DMAE, Cell Death and Anti-Wrinkle Creams

Patient Expert

Each week, Health and Beauty Expert Sue Chung will discuss skin health topics suggested by members of the HealthCentral community. To ask Sue a question, send an email to or leave a comment below.

Reader's Question: I keep hearing that certain anti-wrinkle creams, including those with DMAE, are unsafe to use. Is this true?

Sue's Response: A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on anti-wrinkle creams. In 2004, American women spent over $6.4 billion on skin care alone and that number continues to grow. Aging continues to be a sore spot for many women, who often get confused by the wrinkle-free promises offered by cosmetics companies. Now, it turns out that a new study needs to be added to the discussion on anti-wrinkle products.

Read the news story: "Instant face lift" chemical DMAE damages skin cells

According to new research, the chemical 2-dimethyl-amino-ethanol, commonly listed in many anti-aging cosmetics as DMAE, may cause a seriously negative reaction in skin cells.

DMAE originally got its start as an oral supplement to help improve mental alertness. It's found naturally in fish such as sardines and anchovies and has been shown in limited studies to boost brain function and mood when ingested.

As a cosmetics ingredient, some doctors and manufacturers claim that DMAE can help reduce wrinkles by preventing cell deterioration and shoring up cell membranes. DMAE can be found in many products, including Neutrogena's Advanced Solutions Skin Transforming Complex and N.V. Perricone's Firming Facial Toner with Alpha Lipoic Acid.

Recently, the Faculty of Medicine at Canada's Université Laval conducted tests on skin cells that show a drastic and rapid swelling of fibroblasts, which maintain the connection between cells. Within a few hours after applying DMAE, cell division slowed and at times stopped completely. Twenty-four hours after applying the concentration of DMAE found in anti-wrinkle cosmetics, the fibroblast mortality rate reached over 25%.

If DMAE causes damage, why is it included in anti-wrinkle compounds and how effective are its smoothing abilities? According to Dr. Perricone's book, The Wrinkle Cure, DMAE can prevent cell deterioration when applied topically. His Web site,, claims that "introducing additional DMAE into our systems" is good way to maintain an anti-aging skin care regimen.

However, many doctors that I spoke to do not agree and emphasize that these claims are not backed by conclusive scientific or medical research studies. Dr. Guillaume Marceau, who co-presented the recent tests on DMAE, even suggests that the anti-wrinkle effect of the compound may occur as a direct result of the damage suffered by the skin. When the cell becomes damaged, the skin thickens and appears "plumper."

Despite this study's findings, Dr. Marceau does not condemn DMAE outright. He simply emphasizes that insufficient documentation exists regarding DMAE's pharmacological and toxicological effects. He also does not limit his concern to this one compound alone. Many ingredients in cosmetics are as complex as many medications, says Dr. Marceau. These compounds get absorbed via the skin and enter the bloodstream, but our laws do not restrict their use as much as medical drugs.

While you don't need to throw all your creams into the trash, use products with DMAE judiciously and pay attention to your skin's reaction. If you experience any irritation or redness, stop using the product and consult your dermatologist. In addition, keep in mind that most dermatologists (especially the ones not profiting from the sale of cosmetics products) recommend only the simplest products for your skin. Basic cleansers and moisturizers go a long way to keep your skin healthy.