Jul 24, 2023 - Health

Cosmetics companies take a page from precision medicine's playbook

Illustration of a makeup compact in the shape of a strand of DNA

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The power of genomics is already being harnessed to develop therapies customized to a patient's biological makeup. Now, it's being applied to cosmetics.

Driving the news: L'Oreal is teaming up with Google life sciences spinout Verily to create a 10,000-person study to understand the biological, social, and environmental factors behind skin and hair health.

  • The knowledge can help the French conglomerate "lead the future of precision beauty the same way they're doing precision medicine or precision health in the pharma industries," Guive Balooch, L'Oreal's global managing director of augmented beauty and open innovation, told Axios.

The big picture: It's a nascent market, but reflects a broader trend of the melding of health, wellness, and beauty industries and tapping real-world medical data, said Laura Leeb, a partner at Strategy& Germany, part of PwC.

  • A number of cosmetic brands have been investing in biotech, particularly as consumers seek out "clean" beauty options and more personalized products and experiences.
  • "The industry lines are blurring. It's not the beauty industry anymore. It's not the health industry anymore," Leeb said.
  • While the size and scope aren't fixed, Europe's precision medicine market alone will likely grow from roughly $15 billion today to about $27 billion in 2030 — and the "wellcare" industry, which includes health, beauty, and food, is estimated around $5 trillion worldwide.
  • A report from Research and Markets puts the potential market size for "next-generation personalized beauty" at roughly $38 billion, projecting it could reach $63 billion by 2027.

Details: L'Oreal said its goal is to create "a longitudinal biological, clinical, and environmental view" of what drives change in the features of skin and hair and create algorithms to match people and skin care products. It wants to develop new technologies and tele-diagnosis tools with sensors and AI.

  • The study will draw on participants' selfies, as well as details about beauty and sleep routines over time.
  • A smaller cohort of at least 1,000 patients will also give more intensive samples, such as tissue and hair samples. Part of the study will be devoted to advancing skin and hair health for people with Black skin tones.
  • Verily says it can use its technology to discover the links between external factors that people are exposed to over their lifetimes, skin aging, and biology of the skin.
  • For example, air quality and sleep can both affect skin aging, but it's not known exactly how much either actually contributes to the phenomenon and why.
  • "There have been lots of cohorts done for health like diabetes," Balooch said. "Skin has been, in my opinion, a place where there should be more."
  • This is a much more consumer-focused task than Verily typically focuses on, said Amy Abernethy, a former principal deputy commissioner at the FDA who's president of product development and chief medical officer at Verily.
  • "But if you ask the question, 'How does the science influence things that are meaningful to us?' It's exactly the same task." Abernethy said. "It's a pretty remarkable dataset that L'Oreal is intending to build to inform what precision beauty should look like."

The intrigue: L'Oreal and Verily have worked together before, unveiling a handheld makeup applicator at this year's Consumer Electronics Show that makes it easier for someone with limited mobility to apply cosmetics.

Yes, but: Any consumer data collection, particularly at the level precision medicine requires, raises privacy concerns. Verily and L'Oreal officials say they are following the same cybersecurity protocols that might regulate any other health care project.

  • For now, none of the development requires FDA approval because L'Oreal is focused on a consumer market, including care for aging and conditions like eczema, atopic dermatitis, and acne.
  • The companies said they hope the study will inform future studies into biomarkers for more serious skin conditions.
  • And while the idea is intriguing, there are reasons to be skeptical about how meaningful its findings will be, Robert Pearl, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, Stanford University professor and former CEO of The Permanente Medical Group told Axios.
  • "I think there's so much that exists, even in medicine itself, where we can develop what I think of as precision beyond significance," Pearl said. For instance, a person who learns they have a slightly higher lifetime risk for heart attack would still be offered the same solutions in terms of diet, exercise and cholesterol, he said.
  • "It might be a very good tool to sell the product, to market the product," Pearl said. "It's gonna sound great but the question really is, will it make much difference?"

Our thought bubble: Precision medicine is a massive undertaking, and its potential and its limitations are not well understood by patients yet. Consumer applications are part of the natural progression of the technology but could influence the public's willingness to embrace customized therapies.

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