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A powerful wrinkle-fighter, a copy-cat or both?


If you have heard of idebenone, you are likely either an enthusiast of smart drugs or have been following skin care news. While idebenone has been known for decades as a pharmaceutical agent, it has arrived to the realm of skin care only recently. In fact, some skin care companies tout it as a new, cutting-edge miracle rather than an old drug taught a few new tricks. But whether old or new, the important question is: Can idebenone benefit your skin?

Let us start with a little history. In the 1970-80s, researchers had been studying therapeutic potential of Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), including its ability to improve heart failure, reduce free radical damage and slow down certain neurological conditions. CoQ10, a vitamin-like natural compound found in all aerobic organisms, plays a pivotal role in the cellular energy production and is also an effective antioxidant. Trying to boost CoQ10's therapeutic effects, researchers synthesized and tested a variety of its chemical analogs and derivatives. Most of these derivatives were found ineffective and/or unsafe. One of the few lucky exceptions was idebenone.

Idebenone is closely related to CoQ10 in its structure. It can replace CoQ10 in the process of cellular energy production and, just as CoQ10, idebenone is also an antioxidant. There are some important distinctions though. Idebenone is more water-soluble than CoQ10; its cellular distribution and antioxidant profile are somewhat different too. This makes idebenone superior to CoQ10 in neutralizing some types of free radicals and inferior in fighting other types. Notably, idebnone is more effective than CoQ10 in protecting cells from the free radical damage resulting from reduced blood flow. On the other hand, idebenone appears more conducive than CoQ10 to certain types of noxious free-radical leakage in the cell's mitochondria. Unfortunately, there have been very few studies directly comparing CoQ10 and idebenone in the treatment of various conditions.

What does all this have to do with skin care? Recently CoQ10 has been shown (albeit only in a few small studies) to improve skin wrinkles. Not surprisingly and quite logically, some skin care companies decided that CoQ10 analogs might do a similar or better job. But why conduct painstaking research developing new CoQ10 analogs optimal for skin rejuvenation. Why not take a "tried and true" existing analog, make it into a cream and tout as a new breakthrough. Lo and behold, idebenone creams are now available and actively promoted as anti-wrinkle remedies.

Unfortunatey, we can only speculate whether idebenone is better than CoQ10 as a skin rejuvenator. Both idebenone and CoQ10 exert multiple effects on the cells. However, despite numerous similarities, many important differences also exist. Therefore, until there are studies comparing idebenone and CoQ10 skin treatments had-to-head over an extended period, we will not know which of these agents is superior.

Unfortunately, such degree of uncertainly is not uncommon when it comes to "hot", rush-to-the-market skin care products. On the bright side, the uncertainty about idebenone has to do mostly with effectiveness, not safety. In fact, most experts agree that idebenone is reasonably safe. It has been in clinical use since 1980s and has a very good safety record. In the US, it is sold without a prescription and classified as a nutritional supplement, just as CoQ10 itself. (The FDA allows certain safe synthetic derivatives of naturally occurring compounds to be classified as supplements.)

Is idebenone cream worth a try? If you are using proven anti-wrinkle agents (such as retinoids or vitamin C derivatives) with good results, it may be wiser to hold off with idebenone and wait for more studies. However, if the established treatments are not working for you or even produce adverse effects, then trying idebenone is a question of willingness to spend time and money on a treatment that could work in theory but is not yet backed by hard evidence.

Unfortunately for those tempted to try it, idebenone-based skin care is relatively pricey, even though idebenone itself is not particularly expensive. As is common for the actively promoted "breakthrough" treatments, the price includes a sizeable hype premium. Your alternatives are: to pay up, to wait till the price comes down, or to make an idebenone cream yourself. In addition to cost savings, the DIY approach has an advantage on allowing you to ensure sufficient concentration and freshness. Notably, idebenone (like CoQ10 and many other antioxidants) is easily inactivated by oxygen in the air, which makes freshness particularly important.

Finally, if you decide to try an idebenone cream, consider performing a head-to-head comparison of idebenone and CoQ10 yourself. You can simply use a CoQ10 cream on one side of your face and an idebenone cream on the other. Give it at least six weeks for the results (or lack thereof) to kick in.

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