Under Your Skin

Back to Contents of Issue: December 2002

Nanotechnology is the breast weapon in the battle to be beautiful.

by Gail Nakada

NANOTECHNOLOGY CONJURES UP IMAGES of Star Trek--like mini-particles zipping through blood and data streams on pre-programmed repair missions. It's the stuff of science journals and hardware designers' wet dreams. Well, keep the wet dreams but switch that science journal to Vogue and Cosmopolitan because nanotechnology -- the marriage of engineering and chemistry -- can make you beautiful, baby.

Those crazy little silicon, zinc and carbon molecular products of biomimetic processes (manmade processes that imitate nature) are buzzing through the boardrooms of cosmetic giants like L'Oreal, Shiseido and Kose, bringing profits with them. According to a forecast by a Japanese business organization, Nippon Keidanren, the domestic market for nanotechnology could hit JPY2.4 trillion by 2005, with a projected jump to JPY27.3 trillion by 2010. That's a lot of microns. Yet most scientific journals, though optimistic about eventual benefits, say we are still years or even decades away from nanotech's true promise. Meanwhile, right here, right now, Shiseido gives an unofficial estimate that the total Japanese cosmetic market in 2001 stood at over JPY1.4 trillion. Praise the lord and pass the foundation.

International industry giant L'Oreal has surfaced as an early adopter of nanotechnology in cosmetics. "We introduced our first nanotechnology product in 1998," notes Keiko Hirata from Nihon L'Oreal's Lancee marketing department. "Company researchers experimented with 350 formulas and conducted 2,500 tests before arriving at the final product."

L'Oreal's Lancee Resurface anti-wrinkle cream uses a patented nanocapsule process developed at the company's European lab (no animal testing, by the way) to incorporate vitamin A inside a polymer "capsule." The capsules act like sponges that soak up and hold the product inside until the outer shell dissolves. These compounds are so small -- some are just 200 nanometers (a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter) -- they don't sit on the surface of the skin but sink down into it right through the pores; they're little beauty mines exploding with benefits from the inside out.

Now Lancee products Primordiale Intense and Hydra Zen Serum are also using biomimetic processes. Primordial Intense nanocapsules, for example, are bursting with vitamin A, wheat germ, sunflower seed extracts and honey. Plans are afoot to bring out a Lancee nanotechnology foundation (for the skin, not an institute) next year.

Other cosmetic houses, international and domestic, are pursuing research in nanotechnology applications. Christian Dior has an active molecular biology division at its extensive Christian Dior Biology Laboratories, and last August Kose Cosmetics released a foundation incorporating titanium oxide and silicon nano-sized (10-nanometer) particles. Yet one of the biggest local micro-successes has been from Japan's cosmetic leader Shiseido.

"It took us four or five years of research to develop the process we use in our Elixir line," says Shiseido spokesman Tatsuyoshi Endo. In research carried out jointly between Shiseido and a partner it prefers not to disclose at this time, the company combined oxide powder with silica powder (talc) at the nano-order level. Research on this composite led to the discovery that an inorganic powder could restrain enzymes leading to dry skin. Unconventional, maybe, but it works. In a three-week trial study on 4,039 women, 70 percent experienced relief from dry, rough skin. Shiseido's first product, Elixir Skinup, debuted in March 2001 and reportedly sold around 1.4 million units in its first year.

The same technology has been applied in Pureness Matifying Compact and Benefiance Extra Smoothing Compact. Shiseido plans to follow up this success with skin-care powder, eye shadow and sunscreen, all using nanotechnology. What sets these nanotech products apart from all the other shadows, creams and powders crowding department and drugstore shelves? Like Elixir Skinup, these new lines incorporate skin-care delivery systems built in at the molecular level. "Most people think of skin-treatment products as lotions or creams -- sticky products that lay on the skin," Endo points out. "But using technology at the nano-level, we can actually formulate micro-powder to penetrate and deliver skin benefits directly upon application."

New and improved delivery systems are what micro-technology is all about. Beauty and health researchers are excited about the delivery potential of something called Fullerenes, which could make you beautiful inside as well as out. Named for their resemblance to Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, these closed carbon molecules are one brave new hope to deliver life-saving medicines directly into diseased tissue.

The compounds remain stable -- resisting breakdown within the body -- until they reach their destination. Right now that may mean a patch of dry skin, but future targets could be viruses like HIV and even cancer cells. (The ability to resist breakdown is especially important in delivering radioactive atoms to tumors -- premature release can endanger the patient.) Science journals are calling the Fullerene capsules "buckyballs." Mitsubishi and Mitsubishi Chemical have formed a new company, Frontier Carbon, which will mass-produce these buckyballs.

Nanotechnology is on every industries' to-do list. (Try a "nanotechnology" search on Yahoo and see for yourself). Fabric maker Toray is investing an estimated JPY5 billion for construction of a new nanotech lab to be finished by spring 2003; Mitsui has just built a carbon nanotube plant via its wholly owned subsidiary, Carbon Nanotech Research Institute in Akishima; the list goes on. Unfortunately, if they're building them now, we're not going to be seeing results for quite a while.

Yet as vain as it may seem, research by cosmetics companies is broadening the knowledge base for nanotechnology applications. Today's smooth skin could mean tomorrow's life-saving medical technique. @

Note: The function "email this page" is currently not supported for this page.