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Nanotech Speeds Ahead in Body Care Without Safety Testing

New York Times
January 8, 2005

Cosmetics Break the Skin Barrier
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 skin.

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 blanks.

"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 Estée Lauder.

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," she said.

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 care substances).

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 again?

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 engineered crops.

"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
well.

"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 possibilities."

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 skin.

"Using substances that work as both delivery systems and ingredients,"
Mr. Gideon of Estée Lauder said. "Now that's a promising line of
research."