Blood as a Historical Anti-Aging Component and Contemporary Skin Care’s “Big Thing”

By Chidinma Iwu

History is very famous for featuring world-renowned luminaries submerging themselves in fluids theorized to embody eternal youth. What’s interesting, though, is how very often blood as an elixir of agelessness has come up. In recent times, solutions like Cleopatra’s use of donkey milk baths, Hippocrates’ love for red wine therapy, and even Pliny the Elder’s go-to urine remedy have surfaced online and in the media as efficacious skin care regimens to indulge the modern fixation with looking young. Still, none of these has been as radical as the increasing inquisitiveness into blood as both a de-aging resource and a restorer of youthful vigor.

If I bathed in blood every day for 6 hours, what would happen?” is a 3-year-old Reddit question that—even though somehow soused in ridiculousness—has garnered over a thousand votes and hundreds of comments. Similar questions, often shining in curiosity about the impact of blood on the skin, are popular on Quora, and people are going haywire over them. It may be difficult to imagine how these questions have become part of a much wider discourse in skin care, but this is only if you haven’t come across the multitude of texts from historically significant periods and the various portrayals in media that have documented blood’s significance in skin revitalization.

In History

Blood use as a tonic of immortality was historically associated with cliques of autocrats and powerful people, but it is famously significant of a certain Hungarian countess in the 16th century, (1560-1614). At the first mention of Countess Elizabeth (or Erzsébet) or the Blood Countess, an immediately conjured image is most likely one of a beautiful young woman lying in a porcelain tub replete with blood as if it were a therapeutic spa. But do not let her fair skin deceive you.

According to the legend, Báthory was an aged serial killer—the most prolific since the dawn of time—who was responsible for the gruesome murders of more than 600 young women inside her extravagant castles. She believed their virginal blood carried youthful essence and that bathing in it would make her young forever. Instead, it gave her one of the most odious reputations in history. The countess’s story is one of the most popular fables of blood’s revivifying properties for youthful skin in history, and even though incredibly charred by gore and horror, it has been ubiquitously adapted in many fictional and cinematic media.

Another interesting yet lesser-known legend that narrates the intended use of young blood for life sustenance is set in a time that preceded the countess’s era and is of Pope Innocent VIII  (1432-1492). The Pope, lying on his deathbed, tried to steal youth from three 13-year-old male children through blood transfusion. Unfortunately, his physician was not knowledgeable enough about blood transfusion and had him drink the blood of the children (who had been drained to death), so this process failed. The Pope died and that was the end of an uneasy reign over Rome.

Elsewhere in the medieval and Renaissance periods, human blood was a proclaimed catholicon in ancient Greece, purchased minutes after execution from executioners and extracted from virgins and gladiators. Many medics claimed that their blood possessed special medicinal properties and could sustain youth, and those Hellenics jumped at any opportunity to acquire the magic of young blood

In surprisingly near history, North Korean revolutionary leader Kim Il-Sung (1912-1994) became a part of the long list of leaders infatuated with youthful life. He had told his doctors to make him live until age 120, and by the time he reached 78, the political tyrant began to demand blood transfusions from young people in their 20s, all in a concerted effort to reach his target age. He did so much of this that his blood group changed from AB to B. He died four years later.

In Fictional Media

Many historical archives postulate the idea that blood can be rejuvenating. These stories birthed the myths of vampirism, and we’ve seen a close-knit representation of the countess, pope, and Hellenic stories in many books and films about vampires and their obsession with staying young.

The 1897 gothic classic novel by Bram Stoker, Dracula, introduces its title character, Count Vlad Dracula, as a deeply aged man. In the book, a young solicitor, Jonathan Harker, who helps him purchase a property in London, initially describes the count as “a tall old man.” But this opinion of the count quickly changes.

Dracula acquires youthfulness when he drains adults of their blood by sinking his fangs in their necks. There are no literal bloodbaths as in the Hungarian countess’s story, but it’s much like the 14th-century story of the pope who tried to drink young blood on his deathbed. As the story progresses and with every blood drain, Count Dracula grows into a vibrant, high-powered vampire as opposed to the weak, old-looking vampire he is introduced as. Stoker does a great job of depicting blood as an intrinsic merit of youth and a treasure through Dracula’s incessant and uncontrollable cravings for it.

