Can Ingredients & Creams Actually Change Skin Cells?


Dr Des Fernandes and renowned author of several books on skin science says: “I think the worst mistake made by doctors is to think that all cosmetic creams are useless.  Of course, most cosmetics do not contain active doses of effective ingredients, but doctors should be aware of products that do.”

Dr Ernst Eiselen, co-author of ‘Vitamin A Skin Science’, says: “The science of vitamin A in human existence provides the story of how stem cells in the skin are able to maintain good skin, or repair damaged skin. The information is accurate, accessible and entirely evidence based.  Not much mystery surrounds the actions of Vitamins A, C and E in the dynamics of skin structure and physiology. This is skin science – not skin science fiction.”

As the author of this piece and of several skincare books, I once approached a very intimidating lady in a white uniform, standing behind the counter of one of the most expensive skincare brands in Harrods, London and asked her if her creams could alter my skin on a cellular level. She hurried to reassure me that they could not. “We would not be allowed to do that,” she said. “They smell wonderful and your skin will feel great after just a few applications.” I was left wondering if the price tag was worth paying to feel and smell wonderful as my aging skin marched on its downward slope towards a wrinkled, pigmented and, possibly cancerous, old age.



So, it seems there are some creams that can change the skin and some that cannot. What is the main difference between the two? According to Des Fernandes, the difference is in the composition and chemical content of the creams. He insists they must contain active doses of effective ingredients. What does he consider to be active doses of effective ingredients? He says: “When we want to repair skin or promote more collagen and tightening of the skin, we have to recognise that the cosmetic ingredients we use are chemical messengers. Cells are very actively sending chemical messages, one cell to another, to keep skin healthy (and young looking). Vitamin A “talks” to many cells, and, in fact, all the cells in the skin are “in conversation” with each other. Vitamin A urges skin cells to behave normally when they divide. Some peptides also act as messengers between cells and can improve the discussion about making more of the various types of collagen, elastin etc.”

It’s important to remember that skin is constantly growing, dying and then replacing itself from its lower layers. Cells communicate to keep this process going!  They use chemical signals to do this. The chemical signals attach to receptors either on the surface or inside the cell. This triggers a flow of signals inside the cell, sending the message to the nucleus. Vitamin A is the single most important chemical messenger in the skin.

Here are some messages that Vitamin A gives to a cell:

"It’s time to divide and replicate – do this very precisely and accurately."

"Make more good skin!"

"Behave normally – get the colour, size and function right before you divide."

"Fix that broken bit of DNA."

"Kill that bacteria, virus or fungus."

"Make sure that you replace this dying cell next to you with an exact copy of yourself."

"It’s time to die and let a younger cell take your place."

"If you are not healthy, don't replicate."



First Ernst Eiselen tells us how skin is damaged, starting the aging process and becoming steadily less healthy: “UVA and UVB rays penetrate unprotected skin and attack the DNA (genetic material) inside the skin cell. This causes faulty base pair bindings in DNA strands. Instead of binding across the double helixes, they bind on the same side, creating what are called pyrimidine dimers. These are usually repaired, because our DNA is coded to repair such damage, but unfortunately, the repair process is imperfect, which means that over time, the number of these faulty pyrimidine dimers increases. When this happens, it interferes with the normal communication between cells and that is why we produce slower growing skin cells, more pigmentation and less collagen; which all leads to aged and unhealthy skin.”


DNA (our genetic blueprint) is altered by light! Just as a builder would build a wonky building if the plans were damaged or missing, so our skin can build wonky new cells using faulty information caused by a damaged strand of DNA
How do healthy, vitamin A rich cells replicate?

1. Cells are constantly communicating with each other to help keep the body healthy. They communicate by using chemical signals. Vitamin A is the most important molecular signaller.
2. The signals attach to receptors either on the surface or inside the cell. This triggers a flow of signals inside the cell, sending the message to the nucleus.
3. Within the nucleus are chromosomes made of DNA. Chromosomes contain genes, the cell's instructions. When a cell is told to get ready to divide, its DNA is copied.
4. The Vitamin A signaller tells the cell to check if everything is okay with the DNA. Is it damaged? Has it been copied correctly?
5. Then the cell is told to split, forming two new cells. Healthy new cells divide in a controlled way, replacing damaged or dead cells as needed.

This process happens millions and millions of times every day in your body
What happens when vitamin A starved cells containing damaged DNA replicate?

