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Ancient Inspiration, Modern Thinking

Author: Karen Hart
March, 2012 Issue

How far would you go for younger looking skin?

Cleopatra was regarded as a great beauty. The last pharaoh of ancient Egypt, legend has it she kept her skin soft and beautiful by regularly bathing in milk and honey. Throughout history, much has been written about her beauty secrets and the creams she used to keep her skin flawless. Might she have used an unguent described in a papyrus written 3,600 years ago?

“Yes, I think so,” says Stanley Jacobs, M.D., a facial plastic surgeon in the North Bay with offices in San Francisco and Healdsburg.

But Jacobs wasn’t looking for the next youth elixir when he discovered the recipe to keep skin smooth on a scroll of hieroglyphic text. Rather, Jacobs, who has a passion for Egyptian culture, was looking for The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, a rare set of books about the surgical methods used in ancient times that was published in 1930.

The two-volume set includes a copy of the actual 3,600-year-old papyrus that precedes King Tut, Ramesses the Great, Seti and Nefertiti, as well as an interpretation of the hieroglyphs by James Henry Breasted. Jacobs found a copy in 2000 while attending a meeting by the American Research Center of Egypt at UC Berkeley.

In the months that followed, Dr. Jacobs began reading the book and found it was mostly a surgical treatise about traumatic wounds from battles and treatments for the wounds. “It was factual but sophisticated, and there were no pretenses. They knew what they could and couldn’t do,” he says. “Sometimes they couldn’t help [their patients] and offered them opium or alcohol to make them comfortable.”

Dr. Jacobs found many procedures similar to how a surgeon would treat a patient today. “They were doing nasal fractures and even then they weren’t doing anything any different than we do today,” he says. “We may have more sophisticated materials, but it was basically the same procedure. I was fascinated with the book because a lot of it had to do with the face—the nose, the lips, the eyes.”

There were hundreds of pages of treatments in the book, and it appeared to be the work of a single scribe, but the next recipe was written by another hand at a later date, noted in the translation by Breasted. “It’s as if the initial scribe put his pen down, because as soon as they get to surgical procedures for the abdomen, it stops,” says Dr. Jacobs. “It’s one of the mysteries of the book.”

An ancient treasure

One day, Dr. Jacobs ventured further into the text and found a section titled, “Recipe for Transforming an Old Man Into a Youth.”

“I had that ‘a-ha moment’ when I saw it was a true recipe, but I didn’t think it was scientific at first,” he says. Nevertheless, Dr. Jacobs was intrigued. “I wouldn’t have given it much credence unless I’d already read about the complicated surgeries they were doing back then.”
There were hundreds of pages of treatments in the book, and it appeared to be the work of a single scribe, but the next recipie was written by another hand at a later date, noted in the translation by Breasted. "It's as if the initial scribe put his pen down, becuase as soon as they get to surgical procedures for the abdomen, it stops," says Dr. Jacobs. "It's one of the mysteries of the book."

The recipe Jacobs found calls for a large quantity of “hemayet,” about two-khar. In the translation, Breasted didn’t know what hemayet was, but guessed it was a fruit. The recipe describes a set of complicated steps including husking, winnowing and sifting the hemayet. Then there’s a sequence of steps that involves setting it aside and mixing it with water. The concoction is then cooked and placed in another jar to wash it. “The recipe actually says to wash it in the Nile and when you taste the water after it’s washed and it’s no longer bitter, then you know you’ve followed the right steps,” says Dr. Jacobs.

At the end of the recipe, the scribe wrote: “Anoint the man therewith. It is a remover of wrinkles from the head. When the flesh is smeared therewith, it becomes a beautifier of the skin, a remover of blemishes, of all disfigurement, of all signs of age, of all weaknesses which are in the flesh. Found effective myriads of times.” Modern Egyptologists interpret “myriads” as “millions.”

When Breasted translated the papyrus, however, he was unimpressed. In his commentary, he wrote: “…this early oriental predecessor of the elixir of life is simply a face paste which will remove wrinkles.” Nevertheless, the ancient scribe wrote that the unguent should be kept in “a precious vase or flask of semi-precious stone.”

Dr. Jacobs was fascinated. Here was a recipe from 3,600 years ago that claimed to remove wrinkles, attached to a surgical papyrus, but did it work?
And what was hemayet?

The quest

Dr. Jacobs’ initial efforts to research and decipher the key ingredient were unsuccessful. “And that became the quest—to find out what hemayet was. That took me eight and a half years,” he says.

