The pace of scientific advance over the last couple of centuries has been astonishing. Innovations have poured out of laboratories and workshops transforming our lives forever. Very few of the new ideas that have shaped the modern world have avoided at some stage being used as marketing stories by the cosmetic industry. One of the most extraordinary mismatches between the science and what marketing departments do with it is Q10.
Q10 – the Theory
Coenzyme Q10 to give it its full name is a molecule that plays a key role in energy metabolism. Each of the cells in our body generates the energy it needs to function. As such it is a vital part of our makeup and we would not last long without it. Luckily our body can make it pretty easily from many of the foods we eat so deficiency is not really an issue. Supplementation of the diet with Q10 may make sense for some people some of the time, but it is hardly something the average person is likely to run short of.
So it is impressive that we know about it. It is interesting if that kind of thing appeals to you, and I feel good about the fact that we have so much detail of the basics of biology. The question is, what on earth is it doing in cosmetic products? That it plays a role in energy metabolism doesn’t mean that having more of it will give you more energy. There is a thing called the first law of thermodynamics which is pretty strict about this kind of thing. The only way Q10 can give you more energy is if lack of Q10 was stopping you from generating it in the first place.
But there are dozens of enzymes, cofactors, substrates and other bits and pieces involved with energy handling in the cell. Q10 might be important, but there are lots of other actors in this play. Hans Krebs got a Nobel Prize just for working out how the bit that generates the energy in the first place works. So what is the evidence that Q10 has the key role here? Errmm.
Q10- the Evidence
But science is about data not theories. If there is solid empirical evidence that Q10 can be applied to the skin and have an effect, fair enough. We can sort out exactly how it is working later. Let’s have a look at all the placebo controlled trials carried out with enough numbers to give a good statistical result.
Well, I couldn’t find any that have been published using the usual online resources.
There was a paper that suggested Q10 applied to the skin triggers vitiligo, though thankfully the patients got better when the treatment stopped. This was a small study and was done by a researcher whose interest is vitiligo rather than cosmetics so I am inclined to disregard it. I imagine that the Q10 was used at rather a high level. But at least it showed it doing something in the skin. Another study showed some effect on blood flow in the skin, the significance of which I am not really sure about.
The work most obviously relevant to cosmetic applications was a study where they took small portions of skin and observed that Q10 stimulated the production of a cell feature called mitochondria, which is where energy production in the cell is localised. This might be beneficial, but you need to actually demonstrate those benefits before you can claim them.
And that was about it for published human studies – a very thin haul indeed.
There was also a study in mice that suggested Q10 might help with wound healing. This is nice, but you’d need more than a single study in a single species to assess its wound healing potential, and that is in any case not what it is sold for.
Q10 – Does it work?
So all in all I have to conclude that the idea that Q10 has cosmetic benefits is, to put it as generously as I can, not very well substantiated. I could retreat into scientific caution and say that although the evidence is not yet available it might come to light at some point in the future. But this is a widely used ingredient that gets prominent billing on many product labels. Surely a placebo controlled trial is not too much to ask for?
Med Sci Monit. 2013 May 6;19:339-46. CoQ10 and endothelial function in Asians from Korea compared to Asians born in the United States and US born Caucasians. Petrofsky JS, Laymon M, Lee H, Yim J, Harnandez E, Dequine D, Thorsen L, Lovell K, Andrade J.
Biofactors. 2008;32(1-4):245-55. Aging skin is functionally anaerobic: importance of coenzyme Q10 for anti aging skin care. Prahl S, Kueper T, Biernoth T, Wöhrmann Y, Münster A, Fürstenau M, Schmidt M, Schulze C, Wittern KP, Wenck H, Muhr GM, Blatt T.