Recently, the Chanel Company launched a marketing campaign and website for their Ultra Correction Lift. Their homepage for the product says:

Taking the architectural concept of tenesegrity as a starting point, Chanel Research made a major discovery: the key role of a critical protein in the aging process — Tensin. To stimulate the production of Tensin, Chanel developed an exclusive ingredient, Elemi PFA, to naturally lift the skin from within.

If you click on “The Science” link on that flash site, you’ll find the question: What if the skin were a structure?

Since the skin is a structure, that’s an excellent question to ask! Few adults ever spend any time thinking about structure, let alone biological structures. Understanding tensegrity requires that we reexamine our fundamental assumptions about structure. Unfortunately, things go downhill from there. Clicking on that question reveals the following:

1940: Structure and Tensegrity
Tensegrity, derived from “tension” and “integrity”, is a basic architectural concept. So what is it? The integrity and resilience of any structure results from the balanced distribution of the forces of tension and compression within itself.

Tensegrity models were invented in the 1940s by the artist Kenneth Snelson while studying under Buckminster Fuller. He called them floating compression structures: the compression elements of a structure do not touch but instead have a floating relationship with each other. If that doesn’t make sense, I recommend looking at the images on Snelson’s website.

Tensegrity is hardly a basic architectural concept: virtually none of our buildings are built this way. In virtually all buildings, the compression elements—the beams—touch each other, and the load of the building is carried compressionally though those beams. Mankind rarely uses tensegrity to create structure; nature uses it everywhere. These manmade structures do not have the balanced distribution of the forces of tension and compression. Chanel’s statement misses the fundamental and astonishing point that those studying Snelson’s invention know: tensegrity is really different.

Continuing from the Chanel website:

2000: Harvard University and Tensegrity
A leading Harvard professor applied this concept to biology.
What did he say? That all forms of life require an optimal structure, in which tension is efficiently distributed, to guarantee an optimal biological activity.

Ingber’s specialty is cellular biology. He has papers going back to at least the early 1990s on the use of tensegrity to create structure within our individual cells. Dr. Stephen Levin, the pioneer for the application of tensegrity to our musculoskeletal structure, has papers on that topic back to the early 1980s. The chapter on Tensegrity from Buckminster Fuller’s 1970s book “Synergetics” shows multiple applications of tensegrity to biological structure. Ingber applied the concept to individual cells, but he wasn’t the first to think about applying tensegrity to living structure.

What has Ingber said about biological tensegrity? Besides his research papers, he wrote this excellent article for the January 1998 issue of Scientific American Magazine. Nowhere in that article does Ingber say anything about all forms of life needing an optimal structure. I also can’t imagine the accomplished cellular biologist speculating about “all [possible] forms of life”.

The third quote from the Chanel website:

For the first time, CHANEL Research applied the principle of tensegrity to a range of lifting and firming skincare products. What is the link between tensegrity and firmness? Facial firmness is dependent on the structure and the shape of the cells making up the face. With age, cells lose volume, the skin slackens, and fascial contours lose their definition. Tensegrity needs to be restored: CHANEL introduces the CELLULAR LIFTING EFFECT.

This statement is questionable. Our bodies are a tensegrity from very early in our embryonic development to the day we die. We don’t need our body’s tensegrity “to be restored”, because it never went away in the first place. Tensin is a component of the intercellular structure of our bodies, but stimulating our body’s production of Tensin does not “restore the tensegrity” in our skin.

The Fallacy of Increased Tension

Does increasing the tension of of the tensegrity in our skin increase its resiliency? Is artificially stimulating our superficial Tensin production better than, say, using Botox? Maybe. My point is that I see absolutely no scientific research showing that stimulating Tensin production is superior to any other treatments for giving us supple and wrinkle-free skin. Ingber is an expert in the function of tensegrity within cells, but I have seen no research that the biologist has done on the function of our intercellular structures. If any scientific research exists on that topic, Chanel should provide a reference!

The most fascinating discussion I have found about tension in our biological structures comes from anatomy expert Thomas Myers. Myers founded KMI, a school to learn structural integration. He has also created a tensegrity-oriented mapping of the long lines of tension in our musculoskeletal system. His text “Anatomy Trains” describes these long lines of tension. The 2nd edition of this book was published in 2009; a free 20-page summary of the first edition is available here.

Does increasing the tension of our musculoskeletal tensegrity increase its resiliency? Higher tension actually decreases our body’s ability to deal with day-to-day wear and tear. Body/mind disciplines like Yoga and Pilates serve to lower the overall tension in our bodies. Myers talks about this in a paper called “Spatial Medicine“:

In Spatial Medicine, nothing is added but information; nothing is taken away but strain. [...] Spatial Medicine is working from a different premise from [chemical or mental treatments]: get the spatial order of the elements right, and you will contribute to health. Align the bones, free the glued fabric, balance muscle tonus – and watch the changes to chemical and mental health, as well as seeing the structure and movement itself improve. All the therapists working in the fields above can attest to stacks of anecdotal evidence for the kinds of mental, spiritual, and physiological changes that proceed from interventions to the structure and movement of the client / patient.

The second edition of Anatomy Trains speculates about the relationship between the large and the small. An out-of-balance musculoskeletal tensegrity can create excessive tension in our smallest structures. If you shift your head forwards of the rest of your body, you can feel a slight tightening of the skin on your face. A large fraction of our society spends all day with our heads slightly forward of the rest of our bodies. Consider: simply aligning our bodies could reduce the formation of crow’s feet and other wrinkles on our faces with no cosmetics—and no cost—whatsoever.

I do want to emphasize that Myers is speculating and not doing science. I know of no scientific studies linking the regular practice of body/mind disciplines to less wrinkles on our bodies. Funding for such research is more difficult than funding for cosmetic products, because no company holds intellectual property that can benefit from the research.

I am grateful that Chanel talks about tensegrity and invites people to think about structure. I wish that they would provide references to the science rather than just talk about the science. Also, any claims that their new products are rooted in “the science of tensegrity” seem to be a bit of a stretch.