He read other books on Egyptian culture, including one by Lise Manniche about cosmetics in pharaonic times and found mention of a similar word “hemayt,” but it was taken to mean fenugreek (a member of the legume family often used in East Indian cooking). But “In the papyrus, you have to ‘crush’ and thresh’ the hemayet, which didn’t match with the wispiness of working with fenugreek,” says Dr. Jacobs.

Not to be deterred, he continued his search. Dr. Jacobs made three archaeological trips to Egypt, even questioned professors of Egyptology, but all of his efforts met with dead ends. Along the way, however, he did enlist the help of Kent Weeks, Ph.D., a noted Egyptologist, who would eventually help him make contact with someone who could translate the key ingredient.

A chance encounter

Seven years into his search for the meaning of hemayet, Jacobs was in Southern California when, by chance, he met Tom Hrubec, who worked at Grant Industries, a company that makes chemicals for cosmetics.

“He was interested in some research I’d done for another project and asked if I ever thought about having my own skin care line,” says Dr. Jacobs. “I was interested, but knew I needed help.” Hrubec wanted to introduce Jacobs to his friend, Jules Zecchino, who’d worked at Estee Lauder for 20 years and was once the chief chemist of research and development.

About a year later, in February 2008, the three men finally met in Healdsburg. “They explained what they do and they had all these great ideas,” says Dr. Jacobs. “Tom’s career was all about going around the world and finding interesting molecules for skin care and getting proprietary use in the United States.” Near the end of the meeting, Jacobs showed them the Edwin Smith books and the recipe he wanted to recreate.

Their reaction was similar to Jacobs after reading the recipe for the first time. “What’s hemayet?” they asked.

Dr. Jacobs admitted that he was still searching for the meaning of hemayet. Both men were skeptical. “It’s been eight years. What makes you think you can find the ingredient?” they asked.

“Don’t worry. You don’t know me very well yet,” Dr. Jacobs said, “but I’ll find out.”

While Jacobs continued his search for the fruit described in the papyrus, the three men formed a partnership and called their company World Skin, LLC. The name was inspired by human skin.

“Human skin over the years has a negative connotation, especially when associated with different pigments—apartheid, slavery—but I’ve operated on more than 7,000 people in my career, and I can tell you there are more similarities than differences in skin,” says Dr. Jacobs. “There’s thick skin and thin skin, oily and dry, but we all have similar melanocyte, collagen and elastin. We wanted our skin care line to unite people, and it had to be meaningful and make a real difference. It had to actually work and I wanted to prove it scientifically.”

The discovery of hemayet

In the summer of 2008, Dr. Jacobs received an email from Dr. Weeks, who put him in touch with Dr. James Allen, curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Allen had done a special exhibit of the papyrus and had written a book about it. His interpretation of hemayet was bitter almonds.

“I was dancing around at this point, because it had been more than eight years,” says Dr. Jacobs. “Chemically, there’s a huge difference between bitter and sweet almonds. Bitter almonds were probably cultivated 8,000 years ago and still exist today.” He soon discovered, however, that bitter almonds are illegal and not available in the United States.

Bitter almonds contain cyanide and, when ingested, even a small amount can be fatal. Dr. Jacobs eventually found them available in China and was able to procure a 10-kilogram bag for experimental purposes. When he received his package, he broke open an almond and, though he didn’t eat it, he did taste it; it did, indeed, have a bitter taste. “I was curious to see if it really was bitter,” he says.

Modern thinking

What’s in bitter almonds that make them so special? Zecchino took the recipe back to New York and got busy in the lab. “He actually followed the recipe—husking, winnowing and sifting the almonds,” says Dr. Jacobs. He discovered that bitter almonds have amygdalin, a bitter crystal compound. Once Zecchino followed the process and studied the chemical reactions that resulted, amygdalin was transformed and one of the emitted byproducts was cyanide, which produces a bitter taste. “That matched the recipe in the papyrus,” explains Dr. Jacobs.

“Then the recipe actually says to wash it in the Nile and when you taste the water after it’s washed and it’s no longer bitter, then you know you’ve followed the right steps. That’s important, because the bitterness leaving is the loss of cyanide. What we had left was a new molecule—mandelic acid—that we’d found from ancient Egypt,” says Dr. Jacobs. “I didn’t know what it was. Jules had heard of it, but didn’t know a lot about it—and he’d been in the business for more than 30 years.”

They researched mandelic acid and discovered it’s a larger alpha-hydroxy molecule than its cousin, glycolic acid. “Mandelic acid slowly penetrates the skin with less irritation and a more sustained action,” Dr. Jacobs explains. “It also can be used on all skin types, with varying skin pigmentation. Mandelic acid will be the next wave in skin care.”

