Scientists Will Study the Effects of Microgravity on Skin at the International Space Station

The experiment, using engineered skin samples, could lead to better skin care products

An image of the International Space Station floating in space
The artificial skin samples will sit in a custom device with a nutrient-filled liquid medium while they orbit in space aboard the ISS. NASA via Wikimedia Commons under Public Domain

Space travel takes its toll on an astronaut. Studies have found that spaceflight may speed up the aging process, and astronauts have reported drier and thinner skin more prone to bruising and cuts while in orbit, reports Elisha Sauers for Mashable

While it may sound alarming, these symptoms could help researchers unlock the mysteries behind aging and other skin issues. Last month, the skincare brand PCA Skin announced it would send engineered skin tissue samples to the International Space Station (ISS) to study the effects of microgravity on the dermis and overall skin health, a statement explains. The Colgate-Palmolive Company, in collaboration with NASA, will be the first to launch a private-sector skin health experiment in outer space, the results of which could help develop products for both astronauts and consumers on Earth, reports Cassidy Ward for SYFY Wire.

"The astronauts were our first inspiration for this experiment," Lia Arvanitidou, the Vice President of Global Technology for Colgate-Palmolive's Skin Health Group, explained to SYFY Wire. "They told us that during space travel, they experience some profound effects on their skin."

The Skin Health Group found similarities between astronauts' self-reported symptoms and the symptoms of earthbound patients with aging skin, per SYFY Wire. Microgravity can also cause skin rashes and other skin irritations, an ISS National Laboratory statement explains. 

For this experiment, PCA Skin will send lab-grown tissue samples from MatTek Life Sciences to the ISS, where each will be exposed to microgravity for a specific number of days and then frozen, reports Linda Stocum for Dermatology Times. All together, the samples will represent a timeline of the skin's response to molecular and physiological stress.

Each sample was created from both epidermis and dermis grown in layers and then stacked to resemble human skin, SYFY Wire reports. The 3-D artificial skin will sit in a custom device with a nutrient-filled liquid medium while they orbit in space, per the Dermatology Times. However, dermatologists won't see physical changes in the skin visually because they are occurring at a molecular level, the ISS National Laboratory statement explains. Researchers will analyze each tissue sample using genetic sequencing to find biomarkers or genes for collagen and elastin that indicate damage and skin repair.

The tissue samples will arrive aboard NASA's Northrop Grumman's Cygnus spacecraft and remain there for a total of seven days, per SYFY Wire. While aboard the ISS, astronauts will pull tissue sets at different time intervals and freeze them until they can be compared to control samples on Earth. Colgate-Palmolive has some experience conducting experiments at the ISS. In 2021, the company sent the first-ever private-sector oral care experiment to study the growth and metabolism of oral biofilms, which lead to dental plaque, in space. 

"We are committed to exploring new pathways to innovation that help our customers feel their best. We are confident that our collaboration with the ISS National Lab will give us valuable insights to inform our work as a result-driven, professional-grade skincare company deeply rooted in science and skin health," Arvanitidou said in the PCA Skin statement. 

Future experiments could focus on the impact radiation in space has on the skin. Astronauts aboard the ISS, after all, receive 1,000 times the average yearly sea level dose of cosmic radiation, and if heading out further into space, that number jumps to 500,000 times, reported Beth Shapouri for Allure in 2021.