1. Cell signalling often goes wrong.
2. The message may be sent too many times. 
3. The message may not get through at all.
4. The message may be sent even though no signalling chemical is attached to the receptors. 
5. Or the message may be amplified
6.  Vital genes may be switched on or off wrongly.
7. Instead of an identical cell, a different cell is made.
8. This mutated cell may create strange colours, growths or shapes and it may not know when to die. It may not know how to perform its function.
9. This mutation will replicate itself, creating cancer and the signs of aging


Now we know how it all goes wrong, we need to find out how to protect our precious skin cells and make sure that, when they replicate, they do so as strong, healthy cells.

“Effects and changes produced by skin-nutritional elements happen through well-ordered and precisely evolved biochemical reactions, not by ill-defined magic wrapped in romantic names,” says Ernst Eiselen. Vitamin A becomes the key molecule in sun-damaged skin, if repair is to take place. Complemented and balanced by Vitamins C and E, various “intelligent” peptides and other molecules. Vitamin A rich skin is at much lower risk of developing abnormal cells.”

Des Fernandes goes on to say: “Vitamin A, when it was first identified, was very clearly a molecule that interacted with skin.   We did not realise that it interacted with virtually all the cells of the body, but the skin presented special difficulties.  Skin is the major organ that is exposed to light.  Most other cells are kept in the dark of the body where light cannot reach them.  The particular structure of the vital messenger, vitamin A, makes it vulnerable to both UVA and UVB light and that is how it is destroyed when we go out into sunlight.  

This depletion wouldn’t be too important if we could replace that vitamin A easily each day.  The fact is that we can’t. So, our skin builds up a deficit of vitamin A and that gradually shows itself in the typical signs of aging.   Now we know that thick rough skin, dry skin, pigmentation marks, fine wrinkles, yellowish skin, impaired blood supply and sagging tissues are all the signs of photoaging and, in fact, vitamin A deficiency.  

A chronic deficiency of vitamin A will show up eventually as non-melanomatous skin cancers. The skin cells are growing slower than normal and the skin growth cycle gets excessively prolonged with poor control of the growth phase and impaired immune surveillance. When we restore the normal vitamin A levels, the skin grows faster, the immune system is revived and the skin looks healthier.  Virtually all the signs of aged skin are reversed by applying topical vitamin A.   

There is a small caveat however: If your skin is seriously depleted of vitamin A, then the cells will have lost their receptors, which means that they won’t be able to accept the messages from much-needed vitamin A. In fact, the molecules will collect around the cell without entering to perform their signalling task, and that will irritate the cells and produce a rash called a retinoid reaction. The only way to rectify this situation is to slowly build up the levels of active vitamin A until the skin grows new receptors and lets the little messenger in again.

Once the skin cells are open to vitamin A, the healing begins and the production of healthily divided and duplicated cells is assured.



One day, as I was reading Dr Albert Kligman’s 1985 research showing that the medical form of retinoic acid could rejuvenate skin, I suddenly realised that every single skin cell is, in fact, a factory to convert cosmetic vitamin A to medical vitamin A! Retinoic acid is the molecule that interacts with the DNA and our normal cellular metabolism converts the storage form of vitamin A (Cosmetic) to the DNA active form: retinoic acid (Medical). That’s why we need high levels of cosmetic vitamin A to give us the best results without making it difficult to go out in the sun as topical retinoic acid would.

I’m also convinced that high doses of vitamin A are a powerful sunscreen equivalent to more than SPF 20.   This SPF is in the cells under the skin surface so when you add a 15 SPF sunscreen then you increase the protection to way above 35 and maybe even more than 40. Prevention is better than a cure so protecting the skin from UVA and UVB makes all the sense in the world.”

So, conclusively, if you choose the correct molecules and ingredients in cosmetic creams and make sure they are active and of sufficiently high dosage, you can reduce the damage caused by exposure to light, repair damaged cells and ensure the healthy replication of future cells. 

Figure 1:  69-year-old female with sun damaged skin and a history of a basal cell carcinoma on the left orbital rim. A lot of typical changes of sun damage are seen. This unattractive skin has a persistently high potential for formation of more skin cancers. 

Figure 2:  The same person now 70 years old, after one year of Vitamin A , C and E application. Her skin tone is much clearer. The clinical appearance is much healthier and she has a lower potential for further cancer formation.