DMAE Safety Concerns

Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE) is a popular skin care ingredient that is used by a large number of manufacturers. It is very popular because it is one of a small number of agents (maybe even the only agent) that has been proved to produce skin tightening and to reduce facial sag (to a low level).

The British Journal of Dermatology published a study in 2007 that brought some new safety concerns to light with regards to the use of topical DMAE. The study was conducted by Dr. Morissette and his colleagues at the University of Quebec where they looked at the effects of DMA in both rabbit skin as well as human skin cells.

Morissette and his team found that when DMAE was added to the cultures of fibroblasts (an important kind of skin cell) vacuolization occurred. Vacuolization is commonly seen in damaged cells as the cells try to encompass and expel foreign substances and/or their own damaged parts. The researchers then came to the conclusion that vacuolization which is induced by DMAE could be a potential cause of cell damage. They also saw that DMAE damaged the ability of the fibroblasts to divide. Once the DMAE had been cleaned out of the culture following a short period of exposure, the adverse effects were reversed. Long term exposure to DMAE has yet to be studied.

An experiment in which 3% DMA to a rabbit's ear resulted in the thickening of the skin and perinuclear swelling (which is the swelling of the area surrounding the nucleus) in epidermal cells. This result was an inconclusive indication of vacuolization and its resulting cell damage.

What do the findings of this study mean with regards to the day to day use of DMAE in skin care? This is a complicated question to answer. Here are some of the points that make it less than straight forward:

  • Most substances, even those to be known to be useful, can be toxic in certain circumstances, such as; at differing levels of pH or temperature, in high levels of concentration, in combination with other substances and so on. An example is vitamin C, if you add too much of it to a fibroblast culture it can be lethal to the cells. At the same time controlled amounts of pH balanced vitamin C can stimulate collagen synthesis and provide protection to the cells. It is difficult to say if one can compare the results of the studies of the fibroblast cultures to the day to day usage of DMAE in skin care products.
  • The study of the rabbit ear skin was not comprehensive enough to prove anything and therefore not necessarily valid. Instead of using pH-balanced DMAE which is most commonly used in skin care products the test used a more alkaline version of DMAE. It is very likely that the damage would not have occurred if a pH balanced DMAE had been used. The rabbit ear test did not go far enough to be conclusive for skin care products as it only studied the epidermal cells and not the fibroblasts which play a greater role in the skins youthful appearance and its maintenance. There was no evidence of epidermal vacuolization, it was only hinted at by the observation of the perinuclear swelling. Rabbit ears are made of a much tougher substance than the human face.
  • The study showed that the effect of the DMAE in the cell culture was similar to triethnolamine. Skin care products have contained triethnolamine for many years and while at times it can cause a minor amount of damage to the skin in some people it is not particularly toxic to the skin in low dosages. The makes the study's results even more open to question with regards to the use of DMAE in over the counter skin care products.
  • DMAE should not be discounted as a skin care ingredient even if there is a minor amount of skin damage that can be attributed to some DMAE formulas. Indeed many skin rejuvenation processes use a controlled level of skin damage. These include chemical peels, alpha-hydroxy acids, and laser resurfacing and other treatments. The healing process that takes place as a result of the damage done by the treatment improves the makeup of the skin matrix and makes the skin look younger as a result.

The University of Quebec study is commendable but it is difficult to apply its results accurately when looking at the use of DMAE in commercial cosmetic products. The ideal study would be a human clinical trial where the topical formulas are applied for a number of weeks using different pH levels and concentrations of DMAE. The control group would be treated with an inactive formula only. Skin layer would then need to be analyzed and measured in order to gain a better understanding of the effects of DMAE.

Until accurate data concerning the use of DMAE is available it is a good idea to be careful with the strength of DMAE concentration that you use - keeping it less than 1% should be safe. It is also important to watch for any negative side effects such as skin irritation.

It is a good idea to understand as much as you can about what a person eats or puts on their body. There are a number of different things that will determine if a skin care product that is applied directly to the skin will have an anti-aging effect:
Most skin care products have a full listing of ingredients on the label or box. This labeling is required by the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act which mandates that all ingredients be listed.
Discover definitions of the primary categories of skin care ingredients by their function/use.
On this page, you will find a list of some ingredients that may cause skin damage from prolonged use or which are simply unnecessary.