When completing space missions, astronauts have noticed that their skin is thinner, drier, and more susceptible to cuts and bruises—all of which are symptoms of sped-up skin aging. This intel caught the eye of researchers at PCA Skin, who launched into space on February 19, 2022 with a new mission: Figuring out how microgravity affects our skin health in the hopes of bringing the findings into new anti-aging technology here on Earth.
The science of microgravity and skin
Microgravity is a state in which gravity is very low, and the absence of gravity can actually be felt and noticed (which is different from "zero gravity," a term that implies there's no gravity at all). It's the result of a more controlled environment within space—i.e., what you'd experience in a space station—so you'll be able to float through the air effortlessly or move a traditionally heavy object with complete ease.
There has already been extensive research on how microgravity causes increased inflammation and significant changes to our microbiomes. "We know from historical data that space travel and lengthy exposure to microgravity have profound effects on the skin," says Lia Arvanitidou, Vice President of global technology and design for Colgate-Palmolive's skin health businesses (Colgate-Palmolive acquired PCA Skin in 2017). She adds that in addition to skin thinning and dryness, astronauts also see their skin taking longer to heal from environmental stressors like the sun and physical trauma like cuts and bruises.
What will the mission accomplish?
The big question here, though, is why, which is precisely what PCA Skin is trying to decipher. Through this mission—which was carried out in partnership with NASA and marks the first private-sector skin health experiment ever to be conducted in outer space—the brand is exploring how, exactly, microgravity accelerates the aging process. The goal is to better understand how skin ages in this type of high-stress environment.
To do that, the brand sent live skin tissue samples up to the International Space Station. Over the course of seven days, researchers monitored changes in the tissue at the molecular level. "Within the live skin tissues, we'll see what biomarkers or genes that are going to change," says Lia.
The mission will compare the length of time it takes for skin to show signs of aging like thinning, dryness, and loss of elasticity in space versus on Earth. The research team anticipated that they would see more dramatic signs of tissue damage in space within a very short time frame, and Lia explains that they'll also be able to evaluate how skin attempts to protect and repair itself against environmental stressors.
"This study will help us better identify areas for intervention and help us design and develop products that can be breakthrough innovations for aging," she says. Eventually, the brand will use its research to develop new anti-aging products.
While we have a basic understanding of how the human body ages and what it needs to compensate for its losses over time, we still don't have the whole picture. The hope is that this mission will inspire breakthrough science within the beauty space and pinpoint new findings to help us better care for our bodies as we get older—which could (pardon the pun) launch the innovations we'll see 50 years from now.
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