June 2006

Copper and Your Skin: Facelift In A Bottle

Copper Applications in Health and Environment Area

By William H. Dresher, Ph.D., P.E.

Cosmetics | Copper in Cosmetics | Dr. Loren R. Pickart | Science | Summary | Author | References


Nefertiti Nefertiti

A new rage has hit Hollywood — a chemical facelift! Women and men have used cosmetics for thousands of years to enhance the skin; however, it has only been recently that cosmetic products have been available to structurally alter the skin. The ancient Egyptians applied perfumes and anointing oils to their body as early as 4000 BC. The bust of the Egyptian queen, Nefertiti (1367–1350 BC) (the word nefer means beautiful) that stands in the entry of the Berlin Museum is mute testimony to the level of cosmetic art available and used in those early years. Even then, copper was a part of their cosmetics. Eye makeup was probably the most characteristic of the Egyptian cosmetics. The most popular colors were green and black. The green was originally made from malachite, an oxide of copper, and the black, from galena, a lead sulfide mineral.

Copper in Cosmetics top

The so-called chemical face-lift products are a range of face creams containing a copper peptide2. They are advertised in many of the major beauty and fitness magazines as “a face lift in a bottle.” Although available to spas, salons and professionals since 1989, copper-peptide products for tissue regeneration were first introduced to the mass market in 1997. Today they are available in local drug stores, department stores, by mail order and over the Internet. They range in price from about $10 to about $75 per oz.

The person whose innovation has made possible the use of copper in skin care products is a biochemist, Dr. Loren R. Pickart, who developed the first such products as a result of his graduate work at the University of California – San Francisco in the1970s. As a result of Dr. Pickart’s work, by 2001, over 40 products based on copper-peptide-induced tissue regeneration are marketed by at least 12 companies throughout the world. In addition, to the so-called face lift products, copper peptides are used:

  • in products that aid skin healing post surgery; after laser resurfacing, dermabrasion and chemical peels;
  • to stimulate hair growth and during the transplantation of hair;
  • to aid skin conditions in persons with acne, diabetes and psoriasis;
  • for use as sun tanning lotion for increasing the efficiency of melanogenesis and reducing post-tanning skin peeling;
  • in after shave lotions; and
  • in veterinary wound cleanser and healing products.

Studies have shown that copper peptide-containing products are more effective than topical application of the more traditional dermatological treatments — Vitamin C, tretinoin or melatonin — on the ultra structure of the skin3.

Some Copper Peptide Products Currently Available on the Mass Market
Company Location Brand Name Products
Ellen Lange Skin Science Highland Park, NJ Ellen Lange™ Peel Plus Pads
DDF Skincare Yonkers, NY DDF™ Cellular Revitalization Age Renewal
Johnson & Johnson Sommerville, NJ Neutrogena™ Visibly Firm Night Cream, Visibly Firm Eye Cream, Visibly Firm Moisture Makeup and Visibly Firm Eye Treatment Concealor
June Jacobs Laboratories New York, NY June Jacobs Spa™ Age Defying Copper Complex
Osmotics Cosmeseuticals Denver, CO Osmotics™ Blue Copper 5 Face Lift Serum, Blue Copper 5 Firming Elasticity Repair, and Male Blue Copper 5 After shave Lotion
PhotoMedex, Inc. Montgomeryville, PA Neova™ Day Theraphy SPF 20, GHK Copper Trio Kit, Eye Therapy, Antioxidant Therapy Serum, Therapy Crème De La Copper, Therapy Dual Action Lotion and After Shave Therapy
Complex Cu™ Post Procedure Skin Care
GraftCyte™ Hair Transplant Care
Tricomin™ Advanced Care for Thinning Hair
Skin Biology, Inc. Bellevue, WA   Protect and Restore Classic Cream, Copper Peptide Serum, Folligin Lotion, Folligin Therapy Shampoo and Bioheal
Sothys Paris, France Sothys Paris™ Hydra-Protective Cream

Dr. Loren R. Pickart top

While a graduate student at the University of California – San Francisco in the 1970s, Dr. Pickart studied the biochemistry of human aging. Scientists had isolated a sequence of amino acids (glycyl-L-histadyl-L-lysine, a peptide) in human serum that bound copper. In 1973, Pickart found copper glycyl-L-histadyl-L-lysine (GHL-Cu) to be abundant in young people but diminished in older people. He reasoned and later proved that GHL-Cu is the agent that stimulates tissue regeneration; namely, skin regeneration and remodeling, increase in collagen and elastin, rebuilding of blood microcirculation and increase in subcutaneous fat cells4, 5, 6, 7. He later named the GHL-Cu factor Iamin (from the classical Greek word "iama" or curative substance). Later research indicated that Iamin is generated during tissue damage and suggests that the build up of Iamin in the area of tissue damage causes an influx of skin repair cells called acrophages that initiate skin repair mechanisms. He reasoned that the decrease in the blood concentrations of Iamin with aging might be a major cause of the decreased tissue regeneration and organ failure that occurs during the human aging process.

