NUS study of cosmetics more than skin deep

The researchers, comprising (from left) Dr Kang Lifeng, Dr Poh Ai-Ling, Mr Kwan Yu Heng, Ms Tung Yee Kei and Dr Jaspreet Singh Kochhar, studied the labels of 257 skincare products commonly sold at retail pharmacies here. They want to conduct further
The researchers, comprising (from left) Dr Kang Lifeng, Dr Poh Ai-Ling, Mr Kwan Yu Heng, Ms Tung Yee Kei and Dr Jaspreet Singh Kochhar, studied the labels of 257 skincare products commonly sold at retail pharmacies here. They want to conduct further tests of the ingredients on human skin samples for more conclusive results. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Team aims to test more ingredients, study their side effects on human skin

That pot of face cream will reduce wrinkles and brighten your dull complexion, so says the advertisement. But how much do you know about the chemicals used in skincare products, particularly the effects of long-term usage?

A team of researchers here is asking that question, in a study that seeks to find out more about the impact of skincare ingredients on humans.

"The focus seems to be more on the efficacy of such products, such as reducing wrinkles or whitening skin, rather than the side effects of the ingredients," said Dr Kang Lifeng from the Department of Pharmacy at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He is the lead researcher of the study, which includes five other researchers from the department.

The team studied the labels of 257 skincare products commonly sold at retail pharmacies here, including moisturisers and anti-ageing creams. They also read up on existing research on the ingredients found in such products.

Some examples of these compounds include alpha hydroxyl acid, used in products such as exfoliates; isopropylparaben, used as a preservative to prolong shelf life; and glycolic acid, used in moisturisers and anti-ageing products.

Out of the 520 ingredients in these products, 87, or about 16 per cent, were found to be potentially carcinogenic, based on earlier research done on them and existing literature.

The team then gathered and organised these information into a book titled Handbook Of Cosmeceutical Excipients And Their Safeties.

What the researchers hope to do now is to conduct further tests of the ingredients on human skin samples for more accurate and conclusive results. Most existing research findings have been based on animal testing.

"Animals have a different lifespan from us. Some studies have shown that it took five or 30 days for the ingredients to cause cancer in animals... But we can't correlate this to humans," said Mr Kwan Yu Heng, who is part of the research team and studies at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School.

The researchers also need to consider factors such as the amount of time the skin is exposed to the ingredients and the size of the contact area.

Companies that want to sell their cosmetic products in Singapore must first notify the Health Sciences Authority (HSA). But the notification "is not a form of pre-market approval and should not be misconstrued as product certification or registration by HSA", a spokesman said.

"Dealers of cosmetic products have to ensure that their products comply with the requirements stipulated in the regulations," she added.

It is estimated that the NUS researchers will need up to a six-figure sum for their research. They will be submitting proposals to private institutions and government organisations.

The funds will be used to purchase the 520 compounds, human skin samples and chemical reagents for testing. It will also be used to hire a full-time researcher for a year.

Dr Kang hopes that with the funding, his team's research can be taken a step further.

"There are still many compounds which have not been studied," he said.

kcarolyn@sph.com.sg