The Skin Science Buffs: Drs. Ben Van Handel and Amir Nobakht

The Skin Science Buffs: Drs. Ben Van Handel and Amir Nobakht
“There’s so much amazing technology and research that, sadly, never makes it out of the lab,” says Amir Nobakht, MD, half of the dynamic duo behind Heraux, a new skincare brand backed by impressive science. Nobakht made it his mission, along with his business partner Ben Van Handel, PhD, to bring one of these scholarly breakthroughs—a molecule dubbed HX-1—into the real world, allowing those of us who struggled through high school chemistry to stave off the visible signs of aging (as well as acne, rosacea, and other inflammatory conditions).

The pair first met in the labs at the University of Southern California where Nobakht was attending medical school and Van Handel was researching arthritis. Neither had plans to concoct skincare products. “Honestly, up until December, I never even washed my face,” laughs Van Handel, who was laser-focused on finding a way to help cartilage stem cells in the knee resist degenerative stress and actively heal.

While a calmer complexion wasn’t exactly the original impetus for screening almost a quarter of a million molecules, the pair were encouraged by a fellow researcher to look into how their findings could affect “inflammaging” in skin—a medical buzzword that essentially boils down to “aging driven by chronic inflammation,” explains Van Handel. After an eight-week clinical trial, it was proven that HX-1 could have just as much of an impact on fine lines as it did on joints—decreasing the appearance of wrinkles by 85%. And thus, the supercharged Heraux Molecular Anti-Inflammaging Serum was born.

It’s all about keeping stem cells happy for as long as possible.

“Our skin is in the unfortunate position of having to deal with both internal stress and inflammation caused by external factors such as the sun…it’s really a double whammy,” says Van Handel. HX-1 shields cells from the effects of stress by modulating the protein that regulates regeneration versus inflammation. A host of other key ingredients in the serum—including hyaluronic acid, peptides, antioxidant-rich maple bark extract, and vitamins C and E—also work behind the scenes to hydrate, plump, smooth, and brighten the complexion.

Though it hasn’t been clinically tested just yet, HX-1 has showed significant promise when it comes to treating breakouts and even rosacea flare-ups. Nobakht notes that people using the serum have reported less redness and irritation, as well as faster healing times. Naturally, more formulas (possibly a moisturizer and sunscreen) featuring the miracle molecule are in the works. This cutting-edge technology is also being applied outside of the beauty realm. One of the “sister molecules of HX-1” is even going into clinical trials for osteoarthritis next year, adds Van Handel proudly.

After all, finding solutions for people is what attracted this pair to science in the first place. For Van Handel in particular, it was his mother’s  struggles with a plethora of orthopedic issues that inspired his tireless research. “To have the opportunity to apply your wheelhouse and help someone you care about is, as you can imagine, pretty impactful,” he says.

Here, the doctors reveal the products they use, the pros they trust, and the places they go when they break free from the lab.

Their scientific approach:

“Addressing skin concerns and just general skin health at the molecular and cellular level is really the future of skincare,” says Van Handel. “It’s all about keeping stem cells happy for as long as possible.”

Their best business advice:

“One thing I learned, especially when you're entering a new category, is to find a mentor who has done this before that's willing to chat with you and guide you in those perilous moments that will undoubtedly arise more frequently than you would like,” says Nobakht. For the Heraux founders, that guiding light is beauty veteran JuE Wong, CEO of Olaplex. “I'm sure we’ve irritated her a few times, but she's been so sweet and continues to answer our phone calls! We're very, very lucky,” adds Nobakht.

Their daily complexion cures:

“I really needed to ease into a daily beauty ritual, as I did absolutely nothing until I learned the error of my ways. Now, I wash my face every day with a Cetaphil cleanser. It's nothing fancy and I don't even like the smell of it, but it works really well,” says Van Handel. “Then, honestly, all I use is our serum. I’ve seen a noticeable difference. Father Time was starting to make his presence felt on my face,” he adds.

Nobakht’s routine is slightly more involved: “I wash my face with a cleanser from Dr. Gross and sometimes I use the kombucha toner from Youth To The People. Then I use Heraux and a moisturizer if my skin is dry. I’ll tap a mineral-based sunscreen over top.” 

Their ultimate indulgences:

“I get a HydraFacial once in a while. It’s really cool because it sucks up all this stuff [in your skin] and you get to see the dirty water at the end of it,” says Nobakht. For Van Handel, it’s the little things that make a big difference: “I had the same blade on my razor for six years, so I bought new ones.”

Their best drugstore finds:

While Van Handel reaches for razor blades, his business partner is shopping for Cera Ve’s retinol serum.“It’s gentle and is great for when your skin is acting up or you feel a breakout coming on,” says Nobakht.

Their ride-or-die beauty products:

In addition to Heraux, both Nobakht and Van Handel swear by SPF. “ All the data points to sunscreen—you’ve just got to use it,” says Nobakht. “That's the number one thing for preventing the signs of aging and keeping your skin healthy as long as possible.” His go-to brand at the moment: Peter Thomas Roth. Van Handel opts for “Neutrogena from Target.”

Their most trusted beauty pros:

“My whole life, I've either cut my own hair or gone to the least expensive place I could find,” says Van Handel. “Amir told me I needed to get a real haircut, so he took me to a place in Echo Park called American Barbershop. They did the whole thing with the hot towels and put in a lot of time and effort. I really noticed a difference.”  

Nobakht heads straight to BeverlyHills when his skin is feeling stressed. “I have a fantastic dermatologist named Dr. [Mark] Rubin. He's my go-to, especially if anything comes up—like a lovely cystic zit,” says Nobakht. “He stuck it with an antibacterial and a steroid. I also like to talk to him about ingredient-based stuff, new procedures, and other fun things that he comes across.”

Their favorite escapes:

“A tropical beach in the Caribbean with no cell service,” says Nobakht, who never forgets to pack sunscreen or his serum.“Heraux is great after sun exposure and really calms down inflammation and redness.” Van Handel prefers to enjoy the vibrant colors of the forest in the fall, but also prefers to leave his phone at home. “I need to mentally commit to the escapism and the purpose of the moment, which is recharging,” he adds.

Their biggest beauty mistakes:

“I keep a beard now, but I was not shaving properly for a longtime. I was going against the grain and I paid for it with bad inflammation,”says Nobakht, who reformed his ways after being schooled by his barber. Van Handel, on the other hand, wishes he took steps to prevent hair loss: “I think I should've started paying more attention to my hair earlier on and making sure I was just bolstering things,” he says.

Their beauty icons:

“JuE Wong of Olaplex,” says Van Handel. “Every time you meet her, she's just incredibly put together. I want to grow up and be her.” Nobakht looks to Tom Ford for grooming inspo: “He always looks good and just adapts to whatever is happening, including his thinning hair!”

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Written by Amber Kallor

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