By: Jaime Ee
TWO years ago, Stephanie Nam was just your average beauty junkie, an eager consumer of high-end anti-ageing creams, instant face-lift serums, light-reflecting make-up, etc. From ancient Aztec-grown cocoa beans to the glands of hibernating albino clams, if there was an exotic ingredient promising the fountain of youth in a nicely packaged bottle, she would have tried it. In other words, she was just like any other woman in pursuit of perfect skin.
But that was then. 'My skin wasn't always like this,' she says today, saying it took her that two years of cutting out every kind of commercial skincare and fragrance with artificial ingredients to achieve her current firm, supple face. Her complexion has that kind of made-up matteness usually achieved with foundation and powder, except that she has nothing on her face except sunscreen and powder made from silk crystals.
The sunscreen and powder are part of La Soie's 100 per cent natural skincare products made from silk protein, developed by a Korean scientist which Ms Nam now distributes.
From anti-ageing and whitening serums to acne care, La Soie's products are based on silk's high anti-bacterial and antioxidant properties. It also has collagen-like benefits, making it an alternative to bovine-based collagen. Plus, its versatility as an emulsifier and preservative means that there is no need to add any artificial ingredients into the product, says La Soie's creator, Garbeen Lim.
Why the obsession with the all-natural moniker when a little bit of artificial preservative hasn't been proven to kill anybody?
That's the thing, says Dr Lim, who was in town last week. 'What women don't realise is that, by trying to look beautiful, they are actually doing harm to their skin,' he says. 'As we study more, we are surprised to find chemicals in so many skincare products but people don't really know about the potential toxicity of such chemicals, especially here in Asia.'
He adds, 'Why do some people suffer skin irritation from creams and shampoos? That's because manufacturers use chemical surfectant to mix oil and water - there's no other way to do it. But silk crystal can do that naturally, without any additives.'
He also points out the potential perils of chemicals like parabens, a petrol-based preservative that inhibits bacteria growth and prolongs the shelf life of cosmetics, but has also been linked to breast cancer. Titanium dioxide - a key and cheap ingredient in sunblock creams - is effective in protecting the skin against the sun, but it also activates photocatalysis - a process which releases toxic materials that attack skin cells. Then there are silicone and mineral oil - petroleum-based ingredients used to help give skin an instant soft and silky feeling 'but also covers the skin like cling film such that skin cells cannot breathe'.
Dr Lim is one of a growing number of scientists in Korea and Japan who - armed with government grants - researching the healing properties of silk since Japanese scientists first noticed the baby-soft hands of silk factory workers in the 70s. Hitherto associated with dry-clean-only fabric rather than as a potent anti-ageing ingredient, scientists worked to develop a way to extract silk protein from the fibres for use in both skincare and medical products.
But not all silk protein is created equal. Conventional methods include boiling silk fibres until they break down and release amino acids and peptides. But, says Dr Lim, that process produces amino acids that are no better than that created from other non-silk material, and a lot of nutrients are destroyed in the boiling process.
Five years ago, Dr Lim's company, FineCo, invented an enzyme technology that could ' re-arrange the three-dimensional structure of the silk to extract the protein, which we call silk crystal'. In layman-speak, it means they found a way to squeeze out every drop of goodness from the silk fibres without using any heat.
FineCo's main business is extracting the protein and selling it to companies as a raw material for making everything from cosmetics to contact lenses to bio-reactors. But Dr Lim - whose passion lies in 'unlocking the secrets of nature', wanted to create completely natural skincare products using silk protein, pumped up with nano gold (antioxidant rich gold that has been 'blasted' into nano particles for easier absorption). Only problem was that he could not interest any big company in Korea to do so.
'They don't want to take the risk,' says Dr Lim. First, silk protein is expensive and has a short shelf life of six months, compared to the normal two or three years of a skin product. 'Considering the marketing and distribution they have to do, it's impossible for them to take the risk with products that have such a short shelf life. In terms of business, that's our weak point and we're working to extend it.'
It's also the reason why big name cosmetic companies won't make the switch to all-natural ingredients like silk. 'That's why you still have parabens, titanium oxide, silicone, etc in even the most expensive, brand name products,' says Dr Lim. 'There are simply no alternatives.'
So it was left to Dr Lim, whose research career includes developing immunity-boosting supplements out of agaricus mushrooms (said to be more potent that Lingzhi) to put his money where his mouth is. Incidentally, all-natural is different from organic, and Dr Lim cautions against equating the two. 'Organic simply means that the plant material used is organically grown, but the chemical surfectants, artificial preservatives are still there. Natural means that there are no artificial ingredients at all, although the plant material isn't necessarily organic. Even then, different countries have different regulations on the quantity of natural ingredients necessary to call a product natural. In some countries it could be as little as six per cent.' La Soie, though, follows a strict German accreditation system which has certified it as 100 per cent all-natural.
While it's a bit of a hard sell to convince people to make the switch from fancy brand names to obscure products that give more realistic results, La Soie is slowly but surely growing a fan base of like-minded individuals.
One of them, local celebrity hairstylist Shunji Matsuo, was so impressed with how his skin improved after just two months that he even offered Ms Nam - also a client - a small space in his salon which she could use as a mini-office cum display area. The products - a beauty line as well as a medical (acne) line - are also sold in selected clinics and spas.
Of course, users have to accept that the road to good skin is not a quick one paved with instant-lift silicone. It takes anywhere from two months (for normal skin) to six months (for acne problems) before significant results can be seen.
Le Soie follows a very basic principle, says Dr Lim. 'Our skin has natural healing ability. One of the good things about natural products is that they help recovery. Chemical products, on the other hand, inhibit cell recovery.'
This article was first published in The Business Times