Science in skincare: When beauty goes STEM deep

by WSNXT Team

Written by Jade Scott

What could be better than naturally produced, raw ingredients in your skincare? Recent trends would have us believe that natural is best, but what does this translate to in our bathroom cabinet products and should we really be wary of the science that goes into our skincare?  

Not necessarily, according to two scientists who have the inside track on skincare. Oh, and by the way, they have made a product that takes the rejuvenating essence of the humble sweetcorn and powered a scientifically-backed, trialled and tested skincare product using its, well, juice. Stay with us, there’s much to explain. 

Who are these scientists you ask? Just a couple of women in STEM over in Canada, who saw that an ingredient, discovered in a particular strain of Non-GMO sweetcorn could be effectively used in skincare, to not only improve skin tone and texture but heighten the effects of your trendy hyaluronic and collagen ingredients.

 

The magic sweetcorn elixir

In a world where the natural is lauded over the chemical, it brings to question why science is considered so ‘scary’ for our skin. And, why do naturally grown, organically derived lotions and potions send people into a euphoric skincare shopping frenzy? 

Alison Crumblehulme and Jessica Kizovski are the co-founders of Veriphy. Chemists, to be exact, who have developed a skincare range utilising a little-talked about ingredient, Phytoglycogen, found in this specific strain of sweetcorn.  

Alison and Jessica were both working in separate fields before coming together at a biotech firm, where things really started getting interesting for the founders of Veriphy.  

Alison, a chemist by trade, has dabbled in many areas of industry, including pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals and paint, “You know, paints may sound a little funny but I was working for a company that was focused on making environmentally friendly technologies for paint. And that’s where I started to get into the greener space within science. I initially worked in the lab developing products, but then I started moving over to the management side of things and really became more involved in the business development part. So that’s when I went back to school. I got my MBA at Queens University in Canada to gain that additional academic background on the business side - extra credentials. That’s when I decided I really wanted to make a career change. I found a company called Mirexus Biotechnologies Inc, and that’s where Jessica and I met.” 

Jessica’s entry point is slightly different. Still in science, while she worked on her degree she also worked at Sephora as a make-up artist. “I really loved colour when I began and I didn’t love skincare as much but, as I applied makeup on people and the more customers I had, the more I realised that without that great skin canvas you can’t do a lot. So, skincare became very important.” On the subject of skincare products, “A lot of my customers were coming in asking for natural, but effective. And that’s where I felt there was the disconnect. They’d say, I want it natural, I want it clean, but I want it to get rid of my wrinkles.” 

The obsession with natural products is understandable given the rhetoric surrounding it. In food, in beauty and in lifestyle, using nature’s ingredients is lauded as the holy grail of consuming and it has created something of a gap between the pillars of science and nature. Something, which Alison and Jessica know are much more closely related than often assumed. Following a return to school for Jessica, to study cosmetic chemistry, the pair met at Mirexus Biotech Inc, tasked with exploring the capabilities of a material that had been discovered.  

Phytoglycogen. It rolls off the tongue. “They didn’t really know what to do with it at that stage so they asked us to play with it and see if it could be used in skincare.” 

This material is not as alien as the name would have you believe, as Jessica explains, “Glycogen has been on the market for years. But glycogen is traditionally extracted from animals (liver, muscles, shellfish), which is why it’s not commonly used in cosmetics. They also previously used a chemical extraction process, which can leave the molecule fragmented too. So, it wasn’t an exciting ingredient for cosmetics. Yet.” 

 

Glycogen is skin deep

On the subject of its animal origin, glycogen, it turns out, is in every cell in our body. We’re literally using it, right now. “It’s a storage of energy and it’s really good for your skin! If you’re going for a run, your body is using glycogen to give you the energy so you can actually do that. It’s a very important component in your skin.”  

There’s the first hurdle overcome. This ingredient, with its chemical-sounding name, is actually making its way around our bodies every day. Because, let’s be real, we’re all just chemicals, swirling around inside a pretty unique and complex structure anyway. It’s not all good news though, like all the good stuff we have in youth, it does start to deplete. “It’s more like collagen or elastin or hyaluronic where, over time, that production goes down, naturally and unfortunately. All the good things stop working!” These women are keeping it real for us.  

Luckily, like our trusty hyaluronic acid, glycogen has now been harnessed in a new way where science AND nature, work in harmony. “it was basically an accidental discovery.” Explains Jessica, “They (the scientists at Mirexus) were looking at something else originally and found a beaker full of this opalescent-looking water and that’s what was in it, this glycogen in water. It gives this really beautiful pearl effect so they kept it and said ‘let’s look at this, it’s interesting’ and realised that they had plant-derived glycogen.” 

With this naturally occurring material, Alison and Jessica started putting it to the test “What we thought was really cool is that when we applied glycogen topically through our research and through clinical studies, we found that it wasn’t just refuelling glycogen, which is great anyway, it was also helping your body produce hyaluronic acid, elastin and collagen, so it wasn’t just refilling glycogen, it was helping ALL of your skin health.”  

