DMAE Safety Concerns

Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE) is a popular ingredient that is used by a large number of manufacturers. It is trendy 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 regarding 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 they try to encompass and expel foreign substances and/or their own damaged parts. The researchers then concluded that vacuolization, which DMAE induces, could be a potential cause of cell damage. They also saw that DMAE damaged the ability of the fibroblasts to divide. However, the adverse effects were reversed once the DMAE had been cleaned out of the culture following a short period of exposure. 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 skincare? This is a complicated question to answer. However, here are some of the points that make it less than straightforward:

  • Most substances, even those 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; adding too much of it to a fibroblast culture can be lethal to the cells. At the same time, controlled amounts of pH-balanced vitamin C can stimulate collagen synthesis and protect the cells. Therefore, 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 formulations.
  • 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 formulas, the test used a more alkaline version of DMAE. Likely, 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 skincare products as it only studied the epidermal cells and not the fibroblasts, which play a greater role in the skin's youthful appearance and maintenance. There was no evidence of epidermal vacuolization; the observation of the perinuclear swelling only hinted at it. 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 triethanolamine. Formulas have contained triethanolamine 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. However, the makes the study's results even more open to question regarding the use of DMAE in over-the-counter skincare products.
  • DMAE should not be discounted as an 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 (AHAs), and laser resurfacing, and other treatments. The healing process resulting from 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 isn't easy 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 several weeks using different pH levels and concentrations of DMAE. The control group would be treated with an inactive formula only. The 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 what a person eats or puts on their body as much as you can. Although it is impossible to understand everything, there are some good reasons for having a good knowledge of skincare products.
Most skincare 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. The law also gives guidelines on the format for the listing.
Discover definitions of the primary categories of skin care ingredients by their function/use.
Below you will find a list of some ingredients that may cause skin damage from prolonged use or which are simply unnecessary.