[Paleopsych] NYT: Cosmetics Break the Skin Barrier
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Mon Jan 10 22:45:08 UTC 2005
Cosmetics Break the Skin Barrier
New York Times, 5.1.8
By CLAUDIA H. DEUTSCH
Procter & Gamble is about to sell ball bearings - but not
the metal kind. Its minuscule mineral spheres are designed
to help usher its Olay-brand body lotions deep into the
Freeze 24/7, meanwhile, is pushing the muscle relaxant
GABA, or gamma-amino butyric acid, a common ingredient in
over-the-counter antianxiety supplements. It is not using
GABA to relax minds, however. Instead, the goal is to relax
the muscles that cause face wrinkles.
"We knew that if we could find a way to use GABA topically,
it would be a killer app," said Scott E. Gurfein, the
founder of the year-old company.
The science of smoothing women's skin is going high tech.
And cosmetics companies, whether they serve the masses or
the elite, are adopting not just the language of Silicon
Valley but many of its most sophisticated techniques.
Researchers for cosmetics companies have spent several
years developing chemical bullets to attack wrinkles. But
now, the players in this growing industry are turning to
the medical and electronics worlds for ways to keep human
skin from bouncing those bullets off the body like so many
"What you are seeing in the skin care world is a mirror of
the advancing technology in pharmaceuticals and
biotechnology," said Karyn Grossman, a dermatologist and
international spokeswoman for the Prescriptives line of
Scientists from far outside the cosmetics world are
noticing the change. "Skin care," said Neil Gordon,
president of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance, "is
definitely becoming a big area for nanoscience," which
involves working to manipulate nature at the supersmall
level of individual atoms and molecules.
There is a lot at stake. According to Lenka Contreras, vice
president of Kline & Company, a research firm, sales of
facial treatments represented $7 billion of the overall $12
billion skin care market last year, buoyed by more than 6
percent annual growth the last five years.
The Olay line of Procter leads the pack, but Mary Kay and
Clinique from Lauder are hot on its heels. Add in
Neutrogena, from Johnson & Johnson; Avon; and the Estée
Lauder brand, and you have accounted for about a third of
the market, Ms. Contreras said.
As American society ages demographically, she expects the
healthy growth of recent years to continue unabated, for
the tiny players as well as the household names. "Women
just don't mind spending a lot of money to look younger,"
Outfoxing nature's protective instincts - after all, the
skin's well-evolved purpose is to keep foreign substances
out - is no small task. The field is littered with failed
ideas (researchers have pretty much ditched, for example,
the idea of microneedles to create tiny pathways for skin
Even some skin care insiders concede that there may be as
much hype as substance to a lot of the emerging claims.
"We've all been looking at particle sizes and optimized
formulas for a while, so maybe the trend now is to talk
more about it," said Janice J. Teal, chief scientific
officer at Avon Products.
Skin creams are not regulated by the Food and Drug
Administration, so there is no government stamp of approval
for the safety or effectiveness of any of the new delivery
mechanisms. And most are too new to have passed the
ultimate test: Will consumers be happy enough to buy them
Still, many of the new delivery systems have proven their
mettle in other fields, which suggests that cosmetics
companies might be on to something in their bid to
piggyback on proven technologies. Lighting manufacturers
already use microparticles in high-tech lamps, while
pharmaceutical companies have long used plant extracts to
enable the skin to absorb drugs.
So now the cosmetics industry is trying to build on
research in other fields, in hopes of further proving that
it offers more than hope in a jar.
Skin care companies are notoriously tight-lipped about
their research budgets, but industry insiders say they are
throwing tens of millions of dollars into that effort.
"The trend in the whole industry," said Allan G. Mottus, a
consultant to the beauty industry and publisher of The
Informationist, a trade publication, "is to find ways to
deliver ingredients to the skin with more efficacy."
Indeed it is. Harvey Gideon, Estée Lauder's executive vice
president for research and development, said that the
company devoted about 25 percent of its research budget to
delivery systems; five years ago, he said, no more than 5
percent was focused on that objective.
"We're working on anything you can dream of that will allow
us to make smaller amounts of material effective for longer
periods of time," he said.