As Zecchino continued to work with the formula in the lab, other ingredients were added to augment the mandelic acid. “Today’s skin care has to have multiple benefits,” says Dr. Jacobs. “The goal was to make skin tight and elastic, to include an antioxidant and to improve cell turnover.” There are 16 ingredients in the resulting serum, including resveratrol (a potent antioxidant) and glucasomine (for skin textural improvements).

After working with this ancient Egyptian recipe and combining it with modern science, World Skin, LLC, was ready to put the serum to the test. Dr. Jacobs wanted scientifically measurable results. He found a company in Germany that manufactures a Cutometer, a device proven to measure the visco-elasticity of skin, accurate to one millionth of an inch.

“Skin is a complex organ,” says Dr. Jacobs. “It’s ‘viscous,’ existing as neither a solid or liquid, but more like a gel that degenerates with age. Visco-elasticity is vital for youthful-looking skin. The serum is a viscous liquid that’s quite potent and meant to be a very active solution to improve the skin.”

The clinical study

Dr. Jacobs conducted a study with 26 patients (24 women and 2 men). The patients were instructed to wash with Ivory Soap for one week before starting the serum. Patients then used the serum and a night cream (containing the same ingredients) on their faces and necks twice a day for one month.

Each week the patients’ eyelids, cheeks, jowls and necks were tested with the Cutometer. By the third week, the improvements were substantial, with increases in elasticity seen in all areas. By the fourth week, patients had, on average, a 26 percent increase in elasticity in the area of the lower eyelid, an 18 percent increase in the neck and 16 percent increase in the cheek area. Some patients had as much as an 85 percent improvement.

Dr, Jacobs’ clinical study, which he presented in Boston in September 2010, was accepted by the American Academy of Facial Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery.

When you take ancient inspiration and combine it with modern thinking, what do you get? “The ultimate in skin tightening,” says Dr. Jacobs.

Once they had their results, the product was named the “Stanley Jacobs MD Visco-Elastic Transforming Serum.” The word “transforming” is a nod to the original recipe found in the text of the papyrus.

Marketing the serum

Satisfied with the results, Dr. Jacobs and his team decided to market the serum on a televised shopping channel, which required an independent clinical study before it would accept the product. Essex Labs in New Jersey conducted a study similar to the first one with 30 women and had comparable results. However, their results found that pigmentation diminished significantly, and tone and texture also improved.

Once they had the results from the independent study, Dr. Jacobs, who is CEO of World Skin, promoted the product live on Shop NBC four times. Since the product was launched in 2009, World Skin LLC has sold more than 15,000 units—95 percent of them as a result of his appearances on Shop NBC—and the company is currently in negotiations to make the product available in major department stores across the United States and Asia.

The mystery of hemayet

While Dr. Jacobs and company successfully deciphered the active ingredient in the recipe and added modern thinking to the equation to create a serum that’s scientifically proven to be effective, there’s still the mystery of hemayet.

Why did ancient Egyptians use bitter almonds? How did they know the process they followed would create an unguent that would make the skin tighter? How did they know to follow a certain sequence—to husk and winnow, sift, cook and wash and to follow the process several times?

“Clearly it was trial and error,” says Dr. Jacobs. “They had to have done it many, many times.”

During his eight-and-a-half-year odyssey to decipher the mystery of hemayet, people often asked Dr. Jacobs how he managed to continue his search. “Ancient Egyptians were brilliant at medicine and surgery,” says Dr. Jacobs. “What impressed me the most about the book was its scientific rigor and honesty. It didn’t surprise me that when they took the time to write a recipe to make the skin more youthful that it would work. Their world wasn't like today’s world. They had nothing to gain. The only person they had to impress was the pharaoh and they wouldn’t have written it down if it didn’t work.”

An ancient treasure

Ancient Egyptians obviously knew their product worked, and its value was obvious, as the recipe instructed that the unguent be placed in a vase of costly stone such as lapis lazuli, jasper, alabaster or aragonite.

“In the days of tomb raiders, the first thing stolen was not the gold, it was the lotions, creams and unguents,” explains Dr. Jacobs. “Then the gold and jewels were taken.”

Egyptian culture is steeped in preservation and making the skin look good. “When I first read the recipe, I thought it would be simple. In reality, it was an elaborate formula,” he says. “It was well thought out and researched, and they had to have done it hundreds of times to get it just right. They were master chemists and physicians; they were geniuses.”

The product is available at Dr. Jacobs’ offices in both San Francisco and Healdsburg and on ShopNBC. For more information, see



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