Dr Barbara Sturm is dressed for summer in a blue Zimmermann co-ord and her trademark healthy glow. We meet at the Connaught hotel, just across the street from her Mount Street medi-spa, over avocado and sourdough toast. Before we begin, she stops a well-heeled Japanese tourist to ask where his shirt is from. Within moments, he is being directed to Dr Sturm’s shop to browse face creams.
This is Dr Sturm all over. She acts on instinct, and so far it hasn’t steered her wrong. In April Oprah Winfrey announced that she was buying into the German aesthetics specialist’s company. Does she use the products? ‘Of course,’ Dr Sturm affirms, explaining that Stella McCartney (a friend) introduced them. ‘I never push my products on to celebrities, it’s all word of mouth,’ she adds. The billionaire media mogul said as much when she announced her investment in April, confirming she was so impressed with the skincare, she called Dr Sturm personally to ask if they could work together.
A self-confessed ‘hustler’, Dr Sturm was born in Bad Salzungen, East Germany, 50 years ago but fled with her family as a young child to escape the Communist regime. ‘We had to leave everything behind,’ she has said in the past. Now married to a lawyer, Adam Waldman, Dr Sturm is mother to two daughters, Charly, 27, and Pepper, eight (the inspiration for her ultra-clean baby range).
Indeed, family lies at the heart of her business. Charly, a model and the face of the brand, helps with marketing and social media. Barbara’s eldest brother takes care of the finances, while her younger brother, an architect, designed the brand’s Spa & Boutiques in New York, LA, Miami, London, Dallas and Düsseldorf, where the company is based.
While she has an (ultra-chic) residence in Düsseldorf, Dr Sturm prefers not to stay in one place for too long and also has homes in LA, St Barts and Gstaad. But, despite her burgeoning property portfolio, inflammation is Dr Sturm’s passion and her specialist subject. She studied orthopaedic medicine at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, going on to a career in orthopaedics.
It was during this time that she was part of a team that discovered a joint-healing therapy called Orthokine. ‘I helped pioneer a treatment where you take the patient’s blood, create anti-inflammatory proteins and growth factors and re-inject the fluid into joints to take down inflammation and slow down the ageing process,’ she explains. It later became known as the Kobe procedure, after the basketball star Kobe Bryant travelled to Düsseldorf to be treated for an arthritic knee.
What does this have to do with our skin? Quite a lot, says Dr Sturm, who in 2002 translated the method into what’s now known as PRP (plasma rich platelet) therapy – or the ‘vampire facial’. PRP is now also being used to treat certain types of hair loss, with clinically proven results.
But it’s Sturm’s MC1 cream, a super-charged moisturiser, that is at the centre of our discussion today. The ‘blood cream’, as it’s become known, was a product Sturm made for herself, until word got out among her influential clients. Officially called MC1 (Molecular Cosmetics 1), it harnesses the principles of PRP and is made to order.
First a medical practitioner takes the patient’s blood, which is incubated at a specific temperature for four to six hours. It’s then spun in a centrifuge to separate out the good stuff (platelets rich in growth factors that reduce inflammation and stimulate collagen), which is then added to a cream base and couriered to your home – or your hotel – for you to apply forthwith. A 50ml pot will set you back £1,100.
Up until now Dr Sturm’s clients, who are dotted around the globe from the Middle East to Eastern Europe, have been jetting to her flagship spa in Düsseldorf for the elixir. But now, with MC1 available from the Mayfair outpost, there’s a more convenient source.
A few weeks before our meeting, I arrived at the London boutique to experience the service first-hand. The idea of owning a bespoke face cream supercharged with my body’s own healing growth factors makes me giddy – like being handed the code to an anti-ageing secret. Youth, after all, is the ultimate luxury.
The process is quick. The technician draws a small vial of blood from your arm and you go on your way while the practitioner (in my case, NHS-registered aesthetics nurse Sergio Gomez) concocts your cream. It arrives the same day with instructions to keep it in the fridge until its sell-by date (the ingredients stay viable for four to six weeks – enough for a whole 28-day skin cycle).
The consistency is unlike anything I’ve tried before; it’s more fluid than a typical moisturiser but extremely rich. Gomez warns me my skin may appear a little red at first, but it doesn’t. If you’ve got dry skin, as I do, you’ll appreciate the intense moisture boost. My skin remains lubricated (but not greasy) hours after I apply it.
