Cosmetics companies take a page from precision medicine’s playbook

July 25, 2023

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, reports Axios.

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 to “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, recently told Axios.

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.

Among the industry and technical factors contributing to this development, Axios notes, are the following:

L’Oreal says that its goal is to create “a longitudinal biological, clinical, and environmental view” of what drives change in the features of skin and hair; and to 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 also will give more intensive samples—such as tissue and hair samples. And 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.”

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.

However, there are ethical questions: 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 the 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?”

Research contact: @axios