Subsequent work over the next ten years established the chemical and physical structure of the copper complex. By 1983, there were the first laboratory indications that GHL-Cu was a type of metabolically active copper that functioned as a trigger of wound healing and tissue regeneration. Dr. Pickart applied for and has received numerous patents in the USA and in various foreign countries in the areas of: skin regeneration and safer sun tanning; treatment of aging skin, hair regrowth and hair loss prevention, wound healing (chronic skin ulcers, surgical wounds, burns), treatment for inflammatory bowel disease, prevention and healing of stomach ulcers, bone repair, and blockage of reperfusion8 injury and improvement of fingernail and toenail growth and strength.

In 1985, Pickart formed ProCyte Corporation (ProCyte means “for the cell’) for the specific purpose of developing and marketing wound healing and hair restoration products based on his copper peptide technology. The company went public (OTCBB –PRCY) in 1989 to market products for hair growth and loss prevention and for wound healing. Pickart subsequently left the company in 1991 for health reasons.

In 1992, Pickart formed a second, privately owned, company, Skin Biology, Inc.9 to focus on skin care products. The basis of the new company is a second line of copper peptides based on soy bean-derived peptones10. According to Pickart, whereas the natural GHL – Cu peptide has the problem of being very fragile, breaking down rapidly and short acting, and cannot be used in combination with hydroxy acids, this second generation of copper peptides is very stable, is breakdown-resistant and can be used concurrently with hydroxy acids. According to the company, these compounds have been demonstrated to have strong skin repair and anti-inflammatory properties. Skin Biology products are sold by mail order or over the Internet11.

In the meantime, in July 1999, ProCyte acquired Nextderm, Inc., to round out its product line with dermatology and skin care products. It also became a contract manufacturer of various drugs for pharmaceutical companies. In 2000, ProCyte licensed its copper peptide technology to Johnson & Johnson’s Neutrogena™ unit for worldwide use in products involving skin health. In 2001, ProCyte announced a long-term license and supply agreements with American Crew, a leading salon hair care and beauty supply company, for use of its patented AHK Copper Peptide Complex for hair care products for sale in the hair and beauty salon and day spa marketplaces. Since that time, they have added licensees: AdvoCare, Amuchina (Europe), Atelier Esthetique, Bard Medical, BioPharm (Middle East), Creative Nail Design, Schering AG, Osmotics, Sigmacon Medical Products (Canada) and Tanox Biosystems (Asia).

In March 2005, ProCyte merged with PhotoMedex, Inc.12, and operates as a division of that company.

Science Behind Copper Peptide Cosmetic Products top

Copper’s role in skin care and wound treatment was first discussed in the Ebers Papyrus — the oldest book known to man and written in approximately 1550 BC13. The Ebers Papyrus documents folk medicine practiced in ancient Egypt at the time of its writing and many centuries earlier. Specifically, the treatment of burn wounds and certain growths of the neck (presumably boils) are mentioned, as are remedies for eye ailments. Subsequent medical volumes — the Hippocratic Collection (460 to 380 BC), De Medicina (14–37 AD), Pliney’s Historia Naturalis (23–79 AD) — copper compounds are called for in the treatment of various skin diseases and infections.

Although ancient practice and basic science had paved the way for medicinal use in wound healing, it was not until recently that consideration was given to the use of copper in cosmetic preparations. It has long been known that copper combines with certain proteins in the body to produce enzymes that act as catalysts assisting a number of body functions. Some of these enzymes help provide energy required by biochemical reactions; others are involved in the transformation of melanin for pigmentation of the skin; and still others help to form cross-links in collagen and elastin and thereby maintain and repair connective tissues. It has also been known that copper complexes can be used to both prevent and to repair injury to tissue due to ionizing radiation14.

Recently, scientists in France have found that GHL-Cu stimulates collagen synthesis15. At Stanford University’s Wound Healing and Tissue Engineering Laboratory, scientists have found that certain types of copper peptides help the process of skin remodeling and removal of scar tissue16. Such types of copper peptides help activate the skin's metalloproteinases that remove damage proteins (sun as sun-damaged collagen and elastin) and scars. At the same time, they help activate the your skin's anti-proteinases TIMP-1 andTIMP-2, which protect against excessive breakdown of protein17. Thus, copper peptides added to skin creams help the process of rebuilding new collagen and elastin into the skin.

According to Pickart, numerous research and human clinical studies at over thirty universities and medical research institutes have found copper-peptides in animal and human studies to:

  • Accelerate wound repair (humans, mice, rats, guinea pigs, pigs, dogs)
  • Increases skin re-epithelialization (humans and animals)18.
  • Reverses aging effects on skin (humans) — thickens skin, improves elasticity, and increases subcutaneous fat layer • Improve skin graft transplant success (pigs)
  • Improve hair transplant success (humans)
  • GHL analogs with fatty residue analogs increase hair follicle size and growth rate
  • Stimulate hair growth and reduce hair loss (humans, mice, rats)
  • Stimulate bone healing (guinea pigs, pigs, rabbits)
  • Heal injured intestinal linings (humans, rats)
  • Heal stomach ulcers (rats)
  • Blocks oxidative injury in tissues

Summary top

It has been found that biologically effective copper-peptides help the skin to:

  • Regenerate new collagen and elastin which improves skin firmness and elasticity,
  • Increase the production of water-holding glycosaminoglycans which is true moisturization,
  • Improve the skin’s blood vessel microcirculation,
  • Produce biochemical energy from nutrients in the body’s blood supply,
  • Increase the natural defense mechanism against oxidative damage, and
  • Repair damage to the protective skin barrier. As the skin is rebuilt and scars removed, the elastic properties of the skin pull it into a smooth surface.

