The nanoscience behind beauty is serious business at L’Oreal

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PARIS, Dec. 26, 2002 — Ask anyone at L’Oreal whether there is any small tech in their cosmetics and they will tell you it has been that way for years. “We were making liposomes as far back at the 1970s,” said Jean-Thierry Simonnet, head of Galenic labs at the French cosmetic company, referring to the tiny fluid-filled pouches discovered by Britain’s Alec Bangham in 1961.

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In fact, L’Oreal is almost as well known for its research as for its signature, “Because I’m worth it.” The company devotes 3 percent of its annual sales to research, making the cosmetic group one of the most prolific patentees in the world. And of the nearly 500 patents filed in 2001, 10 percent concerned small tech.

With clients always looking to find more effective lotions and cosmetics, the company has been turning to small tech to create new products for several years. L’Oreal’s nanocapsules have been on the market since 1995 — long before the nano prefix became fashionable in other circles.

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Nanocapsules, which can range between 130 and 600 nanometers in size, operate on a simple principle. Active ingredients such as vitamin A, retinol and beta-carotene must get to the deeper layers of the skin if their anti-aging and other beneficial properties are to be most effective. Working with labs belonging to France’s National Center for Scientific Research, L’Oreal developed a tiny polymeric shell capable of guiding the active ingredients to the right place in the skin.

By reducing the active ingredients to a very small size and coating them with a biodegradable polymer, the company found the nanocapsules were small enough to pierce through the first layers of the skin. “What happens then is that the skin’s natural enzymes eat at the surface of the nanocapsule and release the active ingredients below, in the lower layers of the skin,” Simonnet explained. “Whereas normally, the active ingredients stay on the first layers of skin, where they aren’t as effective.”

Products containing these nanocapsules hit the market in higher-end brands such as Lancome six years ago. They have since been added to less expensive lines of products found in drug stores such as Future E and L’Oreal Plenitude. L’Oreal brands run the gamut of prices and quality, going from the teenage favorite Maybelline, to upscale names such as Helena Rubinstein and Biotherm found only in department stores.

Since cosmetics are as much about marketing as about effectiveness, L’Oreal also uses nanotechnology to make things look more attractive. And one thing customers like are products that are translucent because they suggest purity and cleanliness. The company has found that when lotions are ground down to 50 or 60 nanometers, they let light through. So the company put together a process to grind lotions down under very high pressure.

All this high tech research has its advantages … and its disadvantages. For one, it is very expensive. Research immobilizes 5 percent of L’Oreal’s work force on projects that don’t always lead to new products. “The products we make have to be adapted to the rules of the market,” Simonnet said. “We have to make at least 1,000 liters an hour for a nanolotion to be commercially viable.” In addition, often the tools needed to do the research aren’t available on the market. They have to be built from scratch — adding further expense and delays.

Secondly, the need to protect the technology from cheaper generic competitors makes it impossible for L’Oreal to commission independent studies to publicly confirm the effectiveness of the new products. Such independent research would reveal too much about L’Oreal’s formulas and could allow competitors to make knockoffs. The company is known for fiercely defending its market position by operating under a heavy cloak of secrecy.

“Unlike other industries, like chemicals, space or the military, we don’t get any independent data on effectiveness of these techniques,” said Neil Gordon, nanotechnology analyst at Sygertech Consulting Group. “This information just isn’t in the public domain because L’Oreal wants to protect its products.”

And in the end, it’s unclear whether consumers pay any attention to the science behind the products. During a visit to one of the Biotherm stands in a well-known Paris department store, salespeople indicated customers almost never ask about product composition or the technology behind new goods. But they’ll keep buying what works for them. And for L’Oreal’s 2,700 researchers that is the real measure of success.


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