Skip to main content

A woman looks at L'Oreal cosmetics in a shop in this file photoINTS KALNINS/Reuters

L'Oreal needs human skin. Lots of it. That's why the French cosmetics giant earlier this month announced that it's partnering with bioprinting startup Organovo to figure out how to 3D print living, breathing derma that can be used to test products for toxicity and efficacy. "We're the first beauty company Organovo has worked with," says Guive Balooch, global vice president of L'Oreal's tech incubator.

This isn't L'Oreal's first foray into skin production. Looking to avoid animal testing, the company started farming derma back in the 1980s. In Lyon, France, it runs lab facilities the size of three Olympic swimming pools, dedicated entirely to growing and analyzing human tissues. About 60 scientists work on site, growing more than 100,000 skin samples annually. That's roughly five square meters of skin per year – or 54 square feet, about the equivalent of one cowhide. Each sample is 0.5 square centimeter in size. The fattest are 1 millimeter thick.

Using the current method, skin samples are grown from tissues donated by plastic surgery patients in France are then cut into thin slices and broken down into cells. Those cells are placed in trays, fed a special, proprietary diet, and exposed to biological signals that mimic those of actual skin. "We create an environment that's as close as possible to being inside someone's body," says Balooch. It takes about a week for the samples to form, he adds, "because the skin has different layers and you have to grow them in succession."

L'Oreal uses roughly half the skin it produces and sells the rest to pharmaceutical companies and rivals in the cosmetics industry. The company wouldn't provide current prices but in 2011 told Bloomberg that samples cost $70.62 (U.S.) a pop. Nine skin varieties are available, covering a range of ages and ethnicities.

With San Diego-based Organovo's help, L'Oreal aims to speed up and automate skin production within the next five years. Research for the project will take place in Organovo's labs and L'Oreal's new California research center. L'Oreal will provide skin expertise and all the initial funding, while Organovo, which is already working with such companies as Merck to print liver and kidney tissues, will provide the technology.

L'Oreal, which is more of a tech company than many people realize, spends about 3.7 per cent of its revenue – more than $1-billion annually – on research and development. That's about twice the industry standard, says Bloomberg analyst Deborah Aitken. An army of about 3,800 L'Oreal scientists in about 50 countries work on creating beauty breakthroughs. At their disposal are specially designed machines that do things such as wash hair over and over again or provide 3D images of cells showing different materials like collagen and keratins. Last year, the company even launched an app called Makeup Genius that lets you see yourself in real time, wearing products that aren't actually on your face.

L'Oreal will have exclusive rights to the 3D printed skin developed with Organovo for uses related to non-prescription skin care products. Organovo will retain rights to the tissue models for efficacy testing of prescription drugs, toxicity tests, and the development and testing of therapeutic or surgically transplanted tissues.