Source: New York Times
Date: 13 July 2003

Scientific Solution to Save Your Skin

OR decades, Estée Lauder's Prescriptives was content to help women find exactly the right colors to put on their faces. Then, two years ago, Pamela K. Baxter took over the brand, and she wasn't content at all. Millions of women, the statistics told her, were letting doctors inject Botox into their frown lines and abrade their faces with tiny crystals, all in hopes of repairing the skin to which those color cosmetics are applied. Yet, Prescriptives didn't even offer a garden-variety anti-aging cream.

"My reaction was: if microdermabrasion is doing so well in dermatologists' offices, why don't we have a product to do it at home?" Ms. Baxter recalled. In April, Prescriptives introduced Dermapolish, a home care product that uses tiny abrasive crystals similar to those used by dermatologists. And next spring, it will roll out a line of products, developed with a dermatologist, to combat cosmetic problems like adult acne, red skin and dark spots caused either by sun damage or hormonal imbalances.

The days of hope in a jar, different merely in package and price, are long gone. Today's skin-care companies are marrying science to mass customization. The sales representatives behind the counters, many newly trained, are asking their customers to fill out questionnaires that are as detailed as patient charts. Do they smoke? Are they often stressed? What's their diet like?

In other words, they are telling customers, "Let us help you classify your skin type and beauty regimen and we will sell you just the right product to solve your skin problems."

"It used to be so simple. Am I dry or not? Do I need moisturizer or not?" said Beth DiNardo, senior vice president for global marketing at Clinique, another Estée Lauder brand. "Now, picking the right cream has become a full-time job."

It sure has. Want to halt aging? Try the penta-peptides in Procter & Gamble's Olay Regenerist, the copper peptide's in the Neutrogena Corporation's Visibly Firm With Active Copper, or the "insulin-like growth factor" in Ré Vive. Need moisture? Try Dove's Essential Nutrients, derived from research done by its parent company, Unilever, on the natural moisturizing mechanisms in skin. Want to try even more esoteric science? Let Lab21, a tiny New York company, analyze your DNA from a cheek swab and use the results to customize your eye creams and face scrubs. Or, see if your dermatologist stocks one of the new products that include human growth hormone, an extract derived from a baby's foreskin.

The personal and scientific approach comes at a price. Mass-market brands like Olay or Neutrogena that rarely topped $10 now command upward of $20 for products with scientific-sounding ingredients. A two-ounce jar of Ré Vive carries a $375 price tag. Dermapolish is going for $125 for an eight-week supply.

Critics of the new scientifically based products are easy to find, of course. "If the things you see on the labels of cosmetics had the effects they claimed, they would have to go through the F.D.A.," said Dr. Irwin Freedberg, chairman of the dermatology department at the New York University School of Medicine, referring to the Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Leslie Baumann, chief of cosmetic dermatology at the University of Miami School of Medicine, is equally scornful. "The old cosmetic ads used to just say: `Our product will make you more beautiful and keep your husband from cheating.' Now they talk about some high-tech sounding protein that slows the aging process," she said. "But, very few ingredients do the things they say they do, and I'm not sure all of them are safe."

In fact, the companies have carefully steered clear of ingredients, dosages or claims that could raise a red flag to regulators. They note, with some justification, that many of their ingredients had their debuts in medical journals, and that they have published their own results in cosmetics journals. Numerous studies show that penta-peptides and copper peptides heal wounds, they note, so, of course, they can "heal" aging skin. Genomic research can spot all kinds of predispositions - so why not a predisposition to react to a skin cream or pollutant? If microcrystals work when dermatologists use them to abrade skin, why shouldn't they work in Dermapolish? If Retin-A, a powerful vitamin A derivative, is prescribed for combating wrinkles, then products replete with retinols and retinoids that were derived from vitamin A or from RetinA itself, should work as well.

Indeed, a growing number of "pure" scientists are embracing the convergence of aesthetic illusion and medical science. Drug companies, most of which long ago divested their cosmetics arms, are again pumping research dollars into aesthetic dermatology. For example, last year Pfizer formed Anaderm (Greek for new skin) to develop prescription creams that could fight aging or oily skin, and abnormal hair loss or growth. Dr. Arthur P. Bertolino, Anaderm's clinical exploratory head, predicts the products will be blockbusters. "We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe over a billion, for each," he said. "This is science finally meeting the unmet needs."

The lines between doctor's offices and cosmetics counters are blurring as more dermatologists offer their own emollients and creams. Neutrogena licensed its copper peptide technology from the ProCyte Corporation; ProCyte also sells higher-potency Neova copper peptide creams exclusively through doctor's offices. The Neutrogena product sells for about $20; the Neova products sell for $60 and more.

"We spent more than $100 million on research over the last 15 years, and now we can concentrate on sales and marketing," said John F. Clifford, ProCyte's president.

The plethora of molecules du jour was probably inevitable. More than a decade ago, companies began putting alpha hydroxy acids, retinols and retinoids, vitamins C and E, and all kinds of other scientific ingredients into what used to be mundane creams. Their sales shot up. In late 1993, for example, Unilver's Ponds brand offered its first alpha hydroxy product, and its face cream sales doubled in a year. Avon Products, which had introduced alpha hydroxy products even earlier, also had a huge increase in sales.

