I hacked my DNA in attempt to clear my acne - here's why I regret it

Kate Pasola
·9-min read
Photo credit: Alice Cowling | Getty
Photo credit: Alice Cowling | Getty

You’d have done it too.

If you were a beauty writer with the most tumultuous skin in the industry. If your face was a ticking time bomb of latent acne, repellent of even the best-formulated foundation, somehow both shiny and drier than Oatibix at the same time? You’d have set aside your scepticism and sent your saliva off to Sweden too. I’d bet money on it.

I’m at the end of my tether, dermatologically – and that’s with blessed access to whichever 40-ingredient wonder serums or futuristic face masks land on my desk (not to mention those on our beauty director’s).

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

By the end of last year, I’d come to a disappointing conclusion: that my unique combination of skin complaints meant a tiny-pored, glossy epidermis was but a far-off dream. Serums perpetually too harsh, or not intensive enough. Moisturisers too rich or totally unsatisfying. Always one too many actives in the formula, setting off a domino effect of inflammation. It’s extremely rare for me that a product feels “just right”.

But then the industry changed. Words like “personalised”, “custom” and “individual” began to float on the winds of the beauty world, promising an end to one-size-fits-all cosmetics. Emilia Clarke’s grinning face appeared on Clinique billboards in train stations, accompanied by bottles of the brand’s new ID Moisturiser. My work inbox started reading like a frenzied life coach, with brand after brand eager to point out my individual needs and offer a tailored solution. I felt, as they say, “seen”.

Which brings me to why I’m hiding behind my laptop, swabbing the inside of my mouth, before couriering my entire genetic code to a lab hundreds of miles away (no biggie). For the last month I’ve been on a mission to determine whether the beauty industry can deliver on its claims that personalised cosmetics are the new holy grail. Could trading in my DNA turn out to be a dermatological lifebelt, or would it be a waste of time, money and, well, personal data...?

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

I start slowly, with a browse of Clinique’s ID Moisturiser range. If it’s good enough for Khaleesi, it’s good enough for me. It offers 20+ different combinations of bases and mix ’n’match active ingredient cartridges.

I pick my base, but when it comes to adding an active, there are options for everything from uneven skin tone and irritation to retexturing and skin fatigue. How’s a sleep-deprived, chronically dehydrated girl on a budget supposed to choose just one skin complaint? It’s a great entry point, but when it comes to skincare, I prefer a little more hand-holding.

Step two in my mission? Duolab. Essentially a Nespresso machine for your face, Duolab uses artificial intelligence to analyse a photo of your skin, prescribes one of 15 personalised combinations from eight L’Occitane capsules (delivered straight to your door), and freshly blends a “monodose” of moisturiser at the touch of a button. I’m so giddy at the prospect of AI dermatology in a phone app that I swipe past the privacy policy and T&Cs (hey-ho, all in the life of a complacent millennial), snapping a selfie immediately.

But after analysing my face, the app quick-fires multiple-choice questions at me with the intensity of Anne Robinson on a final round of The Weakest Link.

“Are your pores enlarged and therefore visible? How would you describe the area around your eyes? Do you suffer from imperfections and blackheads?” My patience dwindles – if I’d wanted to rehash my personal flaws over one-sided conversation, I’d have arranged a first date.

The real thrill of Duolab, for now, lies in the blending device itself, which is preservative-free and uses “thermo-cosmetic” technology to warm creams to the skin’s natural temperature. But my quest for a “just right” regime continues, yet unsolved.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Which brings me to that saliva swab. Ready to take the plunge, I reach out to Allél, which issues DNA-testing kits to help customers find “key drivers of ageing”. Just 12 days after I sent off my swab, an Allél consultant calls me to share their analysis of my genome.

Our conversation begins with a survey about my current skincare routine and skin concerns, but learning from my mistakes with Duolab, I keep quiet about my main issues (inflammation and a complete inability to withstand a sunny holiday without my skin turning to crepe paper) to see if the data can tell him – even if I don’t.

My stubbornness leaves me feeling equal parts triumphant and guilty. The line goes quiet. Has my silence got him stumped? Not exactly. My consultant, Eli,* is unfazed. And though it takes 30 minutes of chatter to get to the results (he tells me he’s “a bit of a storyteller”), when we reach them, some of the findings feel spot-on.

Eli tells me my main drivers of ageing are “photo-ageing” (ie a weakness in tolerating the sun) and “skin sensitivity” (ie a proclivity towards inflammation and redness). And the list of “visible signs” predicted is accurate (irregular pigmentation, broken capillaries, intolerance to certain skincare and flaky skin).

