In the world of skincare, the revolving lists of ingredients are nothing short of fantastical. One day we’re touting the power of stem cells, the next we’re lauding the benefits of seaweed. At the latest International Congress of Esthetics and Spa show, I noticed an abundance of metals–particularly gold in skincare. It can be hard to sift through the trends to find the ingredients that will truly improve your skin’s appearance. Which ingredients work? And when is it worth paying more for those truly sophisticated products?
The use of metals in skincare perfectly exemplifies this phenomena. Copper is needed by the body, but what does it do when applied topically? The idea of using 24K gold in skincare has its characteristic allure, but is it worth shelling out for said allure?
As you know, I custom make all my skincare, so my main question when I started researching this was… should I consider including precious metals in my skincare formulations? In this article, I’m breaking it down according to each metal, because they offer different qualities. Then, I’ll touch on nanoparticles, which have become important (and controversial) in skincare recently.
Copper in skincare
The most electrically conductive of all the metal elements, copper, has a long history of being used to make tools and jewelry, sterilizing water, and now, as an ingredient in skincare.
Its use as a purifying agent is one of copper’s most popular applications. Hospitals even use copper surfaces to reduce the spread of germs. So it’s not surprising that one of copper’s effects on the skin is as an antimicrobial. These germ-reducing properties aren’t what most companies are promoting, however. Products containing copper are instead touting its ability to reduce redness, minimize wrinkles, and get rid of dark circles under the eyes. There’s even a pillowcase infused with copper that promises to reduce wrinkles while you sleep!
The peptides in copper may be responsible for these skin-rejuvenating properties. Oregon State writes, “Another [copper enzyme], lysyl oxidase, is required for the cross-linking of collagen and elastin, which are essential for the formation of strong and flexible connective tissue. The action of lysyl oxidase helps maintain the integrity of connective tissue in the heart and blood vessels and also plays a role in bone formation.” This sounds promising.
Aesthetics Journal notes, “Copper metal ions have been found in higher concentrations around healing wounds and thus are implicated in wound healing and inflammatory processes. The topical application of copper ion-containing ointments has been associated with improved wound healing.” Another compelling piece.
Both of these excerpts point to some validity in the claims that copper in skincare formulations could help give it a more youthful appearance. Given its long history of use, as well as these studied effects on wound healing and connective tissue, copper stands out as an ingredient worth including in a skincare regimen.
Silver in skincare
Like copper, silver has a long history of use–it has been used for medical purposes for thousands of years. Lately you might have heard of colloidal silver being used to fight infections or used in skincare formulations that claim anti-aging properties.
First off, “colloidal” refers to a solution of microscopically dispersed insoluble particles suspended throughout another substance. Those who endorse silver for these purposes explain that it is only beneficial or absorbable in its colloidal form. Colloidal silver was banned as a medical ingredient in the 1990s because it was being overprescribed and overhyped, which caused some pretty crazy adverse reactions. However it is still available in natural formulations, and is considered safe when used appropriately.
Medical journals do confirm silver’s antibacterial activity, with a study published in 2013 noting that “It is widely recognized as an effective broad-spectrum antimicrobial agent… effective against a broad range of aerobic, anaerobic, gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria, yeast, filamentous fungi and viruses,” also appearing to have anti-inflammatory properties. This makes silver appealing as a preservative, perhaps, or an acne-fighting ingredient– but does it live up to the hype as a skin-transforming ingredient?
Let’s transport ourselves to the world of biochemistry for a moment. There are some compelling cases for silver as a skincare ingredient, namely a study on silver nanoparticles at a particular size protecting skin cells against UVB radiation-induced DNA damage, which lends some credibility to its use as an anti-aging ingredient. I’ll touch on nanoparticles at the end of this article, but just know that there is some controversy behind their safety. For now, let’s talk about our first place prize metal.
