Well, Thank u is a new column interrogating the myths and misinformation around health and wellness trends.
From snail mucus to bee venom, the cosmetic industry is known for using off-kilter ingredients on its never-ending quest to bottle an infantile glow. The latest unexpected ingredient to tip into public consciousness is neonatal foreskin fibroblasts. That is, foreskins acquired from freshly-circumcised babies.
A few weeks ago, Cate Blanchett told Vogue about a treatment she received at Georgia Louise, an upmarket New York salon which is so expensive that it refers to itself as an atelier. "She gives what we call the 'penis facial' and … there's some enzyme in it, so Sandy refers to it as the 'penis facial,'" Blanchett said. The quote was discreetly removed from Vogue’s website, but not before spurring a series of “penis facial” headlines.
Blanchett was referring to Georgia Louise’s “Hollywood EGF Facial”, which according to Louise’s website involves a serum “derived from the progenitor cells of the human fibroblast taken from Korean newborn baby foreskin”. Her prices aren’t advertised online, but Business Insider reports that the treatment costs $650USD and has a two-year wait list.
Meantime, a UK company called Vavelta is hoping to rival the billion-dollar Botox industry through neonatal foreskin fibroblast injections, while Hydrafacial is another company lauding the auspicious anti-aging ingredient. And as far back as 2013, Oprah inspired headlines after promoting a product from the brand SkinMedica developed with these cells.
Putting a baby’s foreskin on your face might sound more suited to a satanic ritual, but here’s how it works. Kind of like the human-flesh version of yogurt, a fibroblast is a piece of skin that is used as a culture to grow other skin or cells. Baby foreskins are the golden standard. Firstly, they’re young, meaning they’re unadulterated and untouched by free radicals and environmental toxins. Plus they’re impressionable: because their identifying proteins haven’t fully developed, they have many applications. In a medical setting, they’re used for growing skin for burn victims and diabetics with ulcers, as well as in eyelid replacement and skin graft surgeries.
Baby foreskins have been of interest to doctors since the 19th century; Dr. Peter Charles Remondino wrote in 1891 text The History of Circumcision, “For skin-transplanting there is nothing superior to the plants offered by the prepuce of a boy.” Stem cells are pretty common in the cosmetic industry, but they’re usually derived from plants, not penises. The idea behind the more contemporary use of foreskin fibroblasts in skincare is that they’re thought to secrete large amounts of human growth factor proteins, which stimulate cell regeneration and collagen production, making the skin appear younger.
Is there any proof that foreskin fibroblasts leave your skin looking as fresh as a baby’s… bottom? “I am highly skeptical. I have not seen any evidence in a peer-reviewed medical publication supportive of this claim,” dermatologist and University of Sydney lecturer Dr Deshan Sebaratnam tells VICE.
Despite this, some say the hype has contributed to an increased market demand for foreskins, their commodification, and in turn a whole host of ethical transgressions. Anti-circumcision advocates—some of whom, it’s worth noting, have come under fire for comparing male circumcision to female genital mutilation, their MRA affiliations, and misinformation—are particularly charged about the issue of foreskin use in products, arguing that neonatal circumcision is a violation of a child’s rights, as they are too young to consent to the procedure. In their eyes, profiting from this is doubly reprehensible. “Once amputated, the foreskin can never be regrown. Circumcision leaves a profound scar that is anything but superficial,” says Dr. Chris Coughhran, an anti-circumcision advocate, tells VICE.
Another anti-circumcision activist, paediatrician Paul M. Fleiss, writes in What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About: Circumcision that a single baby foreskin contains enough genetic material to grow over 23,000 square metres of skin—or hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fibroblasts. InVitro Technologies, a company based in Australia, sell neonatal foreskin fibroblasts online, via a supplier called ATCC. One millilitre will set you back USD$427. While “skin aging” is listed as one of its applications, an InVitro spokesperson declined to answer questions about the sourcing of their product, telling VICE, “All the ATCC products distributed through us are used for research purposes only. At this stage, that is all we are able to comment on.”
Babble.com, a parenting magazine and blog network, reports that instead of being discarded with the rest of the medical waste after birth, some hospital sell foreskins on to third parties, and that “companies will pay thousands of dollars for a single foreskin.” However, this information isn’t available to the public.
Dr. Mary Walker, a Research Fellow in Philosophy at Monash University who has an interest in bioethics and health policy, hasn’t heard of any hospitals in Australia selling foreskins. She says that in Australia it’s illegal to trade in human tissue, although it is legal to sell products derived from human tissue. “Some have argued that tissue may be donated, though not sold, and this is consistent with thinking that the donor could retain some rights over what the tissue is used for post-donation,” she says.
Either way, Dr. Walker says, having profits returned to the parent, circumcised child, or the doctor who removed the foreskin would contravene the Human Tissue Act. The National Health and Medical Research Council is currently reviewing and updating its guidelines surrounding the sale of organs and tissues, she tells VICE.
Circumcision rates have dropped in the western world (even in America, where rates are high compared to countries like the UK and Australia). Current Australian public policy suggests that despite its overall safety, there is no medical reason for circumcision in newborns (religious and cultural reasons are now key drivers) and it’s estimated 32 percent of Australian men under 30 are circumcised. Parallel to this downwards trend is an increasing bio-technological interest in foreskins, which according to anti-circumcision activists is keeping the practice alive. “The use of newborn baby foreskin cells in biotechnology—for various purposes, not all of them cosmetic—has been a driver of male circumcision since the early ‘90s,” Dr. Coughhran, the anti-circumcision advocate, tells VICE.
Dr. Coughhran believes this western demand could even be encouraging circumcision policies in developing countries (although the World Health Organisation states that circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60 percent). “This [demand] may be of relevance, for example, in deciphering the Kenyan government’s recent proposal to shift its anti-HIV strategy from ‘voluntary’ to [mandatory] ‘infant’ male circumcision,” he says.
A 2011 article published on South African news site TIMESLive echoed concerns that African baby foreskins could potentially be sold to the global cosmetics industry, instead of being incinerated, as per the country’s legal requirement. "Africa may be viewed as the new source of discarded virgin foreskins to sustain a multi-million-dollar industry. Discarded human foreskins are used in the cosmetics industry, in the manufacture of insulin and artificial skin," the Medical Rights Advocacy Network wrote in a letter at the time to the department of health.
If private companies are profiting from baby foreskins, who receives the proceeds? George C. Denniston, an American physician and anti-circumcision advocate who founded Doctors Opposing Circumcision, says profits aren’t seen by parents or their sons. “Certainly, none of the boys whose foreskins are being harvested for commercial exploitation receive any share in the profits generated by their unwitting contribution. We have yet to ask whether our most basic birthright should become a source of corporate income,” he writes in Male and Female Circumcisions: Medical, Legal, and Ethical Considerations in Private Practice.
The use of foreskin fibroblasts is part of a more complex debate than the lightweight headlines about “penis facials” let on. For the likes of Dr. Coughran, “The commercialisation of male circumcision is a much larger story than ‘skincare product X’—it involves billions of dollars of public and private investment, on a transnational, intergovernmental scale.” But while the 'intactivist' movement undoubtedly purports an agenda—to end circumcision entirely, let alone any industry around it—legal and ethical ambiguities around harvesting for cosmetic use exist either way.