DNA tests: do you need one for optimal skincare and could too much genetic information have a downside?

Dr A Bolin

Do you really need a DNA test to tailor you a skincare regime? Dr A. Bolin investigates.

We’ve all heard of a paternity testing – the DNA test used to check if your father really is indeed your biological father. And it seems the sky is the limit when it comes t applying these tests with targeted DNA tests now being touted for everything from family ancestry, fitness and nutrition and even dating. But, when it come to skin, what can these quite pricey tests tells us and is that information really worth any more than an good chat with a skincare expert?

DNA testing has become à la mode in the USA  for a little while but now an ever increasing number of aesthetic outlets in the UK are offering such tests along with a bespoke skin care regime tailored to your results.

The tests say they’ll deliver a host of results ranging your likelihood of developing sun-damaged skin (pigmentation spots to skin cancers), how fast you’ll wrinkle or lose collagen and elastin, how well your skin will handle pollutants and free radical damage, as well as your predisposition to develop stretch marks and cellulite – to name a few.


Unraveling the mystery

There was a time when the cost of DNA sequencing was exorbitant, but now as little as £139 can buy you a gene analysis.

When it comes to DNA and skin, the theory is that if you know what type of skin you have you’ll waste less money by investing in skin care products best suited, or ‘personalised’ to you.


DNA Sequence

Collecting the sample is simple. It’s a non-invasive cheek swab which is sent to the lab along with a questionnaire. The DNA analysis looks at single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs or ‘snips’) which can indicate how someone metabolizes medications, how they might react to environmental factors and also their risk of certain diseases.

Skin related factors include information on how your body forms collagen, protects itself from the sun and how likely it is to become inflamed. Your results are confidential with you being the only one to have access to it. They are normally available online.

While a general DNA test is relatively affordable, the cost of the specific skin test jumps up to around £495. Then comes the bespoke skin care packages which can cost anywhere from £200-£1800.

But do you really need it?

Perhaps if you knew you were at higher risk of sensitivity to UV light you might be more careful with prevention and minimising skin UV radiation exposure. If you know your skin has a genetic tendency to age, you might reach for the retinoids (Vitamin A) and other antioxidants earlier.

But if you’ve got fair skin or parents who haven’t aged well, you’ve probably got a pretty good idea of your risk anyway – so will a test really going to tell you anything you didn’t already know?


DNA: A double edged sword

And herein lies the rub, having a gene for something doesn’t always mean you will go on to develop a specific condition or problem. There are a multitude of things that affect our genes – turning them ‘on’ or ‘off’- if you like. So, having a gene that puts you at a higher risk of a potentially fatal disease such as skin cancer (melanoma), doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll develop it. This is where you need a medical professional to interpret the results and put them in context.

Knightsbridge GP, Dr Unnati Desai says delivering this kind of information to patients without an adequate explanation can cause stress and anxiety.

A GP would look at your family history – did anyone else have melanoma or basal cell carcinoma’s at an early age, and they would assess your risk with that information and in conjunction with your  skin type and lifestyle.

Even high profile cases, such as Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a double mastectomy and both her ovaries removed, wasn’t made on account of the presence of the BRCA1 gene alone. Her family history – her mother, grandmother and aunt died of cancer – played a significant role.

“The point of this is, what do we do with this information. You can choose to have your breast removed but you can’t choose to have your skin removed. So this type of information, delivered without context can really have a huge psychological impact”, warns Dr Desai.

There are a number of tests that offer results on a variety of health issues that you can buy online but you may end up with a list of quite worrying results and with no one to explain them to you. And if you do a skin or broader DNA test in a salon, the people offering it may not be qualified medical practitioners who can adequately explain genetics and risk.

On the other hand there are those who argue that knowledge is power and if you know you’re  at an increased risk of certain types of cancer you’d make lifestyle changes.


The research and evidence for skin?

So, what does the research say? Unfortunately to date, there is not enough research or evidence to recommend for or against DNA testing as a method of determining an optimal skincare regimen.

Yes, a fair amount of skin aging may be related to hereditary factors – some studies say up to 60%, but when it comes to the skincare regime you follow or the treatments you may opt to have to keep you looking your best, does being armed with a file full of DNA test results really make any difference?

Not really, according to Dr Desai. She says following a standard good skincare regime should suffice. If you have pale skin and a lot of moles you are at higher risk of skin cancer and should have a regular skin check with a GP or dermatologist.

Her advice: always were sunscreen of at least SPF30, use a retinoid cream at night to boost collagen production and a vitamin C serum during the day to help protect against pigmentation and sun damage and well as protecting and boosting your collagen.

Whether your for or against the idea, society is playing catch up with the science and in our zeal to unravel the double helix, we’ve created a tangled web. So, buyer beware, a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

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