Gold in skincare
Gold is perhaps the most enchanting of these three metals. Companies that utilize gold in skincare tout its youth-enhancing and luminizing effects. But is gold in skincare all it glitters to be?
The Huffington Post’s review of gold in skincare concludes that its main attributes are that it’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Because it’s not soluble, the article explains, you don’t need to worry about side effects.
Yet Allure’s comparison of different precious metals in skincare notes that gold was named ‘Allergen of the year’ in 2001. And many people can’t even tolerate wearing gold jewelry. How’s that for going for the gold?
Well, a study published in 2010 found that gold particles stimulated the proliferation of keratinocytes. They concluded that at a low concentration, gold particles could be useful in biomedical skin tissue engineering, but that at high concentrations they were toxic to cells. I think it’s safe to assume that skincare companies would not use high enough concentrations in their products for them to have a toxic effect; and while these results are in scientific jargon, it does seem to point to gold’s ability to revitalize the skin.
Just last year, a study of metal in skincare confirmed that gold encourages the proliferation of skin cells. They also noted that gold does have ability to penetrate into the skin, which may be a good thing, or may be a bad thing, depending on what else is in the formulation; because essentially, having gold in your skincare may increase your skin’s absorption of the other ingredients in that product, helping your skin to soak all the goodness (or not-so-goodness). Also, its benefits and effects on the skin depend on whether or not it’s compatible with the bioindividual chemistry of the person using the product.
Is the idea of metals in skincare a little bit too Marie Curie when it should be more Marie Claire? Stick with me, because I want to touch on one more science-oriented thing that’s rather important…
Several years ago I wrote about Kabana Skin Care and why I steer clear of nanoparticles in skincare. It’s a topic thick with opposing views and uncertainty. You may have heard of nanoparticles, which means any particle under 100 nanometers, because they are often used in natural sunscreen formulations. Zinc oxide and titanium oxide in nanoparticle size have less of the characteristic white chalkiness. Since the technology has become available to achieve nanoparticle size, companies and scientists have been using it because it allows for easier assimilation into products and medications.
Because nanoparticles are often able to enter the bloodstream, there are concerns about their interactions with cells and bioaccumulation in the body. Indeed, the aforementioned study about gold particles being toxic at certain concentrations was looking at nanoparticles. They write, “It has been found that AuNPs of 14 nm can easily penetrate through the cell membrane and accumulate into the vacuole.” But also that, “the unique properties of NPs: high surface area relative to the size as well as the ability to penetrate biological membranes and barriers greatly reduces systemic dose thus potential side effects and toxicity. Recent studies show very promising clinical potential of NPs to serve as controlled release and delivery systems for drugs/active substances.” Alas, the double-edged sword of nanoparticles.
I don’t find nanoparticles appealing enough to ignore the evidence that they could bioaccumulate in the body. Given how many healthy, natural, nontoxic ingredients there are available, I don’t see the point in risking it.
To Indulge or Not to Indulge?
Gold, silver, and copper each have merits when it comes to skincare. Gold can help increase the effectiveness of other ingredients in your skincare, while also acting as an antioxidant. Heck, the simple shine and color of it can add a beautiful luminosity to your skin.
And silver? Its antimicrobial actions are totally legit, and it’s possible that it also protects against UVB damage, which would be a great bonus.
Copper, also verifiably antimicrobial, also contains peptides that can stimulate collagen production.
Overall, each of these metals have qualities that make them worth including in your skincare. But be cognizant of nanoparticles! There is a potential risk associated with them, and companies don’t have to disclose if they are using them (never hurts to ask!).
And it’s probably not a good idea to spend all your coins on these precious metal formulations. They’re beneficial, but not magic 🙂
*Photo credits: Copper by Qaqqaqtunaaq, Silver Crystal By Alchemist-hp (talk) (www.pse-mendelejew.de) – Own work (additional processed by Waugsberg), CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7394995, Gold Leaf Eye Makeup by pumpkincat210, Gold Face Mask by Alison Shaw