The Devil’s Wedding Night, a 1973 film featuring Rosalba Neri as Lady Dracula (also known as La Contessa Dolingen de Vries), has been a cinematic favorite since its release. The film recounts sanguinary rituals as an obsession for the countess, who uses the magic of the Dracula ring to summon young virgins to her castle in Transylvania. In a striking resemblance to Countess Elizabeth’s chronicle, de Vries annually sacrifices virgins and bathes in their blood to preserve her eternal youth.

Other films, like Hostel: Part 2, more recent than The Devil’s Wedding Night, also deeply tell the story of the obsession of blood use for skin health and perpetual youth. Each film has a raving, blood-lusting character as the antagonist, are steeped in the lore of Countess Elizabeth, and succinctly capture how very common it is for many powerful people to seek blood for youthfulness.

In Research

As an ever-inquiring pursuit, science started prying into the basis of blood’s effectiveness in sustaining youth in the 1950s. In 2005, the first major research to investigate the plausibility of the centuries-old sentiments about youthful blood was conducted by dousing older mice with the blood of younger ones. Scientists found out this slowed aging.

Later in 2014, Stanford University scientists led by Tony Wyss-Coray embarked on a much bigger experiment to better understand young blood’s impact on brain cell regeneration and watched a burst of cell growth take place in mice brain over a short period. This research also confirmed slowed biological aging. Much like the 2005 research, it was based on parabiosis, a type of experiment where two organisms are surgically joined and made to share the same blood circulatory system. There had been earlier documentation by the Stanford team in 2011, but this particular experiment extensively revealed that blood could indeed be a vital anti-aging agent.

Last year, one of the more recent studies digging into the intricacies of parabiosis was conducted by James White at the Duke University School of Medicine, supporting earlier research by former scientists. White and his team noted that 2 months after the young and old mice were detached, the older mice (also called the heterochronic) that had previously been linked with younger ones slowed in aging.

According to White, the team had simply looked forward to a couple of beneficial effects of using the young mice’s blood as previous experiments showed, but they did not expect the impact to be very long-lasting after separation. “The results suggested a possible cellular reprogramming over time to a more youthful state, which can be maintained even after the cessation of young blood,” White noted.

These series of research examinations were the biggest propellants of beauty-by-blood’s democratization in modern skin care. It’s not just tyrants or powerful people seeking blood for youth anymore; everyone has become crazed for it. There’s nowhere that you’re not hearing of a new type of blood-based serum or injection that celebrities swear by.

As expected to be a consequence of this democratization and the persistent search for anti-aging, capitalist companies have sprung up to exploit unsuspecting people with products that are not clinically tested. Many of the companies’ ideas are mostly founded on the basis of mice research. In 2019, a California-based startup, Ambrosia, shut off its blood plasma sales from young donors after the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning about the possible falsity of the process. The company had been making $8000 per liter before the FDA’s action and had sold thousands of liters.

Notwithstanding, in the past few years, credible research has been presented on the effectiveness of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) and a lesser-known, yet cogent, component, hybrosomes, as potential panaceas in regenerative skin care medicine.

Platelet-Rich Plasma

In 2013, when Kim Kardashian recorded her microneedling PRP procedure—dubbed a “vampire facial”—during an episode of her reality show, the skin care industry ran amok. It has been SkinTok’s (a portmanteau of “skin care” and “TikTok”) obsession for a while. It is the most recent addition to the grand catalog of efficient anti-aging skin care to try out and touted as one of the most effective yet—maybe the actual answer to skin rejuvenescence. It’s also considerably affordable for its obvious potency.

Celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Victoria Beckham, and Alex Rodriguez may be popularizing the procedure, but the average TikToker, whose documentation of their process is scattered all over TikTok, is doing just as much. PRP sounds like a buzzword, one of those pseudoscientific recommendations from influencing grifters. But it is real and is supported by extensive research, according to board-certified dermatologist Dr Hamdan Abdullah Hamed.

For years, the treatment was used to help athletes, but with recent substantial research into its benefits in regenerative skin care, it has become a beauty treatment. “One thing about this skin care process is that it can be used for anyone, any age, any gender, and any skin type,” Hamed told The Blood Project. “It is an excellent treatment for people who are looking for anti-aging and skin rejuvenation procedures.”

