Issue Date: March 1, 2010
Inside The Beauty Lab
There’s something optimistic about perusing the cosmetics counter at a department store: the soft, flattering lighting; the hushed music; and all those shelves tidily stacked with products carrying the promise of a better, brighter you. That under-eye treatment can magically erase your dark circles; this moisturizer firms and minimizes your fine lines; the right shampoo will add lift and bounce to your otherwise drab hair.
But the allure of those potions and creams goes only so far before you ask yourself: Do any of these products really work? After all, a moisturizer shouldn’t just make you think your skin is smoother and firmer; there ought to be some hard evidence to back up that claim.
Perhaps the nearly $1 billion L’Oréal spends on R&D each year will assure you that there’s more to the company’s products than pretty packaging. The producer of the luxury line Lancôme and mass-market products such as Maybelline is one of the biggest spenders on R&D in the personal care market. Its research spans from basic biology and chemistry to sophisticated physics and engineering.
“Innovation is at the center of L’Oréal’s spirit,” says Eric Bone, vice president of L’Oréal’s U.S. R&D operations. “Our group was born from a chemist, and science is very much in our DNA.”
Scientists at L’Oréal like to say they address beauty “from the cell to the gesture,” alluding to the depth of research around hair, skin, and color taking place in its labs. The French company’s scientific output can be as pure as research into the molecular origins of hair shape, as applied as searching for a new ingredient to better protect skin from the sun, or as anthropological as understanding the dabs and strokes a woman in a particular country uses to apply foundation.
The beauty giant wants to leverage its scientific prowess to maintain leadership in the personal care market. The business climate, however, has gotten tougher. With most consumers in the U.S. and Europe keeping a tight rein on their budgets, luxury brands have suffered. L’Oréal’s sales and profits declined in 2008 and 2009 after years of double-digit growth. Furthermore, it lost its crown as the biggest personal care company when Procter & Gamble bought Gillette in 2005.
Last month, L’Oréal’s chief executive officer, Jean-Paul Agon, set the lofty goal of reaching 1 billion new customers over the next decade. How does he plan to lure a population roughly the size of India’s into the L’Oréal family? In part through R&D.
L’Oréal has come a long way since a young French chemist named Eugène Schueller, working out of his Paris kitchen, invented the first synthetic hair color. A century later, L’Oréal has more than 3,300 research employees, including some 1,800 Ph.D. scientists, and spends more on beauty research and development than virtually any other company in the world.
“They are ahead of the pack in terms of the amount they spend on R&D,” says Carrie M. Mellage, director of consumer products at the consulting firm Kline & Co.
Although most personal care companies invest on average 2.3% of sales on R&D, according to Kline, L’Oréal consistently sank 3.3% of its sales into research from 2006 to 2008. And even though the economic climate was challenging last year, the company boosted its research spending, putting 3.5% of sales, or $873 million, into R&D. L’Oréal will continue to pour more money into research, Agon told investors last month.
The company’s 18 research centers are divided into advanced research, or the fundamental science behind skin and hair; applied research, which looks to understand the effects of a molecule in a specific system; and development, where a molecule is transformed into a final product. There’s symbiosis between the groups, with basic research leading not just to ideas for products but also to techniques for analyzing the effectiveness of molecules once they are discovered.
The development of the sunscreen molecule ecamsule, launched in the U.S. in 2006, is a prime example of how L’Oréal’s research teams work together. Ecamsule—also known as the sunscreen ingredient Mexoryl SX found in Lancôme and La Roche-Posay products—started with insight into the basic biology of skin and sun exposure.
As recently as the 1980s, conventional wisdom was that people needed to worry only about UVB light, or the shorter wavelength ultraviolet rays that penetrate the epidermis, causing skin to burn. Sunscreen product formulation at the time was all about finding new and better chemical filters for UVB.
Today, scientists know that the longer wavelength UVA rays, although weaker than UVB rays, can penetrate deeper into the skin, getting beyond the epidermis and into the dermal layer. But unlike UVB, UVA does not offer visual reminders—pink noses or lobster-red shoulders—to get out of the sun, making it potentially more dangerous because its effects accumulate over time, points out Nadim Shaath, founder of Alpha Research & Development, a consultancy focused on sunscreens.
