From France to China, how plants are changing the face of anti-ageing skincare

  • Chanel’s two latest products use flowers native to the southern French Alps in attempts to boost the skin from beneath the surface
  • The company already sources silver needles from China and has an “open-sky lab” set up in the country to research more plants
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2019, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2019, 8:09pm

The conversation around anti-ageing skincare is changing fast and brands are creating products that don’t just fight against wrinkles but strengthen the skin from the inside out.

“It’s definitely about a more positive approach that encourages women to achieve beautiful and glowing skin on all levels,” says Armelle Souraud, international scientific communications director at Chanel. “Products today not only have to work deeply into the skin, but also have an immediate effect on the surface. A woman’s face is a reflection of what’s happening on the inside, which is why it’s important to adopt a holistic approach, and really understand this connection between beauty and well-being.”

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This is the premise behind the newest additions to Chanel’s popular Sublimage line. Launched in 2006, the line boasts a dedicated following thanks to its use of vanilla planifolia, a specific vanilla extracted from the species of an orchid plant from Madagascar.

In 2010 the company initiated a research programme in the south of France to study over 500 plants in what they refer to as an “open-sky laboratory”. Since then they have identified 60 active botanical extracts that they then combine with cutting-edge technologies developed in three research labs in France, Japan and the US. Two of the most active extracts are featured in the line’s two latest products: L’Essence Fondamentale and L’Essence Lumiere.

The first features solidago as its star ingredient, while the second, which will be released in February, contains anthyllis. Both are flowers native to the southern French Alps, but it took Chanel some time to develop plants it could use in its own products.

“With active ingredients it sometimes takes several years for development as we cultivate the plants ourselves and create our own supply chain to ensure things such as traceability,” says Nicola Fuzzati, director of active ingredients research at Chanel. “Since we are working with nature we have to be careful – we don’t use chemicals and usually meet challenges.

“We have one woman to help cultivate the flowers, which typically grow at altitudes above 1,000 metres [3,280 feet]. In the beginning one of our biggest issues was the growth of weeds. In nature this plant usually grows in rocky terrain, so weeds aren’t a problem. But when you put the flowers into a field, the weeds will come. She had to remove them one by one.”

The flowers themselves can only be harvested for limited times during the year (usually June to July) and are then dried whole. For solidago, it requires around 140,000 flowers to obtain 1kg (2.2lbs) of active ingredient to be produced, and the entire plant is used to create the extract.

While the process may sound painstaking, the effects on the skin have been backed by scientific studies.

Solidago increases the production of what Chanel refers to as SNEV protein, which improves the fundamental structure of the skin and increases the thickness of the epidermis.

Anthyllis, meanwhile, is extracted from a sun-loving plant and targets another protein, sestrin 2, otherwise known as the skin’s “anti-stress” shield, which protects it from the signs of ageing. It also helps regulate pigmentation, promoting an even and radiant complexion.

Souraud says the two essences are highly effective when combined with a moisturiser.

“The essence is an extremely concentrated product. It has a very light texture, so has to penetrate extremely quickly, and works in synergy with cream. We know that women today like to mix and match a product so we need to make sure each step is covered.

“People have asked: why not create one essence with both ingredients? But women have specific needs and want a product that can be used at the right moment. Lumiere is lighter and better for humid climates while Fondamentale is for women who want a deeper action.”

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For the company’s next product, Fuzzati hints at Asia as a potential new ground for sourcing.

“I can’t say what we are working on but we have another open-sky lab in Asia, which is also incredible. Historically China is an incredible reservoir of medicinal plants and we already use ingredients like silver needles which we source here,” he says.

“[The country] is not new for us but it’s still an unexplored place. We must be very careful though and need to ensure we work in the long term with Chinese producers to get the right quality.”