Is this the supernatural superhero ingredient we need in our lives? Yes, yes it is. 

This is more than just another new super ingredient for us to obsess over. Jessica and Alison know, first hand, that working in the sciences and being heard has historically not always been easy for women. “We felt, as scientists, it’s our duty to bring this tech to the market. The newest iPhone, the best stuff, all comes from tech in a lab and people doing research, so it’s our job to actually bring it to the market for consumers because, to us, this is what everyone was asking for. Clean but clinically effective. And we saw those clinical results with this material. That was the final missing piece of the puzzle. We pitched it to the biotech company and spun out and created Veriphy skincare with this ingredient at the forefront of everything.” 

 

Veriphy is much more than a skincare brand. Its mission is intrinsically linked in promoting women in STEM (the founders quite literally, leading by example) and to lead the way in bringing naturally-derived ingredients to the fore, by harnessing the power of science and tech. “STEM in beauty is huge. We don’t even think about the many ways that it plays a role in the products we use day today.  

“Alison and myself both experienced discrimination in our lives, solely for the fact that we’re women in sciences. I remember, my undergraduate degree was in maths, I went to class and someone asked ‘are you sure that you know this is a math class?’. With experiencing that ourselves we knew that this was not encouraging to women to enter these fields. As a society, why wouldn’t we want the most educated, brilliant minds creating the newest innovations and technologies for the world? Why would we cut that off and not have women involved? So, we decided to dedicate our brand to promoting, celebrating and recognising women in STEM.  

“When you Google ‘engineer’ you’ll be confronted by a person (most likely a man) wearing a hard hat and holding plans and that doesn’t tell you anything, you don’t know what that person is doing. So getting to talk to these amazing women and what they’re doing in all areas of life and all different areas of science has been really eye-opening.  

”I remember reading a statistic (in Canada) where young women were outperforming men in high school, in maths and sciences, and yet we were less likely to go into roles in maths and science. It blew my mind, why would we not want the most brilliant people coming up with the next technical advances? It was important to us that we had this focus and that we put our money where our mouth was, so we offer scholarships at the University of Guelph in Canada, which is where Phytoglycogen was first discovered, for young women entering STEM.”

 

Veriphy is much more than a skincare brand. Its mission is intrinsically linked in promoting women in STEM (the founders quite literally, leading by example) and to lead the way in bringing naturally-derived ingredients to the fore, by harnessing the power of science and tech. “STEM in beauty is huge. We don’t even think about the many ways that it plays a role in the products we use day today.  

“Alison and myself both experienced discrimination in our lives, solely for the fact that we’re women in sciences. I remember, my undergraduate degree was in maths, I went to class and someone asked ‘are you sure that you know this is a math class?’. With experiencing that ourselves we knew that this was not encouraging to women to enter these fields. As a society, why wouldn’t we want the most educated, brilliant minds creating the newest innovations and technologies for the world? Why would we cut that off and not have women involved? So, we decided to dedicate our brand to promoting, celebrating and recognising women in STEM.  

“When you Google ‘engineer’ you’ll be confronted by a person (most likely a man) wearing a hard hat and holding plans and that doesn’t tell you anything, you don’t know what that person is doing. So getting to talk to these amazing women and what they’re doing in all areas of life and all different areas of science has been really eye-opening.  

”I remember reading a statistic (in Canada) where young women were outperforming men in high school, in maths and sciences, and yet we were less likely to go into roles in maths and science. It blew my mind, why would we not want the most brilliant people coming up with the next technical advances? It was important to us that we had this focus and that we put our money where our mouth was, so we offer scholarships at the University of Guelph in Canada, which is where Phytoglycogen was first discovered, for young women entering STEM.” 

 

This is like new-age nature versus nurture; we know that ingredients taken from nature are good for us but we also know that a product and an idea that is nurtured by science is often a better one - how do you balance science and nature? 

“To us, nature is science and a lot of amazing science tech comes from looking at nature. Science and nature go hand in hand. There’s no separation. That being said, we completely understand people’s hesitation to embrace that because before now, the industry-first went so scientific heavy, where we were getting these products with really long chemical names, that were scaring people, and then we did a full 180 and went super natural and now we’re coming back to the middle. 

“It’s all about education and that was definitely one of our biggest hurdles as scientists at the beginning. We had a new ingredient, people haven’t really heard of it, so, how do we get that message out there? That was hard, educating consumers at first. The main questions being ‘why glycogen?’ ‘why glycogen over other ingredients?’ that being said, we did incorporate other well-known ingredients into our formulas to make the transition a little easier to digest. So, if you’re looking for a moisturiser with hyaluronic acid, we have that but we also have glycogen.”

 

And the obsession with natural... “Sometimes natural is less sustainable than synthetic, and sometimes natural isn’t stable and we need to add a little bit of science in there to make it ready for your skincare so that your body can accept the product. 