"Since then everyone has been looking for the next magic bullet," said Alex Znaiden, senior vice president for research and development at Unilever North America. "And when they can't find it, they combine retinols and hydroxies, or otherwise mix and match."

Numbers for the total skin care market are impossible to come by. No one seems to be tracking sales through doctor's offices, and big stores like Wal-Mart rarely divulge their numbers. But companies that gather data from drugstores and department stores say that skin care products are flying off shelves.

The question is, why?

One reason is obvious: The first wave of baby boomers have hit their 50's, and they are not content to age with grace.

Numerous other trends are converging to push skin care front and center. Among them:

  • Doctors seeking to rebuild incomes decimated by managed care are offering Botox, chemical peels, laser resurfacing and other procedures to help patients look younger. Not all patients get the treatments, but they do read about them and see them demonstrated on TV. "Every beauty editor wants to be the first to write about the next best thing in skin care," said Dr. Tabasum Mir, a New York dermatologist who sells her own creams.

  • These educated customers are less likely to buy on the basis of prestige or glitz and are more likely to chase exotic ingredients at a decent price. "You'll see women in Manolo Blahnik shoes buying drugstore cosmetics because there's just less of a class system now," said Ms. DiNardo, of Clinique. Companies are even toning down packaging, once tantamount to heresy in the cosmetics world. Avon's Anew line has always come in signature blue and silver jars and bottles with gold caps; its latest anti-wrinkle products, Anew Clinical, are in simple white glass jars. "We wanted the package to look a little more scientific," said Janice J. Teal, chief scientific officer.

  • Companies have dropped the not-invented-here syndrome. Many have full-time people whose job is to surf the Web, attend conventions and otherwise comb the world for promising technologies. "There are so many more scientific journals these days, and it's helping all the companies find and share data," said Gerald N. McEwen Jr., vice president for science at the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association.

  • Even within companies, researchers are collaborating more. Procter's skin-care people went to the paper technology group, which is usually more concerned with paper towels and disposable diapers, to learn how to make Daily Facial Cleansing Cloths, which leave conditioners on the skin after the soap has washed away. E. Michael McNamara, global president of the Neutrogena Corporation, readily acknowledges that Neutrogena would not have developed its lucrative line of retinol-based anti-aging products without access to the portfolio of research on Retin-A at the parent company, Johnson & Johnson.

  • Companies have more research tools at their disposal. "We have computer models that let us test ingredients and synthesize molecules, and we have labs where we can actually test what skin cream ingredients can activate the gene that makes collagen and elastin," said Ms. Teal of Avon. "It lets us test products the same way a drug company tests drugs."
Genomic research makes it possible, at least theoretically, to identify the factors that control how skin reacts to the environment and to certain ingredients.

Lab21, which was founded by former Estée Lauder executives in 2001, may have taken that approach to the ultimate extreme: It maintains a lab at the State University of New York at Stony Brook where computers analyze the DNA taken from from a swab of a customer's cheek, factor in data the customer provided about skin type and lifestyle, and then mix and match ingredients from myriad jars standing nearby. The result is a skin cream that can cost $250 but that Nathaniel L. Benson, Lab21's president, says is unique to each individual.

"The 5 percent lactic acid that one person's skin needs could cause an allergic reaction on another person's skin," Mr. Benson said. "Big companies that mass produce millions of units can't take that chance, so they have to dumb the formulas down." Lab21 sells its products at stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue in the United States, and through dermatologists in Brazil.

There are less esoteric routes, too, to customization. Clinique has begun giving customers a "dear doctor" card that describes the ingredients in its products and suggests that the doctor choose the right ones. Prescriptives is training its consultants to analyze which skin treatments their customers need. "The customers for skin care are loyal, while the customers for color cosmetics are not," noted Ms. Baxter of Prescriptives, who also oversees three other specialty brands for Estée Lauder.

The mass-market brands cannot go quite that far. But they, too, are offering an explosion of ingredients and formulations. Under the Healthy Skin umbrella, Neutrogena is offering creams that fight wrinkles, others that fight blemishes and some that fight both. Some have alpha hydroxy acids, others have retinol. Some firm areas under the eyes, others bleach them. Ponds, too, now has products replete with alpha hydroxy acids, retinol, vitamins C and E and others.

The companies seem remarkably unconcerned that they might be cannibalizing their own product lines. Olay Regenerist seems to be aiming at the same market as Olay Total Effects, a niacinamide-based anti-aging product that is one of Procter's stars - sales of Total Effects increased 29 percent last year despite the soft economy. Michael D. Kuremsky, Procter's general manager for North America skin care, insists that Total Effects is an all-in-one product aimed at women who would be unwilling to follow the three-product skin care regimen that Regenerist entails.

If the proliferation of products continues, however, consumers may wind up with less choice, not more. Shelf space is a precious commodity, and stores are loath to carry products with too narrow an appeal.

That's one reason Procter has stopped short of offering too many iterations of Regenerist or Total Effects. As Mr. Kuremsky put it: "We want to be sure all our products have enough scale to hold onto their shelf space."

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