The word “bespoke” is more usually associated with Savile Row than skincare but beauty brands are increasingly turning to made-to-measure ingredients to tackle age-old problems.
Robert Langer, a chemical engineer and institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a founder of the company Living Proof, which aims to rethink approaches to beauty challenges such as frizzy hair and wrinkles through craftsmanship at the molecular level.
Langer was approached in 2004 by Jon Flint, a venture capitalist whose interest in beauty was piqued after reading about the lack of innovation in the industry.
“In beauty, the fundamental approach seems to be ... you take an off-the- shelf material and then adapt it for use as best you can,” says Langer. What, he wondered, if you could create a new material instead?
The result was No Frizz, Living Proof’s first haircare product (from £19, spacenk.co.uk). Langer says: “We analysed what causes hair to frizz in the first place – moisture getting in and expanding hair in different ways – and worked out what you need, from a chemical, engineering and biological standpoint, to counteract it.”
The answer wasn’t silicone – the ingredient used in most anti-frizz products – but polyfluoroester, a coating for contact lenses never before used in the beauty industry. In its original state it was difficult to incorporate into a haircare product so Living Proof “tweaked” the original molecule – mixed it with other ingredients to add or subtract atoms. By changing the conditions, such as temperature and pressure, in which the mixing process is carried out, it is possible to control exactly where extra atoms are added or subtracted. A tweaked molecule will behave in a slightly different way to the original – in this case, in a way more suited to hair than contact lenses.
David Briggs, a structural biologist at Manchester university, says it is a technique already widely used by pharmaceutical companies. “Chemists tweak potential drugs during development to see if they can create a better molecule that will be more effective,” he says.
“It can certainly create better products but we are not brilliant at predicting the effect of a molecule when we change a little bit of it, so some trial and error is involved.”
Living Proof is not the only beauty company that is pursuing a back-to-building-blocks approach.
Avon’s recent launch of its Anew Clinical Pro Line Corrector Treatment (£30, avonshop.co.uk) contains A-F33, a bespoke molecule designed to help boost collagen levels in skin by deactivating compounds that block its production.
This cellular approach – new for skincare products – has also been followed by Lancôme, which went down a similar path with Visionnaire (£58, boots.com), its biggest launch of 2011. Julie McManus, scientific director for Lancôme UK & Ireland, says: “We were interested in a compound called jasmonate, which is present in plants and has a role in repair and regeneration. We thought it had potential to play a similar role in skin but we needed to remodel it in such a way that it would be able to penetrate it.”
Lancôme spent 10 years modifying the molecule and subtly changing the bonds to package it in a skin-friendly format. It finally came up with a version that it believes has the anti-ageing benefits of retinol – the gold standard when it comes to plumping skin and diminishing fine lines – without any of the negative side effects, such as dryness and irritation.
However, Matthew Fuchter, a senior lecturer in synthetic and medicinal chemistry at London’s Imperial College, urges caution. “If you’re creating a molecule that can interfere with the body’s biochemical pathways, you are straying beyond cosmetics and into drug territory,” he says.
“And then you end up having to put products through costly and extensive clinical trials in the same way pharmaceutical companies do. No beauty brand wants that, so they are walking a fine line.”
But Langer is bullish. “Realistically, we can solve any problem,” he says. “It’s a question of how much money it’s going to take and if it’s worth it to solve it.
“We’re at the tip of the iceberg of what we could do.”