In a cluttered laboratory on the outskirts of Paris, Gustavo Luengo peers at a human skin cell under a microscope so powerful that he can view individual atoms and poke at them with a remote-controlled probe. "We can now go inside a [cell] structure and see how it feels," says Luengo, a Spanish-born physical chemist who trained at the University of California. "We are able to interact with the nanoworld."
The observations of a scientist at a cutting-edge biotech company? Not quite. Luengo's employer is cosmetics giant L'Oréal (LORLY ). The Paris outfit is placing a big bet on nanotechnology, engineering ultratiny particles that can act on skin and hair in ways that naturally occurring molecules can't. In fact, L'Oréal ranks No. 6 among nanotechnology patent holders in the U.S., according to data collected by Boston-based UTEK-EKMS Inc. (UTK ). With 192 patents, it's ahead of such research heavyweights as General Electric (GE ), Motorola (MOT ), and Eastman Kodak (EK ). At L'Oréal factories, high-pressure machinery fires droplets of material at the speed of sound to pulverize them into nanosize bits. These nanoparticles are already used in a number of L'Oréal products, including sunscreens, hair conditioners, and skin creams. And more are on the way.
The beauty products business as a whole is making a big bet on nanotech. L'Oréal, which devotes about $600 million of its annual $17 billion revenues to research, is the industry leader on nanopatents. But rivals such as Procter & Gamble, Estée Lauder (EL ) of the U.S., Christian Dior of France, and Japan's Shiseido (SSDOY ) also incorporate nanoparticles into their products.
SHEER AND SMOOTH
Why are cosmetics makers so smitten with nanotechnology? Bits of matter often exhibit new and useful properties when they're broken down into particles measuring only a few nanometers across. (The diameter of a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers.) That's certainly the case with mineral-based pigments such as zinc oxide, commonly used in sunblock. In their natural state, they're white and greasy. But when reduced to nano-sized bits, the pigment becomes nearly transparent and is easily absorbed into the skin. Likewise, emulsifiers used to bind together oil and water in products such as hair conditioner and makeup remover yield a less oily mixture when they're broken down into nanoparticles.
L'Oréal researchers have been tinkering with nanotech since the 1980s. The company's first nanoproducts, introduced about 15 years ago, were nanosomes, tiny capsule-like structures that transport active ingredients, such as vitamins, into the skin's outer layer, and then release them. Nanosomes and similar agents, known generally as nanosystems, are used in skin creams such as L'Oréal's RevitaLift. Other cosmetics makers have comparable products.
The pace of nano-development has picked up since the late 1990s with the arrival of more powerful research tools, such as the $300,000 atomic-force microscope that Luengo uses in his lab. That has led to pigments and emulsifiers made of particles far smaller than the earlier nanosomes. Before, researchers could only hypothesize about how nanoparticles interacted with skin and hair cells, says Francis Quinn, a physicist in L'Oréal's research department. But with the latest microscopes, Quinn says, "we can understand what is going on inside cells."
So far only a small part of L'Oréal's product line is nano-engineered. The company declines to give sales figures for individual products and says it's too early to predict how extensively nanotechnology will figure in future growth. But a spokesman says sales of nanoproducts are brisk, despite steep prices. And the products are pricey indeed. A 50-ml bottle of L'Oreal's Lancôme Rénergie Morpholift eye cream goes for $83, and a package of four Kérastase Aqua-Oleum hair treatments costs $61.
Clearly, nanocosmetics are beauty's next frontier. L'Oréal says that in 2006 it will introduce cosmetics containing nanoparticles engineered to produce more vivid colors and iridescent or metallic effects. Company researchers also are studying nanocrystals that could be used, for example, to create eye shadow with a hologram-like three-dimensional effect.
Sounds cool, but is it safe? There's no evidence that nano-engineered cosmetics and other products pose a health hazard. But some scientists worry that nanoparticles could pass through the skin and into the bloodstream, perhaps lodging in the brain, lungs, or other organs. Early research on some carbon-based nanoparticles used in other industries has found that they tend to accumulate in tissue. "There's a knowledge gap here that needs to be addressed," says Mark Welland, director of the Nanoscience Center at Cambridge University, who advises the Royal Society, Britain's equivalent of the U.S. National Academies. The Royal Society on Nov. 23 issued a report saying that research on health and safety aspects of nanotechnology was "urgently needed."
In Washington, the Food & Drug Administration's Office of Cosmetics & Colors has begun studies of some nanoparticles, including nanosystems known as liposomes, to better understand how they work. It's considering additional studies on titanium dioxide nanopigments used in sunscreens. But neither the FDA nor European regulators have called for tighter government controls of nanoparticles used in beauty products -- which, unlike pharmaceuticals, don't have to pass muster with regulators before heading to market.
L'Oréal says it extensively tests its nanoproducts and has found no potential hazards. The company says the nanoparticles it uses can penetrate no deeper than the outermost layers of the skin and never reach more vulnerable tissues or the bloodstream. Says Quinn: "Nobody in any lab has ever shown that it penetrates into the living part of the skin."
Safety is one issue. Another question for customers is whether expensive nano-products can really make your skin look younger or your hair thicker. Cosmetics makers say yes. So do consumers devoted to the nano-goods already out there. Alas, there's no proof. Still, as long as there's a chance nanoscience can unlock the secrets of youth and beauty, companies such as L'Oréal should have no trouble attracting customers.
By Carol Matlack, with John Carey in Washington