Public Release: 

Skin-care industry skipping out on science?

American Chemical Society

BOSTON, Aug. 22, 2007 -- The multi-billion-dollar global cosmetics and skin-care-product industry sometimes is beset by a me-too mindset in which research and development focuses on matching the competition rather than applying sound science to improve products, a scientist told the 234th national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

As a result, it could be missing a golden opportunity to provide consumers with more effective products, according to a Stig E. Friberg, Ph.D. a chemist who studies cosmetic ingredients.

As an example, Friberg points out that previously unknown changes occur in the structures of colloids used in skin care lotions. As a result, the lotion sitting in the bottle, he said, is actually different from the same lotion applied to the skin.

Friberg has spent years in fundamental studies of the backbone of any lotion -- a mixture or "emulsion" of oil and water. Along with a third ingredient, a surfactant that keeps the liquids from separating, emulsions are the basis of almost every skin lotion. Although the system may sound simplistic, Friberg said it's not as straightforward as scientists once believed.

Friberg's work has revealed that after application, evaporation causes a lotion's internal structure to change, a fact that has not captured the attention of the skin-care industry. Initially in a liquid phase, the structure transforms while on the skin to a more orderly state, such as a liquid crystalline or solid amorphous phase, that allows for a higher tendency for molecules to enter the skin, he said. Previously, scientists have assumed the structure of an emulsion remains intact as lotions evaporate.

But this isn't the case. "In fact, the appearance of liquid crystalline structures in the emulsion acts as if you have a much higher concentration of the active substance on the skin," said Friberg, who is with the University of Virginia. "Knowledge of the structure change will make the formulation of skin lotions more systematic."

A main goal of the system is to find the best active ingredients for a given emulsion. In the land of lotion, these ingredients do the dirty work by penetrating the skin to protect or improve it. Well known active ingredients are salicylic acid used for complexion and camphor as an analgesic. Lotions on the market today, while effective, are based on limited understanding of how the active ingredients smooth and moisturize the skin. Research therefore has been based primarily on efforts to improve traditional, successful combinations of surfactants, oils and active substances.

In a sense, studying new structures would remove some guess work in manufacturing effective lotions because it would remove an unknown from the equation: companies could work from the template of the new structure rather than one that is nonexistent or, at best, flawed.

"I think it would be possible to save some lab work by knowing what is going on, and it could open a new marketing opportunity," Friberg said.

As for cosmetics, tradition has a head start on science, Friberg said. For instance, the latest interest in skin care -- hydroxy acids, the active ingredients in anti-wrinkle creams -- have been used for thousands of years and date back to Cleopatra, whose bath contained lactic acid (a hydroxy acid) which the classic beauty obtained from sour donkey milk.

"Cosmetics have a very long period of use," he said. "The companies involved have a tremendous knowledge of what works and doesn't work just from experience. Once they show somewhere that something works, then everyone jumps on the bandwagon."

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The American Chemical Society -- the world's largest scientific society -- is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

-- John Simpson

Note for reporters' use only: For full information about the Boston meeting, including access to abstracts of more than 9,500 scientific papers and hundreds of non-technical summaries, visit http://www.acspresscenter.org. News release images are available at http://chemistry.org/bostonnews/images.html.

The poster on this research, COLL 418, will be presented at 9:00 a.m., Wednesday, Aug. 22, at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, Room 153B, during the session "Surfactants and Polymers for Personal, Home and Health Care."

Stig E. Friberg, Ph.D., is a chemist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.

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