wrinkles) and retinol (to increase skin cell activity). There are also more familiar ingredients such as vitamin C (to boost collagen and lighten pigmentation marks) and antioxidants (to prevent and repair the damage done by all those awful free radical molecules that roam around our body and our faces).

Before I splashed out a fortune on these wonder treatments, I thought I would look a bit further into what this all means.

Hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid is a long, stringy, gel like disaccharide (a type of sugar) and is made up of alternating molecules of glucosamine and glucuronic. Yes, that doesn’t mean a lot to me either. Investigating further, it seems it is responsible for the viscoelastic behavior of synovial fluid – something to do with the hydration and elastic strength of cartilage.

Now hydration is mentioned, it all makes a little more sense. It seems hyaluronic acid replenishes the natural polysaccharide found in the body’s connective tissues and replenishes lost volume. It is used in dermal fillers and now in serums to improve facial contouring and to hydrate and soften lines.

Peptides and pentapeptides

This is all such a complex area that it is no wonder that few of us have a clue what some of the cosmetic brands are talking about when they mention some of the benefits of their new products. Even basic research on the meaning of peptides brings a huge variation in responses. Generally the word peptides comes from a Greek word for small digestible and today refers to short polymers formed from the linking of α-amino acids.

If there are two amino acids in the chain, they are called dipeptides; the word pentapeptides refers to a chain of five amino acids.

Peptides have many useful functions in our bodies, but there has been definite controversy over their benefits in beauty treatments. Generally peptides cannot usually penetrate the skin; if they do, then the skin enzymes can break them down inhibiting their effects.

However, they have also been hailed as an anti-ageing miracle because of an ability to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. A Stamford university researcher and dermatologist (a Dr Alexa Kimball) says research on peptides that stimulate skin’s natural rebuilding processes has helped establish a new class of effective but gentler anti-aging options.


Retinol is a form of vitamin A. It increases cell production in the top layer of the skin so it helps to keep skin looking smoother and younger. It also has a good effect on the production of collagen because skin uses retinoic acid when it produces collagen. This helps to make the skin look plumper.

Rather than the word retinol, you are more likely to see the name retinoic acid or retinyl palmitate on products; these offer varying forms and strengths of retinol. Most over the counter products will only contain a very small amount.

Human Growth Hormone

When I was told a new beauty serum containing Human Growth Hormone (albeit a synthetic version) was coming on the market, it sounded pretty scary.

Human Growth Hormone is a protein-like substance produced by the pituitary gland in the base of the brain. It plays a crucial role in many of the body’s metabolic processes – too little in childhood leads to stunted growth, and too little in an adult results in excess body fat, lack of lean muscle tissue, brittle bones and thin, wrinkle-prone skin.

It has long been known that production of the hormone slows down as we grow older. By the age of 60, we make half as much HGH as we did at 20. The pharmaceutical industry originally obtained it by extracting it from the brains of dead humans (a risky process that meant some batches were contaminated with CJD, the human form of “mad cow” disease), but in 1985 it was produced synthetically. Then, in 1990, a landmark clinical trial supported its anti-ageing effects (American Dr Daniel Rudman’s study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that HGH reversed many of the biggest markers of ageing – increasing skin thickness, reducing wrinkles and body fat, and increasing muscle mass by the equivalent of 10 to 20 years, in men in their sixties and seventies).

From that and other areas of research, some now hail HGH as a miracle anti-ageing treatment. Research is continuing but Selfridges have now launched 2Lab’s “h” Serum, the first anti-ageing cream that contains a bioengineered version of HGH. Before you all rush out though, first there is a waiting list and secondly, it costs around £215!


Panthenol is the alcohol form of pantothenic acid, otherwise known as vitamin B5 and is commonly found in cosmetic products.

Panthenol is easily absorbed by the skin and one of its key properties is that it can improve hydration. By holding moisture under the surface of the skin, our skin is naturally filled out and stretched, which reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It can also help reduce itching or any skin inflammation and generally improve the skin’s appearance.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is an invaluable antixodidant which helps to neutralise free radicals and protect against the damaging effects of the environment. It is included in a wide range of beauty products.

The new serums, and most beauty products today are the result of high level chemical and medical research. The best bet really is to seek advice from the manufacturers of the product you are interested in although some counter staff may be trained to give you a reasonable level of information.

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