credit to http://www.madscientistblog.ca for the gratuitous dick shot
Okay, yes. It’s time to discuss the much heralded penis cream: SkinMedica’s TNS Recovery Serum. I oohed and aahed over it on Into The Gloss, because it’s that incredible AND it is bad joke fodder for days. (In fact, we should play a drinking game with this post. We will all drink when I make a shitty penis-related joke.) I was more than a little surprised to see my ITG post had been edited after it went live, tweaking the wording to say the product “was once thought to contain” ingredients derived from foreskins, with some additional statement about what it “really” contains. That means some asshole must have made a stink to ITG, which means I hopped on my pony named Google to find out what really went down.
Apparently, lots did, all while I was busy working and shit. Years ago, Oprah publicly proclaimed her love for the D cream which provoked protests about the exploitation of helpless male babies, forced to sacrifice their foreskins in the name of female vanity. One protestor asked how Oprah would feel if they harvested the tissue from female circumcision for similar use. Okay. Really? Does anyone really think SkinMedica staff are loitering outside hospitals, hoping to score some baby scraps? Deep, deep sigh. I really do not care for Oprah, but cut the girl some slack.
Laboratory magic has helped certain cell lines perpetuate indefinitely in the warmth of a Petri dish. The HeLa cell line — the most (in)famous of them all — was derived from cancerous cells taken in 1951 from a cervical tumor from a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Ms. Lacks died shortly thereafter but her cell line survived — it has since contributed to vaccination development, cancer and HIV research, infectious disease testing, and on and on and on. Point being, in the 21st century, cell cultures are no biggie. The ingredients in SkinMedica were probably derived from a fibroblast cell line developed from one foreskin before we all were born. I am not shedding a tear for the lost foreskins of today (at least in regards to their role in cosmetics), and as far as I can tell, SkinMedica’s ingredients haven’t changed. Priapus lives on.
Next, much to my surprise and amusement, Google took me on a ride down Medico-legal Nightmare Lane, in the form of a class action lawsuit against the owner of SkinMedica, Allergan. From the law firm’s release¹: According to the firm’s investigation, SkinMedica’s TNS products, which have been sold nationally through doctors’ offices and retailers, contain a proprietary mix of “human growth factors” derived from human foreskin tissue. Human growth factors are intended to mobilize, stimulate, or otherwise alter the production of cells, including the ability to initiate cell division, which could stimulate growth of cancerous tumor cells, according to the complaint. The suit alleges that in marketing their TNS products, Allergan and its subsidiary SkinMedica did not adequately disclose the health risks associated with these growth factors. SkinMedica’s TNS products – which the company calls “cosmeceuticals” – did not have government approval and could not be sold lawfully in the U.S. without such approval, something else the company did not disclose to consumers, according to the complaint. The suit alleges that because neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration nor the California Department of Public Health found TNS products to be safe for their intended use, and because TNS products omit required disclosures relating to safety concerns, the products have been misbranded under both federal laws and parallel state laws.
TNS products currently only list the active ingredient as “Human Fibroblast Conditioning Media”. Buuuuut, “media” is a vague term just referring to the soupy nutritive broth used to grow cell cultures. The true active ingredient, which appears to be the growth factor mix trademarked as “Nouri-Cel”, is not included in the ingredient list. Nouri-Cel purportedly contains Transforming Growth Factor-Beta (TGF-b), which promotes collagen growth; Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF) and Hepatocyte Growth Factor (HGF), which promote new blood vessel formation; and Keratinocyte Growth Factor (KGF) which promotes epithelial cell growth³. All of these serve to promote wound healing in damaged tissue.
Welp, according to the good old FDA, if your product directly affects the biology of tissues, it’s a drug, and it’s then subject to FDA approval and regulation. TNS products were never submitted for FDA review as far as I can tell. I can see filing a complaint about inadequate or noncompliant product labeling, but a class action lawsuit? Suggesting SkinMedica is liable for failing to disclose a “significant” (but yet undefined and unproven) cancer risk is silly. Of note, Nouri-Cel does not contain Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF), the only of the wound-repair growth factors with a recognized role in cancer development. The others have no known to only questionable roles in cancer growth; in fact, KGF (palifermin) can be used to prevent mucous membrane damage caused by chemotherapy in certain settings.² The lawsuit attempts to highlight SkinMedica’s sins by comparing Nouri-Cel to the few FDA-approved prescription drugs containing similar growth factors, using big scary terms like BLACK BOX WARNING and FIVEFOLD INCREASE IN CANCER DEATHS, never mind that they’re different kinds of ingredients used in different clinical settings on individuals that are already ill.
Saying that Nouri-Cel (and similar products) cause cancer is like saying this book of matches causes cancer. Yes, matches can be used to light the cigarettes that might cause cancer under certain conditions, when consumed at a certain rate over a certain time period. So do matches cause cancer? I just cannot get on board with this level of hysteria.
(If you are so inclined, you can view the legal complaint in excruciating detail here: http://www.hbsslaw.com/Templates/media/files/case_pdfs/SkinMedica/complaint%20-%20secured.pdf )
So is the product safe? Should we all worry that we’ll wake up one day with penis cream-induced tumors exploding all over our faces? No. You are more likely to get skin irritation from the fragrance in the product. I am not concerned about risks to my health because of this product. However, would I recommend it to someone who already has cancer, or is otherwise immunocompromised? Not necessarily — we don’t know enough about its potential in that setting, and is it really worth the risk?
All told, despite its hair-raising price tag, nebulous origin, and possible (albeit remote) health risks, I continue to use and recommend the heralded penis cream. While I have used TNS Recovery Complex exclusively so far, when it’s time to reload next, I may give Skinmedica’s Essential Serum a try — it’s a two part product composed of Recovery Complex plus APS Corrective Complex. The latter contains a bunch of antioxidants, “skin brighteners”, “tightening agents”, and hylauronic acid. It’s even more hideously expensive than TNS Recovery Complex, but I’ll take one for the team and give it a shot.
One last note: resist the urge to buy the D cream at a discount on eBay or Amazon. Just like Air Jordans and Louis Vuitton bags, counterfeits exist, and while carrying a fake bag might be just tacky, applying a cream containing God knows what to your skin is plain old risky.