The research into delivery systems is beginning to yield
lots of "new" products. Olay's latest body lotion, which
sells for less than $10, and night cream, which lists for
about $20, are expected to hit the market this month,
relying on the same basic antiwrinkle ingredients but
adding mineral spheres to the lotion and a time-release
technology to the cream. The price of the new version is
staying the same as the prior model.
"We already have excellent active ingredients, so now we're
finding better ways to get them into the skin," said Emma
Palfreyman, a senior scientist for the Olay division of
Procter & Gamble.
Similarly, Estée Lauder's latest version of its Future
Perfect antiwrinkle moisturizers include "cell vectors" -
little balls of protein material that are slowly dissolved
by enzymes in the skin intended to make the product more
effective over time.
Freeze 24/7 was created solely around a new method of
teaming GABA, which does not penetrate skin, with
gynostemma, a plant extract that does. The GABA "programs"
the gynostemma to mimic its muscle-relaxing properties.
The new company, which says its revenue topped $5 million,
recently introduced a line of antiwrinkle creams for $95
and up, relying on that technology. The products are on
sale in stores like Nordstrom and Sephora.
Of all the avenues of research, the most exciting - and the
most frustrating - is the emerging field of nanotechnology.
"It's too early to tell whether nanotechnology will be
particularly advantageous in skin care, but there's no
question that everyone is interested in exploring it," said
Gerald N. McEwen Jr., vice president for science at the
Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association.
The potential applications of nanotechnology go beyond
making particles small enough to penetrate the skin.
Sunscreens, for example, work best if they stay on the
skin. But zinc and titanium oxides, the most effective sun
blocks, often give the skin a matte whitish hue.
More troublesome, because it is hard to densely pack the
large oxide molecules, harmful rays still manage to get
through the gaps. Neutrogena and Lauder have both
introduced sunscreens with particles that while not quite
nanosize, are tiny enough to be invisible on the skin.
But the effort to shrink particles down to the molecular
level is hitting snags. In Europe, a consumer reaction
against nanotechnology research is on the rise, similar to
the outcry against irradiated foods and genetically
"There's always a fear that nanoparticles will attack the
body," Mr. Gordon conceded.
The fears are not without logic - after all, particles tiny
enough to penetrate several layers of skin could, at least
in theory, pierce all of them, enter the bloodstream, and
wind up in organs for which they were not intended. Perhaps
not surprisingly, skin care companies are proceeding warily
in the nanoscience world.
"We are certainly looking at nanotechnology," said Craig S.
Slavtcheff, global director for skin cleansing and new
technology at Unilever, "but I doubt you'll see a product
in less than 5 or 10 years."
Many of the companies are, meanwhile, pursuing more
immediate pathways. Unilever, which owns the Dove and Ponds
brands, is working on a consumer version of an ultrasound
machine on the theory that ultrasonic energy can help some
molecules better penetrate the skin. Olay is exploring
whether applying heat can enhance the penetration of
ingredients. It is also looking into ways to use the same
technology behind Procter's spin toothbrushes for a
hand-held skin polisher.
Neutrogena, too, is about to introduce a battery-operated
vibrating device topped with replaceable sponges imbedded
with an aluminum oxide cream to slough away dead skin. E.
Michael McNamara, Neutrogena's president, said the brand
also hopes to adapt some Johnson & Johnson technologies for
delivering medicine through the skin.
There have been dead ends, of course. Microneedles made out
of inert silica-based materials seemed like a winning
formula for punching temporary holes into the dead cells
that make up the skin's outermost layer to deliver
antiaging ingredients. The problem was that preservatives,
irritants and possibly microbes and bacteria got in as
"We put two solid years of research into this," John E.
Oblong, a principal scientist at Procter & Gamble, said,
"then shut it down because it just raised too many negative
But the research failures are finally being outnumbered by
the breakthroughs. And even as they explore better delivery
methods, many of the companies are moving onto science
Phase 3: the search for ingredients that act as treatments
themselves, even as they carry other substances through the
"Using substances that work as both delivery systems and
ingredients," Mr. Gideon of Estée Lauder said. "Now that's
a promising line of research."
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