“I met Ben [Van Handel] at a lab at the University of Southern California while I was still in medical school,” Amir Nobakht tells me. It was a chance meeting between the would-be orthopedic surgeon and stem cell scientist. The USC researchers were looking for solutions to arthritis, and more specifically at chronic inflammation, a major reason why arthritis gets worse over time. They studied new molecules in the hopes that the right one could A) stop the body’s inflammatory signals or B) start up its regenerative ones. And to their surprise, they found a molecule that could do both. They called it HX-1.
“We weren’t even thinking about skincare,” adds Van Handel. But at a weekly meeting among the researches to discuss data, a lightbulb clicked on: if HX-1 could stop inflammation and trigger regeneration in stem cells, could it be just as effective for skin as it was for joints? “We had some theories that HX-1 would have positive effects on skin,” says Nobakht, “but to make sure we were actually correct we ran an independent clinical trial to test it.” After applying the ol’ scientific method to HX-1 and finding promising results, the two bottled the powerful little molecule with hyaluronic acid, peptides, and a slew of antioxidants that became Heraux.
Heraux bills itself as a serum for “inflammaging”, the medical term for the lines, pigment changes and loss of laxity caused by inflammation. At first, the body’s inflammatory response triggers wounds to start healing and regenerating—and that’s good! But, as Dr. Rita Linkner of Spring Street Dermatology, who’s not affiliated with the brand, explains: “Unchecked, inflammation creates an environment where our cells are unable to function optimally.” Over a lifetime of exposure to UV rays, pollution, and stress, our skin eventually starts to produce fewer proteins (like collagen and elastin, the proteins responsible for bouncy skin), and gets worse at clearing out damaged cells. That’s why we start to notice the visible signs of aging.
Fast forward to about three months ago, when Nobakht and Van Handel sat across from me in a pink-upholstered booth at Glossier HQ, swiping through images of results from that clinical trial. Their results are dramatic, with a visible difference in the depth of participants' wrinkles—almost like they were plumped up with filler. But here’s the thing: I’m not particularly concerned about wrinkles. At least not yet. And other stem-cell supporting products I’ve tried—yes, including The Cream—didn’t make a visible difference on my skin despite the hefty price tag. Heraux is comparably expensive, and for the first few weeks I didn’t notice any major changes to my already pretty happy skin, and thought it was a bust. But then I started rethinking my strategy.
“Other skin conditions, like rosacea and acne are also driven by inflammation,” adds Dr. Linkner, and usually she might treat it with soothing antioxidants (oxidation: another form of inflammation) like green tea, turmeric, and resveratrol. Armed with HX-1 when COVID-19 struck, I began trying it on my newly stressed-out skin, looking not for changes in the depth of my baby crow’s feet but instead on inflammation in general.
One day, a too-long walk at the wrong time of day left me with a salmon pink sunburn across my cheeks and forehead. (Oops.) But when I slathered it in Heraux and went to sleep, my skin pretty much faded back to its normal color overnight. Emboldened by the success, I used it as a spot treatment on particularly red and inflamed breakouts—they calmed and flattened after a couple uses, even without my usual hydrocolloid patches. Most recently, I used it to calm an allergic reaction I had to a new product. It didn’t get rid of the bumpy dermatitis, but it did de-saturate the area around the bumps from lobster-y red to a humanoid beige.
At this point, I was starting to feel a little...well, crazy. Could this serum really have done all that? It definitely hadn’t been clinically tested to. But the trial I held on my face was too convincing to ignore. I started pestering Emily Ferber, who I knew had her own bottle stashed somewhere in her bathroom, to start using it herself and report back with the results. And on a Monday, I logged onto Slack to find a message from her. “Heraux might be a miracle,” she typed. “One of my zits I thought was gone decided it maybe wasn't done yet yesterday. It was inflamed, sort of like a cyst, but probably some papule situation. When I washed my face at night I decided to use that serum. This morning it’s flat.”
When treating herself with Heraux, Dr. Linkner noticed an improvement in texture and feel of the thin skin on her neck, around her eyes, and on the backs of her hands. Emily’s zits flattened, and I saw a decrease in redness that I know from experience should have lingered much longer than it did. But Dr. Linkner isn’t surprised. “When we tackle the inflammatory cycle at a molecular level,” she says, “we treat the cause of the problem and not just cover up its symptoms.” The result is skin that’s calm, cool, and effectively collecting all the good stuff it needs to stay that way. I have half a bottle left and I’m treating it like liquid gold.
Photo via ITG