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The beauty industry's sweetest secret? Sugar as a star ingredient

Crystals, some of which can be good for the skin, are magnified here under a microscope.


It hasn't been a good couple of years for sugar. Often associated with hyperactive children, overweight teens and binge eaters, it has had especially bad PR of late, acquiring a health stigma almost as off-putting as salt's. Even in the beauty world, sugar has taken its lumps. In 2009, glycation was the buzzword on everyone's lips. The result of too much glucose in the system reacting with skin's collagen and elastin, cell glycation is an irreversible process that leads to premature aging, stiffness and decreased circulation of the skin. To address it, both mass-market and luxury brands eagerly jumped on the anti-sugar bandwagon, creating skin-care lines specifically meant to counter it.

Recently, though, the sweet stuff has started to fight back. In May, Vichy launched its new Liftactiv range, which features a sugar called Rhamnose as its star ingredient. Derived from botanical sources such as the Uncaria plant from Brazil and trees such as silver birch, Rhamnose is renowned for its ability to react with the papillary dermis (the layer of skin that is most responsible for the maintenance and regeneration of collagen and elastin) to delay the skin's aging process.

"Rhamnose is recognized in pharmacology for its soothing and anti-inflammatory properties," says Caroline Debbasch, scientific communication director of Vichy International Laboratories in Paris. "It is good for the skin and does not lead to glycation. However, Vichy has also discovered that, at a 5-per-cent concentration [the amount used in Liftactiv] lectin, a receptor on the papillary dermis, recognizes Rhamnose as an active ingredient and sucks it into the skin, allowing it to target the cells that are susceptible to aging. By choosing good sugars that are capable of targeting good cells, we can reactivate skin youthfulness."

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Jaggi Rao, associate clinical professor of medicine and director of the dermatology residency program at the University of Alberta, supports these positive claims. "Early evidence," he says, "suggests Rhamnose may actually have a protective effect through antioxidant activity." It also has what he calls a "building effect" that stimulates collagen in the dermis.

This doesn't mean, however, that the dermatology world is about to sing the praises of all sugars. "Excess glucose is definitely an established bad event," says Rao. "Rhamnose is a very different substance that doesn't act at all like glucose. It's like comparing a small glider to the space shuttle: Both in essence are planes, but each performs very different jobs based on their capacity."

Not surprisingly, the sugars a person ingests have an equally varied effect on the body. "Sugar has been getting a bad rep," says Carla Diano, a Toronto-based consulting dietician. "Forty-five to 65 per cent of our daily caloric intake should come from carbs - which are sugars - and only 10 per cent from added sugars like high-fructose corn syrup." Once again, it's about separating the good from the bad and keeping sugars in check: "Health problems arise with quality and quantity issues. Sugar can certainly cause obesity, but it depends on how much you consume and what kind it is."

The good sugars - fructose, sucrose, glucose, lactose - should come from whole foods like low-fat dairy, fruit, vegetables and starches, which the body converts into energy. The problems start when bad sugars are ingested and metabolized by the liver, which converts most of the calories into fat, causing insulin resistance, a leading cause of obesity. It is also important to remember that, since the body doesn't metabolize sugars the same way, a 100-calorie apple and a 100-calorie cookie will not be burned off equally.

The good news, however, is the confirmation that not all sugar has to be vilified - in some variations, it isn't just tasty, but necessary for proper cell and metabolic function. The bad news? That bowl of white stuff sitting next to the coffee canister in your cupboard is still a wolf in sweet clothing.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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