All it takes is a 10-minute chat with Sandra Del Bino-Nokin, a biologist from L’Oréal’s skin and light research labs in Clichy, France, just outside of Paris, to be convinced to slather on a broad-spectrum sunscreen before going outside.
UV rays can, over time, cause lasting damage to DNA and lead to skin cancer. Repeated exposure can also speed up the aging process because cellular damage causes fundamental changes to the structure of skin. In young, unexposed skin, the junction between dermis and epidermis has the wavy look of a sine curve; in older skin, or skin that has been regularly exposed to UVA, the junction flattens.
“It’s not visible immediately, but it can be seen after 20 or 30 years of exposure,” Del Bino-Nokin says. Furthermore, she adds, “it’s additive to chronic aging.” To underscore her point, she points to a photo of a lifelong truck driver. On the left side of his face, where UVA rays penetrate the driver’s-side window, he has the telltale signs of aging: deep wrinkles, leathery skin, spots of hypopigmentation. The right side of his face looks decades younger.
L’Oréal sought a sunscreen formulation that would effectively protect against both UVB and UVA, while improving upon some of the qualities of existing filters. Although avobenzone was widely known to block a wide spectrum of UVA rays, the molecule is, ironically, unstable when exposed to sunlight.
For starters, L’Oréal chemists found a way to stabilize avobenzone by combining it with the right amount of an existing UVB filter. But they really wanted to find a compound that would absorb light with a wavelength between 320 and 340 nm, the critical gap between the longer wavelength range protected by avobenzone and the short range covered by UVB filters.
Starting with benzylidene camphors, which were known to absorb in the UVB range, the scientists made libraries of similar molecules until they struck on ecamsule, which shifted absorbance to the UVA range. Approved in the U.S. in 2006, skin care products containing Mexoryl SX remain the most effective UVA and UVB filters on the U.S. market, according to Shaath.
Underpinning the campaign to design better UVA-absorbing molecules was L’Oréal’s vast experience with reconstructed skin. L’Oréal scientists in Clichy have spent decades developing increasingly sophisticated versions of reconstructed skin, the same material that helps burn victims heal. Their goal is to provide useful insights into the basic biology of skin while also creating tools to support product development.
Starting with skin discarded after tummy tucks or breast reductions, biologists were able to grow thin layers of skin. Over time, the scientists incorporated increasingly complex cell types until they reached a model that includes the epidermis and dermis.
The reconstructed skin model rests in a plastic device that looks like the chestpiece of a stethoscope. Look down into a kit, which contains 12 such chestpieces, and you’ll see dots of pigment, or melanin, of varying shades. Just like your skin, those dots will darken if exposed to UV rays.
The kits provide insight into the biology of the skin and how products interact with key proteins. In the ecamsule campaign, biologists used the tests to understand how cells die and regenerate with sun exposure and how ecamsule blocks the process.
Chemists rely on the tests for immediate feedback in the development of sunscreen and antiaging ingredients. Sunburn cell formation is visible in the upper layers of the epidermis of the reconstructed skin, providing a quick marker of an ingredient’s performance. “We can actually count the sunburn cells,” says Ana Kljuic, director of L’Oréal’s U.S. sun care formulation labs. “We find we can very quickly screen molecules after applying an active.”
And although not an exact replica of in vivo skin, the tiny disks of reconstructed skin are a good approximation of what will happen in humans. L’Oréal’s skin is more permeable, but studies have shown that molecules in a skin care formula will pass through it in the same way they would on human skin. “Even if our models are not identical to skin, there is a kind of coefficient between in vitro and in vivo,” notes Annie Black, a biologist with L’Oréal who develops new reconstructed skin models.
The reconstructed skin performs so similarly to an in vivo test that it has enabled L’Oréal to transition away from testing products on animals (C&EN, May 11, 2009, page 10). Using its engineering prowess, the company found a way to produce the kits in large quantities. Each week, the company’s facility in Lyon, France, can manufacture 100 to 150 of them.