Thus, in addition to copper being an essential element of life19, copper is equally important in staving off the ravages of time to our appearance and in the maintenance of the elusive physiological quality we call beauty.

Author Information top

William H. Dresher has over 30 years experience in corporate and academic management in R&D, in the fields of extractive metallurgy of base and refractory metals, copper processing, products and marketing, as well as expertise in the environmental aspects of copper in health and ecotoxicity. In his career he has been Assistant Director of Research for Union Carbide Corporation’s Mining and Metals Division, Dean of the College of Mines of the University of Arizona, President of the International Copper Research Association, Inc. and most recently, the Vice President of Technology of the International Copper Association, Ltd. He is a graduate of Drexel University in Philadelphia with a BS degree in Chemical Engineering and of the University of Utah with a Ph.D. in Metallurgy.


1top 1. Cosmetics are defined as substances applied to the body to cleanse, promote attractiveness, or alter the appearance. They include underarm deodorants, face powder, lipstick, nail polish, perfume, skin cream, most shampoos, hair conditioners, dyes and bleaches, some toothpastes and, now, creams and lotions that alter the condition of the skin.

1top 2. A peptide is any of various natural or synthetic compounds containing two or more amino acids linked by the carboxyl group of one amino acid and the amino group of another.

1top 3. Abulghani, A.A., Shirin, S., Morales-Tapio, A. Sherr, G. Solodkina, M. Roberson, A.B. Gottlieb, “Studies of the effects of topical vitamin C, a copper binding cream and melatonin cream as compared with tretinoin on the ultrastructure of the skin,” J. Invest. Dematol. Vol 110, No. 4, 1998, p 686.

1top 4. Pickart, L.R., et al., "Growth-Modulating Plasma Tripeptide May Function by Facilitating Copper Uptake into Cells", Nature, Vol. 288, 1980, pp. 715-717.

1top 5. Pickart, L.R., “The use of glyclhistidyllysine in culture systems,” In Vitro, Vol 17, No. 6, 1981, pp 459 – 466.

1top 6. Pickart, L.R., et al., "Growth-Modulating Tripeptide (glycylhistidylysine): Association with Copper and Iron in Plasma and Stimulation of Adhesive and Growth of Hepatoma Cells in Culture by Tripeptide-Metal Ion complexes", J. Cell. Physiol., Vol 102, No. 2, 1980 pp. 129-139.

1top 7. Pickart, L.R., "The Biological Effects and Mechanism of Action of the Plasma Tripeptide Glycyl-L-Histidyl-L-Lysine", Lymphonkines, Vol 8, 1983, pp. 425-446.

1top 8. Reperfusion -tissue injury after stoppage of blood flow.

1top 9. Skin Biology, Inc. 12833 SE 40th Place, Bellevue, WA 98006.

1top 10. A peptone is any of various compounds obtained by acid or enzyme hydrolysis of natural protein and used as nutrients in culture media in bacteriology.

1top 11. Please visit Skin Biology Web site for additional information.

1top 12. PhotoMedex, Inc., 147 Keystone Drive, Montgomeryville, PA 18936.

1top 13. Dollwet, H.H.A. and J.R.J. Sorenson, “History uses of copper compounds in Medicine,” Trace elements in Medicine Vol 2, No. 2, 1985, pp 80 – 87.

1top 14. Sorenson, J.R.J., L.S.F. Soderberg and L.W. Chang, “Radiation protection and Radiation Recovery with Essential Metalloelement Chelates,” Proc. Soc. Exper. Biol. And Med. Vol 210, 1995, pp 191 – 204.

1top 15. Marquart, F.X., L. Pickart, M. Laurent, P. Gillery, J.C. Monboisse and J..P. Borel, “Stimulation of collagen syusnthesis in fibroblast cultures by the tripeptide-copper complex glycyl-L-histidyl-L-Cu2+,” FEBS Lett. Vol 232, No. 2, 1988, pp 343-346.

1top 16. McCormack, M.C., K.C. Nowak and R.J. Koch, “The Effect of Coppper Tripeptide and Tretinoin on Growth Factor Production in a Serium-Free Fibroblast Model,” Arch. Facial Plast. Surg. Vol 3, 2001, pp 28 – 32.

1top 17. Simeon, C.P., Y. Wegrowski, P. Bontemps and F.X Marquart, J Invest Dermatol Vol 115, No.6, 2000, pp 962-968.

1top 18. The epithelium is membranous tissue composed of one or more layers of cells separated by very little intercellular substance and forming the covering of most internal and external surfaces of the body and its organs.

1top 19. Environment and Health section of Copper In Your Home.

Also in this Issue:

  • Copper and Your Skin: Facelift In A Bottle


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