The Influencer

Turmeric has made waves in so many areas, from pest control and crop growing to health foods and cancer research. Goh Yee Huay finds out how one French beauty brand is now using the spice to give us more youthful-looking skin.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Turmeric has made waves in so many areas, from pest control and crop growing to health foods and cancer research. Goh Yee Huay finds out how one French beauty brand is now using the spice to give us more youthful-looking skin.

My Reading Room

Your favourite nasi biryani and chicken curry may not be the healthiest dishes around, but one element in them does you lots of good: turmeric.

A cousin of ginger distinguished by the brilliant yellow-orange colour of its rhizome, turmeric has been used for thousands of years in Asia. Its epithets range from “the spice of life” to “the golden goddess”, and it is said to have at least 53 names in Sanskrit alone, including gauri (to make fair), jayanti (one that wins over diseases) and vishagni (killer of poison).

Precious yellow gold

The list of uses for turmeric is as long as its list of names. Apart from being a popular spice and food colourant, it’s established in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for treating ailments from asthma and allergies to an irritable bowel, gallstones, indigestion and liver diseases.

Not surprisingly, turmeric’s track record has attracted researchers of every stripe, including those for modern medicine. Thousands of studies have been carried out and published over the past few decades, revealing growing evidence that turmeric’s strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties hold immense potential for the treatment of various diseases.

Cancer research journal Carcinogenesis says studies show that curcumin – the substance that makes turmeric yellow – is a stronger antioxidant than vitamin E and may help to suppress cancerous mutations in genes. Another study published in the Journal of Neurochemistry found that when mice were treated with curcumin extract, symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in their brain tissue dropped by 30 per cent in just a week.

In his reports on the world’s blue zones (places where people live much longer and healthier lives than average), National Geographic Fellow and best-selling author Dan Buettner cited turmeric as one of the top longevity foods in Okinawa, Japan, whose long-living inhabitants have extremely low rates of cancer, heart problems and dementia.

Even the BBC weighed in on turmeric in its investigative TV programme Trust Me, I’m a Doctor, a sort of medical Mythbusters. Together with researchers from University College London, they tested nearly 100 volunteers to learn if consuming turmeric – and in what form – would boost the immune system and reduce the risk of cancer. The findings? Mixing a teaspoon of turmeric powder a day into your food has a huge impact in lowering cancer risk (though it does little for immunity).

Within the farming sector, too, turmeric is a welldocumented insecticide and pest repellent. One Israeli company, Biopack, even developed plastic sheets treated with turmeric that have reportedly been very successful in protecting crops.

The source of turmeric’s powers is its turmerones – volatile and aromatic molecules that give the plant its scent. Found in the leaves and the rhizome, turmerones not only keep pests away but also attract beneficial insects to aid in pollination.

Most importantly, they act as chemical signals to other plants nearby, warning them to mount their defences when threats arise. Turmeric is thus a watchdog of sorts, and a chief messenger of crucial information.

This latter ability of turmeric attracted the attention of French skincare giant Clarins. Through its collaboration with the medicine faculty of Belgium’s University of Namur, the company learnt that our body’s cells have tiny receptors on their surfaces that relay messages about the environment into the cell. Think microscopic satellite dishes.

What the skin needs

Marie-Helene Lair, Clarins’ scientific communication director, says: “When these messages arrive in the cell membrane, they are received by the receptors which then send a message to the cell nucleus. If the cell needs water or oxygen or protection, for instance, the nucleus is instructed to start the production of collagen, filaggrin, natural moisturising factors and so on.”

But as with everything else in our bodies, receptor numbers dip with age and damage from external aggressions. Skin becomes slower to react to environmental changes and its own essential needs.

“That’s the start of a decline in skin’s five vital functions – regeneration, oxygenation, nutrition, hydration and protection,” says Lair. “It’s like if you can’t hear the people around you, it becomes very difficult to adjust your behaviour.

The cells experience the same thing.”

The most talkative plant

To find a solution, Clarins looked to nature. Lair explains that because the problem boils down to a lack of communication within the skin, the brand set out to find the most “talkative” plant available – one that could help restore the skin’s healthy, communicative state.

Turmeric was the answer, as its turmerones enable it to “listen” to its surrounds and “speak” to its neighbours.

Christian Courtin- Clarins, president of the Clarins Group’s supervisory board, says: “When you grow turmeric, all the plants around it are beautiful. The fruits are bigger and healthier because the turmeric boosts communication among them. Of all the plants we considered, turmeric had the strongest effect.”

In-vitro tests showed that turmeric extract helps preserve the ability of cell receptors, and boosts their numbers as well. In other words, it’s the perfect fix for tired and ageing skin that can’t carry out key functions properly, resulting in visible symptoms from wrinkles and dullness to loss of firmness and enlarged pores.

An evolved antiageing serum

Clarins applied its findings to its most defining anti-ageing product – the Double Serum.

“We learn from nature. Every time we improve something at Clarins, it’s the plants that tell us what to do,” Courtin-Clarins says of the bio-inspiration that led to the inclusion of turmeric in the serum’s latest upgrade.

Developed in 1985 by brand founder Jacques Courtin-Clarins, the Double Serum famously combined numerous oil- and waterbased botanical actives into one anti-ageing panacea for women of all ages and for all skin types.

This latest upgrade sees the serum packing in 20 plant extracts, plus turmeric as the star booster. And the container has an inner bottle of lipidic ingredients sitting within an outer bottle of hydric ingredients. One pump dispenses a drop that’s one-third oil and two-thirds water – exactly the same ratio as skin’s own hydrolipidic film – every single time.

Lair says the serum is a good kick-starter for fatigued skin and reparative treatment for sensitive, fragile skin. But that hardly sums up its functions. “The Double Serum is like a Swiss Army knife. Whatever a woman’s age or needs, it has something that can address them, whether it’s a lack of radiance for someone in her 20s or ageing concerns like wrinkles and dryness in older women,” she says.

More: turmeric