“A lot of people know how to reconstruct skin in laboratories around the world, but very few people know how to do it reliably in mass quantity,” Black says. “It’s quite difficult to standardize biology.”
L’Oréal is coupling its in vitro skin research with sophisticated in vivo studies at its microscopy labs. Just across Paris from Clichy, at the company’s R&D center in Aulnay, advanced microscopy is allowing physicists to watch in real time the effects of a molecule on skin or hair.
“A few years ago, we started looking at the structure and chemical composition of skin at a subcellular level with two-photon microscopy,” says Frédéric Leroy, a physicist in L’Oréal’s material sciences research labs.
In these “virtual biopsies,” Leroy explains, an infrared light penetrates the skin, while femtosecond laser pulses cause components in the skin to shine. Within minutes, the scientists have a three-dimensional image of the epidermis and dermis and can even see the structure of the collagen and elastin within each layer.
“Now, we can visualize the function of skin without taking samples and can quantify the impact of age, sun exposure, and an ingredient,” Leroy says.
Coming up with a new molecule such as ecamsule requires biology, chemistry, and physics input from the scientists in Clichy, Aulnay, and other applied research labs. Yet an ingredient must go through many more steps to become part of a product line.
In an industrial park in Clark, N.J., a chemist sits in a dimly lit room not much bigger than a closet, watching a cluster of video monitors. The setup is like the security monitoring stations found in office buildings or department stores, but in this case a similar scene plays out on every screen: A woman sitting in what appears to be a bathroom casually applies makeup.
The women—mostly New Jersey locals—volunteer for duty in exchange for free samples at the end of their visit. Their only task is to replicate the routine they’d normally perform in the privacy of their own home: rub in moisturizer, brush on mascara, apply lipstick. Afterward, they are interviewed about what they did and did not like about the products.
They are trying products that contain novel ingredients or new combinations of existing ones. The Clark labs focus on formulations to find the right mix of texture, wear, and visual appeal to satisfy the always-fickle consumer. They are also responsible for ensuring a product is safe, won’t interact with its packaging, and will be stable sitting on a shelf—critical for the development of photosensitive products such as the ecamsule-containing sunscreens.
Product formulation starts with a chemist whipping up a potion, and often the first round of testing occurs on the scientists themselves. It’s not uncommon to see male scientists trying on mascara or women in lab coats dabbing on a moisturizer. The chemist then shares the development with the rest of the lab. If everyone is satisfied, the potential product moves to the on-site aesthetician or to actual consumers such as the ones in the faux bathrooms, Kljuic explains.
The information gleaned from the human guinea pigs helps the chemist go back to the lab and fix any problem areas. It might be that a product is too runny, gooey, or doesn’t smell right. In other cases, developers need to better connect the product to the gesture; chemists might design a formulation thinking people will apply it in a specific way—with a sponge, brush, or fingers—only to find out from the hired testers that consumers had a different idea.
Product testing takes place at 13 evaluation centers around the world. Although these studies may seem to be an excessive chronicle of bathroom habits, they are an acknowledgement that people in different countries and cultures have different demands for how a product works.
To create the right mascara for a Japanese woman, for example, L’Oréal scientists need to know that she will use on the order of 100 brush strokes on each eye. A woman in the U.S., on the other hand, uses far fewer but is preoccupied with achieving optimum lash separation.
In each market, finding the right mix of performance, texture, smell, and visual appeal is an iterative process. “For one final product, we have many different aestheticians and consumer tests,” Kljuic says. For a given product, a chemist will often come up with anywhere from 10 to 30 different formulations, many of which will wind up at the consumer perception center.
Formulation chemists also need to keep current with consumer preferences and have a deep understanding of the properties of their raw materials. Like chefs who adjust menus to serve what’s in season, chemists need to adjust their formulations as ingredients go in and out of vogue. “We know our raw materials very well as far as the chemistry, but we also know the aesthetic feel they’ll have and can pick and feel the kind of textures consumers want,” says Peter Foltis, director of scientific affairs for L’Oréal USA’s skin care group.