“Our bodies are very good at not absorbing things. You can take a shower and not balloon up absorbing all the water, so our bodies are really good at defending us. Nature is great, but you need that science to get those potent ingredients into the skin. I think finding that bridge and educating consumers on natural and clean but using science to bring the benefits was a challenge, but it is becoming easier as consumers want to feel more educated, we want to know what’s in our products and why this brand is better than the other. It’s an ongoing conversation about the science behind the products and stripping the scientific terms of their scary, unapproachable quality.” 

The benefits of trusting in scientifically formulated products is the amazing discovery in the testing arena, that can occur; “There is always fine-tuning, a lot of it, at the end. One of the things that we were really lucky with, is that Phytoglycogen seems to have a synergy with some ingredients. When we formulated with hyaluronic acid and did some hydration studies, we found that the combination of the two, outperformed either on their own. Together, they could achieve so much more. We were lucky to find out that phytoglycogen has this beautiful synergy with some of these well-known cosmetic ingredients that are already out there. It made our job easier. Honestly, this material, every time it does something, I‘m like ‘no way!’ It’s so good!” 

 

So, what’s in a name?

Are we fearing certain products based on misinformation about chemical-sounding names? “Of course, there’s misinformation, we’re in the time of misinformation, unfortunately, but I also think it’s a lack of communication and transparency, previously with other brands perhaps. Maybe we’re using a scientific ingredient but that’s JUST the scientific name and maybe it’s really cucumber extract, for example. There wasn’t really any transparency and people got really scared of what they were putting on their skin. As consumers we’re thinking, ‘no one is telling me or educating me on what these ingredients are, but they are asking us to trust in it and accept what goes into them’. So, I think the wary factor was a combination of both not understanding and then seeking answers and then that little bit of misinformation out there coming together and creating a bit of a scare when it came to science-focused brands.  

“We’re seeing more and more transparency with scientific brands, ‘this ingredient does this and this is here because of this’ we’ve even started an ingredient dictionary on our website so that you can go and look up any ingredient in any of our products so you know what it does. We had a question about alcohol in our products and, to consumers, they identified it as alcohol and were ready to reject it. We had to explain that’s just the chemical name, it’s more of a wax. Educating people on the actual name on the ingredient list has helped us. Previously, scientific brands weren’t doing that so it was hurting the scientific section of beauty in general.” 

Feeling distanced from science creates a natural wariness, The Veriphy team are hyper-aware of this. The brand name for this material Phytospherix® also has a less than frightening explanation “Imagine glucose, essentially what glycogen or ‘PhytoSpherix’ is, is a ball of glucose, a really really tiny ball, so it’s kind of is a play on that, ‘phyto’ meaning naturally derived and ‘spherix’ coming from the spherical ball shape.” Smoke and mirrors be gone. 

 

So, what’s in a name?

Are we fearing certain products based on misinformation about chemical-sounding names? “Of course, there’s misinformation, we’re in the time of misinformation, unfortunately, but I also think it’s a lack of communication and transparency, previously with other brands perhaps. Maybe we’re using a scientific ingredient but that’s JUST the scientific name and maybe it’s really cucumber extract, for example. There wasn’t really any transparency and people got really scared of what they were putting on their skin. As consumers we’re thinking, ‘no one is telling me or educating me on what these ingredients are, but they are asking us to trust in it and accept what goes into them’. So, I think the wary factor was a combination of both not understanding and then seeking answers and then that little bit of misinformation out there coming together and creating a bit of a scare when it came to science-focused brands.  

“We’re seeing more and more transparency with scientific brands, ‘this ingredient does this and this is here because of this’ we’ve even started an ingredient dictionary on our website so that you can go and look up any ingredient in any of our products so you know what it does. We had a question about alcohol in our products and, to consumers, they identified it as alcohol and were ready to reject it. We had to explain that’s just the chemical name, it’s more of a wax. Educating people on the actual name on the ingredient list has helped us. Previously, scientific brands weren’t doing that so it was hurting the scientific section of beauty in general.” 

Feeling distanced from science creates a natural wariness, The Veriphy team are hyper-aware of this. The brand name for this material Phytospherix® also has a less than frightening explanation “Imagine glucose, essentially what glycogen or ‘PhytoSpherix’ is, is a ball of glucose, a really really tiny ball, so it’s kind of is a play on that, ‘phyto’ meaning naturally derived and ‘spherix’ coming from the spherical ball shape.” Smoke and mirrors be gone. 

 

Alison and Jessica are onto much more than a beauty brand, they're applying their skill set, personal experiences and thirst for better skincare and revolutionising the industry. Using a beauty platform to promote women in STEM can only lead to great things. They are scientific game-changers on the coal face of a once opaque industry. 

“The more we embrace science and women in STEM, the more we’re going to see amazing innovations, specifically in our cosmetics. We’re going to see new technology, we’re going to see things we’ve never seen before, all for the better.”