Gaylia Kristensen spent 25 years working in sales and marketing for a multinational skincare company and was ready to settle into retirement in her native Australia. But even a beauty expert like her wasn't prepared for the lines and spots that started showing on her face.
"We moved back to Australia from the UK, and the harsh Australian climate was so damaging to my skin. I thought, 'my God, I need results. But I don't want to do Botox, I don't want to do injectables, I don't want to do surgery'," Kristensen says. "And that's when I went looking for a natural alternative."
When she couldn't find a product range that gave the results she wanted with natural ingredients, Kristensen took matters into her own hands.
"I came across these amazing new molecular polypeptide and protein technologies from Europe, and I thought, 'wow, they're totally going to revolutionise skincare forever'," she recalls. "They were techniques that were coming out of the pharmaceutical world - peptides were being used in medicines for a long time, and then peptides have come into the world of cosmetics. But now the big thing is that they've come into the world of natural cosmetics."
Launched in 2010, Kristensen's eponymous brand is now one of the champions of a new breed of anti-ageing skincare in which nature and science converge to produce hi-tech, results-oriented products - all based on the potency of bioactive ingredients.
"It's a very new world of state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technology, but naturally derived and with really visible results," says Kristensen, whose peptide and protein technologies come from plant, vegetable and marine extracts.
Dr Nicholas Perricone, dermatologist and founder of Perricone MD, uses an array of bioactive ingredients in products such as his Hypoallergenic Peptide Complex, with extracts from the olive fruit and leaf. "The future of skincare will use the body's natural messenger systems and repair mechanisms by utilising these bioactive substances," he says.
The future, if you look at the latest range of anti-ageing products, is already here. Conventional and "natural" brands alike have scoured the earth for powerful plant, flower and marine extracts that can repair cell damage, stimulate collagen production and slow the ageing process.
Stem cells from fruits such as raspberries and apples have proven popular for their antioxidant properties and ability to encourage the skin's natural repair mechanisms.
Origins uses raspberry stem cells derived from a strain discovered in Italy's Apennine mountains in its Plantscription Anti-Aging Cream. Chantecaille also blends raspberry stem cells with extracts of ginseng and white tea in its Biodynamic Lifting Serum.
Stem cells from a rare Swiss apple are featured in 3Lab's Super Cream and Super Face Serum. "A normal apple browns when it is oxidised; however, this apple did not. The apple stem cells aid in cell regeneration and repair after cell damage," explains Julio Lamberty, 3Lab's vice-president of research and innovation.
Antioxidant-rich apple, grape and lemon stem cells are used by organic brand Juice Beauty in several products, including its Stem Cellular Repair Booster Serum.
Roses are another popular source for plant stem cells, used in Lancôme's Absolue line and Rodial's new Stemcell Super-Food range.
Turning to the vegetable aisle, SK-II uses artichoke extract in its Stempower Essence to boost cell function and longevity, while Biotherm harnesses the reparative powers of broccoli in its Skin-Ergetic Serum. Jurlique, in its search to "activate even more of nature's power", developed a blend of 15 herbal extracts for its new Herbal Recovery Advanced Serum.
As the technology to test and extract natural substances advances all the time, the race is on to discover ever more unique plants and exclusive ingredients. "There are many, many possibilities with plant extracts," says Dr Olivier Courtin-Clarins, managing director of the Clarins Group, which employs an ethnobotanist to travel the world to study plants and their uses among the local populations.
The company tests hundreds of potential ingredients a year, analysing everything from toxicity to activity on cell cultures. The star ingredients of its new Extra-Firming Day and Night creams - being used for the first time in a cosmetics product - are organic green banana extract and organic lemon thyme extract, which together strengthen the links among dermal cells, collagen fibres and elastic fibres to reduce the appearance of wrinkles.
"We have new processes arriving on the market in order to have better extraction, better concentration of specific active ingredients. It's becoming more and more precise," Courtin-Clarins says.
Icelandic biotech firm Bioeffect, which recently launched in Hong Kong, has discovered a way to copy the epidermal growth factor (EGF) gene - which can trigger cell renewal - from human skin into barley seeds. It then cultivates the barley in a state-of-the-art greenhouse for use in its anti-ageing EGF Serum.
For its new Super Multi-Corrective Cream, Kiehl's combined three active ingredients - jasmonic acid, beech tree extract and fragmented hyaluronic acid - for the first time in a cream formula. The product took 39 trials and 17 months to create.
It took Dior, meanwhile, 25 years to develop the key ingredient in its Capture Totale anti-ageing treatments - the longoza plant from Madagascar.
Indeed, there are many challenges when it comes to working with bioactive ingredients, not least of which include international regulations and environmental exposure.
"The problem with naturally derived ingredients that are not normally synthesised by our cells (such as peptides and neuropeptides), but instead are phytonutrients derived from plants, is that it is difficult to standardise the concentration and activity of these molecules," Perricone says. "Synthetic actives are purified and analysed for activity and concentration, and are a much more reliable source when formulating an anti-ageing therapeutic."
By the time a plant makes its way from the jungle or ocean depths to our bathroom shelf, however, it has been through rigorous testing for efficacy, texture and adverse reactions.
"Most of the time when people have the possibility to visit our labs and see how we work, they are completely puzzled to discover all the tests we can have behind a jar of cream," says Eric Gooris, head of laboratories at Clarins.
And as technology continues to develop, experts agree that the possibilities for naturally derived skincare are endless. "Bioactive ingredients are here, and they are positively opening the door to the possibility of using endangered and rare plant species to develop new efficacious ingredients that we can use to create great products that address consumers' anti-ageing needs," says Lamberty.
"In London, they're calling us 'the face of the future', because it's now going away from harsh treatments and it's coming into a more natural world. It's because we can now achieve these results through these new technologies that we can do it," Kristensen adds.
"I really believe these products are the products of the future, and I believe this is the way women really do want to go."