This question is central in the beauty world, including both skincare and make-up products. This is quite possibly the oldest beauty practices. And yet, very few people are interested or have been interested in it! Come back on this issue.
In the past, Red was long used to highlight white complexions: it has always had a positive healthy connotation. There are multiple ways to get rosy cheeks. Blush is the oldest one to make this ancestral gesture. It was formulated in thousand different ways, with fatty or dry products initially based on arcanet or poppy flower, red lead and cinnabar, or more recently without any toxic substances, as brands tried to display their best know-how. Liquid blushes were on a roll at some point, mainly in the US, and blushes could also be found in the form of water – the well-known rose water – rose essential oil, a sublime rose bouquet that made faces blush, or, more recently, creations like Eau de Beauté by Caudalie, Rose Floral Water by Sanoflore, or Baume de Rose by By Terry. Almost all beauty gurus have ridden this wave. There are even bolder interpretations, as Marie-Laure Dagoit describes in her book Le Rose aux Joues.
But in the beauty world, ‘rosy cheeks’ refers to something more precise and better defined: skin microcirculation, i.e. skin vascularization. In the skin, the dermis and hypodermis are abundantly vascularized with a very well-structured blood network of average- and small-sized arterioles, venules, and capillaries. On the contrary, just like all epithelia, the epidermis is not vascularized: it is fed by soaking through papillary ridge capillary networks. Likewise, the lymphatic system is found in the dermis and hypodermis, but not in the epidermis.
That is how, a few millimetres under the epidermis, several dozens of kilometres of pipes are directly involved in the skin’s functioning.
A complex system of blood vessels ends up anastomosed as it forms a third network at the papillary dermis-reticular dermis junction. Capillaries start from this network and head towards papillary ridges. These capillary balls settle in the DEJ (Dermal Epidermal Junction) microvillisties, and it is the light that reaches this level that generates the rosy colour of the skin.
These capillaries play a role in thermoregulation by increasing the skin’s blood flow, therefore increasing the loss of calories on the skin surface. Skin microcirculation has four main functions:
- Feed cells, the dermis, the hypodermis, the epidermis, and skin annexes
- Maintain blood pressure by means of a vasoconstrictor tone
- Help the skin tolerate long periods of ischemia due to the body’s weight
- Provide the vasomotor reactivity needed for thermoregulation.
But from an aesthetic standpoint, it mainly creates the rosy aspect of healthy skin. This organization undergoes modifications, in particular as we age. Any modification in the peripheral microcirculation leads to skin colour changes. As a result, as the DEJ gets flatter as we age, it leads to the disappearance of microvilli – and capillaries –, causing the loss of the red aspect of the skin. The same goes for vasoconstriction, like when we smoke or when we are scared. The flushing effect on sensitive skins should be associated with blood flow stimulation, when dilation creates marks like telangiectasia. Therefore, the microcirculation function is a perfectly legitimate cosmetic target: acting on it consists in changing the skin’s appearance, as it is stated in the European regulatory definition of a cosmetic product. We are here at the core of the cosmetics definition. But, rather curiously, the role of the microcirculation function was quite long underestimated as a biological target in “modern” cosmetics… except for what is commonly called “telangectasia”, a widely recognized cosmetic complaint referred to as “diffuse redness” in our contradicting regulations. Many products were marketed with this positioning: almost all of them looked green, the complementary colour of red, and contained, if not the almost inescapable horse chestnut, titrated plant extracts essentially supposed to strengthen vessel walls, like B vitamins, or polyphenols, which bore a different name back then. Esculoside, rutin, and other flavonoids, for example what was called vitamin P, were also potential candidates.
And yet, older brands, in particular in America, had used this in many proposals that made up whole ranges in the 1920s/30s. These products were called “stimulant creams”, but also “Circulation Creams” or “Blood Glow creams”, referred to as such due to their effect on circulation. Most beauty experts in the 1930s thought that good circulation was one of the main conditions to have a beautiful skin. At that time, some of them even thought that the skin’s beauty and freshness depended on fresh blood supplies on the skin surface. As a result, a few specialists asserted that enough heat should be produced by massage and stimulation to remove the skin’s toxins and guarantee a full supply of the vitalizing agents needed to feed both the skin and cells. Muscles were no strangers to this theory, as can be seen with this 1936 Dorothy Gray ad: “The circulation ointment eliminates the poisons, stimulates and rejuvenates sluggish and sallow skins. Brings the natural colour to cheeks.” Most of these product formulas contained one or more skin irritants, like balsam of Peru, cinnameine (the clear oil of balsam of Peru), benzaldehyde and/or capsaicin, or even chili pepper extracts. That is how Barbara Gould, an American brand which later became French-American, included a Cleansing Cream and a Circulation Cream in its initial range to activate microcirculation with a chili pepper extract. Here is what the Barbara Gould cream ad read: “The Barbara Gould Circulation Cream snaps the warm, youth-giving blood in a pulsating rhythm to the surface of the complexion”.
Here is a formula example according to Müller (1916, p.125) – reported by James Bennett.
|Essence of cinnamon||10 drops|
|Balsam of Peru||30 drops|
|Essence of eucalyptus||20 gouttes|
|Styrax ointment||1 gramme|
|Oil of vaseline||25 grammes|
|Carbonate of calcium||12 grammes|
Here is another example: in 1933, Elizabeth Arden launched a “Venetian healthy skin” routine, which included several products, like the Venetian Anti-Dark Spot Ointment, as well as a muscle oil. It should be said that it was recommended to remove the product if one felt a hot sensation.
