A Scientist's Approach to Skincare
DR. BARBARA STURM EXPLAINS WHY EATING YOUR VEGETABLES AND GETTING MORE SLEEP—NOT LASERS AND ACIDS—ARE THE WAY TO A YOUTHFUL, RADIANT COMPLEXION
Sprawling hillside views and sparkling turquoise swimming pools are not uncommon in Los Angeles, but Dr. Barbara Sturm may be the only woman in town with an ode to her beauty ethos in her landscaping. From where I sit in the minimal but plush living room of her Beverly Hills hideaway, I have a perfect view of the statue erected in the backyard that reads “STURM GLOW." It's a worthy homage; Sturm is, after all, responsible for many of Hollywood's most radiant complexions. And it’s easy to picture the scene here during awards season: celebrities swinging by Sturm’s “Anti-Inflammatory Haus” pop-up spa for pre-red-carpet facials, yoga classes, and acupressure treatments. “People say Hollywood’s devotion to my brand is our differentiator,” Sturm muses, “but I think it is just a symptom of efficacy that people whose faces are their business are on my skincare regimen.”
While she's made a name for herself by getting people glowing, make no mistake: Sturm is a scientist at her core, and aptly skeptical of anything that sounds like a marketing gimmick. Curled on the couch in pastel leggings and an oversized sweater, Sturm laments the “hollow marketing concepts” of so many skincare products on the market claiming to impart that coveted you-know-what. “The customer of today is highly educated...and doesn’t just want to fall into the trap of empty marketing,” she says. For her, it’s about hardcore ingredient science and products that walk the walk. “You don’t put words on your face,” she asserts.
In a sea of beauty and skincare brands making big promises, Dr. Sturm’s background in medicine makes her stand out. “Since I was four years old, I always wanted to be a doctor,” she recalls. Initially drawn to pediatrics, the birth of her first child brought about a change of heart, and she went into orthopedics instead. It was there that she began a deep dive into the science of inflammation, working with a team of scientists and doctors in Germany to develop an injectable treatment for osteoarthritis that used the body’s own proteins to combat joint aging.
...at her core, she’s a scientist, and aptly skeptical of anything that sounds like a marketing gimmick.
The field of aesthetics was gaining momentum around the same time, and Sturm quickly made the connection between orthopedic medicine and the science of skin. “When I started working in the field of aesthetics, injections with hyaluronic fillers provided great results,” she explains, “but I kept thinking that it would be a great additional anti-aging booster for the skin if we started mixing it with the body’s own healing factors, like we did in the orthopedic field.”
Struggling with her own complexion and dissatisfied with the products on the market, she says, “I decided to follow the anti-inflammatory approach of my orthopedic work, having in mind that cartilage cells and skin cells are from the same tissue family.” Using the science she pioneered in orthopedics, Sturm added her body’s own proteins to a pure moisturizer formulation—and it worked. “The results lasted longer, and the skin benefited greatly from the additional healing power and anti-inflammatory proteins,” she says. In 2002, the so-called “blood cream” (officially called MC1) was born, garnering instant cult status. Voracious demand from her well-heeled clientele led Sturm to build out her collection, “a simple, effective, ingredient-science-based skincare line,” in her words. “And now, my husband says I’m like the Willy Wonka of the skincare industry, constantly inventing new candy.”
While you might need a golden ticket to get your hands on a $1,400 jar of MC1, Sturm insists that ageless, radiant skin doesn’t have to be cost prohibitive. That’s because real beauty comes from what she calls an anti-inflammatory lifestyle. “Inflammatory triggers swirl around us our entire lives—pollution, sun exposure, smoking and drinking, stress, lack of sleep, and bad diet,” she says. “Inflammation is the ultimate skin killer, and as you age the damage shows more profoundly.”
Inflammation is the ultimate skin killer, and as you age the damage shows more profoundly.
Inflammation is a hot topic in the nutrition world, particularly as it relates to the health of the all-important microbiome. Experts in gastroenterology stress the importance of a healthy gut lining because it prevents food and other matter from entering the bloodstream, leading to a haywire immune response that manifests in myriad ways, including allergies, joint pain, and skin issues. Studies show that the gut and skin are “uniquely related in purpose and function” and have “an intimate, bidirectional connection.” Whether the source of the inflammation is inside you or in the world around you, it’s potentially wreaking havoc on your health, beauty, and well-being.