For example, women in Europe tend to like heavier creams than women in the U.S. And in Brazil, a woman uses the same moisturizer for her face and her body, whereas a South Korean woman will often use several different moisturizers on her face alone. When a new raw material is introduced, chemists spend time getting a feel for its texture and properties. “I’ve been here for 22 years, and I’m still learning,” Foltis says.
This attention to the needs of consumers across the globe is critical if L’Oréal wants to stay a leader in personal care. In 2009, the company saw sales in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, the three biggest but most mature cosmetics markets, shrink, whereas its sales to Latin America and Asia grew by 10.9% and 9.1%, respectively. “China is now the number three market in the world for personal care, and that’s changed rapidly in just the last few years,” Kline’s Mellage notes.
Indeed, most of those 1 billion new customers L’Oréal is targeting by 2020 will likely come from developing economies where more consumers are increasingly able to pay for personal care products.
In the U.S. and Europe, the company will likely emphasize cutting-edge ingredients. For example, due to tight regulation of sunscreen filters, ecamsule is the only new sunscreen ingredient approved in the U.S. since 1988, Alpha Research’s Shaath says.
To market personal care products containing ecamsule, L’Oréal had to file a New Drug Application (NDA) with the Food & Drug Administration, which is a long, expensive process. “An NDA may cost anywhere from $10 million to $50 million and take three to seven years to be approved, but the return on UVA filters is not like those on a drug,” Shaath adds. “L’Oréal took a major business decision to spend the money to bring it to the U.S.”
In Europe, where it is easier to introduce a new sunscreen ingredient, newer and better UVA filters have been introduced in the years since ecamsule was developed, Shaath adds.
Despite big spending and hits such as ecamsule, L’Oréal isn’t always viewed as successfully translating basic research into innovative new products. Some industry observers say the company is more of a follower than a leader. “They’re not usually first to market,” Mellage says. And often if they are first, it is with a minor advance in technology, she adds. “But when there’s something larger, they’re quick to respond.”
A recent example is innovation around hair dye, a product that since the 1950s had been made with the same basic chemistry: ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, dye precursors, and surfactants. In 2008, Procter & Gamble launched a product line that replaced ammonia with a milder mixture (C&EN, Feb. 11, 2008, page 32). It took another year for L’Oréal’s ammonia-alternative dye, INOA, to surface. The company claims that its product acts differently and offers a better range of colors than P&G’s.
Going forward, L’Oréal executives say they are committed to working on entirely new approaches to treating hair and skin. “As research tools are evolving, we are evolving,” says Bone, L’Oréal’s U.S. R&D head. He points to Lancôme’s Génifique, an antiaging serum launched last year that marked the company’s first product developed with the help of genomics.
Meanwhile, researchers are toiling away to develop more complex models of skin and hair and to better elucidate protein and structural information that chemists will then use to dream up the next new product.
Black, the skin scientist, is developing a collagen-based biomaterial to replace the existing skin model. “We’re convinced the dermal compartment is really important, so we’re working on another generation of the full-thickness model of skin,” she says. The new material, a collagen sponge, has a porous structure that will enable her to incorporate a more diverse array of cell types, including endothelial cells, to the reconstructed skin.
And the physicists in Aulnay are interested in imaging the 3-D distribution of melanin in skin, a feat that proved elusive with previous microscopy methods.
They are also preoccupied with the molecular origin of curliness. For years, scientists thought rounder fibers made for straighter hair. It turns out they are wrong, Leroy says. Now, L’Oréal researchers are analyzing the biochemistry, protein structure, and cell types within hair fibers to try to understand how they work together to impart shape, sheen, and color to hair.
Why are they so intrigued? Understanding the basic biology and physics might enable them to take an entirely new approach to hair straightening, curling, even color. Imagine a world without hair dye, where a simple pill or cream gets rid of the gray. L’Oréal’s scientists hope that, in a few years, their research will make it a reality.
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