But it’s an extremely costly service – at full price, my DNA test would have cost around £270, and to buy all of the suggested products, I’d be coughing up over £3,300 (and that’s with a sale on). I’d expect the complexion of an embryonic Kendall Jenner in return for this payout (and that isn’t happening any time soon).

Though other brands, like Johnson & Johnson-backed Skintelli, offer the same service but with prescriptions from across a broader selection of brands, it feels as though there’s still a gap in the market for speedy DNA- testing paired with clinical advice – not to mention varied budgets.

And that’s where Sophie Shotter, a dermatologist (with a casual second degree in genetics), comes in. In the next couple of years, she hopes to partner with a DNA service to offer exactly this in her clinic.“Genetics is difficult to understand,” she laments. “The language in these reports is often really complicated.”

Shotter praises the likes of Allél and Skintelli for making this sort of information accessible to customers, but her dream is to provide a “crossover between personalised DNA analysis and dermatology expertise”. Shotter imagines personalisation to be a solution to those on a budget, who can’t necessarily afford to experiment.

Rather than serving as a marketing technique for selling products, she anticipates that DNA testing will mean her clients actually end up buying less skincare. By diving into someone’s genetic make-up, you’re able to see exactly how their skin functions, where it’s over-performing and where it needs a little help.“This technology would really allow us to bespoke your skincare,” she explains. “You’d probably end up with fewer, but more targeted products.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

So if we’re in the early stages of DNA-focused skincare, what does the future hold? I ask for predictions from epigenetics expert Professor Wolf Reik, who works with Babraham Institute, a bioscience research centre. He tells me about one or two futuristic ambitions beyond DNA home-tests – though he’s reluctant to promise too much. What he does share is information about a patented process in which scientists could take skin cells from a person, reset the cells’“biological age” to zero (or perhaps a flattering 21?), and then use the cells for dermatological purposes.

“That’s all quite hypothetical right now,” he warns. “But we’re starting to think about practical applications.” Musing over youthful skin transplants and suggested uses of these biological innovations in skincare formulations, he admits,“I don’t quite know how it would work – perhaps I would make an extract out of my rejuvenated skin cells and put it into a cream? There are many question marks. But in theory I can imagine it having some benefit.”

Such gloriously Frankensteinian predictions make current DNA offerings feel adolescent, so I wonder: in 2020, are we really getting return-on-investment? After all, along with the financial cost, there’s also the question of data privacy.

“With these direct-to-consumer tests, you’re not just giving away your genetic information – the most personal data you can give away – but also that of your relatives,” warns Anjali Mazumder, an AI, justice and human rights research professor at The Alan Turing Institute.

Thanks to the likes of 23andMe, over half of the US population with European ancestry is now identifiable by DNA (Mazumder thinks it’s closer to 80%) – this even helped police solve a murder case after they consulted a DNA database.

No crimes in the UK have yet been cracked using private genetic databases – but it’s a future that doesn’t feel far off (nor does the prospect of insurance companies consulting our genomes for illnesses before offering coverage).

There have even been cases in which “genome hackers” have made strides towards revealing sensitive genetic information, showing that even anonymised data can, in some cases, be re-identified.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Reik agrees, warning that these new advances call for greater education and regulation. Mazumder appreciates the medical, social and humanitarian advances these DNA datasets can offer us, but recommends doing your research if you’re considering doing a test: “Get informed. Ask questions around who owns [the data], what you’re opting in for, do you have the choice of opting out? What happens to your DNA? A lot of this is awareness-raising.”

So where does this leave me on my quest? Perhaps frustratingly, my mission has taught me that the answer to perfect skincare doesn’t necessarily come down to the highest of techy offerings on the market.

Take Olay’s study, carried out on a dataset from 23andMe, which found that nurture has a greater effect on skin ageing than genetics. What does this mean in reality? Sunscreen. Water. Lots of sleep. In short: advice we’ve known about for generations. When I ask Reik for an anti-ageing tip, he tells me that our epigenetic code is influenced by environment, nutrition and other lifestyle factors. His recommendations? Exercise and zero smoking.

It’s hardly a glamorous finding, but it’s reassuring. One day, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, customisation and DNA will save us all time, money and the planet’s finite resources. But for now? I’ll stick to the advice I wrangled out of Reik on the phone:

“The secret? It’s everything your mother taught you.”

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