There’s no denying that the ancestry-fueled DNA kit boom isn’t slowing down anytime soon, especially since those heart-churning 23andMe ads. Beauty-focused DNA tests also are gaining traction as of late, especially as startup companies (and even spas) unveil new kits and experiences that give consumers personalized hair and skin care products based on genetics.
Hair care startups such as Strands Hair Care, for example, claim to take the guesswork out of finding the right shampoo and conditioner by creating a unique Strands Kit. This kit allows customers to send a sample of hair (from a hairbrush or hair cut) in order to receive personalized hair care products based on test results. Similarly, ORIG3N, a wellness genetic testing company, offers personalized beauty DNA tests to explain how your skin and hair look, feel and react to various conditions.
But do they work? We talked to experts on both sides.
Here’s what proponents say about beauty DNA testing.
Elina Fedotova, cosmetic chemist and founder of Elina Organics Skincare and Spas, recently unveiled a 15-minute Genomics Formula Consultation at her Chicago-based spa. The consultation (which can cost anywhere from $70 to $350), according to Fedotova, works by analyzing a sample of saliva (obtained through a cotton swab) in order to evaluate what is causing inflammation, and how the skin will potentially age. Fedotova uses the test results to create personalized serums and cream products. Genetics, Fedotova said, tell a lot about the function of skin and hair, and can have an important role in finding the perfect shampoo or moisturizer.
“All cells in our body contain nuclear DNA (with the exemption of red blood cells and several layers of surface dead skin cells),” Fedtova wrote to HuffPost. DNA “gives specific instructions to each cell on what to do, how to grow and how to reproduce,” she added. Cells in the outer layer of the epidermis form what’s called the cornified layer ― the protective layer of dead cells that make up skin, hair and nails.
Fedtova argued that DNA tests can be helpful in addressing the root of skin care concerns such as acne and discoloration, since these tests look at specific genes responsible for the function of the skin.
“Sometimes we cannot resolve stubborn skin issues for some clients using existing skin care products, so they may require a personalized formulation based on their DNA test,” Fedotova said. “For example, for stubborn acne or discoloration, we have to collect DNA from a client and look at specific genes responsible for the function of the skin.”
Personalized skin care resulting from DNA testing does appear to have benefits. A 2018 study published in Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology suggested that an individual approach to skin (by looking at factors such as biomarkers, hormones and stress response) can be an effective and affordable way to treat skin conditions. Board-certified plastic surgeon Manish Shah said another advantage associated with these tests is the information they provide to the consumer.
“If you are looking for in-depth guidance on what is good for your skin, and how to prevent certain conditions from happening, then DNA test kits are the way to go,” Shah said. “These kits give you supportive information on any condition (or type of skin you have), as well as the products and ingredients you should be putting on your skin to address these issues.”
Here’s what the naysayers warn about.
Board-certified dermatologist Dan Belkin said personalized skin care or medicine developed with DNA markers is definitely exciting. But genetic testing still may not be able to detect uncommon skin disorders the way a trained professional could.
“What many of these kits claim to tease out are propensities to common conditions, such as xerosis (dry skin), rosacea (flushing and sensitive skin), tanning ability, skin aging, sunspots, cellulite and eczema,” Belkin said. “However, there are uncommon dermatologic conditions for which a board-certified dermatologist may need to check certain gene markers for.”
And then there is concern about test accuracy. That, according to board-certified dermatologist Peterson Pierre, is a gamble. Beauty-focused DNA tests, according to Pierre, contain up to a 40% false positive rate. He suggested building a solid skin care regimen with the help of a trained professional.
“When it comes to building an effective skin care routine that will deliver results, it’s best to leave that job to the experts, namely your board-certified dermatologist, who has access to the best science and the best products,” Pierre explained.
Beauty-focused DNA kits also face issues with bias and objectivity, according to Belkin, because many tests tend to recommend products sold by the same company.
“Many of beauty-focused DNA tests are associated with the brand’s product line in order to sell their products,” Belkin said. “Like anywhere there is a conflict of interest, recommendations from these should be looked at skeptically.”
In the end, beauty-focused DNA kits definitely take the personalization experience to a whole new level, especially with personally formulated products based on the test results. The tests also can help arm consumers with in-depth information about hair and skin health, which ultimately allows people to make smarter shopping choices.
However, Pierre said genetic testing for beauty purposes is still in its infancy, as is the development of products based on the results of these tests.
“These kits will definitely give you a better understanding of the science behind your skin, but we’re far from developing a skin care routine based on the results of these tests,” Pierre said. “There are simply too many variables that are left out, including diet, sun exposure and skin sensitivity.”