Dr. Barbara Sturm
In the world of skincare, science and pseudoscience can seem virtually indistinguishable. Confronted with limitless options each supported by spurious claims of efficacy, those in search of a glowing visage often resort to emotional decisions over rational ones. A brand, after all, is easily grasped — and in an age that embraces the medicine cabinet as a curated space, what we apply to our faces can feel tantamount to identity itself. But where, we ask, is the good stuff? Does anything really work?
Enter Dr. Barbara Sturm.
With a thoroughgoing medical background stretching back generations within her family, Dr. Sturm’s approach to aesthetics is grounded in pure science, her groundbreaking products supported by extensive research and a clean, clinical, and yet utterly luxurious visual identity that renders many of her competitors’ attempts at seduction somewhat laughable. Within her laboratory, Dr. Sturm is actually creating the magic that lesser entities purport to have found but never seem to deliver. We caught up with the good doctor between appointments for a glimpse inside the test tube.
You were an orthopedist before your work in skincare began. What led you to medicine?
My mom was a pharmacist and my grandmother a chemist. My grandmother even formulated her own skincare creams! So even as a kid I was interested in both chemistry and pharmacology. That led me in the direction of medicine. It was my passion for sports that first led me into orthopedics and sport medicine. Serendipitously, there I met and collaborated with a group of scientists who established a special treatment for osteoarthritis in Europe. Later, I translated this research into aesthetics, including using the body’s own proteins for my MC1 Face Cream. The cream then led me to create an expanded global skincare line.
Have you encountered adversity as a woman in science? How has your experience compared in the medical field versus the aesthetic field?
The short answer is yes, I did encounter adversity. And I think many women in science (and other professions) have that shared experience.
The aesthetic field is a specialized area of medicine that was and is more open to women, and the majority of patients (although this is changing) are women. Of course, it also got easier when I opened my own clinic where I was the boss.
Recent studies have shown that aging can be counteracted or even reversed in rodents through revitalizing blood flow and reversing mitochondrial decay. Although none of these ‘miracle’ solutions will be applicable to humans any time soon, it does seem possible that aging will become a choice someday. Do you believe in a fountain of youth? Given the choice, would you drink from it?
It is interesting that you ask about mitochondrial decay, because that is one of the things I am working on right now! I don’t consider science a miracle. Accidental or intentional discoveries can change our health outcomes dramatically.
And I don’t agree that dramatic improvements in anti-aging are far off in the distance. There are remarkable near-term advances coming!
I see aging gracefully as beautiful, not ugly, and I certainly wouldn’t want to live forever. There is a time and place for everything. But I also work hard to reverse the signs and diminishing functions of aging, whether superficially (wrinkles or spots) or the underlying activities of our cells and disease. I would like to live my life to the fullest and be at my best, and I think everyone feels the same way.
It seems like for a lot of people, it’s the surface appearance and branding of a skincare range that draws people to a product, whether that’s in the form of apothecary-style packaging, twee pastels, or glossy luxury-heavy design. Your line, by contrast, reflects your background as a doctor and scientist with a clean, clinical palette of white and silver. Can you speak to the aesthetics of aesthetics in the current space? What do you hope to communicate through the look and feel of your product range?
Each one of my products is full of ideas, philosophy, and ingredient science. Those ideas and the ingredients are the stars.
I wanted the packaging to be simple and not distract from those ideas. In that simplicity and austerity, I hoped also to communicate a medical and ingredient science purity, which are among the ideas. The philosophy is to heal, nourish, feed, and hydrate your skin — don’t attack it. Aggressive and flashy packaging would have aesthetically contradicted that philosophy.
You’re well-known for your Plasma facial, known as the “Vampire Facial,” which involves injecting a client’s own blood plasma into their skin. Similarly, you formulated your well-regarded MC1 ‘blood cream’ to generate healing properties from the user’s own blood. How does this work on a scientific level — and beyond that, how can we help ourselves every day?
Inflammation is a key factor in the aging process. In our body, the messenger protein Interleukin-1 (IL-1) stimulates joint inflammation. We use the patient’s own blood to counteract this aging-associated inflammation. After the initial blood withdrawal, we stimulate the white blood cells to produce a special protein called Interleukin 1-antagonist and critically important growth factors like TGF-beta (the most important growth factor for skin cell rejuvenation). Anti-Interleukin-1 reduces inflammation while TGF-beta strengthens the tissue and stimulates collagen growth. Since it is tailored to your specific skin, is the most individualized skin care possible and is adapted to the very personal needs of each patient.
Regarding the everyday question, a major impact is to reduce inflammation and avoid elements (internal and external) that trigger inflammation. This is a question of the things we eat, lifestyle, and the things we allow our skin to be exposed to. Simple anti-inflammatory changes can yield a big impact in skin quality.
You are a scientist and physician by trade, but so many aspects of your brand and method are highly imaginative and unexpected. Where does creativity come into your daily practice? How do you balance left and right brain?
Creativity is the special sauce, in my field and all others. Our brain is constantly reorganizing itself and learning. I question everything (including my own beliefs) and remain open to and enthused by new approaches and advances. When I encounter “that’s just how it’s done,” I confess to a strong urge to see if it can be done differently. This is what causes the leaps forward.
Working in the aesthetic field requires both the physiological understanding and logic of the left brain and the artistic sensibilities of the right brain. Drawing on both, you can visualize what is possible for a patient and execute on those possibilities.