If the thought of a daily onslaught of inflammatory triggers has you sufficiently terrified, fear not: simple habits can go a long way to nurture your skin back to health. When asked about her number-one beauty tip, Sturm doesn’t miss a beat before answering. “Sleep,” she asserts, adding that she often goes to bed at the same time as her five-year-old. “I think that’s the one thing you shouldn’t compromise on.” Beyond getting adequate quality rest, Sturm recommends managing stress; abstaining from smoking; limiting alcohol, sugar, and salt; exercising regularly; using a sauna whenever possible (shown to remove heavy metals, stimulate circulation, and promote skin barrier function, she reports); and eating a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods like nuts, seeds, berries, tomatoes, turmeric, aloe, and leafy greens.
Of course, Sturm is a proponent of a thoughtful skincare regimen to resist the effects of inflammation. But what may come as a shock to some beauty aficionados is that she doesn’t support the scorched-earth approach to anti-aging that includes aggressive lasers, chemical peels, and multiple rounds of antibiotics—all of which she says actually exacerbate, rather than reduce, inflammation. While Sturm appreciates dermatological expertise, noting that she works with a dermatologist on her team, she claims not being one is actually an advantage. “We come from totally different angles,” she notes. “I treat skin differently. I come from a place of, love your skin, strengthen your skin barrier function, heal your skin, reduce inflammation in your skin, be gentle with your skin, give your skin everything it needs.”
That’s not to say Sturm’s products aren’t powerful; quite the opposite. Thorough research and a keen focus on ingredient science and sourcing make Sturm’s products uniquely potent, yet gentle. The age-defying approach of the Sturm regimen, she explains, prioritizes hydration, nutrition, relieving inflammation, and activation of telomerase, an enzyme that acts like a fountain of youth. An ingredient she has long studied and admired is purslane, a plant packed with vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids to strengthen the skin’s antioxidant system, brighten the complexion, reduce UV damage, and ease inflammation. “I view purslane as the single most perfect superfood for the skin,” she states.
The result of all this intention is products that truly work, while at the same time being gentle—so much so that, unlike a P50 or Retin-A, she says even children can use them. “I would always prefer the healing approach to anti-aging, and stepping away from harsh ingredients or treatments that destroy the skin to create trade the appearance of a short term anti-aging effect for medium and long term harm,” she says, noting consumers assume that because over-the-counter products with aggressive ingredients are easily accessible, that means they’re safe. “My approach is healing and loving the skin.”
Striving for an anti-inflammatory lifestyle is all well and good, but how does it square with the ever-elusive quest for balance? After all, it’s a rare person who never strays from their routine of clean eating, daily exercise, eight nightly hours of sleep, and total abstinence from cocktails and desserts. And if stress is on the list of things to avoid when it comes to keeping skin calm and healthy, then surely such rigidity is counterproductive...isn’t it?
Sturm’s take, refreshingly, is not to get carried away by following every wellness trend, explaining that some people may feel better or worse eating certain foods, while others react badly to sun exposure. “Everyone needs to figure it out for themselves,” she says. “And of course, [get] a good face cream. Then you’re good to go.”
A briskly efficient 25 minutes after our conversation begins, a gaggle of willowy assistants with iPhones (and great skin) gather, signaling it’s time to wrap up. As Sturm is whisked away to her next engagement, a young woman materializes to offer me the aforementioned acupressure treatment. Watching beauty and wellness colliding in that very room—facial treatments and poolside yoga, skincare samples and freshly-harvested aloe juice—I realized that it’s easy for all this self-improvement to feel like unnecessary pressure, but it doesn’t have to. The habits Sturm prescribes for beautiful skin have auxiliary benefits: more energy, better digestion, a healthier heart, less risk of illness, improved productivity, even a longer life. Maybe we’re collectively moving toward a world in which beauty and wellness are one and the same, acknowledging that a clear, dare I say glowing complexion is simply a sign of good health. In that case, there’s nothing shallow or self-centered in spending time and money on your skin—it’s just part of caring for the one body you get in life.
Ultimately, when we look in the mirror and like what we see, we get a surge of confidence that makes us show up in our lives as the best possible version of ourselves. And that is the way to really glow.
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Dr. Barbara Sturm photographed by Lianna Tarantin in New York on January 23, 2020.