PRP is made up of blood plasma and platelets. Creating it is a comparatively simple process where blood is drawn from the client’s arm and then processed in a centrifuge to separate platelets from blood. “They focus on the plasma, which is yellowish-green in color,” Hamed said. “Then that part is extracted and injected or microneedled into the skin.” The platelets, extremely rich in growth factor and healing proteins (about 578 according to research) interact with skin cells and stimulate their regeneration and hyaluronic acid production. Most dermatologists recommend the first PRP process to be done over 3 visits, with a wait time of 4 weeks between each procedure. After that, a yearly visit should be enough to maintain the plumping effects.

Ardent users like Alexis Economou and Stephanie Sangiovese, who have had several rounds of the process say it has cleared their major skin concerns over the course of the procedures. However, Dr Patrick Yam, a Canadian-based medical doctor and PRP specialist who has performed over 500 PRP procedures in the past 2 years, warns that in the case of misuse, consequences could be adverse. “Many patients are paying for expensive PRP procedures but not actually getting PRP,” he said. “It’s like paying for freshly squeezed orange juice, and you’re served mostly water with a few drops of orange juice mixed in.”

This type of PRP, according to Yam, is called platelet-poor plasma (PPP) and can have anti-angiogenic effects which will inhibit the regeneration of new tissue. Clients who have had PPP microneedled into their skin may still see benefits from the microneedling itself, since microneedling is known to promote collagen production.

Aside from this mistake, which Yam strongly alludes to being a result of ignorance and false claims about PRP systems’ capabilities, PRP is safe. “The only side effects are bruising, discomfort, and a bit of soreness,” affirmed Hamed. This can be easily avoided with numbing creams before treatment, or else clients stand to feature in a remake of Kim Kardashian’s post-PRP episode.

Exosomes in Cord Blood

For a long time, exosomes as active facilitators of cell-to-cell communication have been known to promote tissue repair and modulate inflammation in the wound healing process. Yet an interesting facet of these vesicles—exosomes in umbilical cord blood (UCB)—has left an indelible mark in regenerative aesthetic medicine, at least as Dr Tunc Tiryaki asserts. Over the past 7 years, as one of the UK’s top consulting plastic surgeons, he has spearheaded investigations into how hybrosomes’ cell messenger abilities could be purposeful and has made interesting findings.

This study, published by Tiryaki in December 2023, is the most recent of his research. It was conducted on people aged 40 to 56 years using hybrosome-infused cream and retinol cream for wrinkle reduction, melanin level, and regeneration capacity related to skin aging. The hybrosome cream noted better results. The 0.75% hybrosome cream was more effective than the gold standard anti-aging agent, retinol, “in reducing wrinkles, improving radiance, and improving the homogenate effect,” the study noted. It also recorded an overall higher skin recovery rate. After 28 days, the 0.75% hybrosome cream, according to the study, “showed a 13.4% reduction in wrinkles compared to the first day, while retinol showed a lower effect of 6.89%.”

Tiryaki told The Blood Project that what hydrosomes do is carry information about youth and update older cells about getting younger. “Our bodies are like hardware and our epigenetic system is like the software responsible for processing our information,” Tiryaki started. “We are getting old not because our genetic information is getting lost but because our capacity to keep that genetic information is getting lost. Aging is about information loss. If we can update this software—which is kind of like getting rid of the old iPhone version—then we can get the cells to work in a young state,” he concluded. Hydrosomes, in his analogy, are like a set of commands in our body’s system that force older cells to become young again.

It’s hard to definitively talk about the possibility of eternal youth yet, but—with recent research and scientific advancements, coupled with the amplified need for anti-aging regimens on social media—it may very well be at the tip of our fingers. Tiryaki imagines that research around the use of blood from humans, animals, or fish in skin care and aesthetic medicine will only expand and deepen in the coming years, as well as dominate skin care product solutions. 

About The Author

Chidinma Iwu is a writer and journalist interested in phenomenons that underpin large subcultures. She writes about culture and technology as we know it for Worth, Paste, Fast Company, Shondaland, Daily Dot, ARTnews, etc. Find her articles in chidinmaiwu.com or follow her on Twitter @Chidxnma.