Apart from delivering instant radiance, the MC1 is claimed to shrink pores, build collagen, and effectively reduce dermatitis, psoriasis and acne. As I have neither enlarged pores nor an acute skin condition, I’m banking on the collagen boost; collagen is responsible for firm, glowy skin.
The glow I get from using the MC1 cream is phenomenal – but then I’d expect it to be for £39 a smear. While Dr Sturm has no shortage of wealthy clients prepared to pay for her super-moisturiser, there are sceptics. One high-profile anti-ageing surgeon who’d rather not be named says, ‘PRP is great for skin and hair rejuvenation, but only if injected, not applied topically.’
Dr Sturm doesn’t do clinical trials, having said she doesn’t see the point in wasting millions of dollars on ‘fake studies’, so it’s hard to prove or disprove its benefits beyond anecdotal evidence and personal experience. I did see an improvement in my skin’s clarity and hydration levels, but I’d argue that no cream, no matter how fancy, works in isolation, but as part of a carefully curated ‘skin healthy’ lifestyle. I gave up alcohol at about the same time as I began using the MC1 cream, so I can’t be certain what drove the improvement in my complexion. A combination of both, probably.
But then Dr Sturm herself agrees that a super-cream alone isn’t enough to help you age well. You need to curb inflammation from within also, so she recently held a two-day anti-inflammatory workshop in London, which covered everything from diet and exercise to breath work.
Inflammation is currently a hot health topic, whether it be of our gut, heart or skin. She explains: ‘Inflammation is an immune response we all need to fight bacteria and viruses. But if inflammation becomes chronic, it creates a lot of problems in our body, not just in our skin; it causes autoimmune diseases and premature ageing, so we need to get inflammation under control.
‘Where does inflammation come from? It comes from stress, not enough sleep, a poor diet – and then from outside stressors like sun, pollution and the HEV light from our computer screens and our phones.’ And, Dr Sturm says, from some skincare. ‘A lot of products have ingredients like retinol, glycolic acid, alcohol, mineral oils – these all cause inflammation, so I don’t include any of them in my products.’
Dr Sturm is dead set against retinol, the vitamin A derivative that’s widely considered the gold-standard anti-ageing ingredient. But Dr Sturm argues that speeding up cell renewal, as retinol and glycolic acid do, is using up the skin’s finite number of cell divisions. ‘When you aggressively target your skin, you destroy your protective skin barrier, you destroy your microbiome, you deplete the skin of healing factors,’ she says, adding, ‘All of a sudden your skin cells are shrivelled up like raisins when they should be plump, juicy grapes.’
And when she asks, ‘Would you treat your heart or your lungs like that? Would you pour acid over any other organ in your body?’ I find it hard to disagree with her.
Dr Sturm doesn’t focus on the skin alone. Her Boutique & Spa combines skincare, wellness and aesthetics so she offers not only facials but treatments such as ‘ear seeding’ (in which tiny beads are placed in acupressure sites in the ears to improve wellbeing and help you sleep better). Also on the menu are aesthetic procedures such as, of course, PRP, injectables and Morpheus8, the radiofrequency and microneedling treatment that tightens and rejuvenates skin
While Dr Sturm doesn’t wear make-up, she’s OK with Botox and injects her own hyaluronic acid filler herself. She goes make-up free, but says the filler ‘makes me feel good about myself, therefore I consider it anti-inflammatory’, adding, ‘I like my skin. I feel good in my skin. Do I have a few wrinkles, yes. Do I have some pigmentation, yes. But I’m OK with it because it’s healthy and glowing.’
It’s not all about creams, potions, lasers and needles. How you live is just as important as what you put on your face. ‘I don’t eat junk food,’ she says, and then proves it by eating her own homemade Bircher muesli (the recipe is on her website) in the taxi on the way to our photoshoot. And some anti-inflammatory beauty treatments come free: ‘I do breath work,’ she offers. ‘I walk barefoot in the forest, I get light in the morning for my daily dose of vitamin D, I try to get a good night’s sleep. I don’t want to feel like I’m 51, I want to be having the best time with my eight-year-old, I want to feel like the way I felt 20 or 30 years ago.’
As Dr Sturm leaves for her next appointment, I look down at my leftover avocado toast wondering if the bread I just ate is inflammatory.