The skin colour dimension as an aging marker emerged later. This notion resulted from observations made on the DEJ as soon as its structure modifications were better understood. Indeed, the fact that the DEJ flattened and the papillary dermis microvilli virtually disappeared was considered one of the most significant origins of skin aging, although scientists did not really know whether it was the cause or consequence of aging.
Companies immediately started to launch actives presented as protective or even able to restructure the DEJ, without being focused on the consequences on skin colour. As regards peripheral microcirculation, it seems it all happened as if this claim had been dismissed. Indeed, as brands were working on these concepts, the role and significance of angiogenesis in the development of cancer got widely covered in the media. It had become suspicious to stimulate the growth of micro-vessels. Was that what made the cosmetics industry wait before taking interest in this mode of action? Still, some products were based on it, like Prévention Active Sérum by Chanel Beauty.
It emerged from the single-product movement (see Lift Serum) in the late 1980s. The initial concept resulted from one of the first studies focused on the evolution of the skin colour as we age – the global skin colour, not to be mistaken for the appearance of dark spots, which was a different way to approach the link between skin colour and age. This study highlighted ageing skin’s darkening and loss of radiance, in particular with a significant decline of the red colour and luminance. The product concept was based on new actives: buckwheat extracts titrated into polyphenols aimed to correct the problem with a double action – antioxidant, but mostly veinotonic and antielastasic – generated by the fresh extract obtained from buckwheat leaves. It was substantiated with a successful peripheral microcirculation improvement test using an original technique, periungual capillary microscopy, carried out in collaboration with an academic team of the Thonon Hospital in Paris. It was actually perfectly possible to visualize and quantify microcirculation in the capillaries of the nail matrix area.
This product was not much successful and the claim related to the skin colour lasted. Another product was claimed to enhance the skin colour quality: Midnight Secret by Guerlain. It was meant to correct the signs of a few sleepless nights with various modes of action, including the stimulation of peripheral microcirculation.
For a short while during the 1990s, particular specialties were on a roll: using the idea of warming creams, they were aimed to stimulate microcirculation until slight erythema appeared on the area of application. The objective was both to enhance the activity of the products and define the area of application. Most of them were body products mainly claimed to fight against the orange peel effect or cellulitis using rubefacient and irritant products, usually nicotinic acid esters. Here is a formula example:
Water (Aqua), Mineral Oil (Paraffinum Liquidum), Glyceryl Stearate, Stearic Acid, Propylene Glycol, Beeswax (Cera Alba), Caffein, Triethanolamine, Fragrance, Methyl Nicotinate, Birch Bark Extract (Betula Alba), Phenoxyethanol, Ivy Extract (Hedera Helix), Bladderwrack Extract (Fucus Vesilosus), Methylparaben, Ethyparaben, Butylparaben, Hydroxycitronellal, Coumarine, Geraniol, Citronellol, Aldehyde Alpha Hexylcinnamique.
These products have become a niche or are now part of the arsenal of products for sportsmen and women. https://urgo.fr/urgo-creme-chauffante/
During the first decade of the third millennium, some companies took interest in this issue again. Several publications dealt with it, although they did not result in marketed products, except for a few Japanese brands like Kanebo. As for actives, few were positioned on this mode of action, or they were launched with minimalist claims.
In the late 2000s, another idea focused on the pink colour emerged: pink creams. Although they were initially meant for selective distribution, all cosmetics departments were gradually filled with products with this colour designed to correct the skin colour by making it look pink.
Most of them were formulated as BB creams, although they only acted on the direct colour of the skin with a covering effect. But they were really successful and were included in many ranges.
Finally, about twenty years ago, a hypothesis based on the microcirculatory component of the skin will be developed by the CERIES (Research center affiliated with Chanel) in a work of definition of cutaneous typologies. The insufficient means of investigation of the time will not allow to pursue further on this path. But this issue came up again recently with a series of research work published by Asian brands, in particular about the role and significance of the pink colour of the skin. About 20 years ago, Shiseido created a dedicated structure called Lifeblood which, together with the Cutaneous Biology Research Center (CBRC), the result of a collaboration with the Harvard Medical School of the Massachusetts General Hospital, focused on the capillaries found in the upper dermis, right next to the epidermis, which they both constantly irrigate. They achieved several advances thanks to multiple discoveries regarding mechanistic issues and substances able to interfere with these processes. The role of major protagonists, VEGFs (vascular endothelium growth factors), helped better understand all this and inevitably develop new products, in particular focused on ageing. The French Industries Cosmétiques magazine relates this perfectly well. You can also learn more about these studies on this website: https://lifeblood-research.shiseido.com/
The Shiseido teams had already published work in this way, identifying interesting biological targets such as the APJ system, also known as Apelin, or VE-cadherin. Other work had also identified substances that could act on these systems, for example plant extracts such as neem (Houttuynia cordata). A commercial product offering an action in this direction has also been proposed according to the company: Ultimune Power Infusing Concentrate.
Pour compléter le tout, la marque propose également un système de diagnostic s’intitulant « Skin visualizer device » qui revendique de mesurer globalement l‘état cutané de la personne. En intégrant la microcirculation périphérique.
That’s it for this fascinating saga about a theme widely known for a long time, but which has known a positive outcome only recently. This type of research – quite specific to Asian brands, in particular Japanese ones – proves there are still many areas to investigate in the cosmetics industry. To me, it also helps maintain an optimum level of understanding of issues too often dealt with by indie brands rather superficially, to say the least. It still remains to know what will prevail, this type of research or ephemeral claims, since the two are incompatible.
Lastly, it raises an issue: did our elders not have more than one trick in their sleeves? Indeed, these topics were tackled in depth before being given up. Generally speaking, the past should be considered with openness and interest. So, is this knowledge or foraging on essential issues? Up to you.