L'Oréal and other French cosmetic brands are delving into the creepy realm of printing the equivalent of human flesh.
PARIS — The days of rusty, old inkjet printers from the 1970s are long gone. At the inkjet's inception, the thought of printing "flesh and blood" would have been the stuff of science fiction. Today, however, 3-D bioprinting has become a reality, both in technological and economic terms. The proof is in the pudding: The market, which represented $1.4 billion worldwide in 2020, is expected to grow to $4.4 billion in 2028. For the cosmetics industry, which often relies on "artificial" skin to test products, this cutting-edge technology is of particular interest.
3-D printing skin has two primary objectives: the first is to gain a more precise understanding of human skin and its biological mechanisms, and the second, for the cosmetics world, is to accelerate the production of skin samples in order to test new products. Christophe Masson is the CEO of Cosmetic Valley, a high-technology cluster specializing in the production of consumer goods in the perfumes ands industry of perfumes and cosmetics.
"The rise of bioprinting is part of several phenomena," says Masson. "It may not be immediately obvious, but France is the leading exporter of cosmetics in the world. We hold this position because we continue to innovate skincare products that emphasize safety, performance and durability. On an industrial and more general level, the principle of 3-D printing is at the heart of what we call new "rapidly prototyping technology."
Because of the extensive process, some scientists even go so far as to refer to it as 4-D
In essence, 3-D printing allows brands to adapt their production processes in order to create products faster while allowing for greater flexibility and customization. Masson says, "This is great because we are entering an era where cosmetics needs to be adaptable to individual needs. 3-D printing is a remarkable technology because it allows us to keep up with this evolution."
Luckily for French cosmetology brands, the leaders in skin bioprinting are also French. Among them are two start-ups that began in 2014: Poietis, founded by Fabien Guillemot, a former researcher at Inserm, and LabSkin Creations, which is based in Lyon and was built by Amélie Thépot, a doctor in cell biology.
The way 3-D bioprinting works is similar to the way the printers we have at home or in our offices function, except that the ink used is made of bio-materials and living cells. Layer by layer, according to the principle of additive manufacturing, the printer assembles biological tissues, which can be bone, cartilage or skin.
For the latter, it takes about three weeks for the material to really take shape. Because of the extensive process, some scientists even go so far as to refer to it as 4-D. Fabien Guillemot, the founder of Poietis, says, "In 3-D printing skin, we have already introduced a fourth dimension, which is related to the time needed to create skin. After printing the successive layers, the artificial skin must to go through a stage of cell maturation, or "cell culture." During this process, the cells will interact with the bio-materials and their environment to begin multiplying."
Of the world's rising technologies and innovations, bioprinting artificial human skin holds a special place. Used for scientific research, knowledge development and testing, artificial skin is at the heart of many controversies related to ethics and product safety. In this regard, Europe has some of the strictest regulations in the world. But even before the bloc banned animal testing in March 2013, the cosmetics industry was already looking for alternative evaluation protocols for its products. By forming partnerships with the world of public research, new methods and technologies were developped, namely bioprinting.
An image of Labskin Creations' 3D bioprinted "functional human hypodermis" — Photo: Labskin Creations
The L'Oréal group is one corporation that has looked into these issues. Elisabeth Bouhadana, international scientific director of the L'Oréal Paris brand, says, "In cosmetics, there is no risk-benefit analysis like there is in the medical or pharmaceutical world. Recently, given the global situation, we have heard more about this this notion and the possibility of side effects that some drugs or vaccines can induce."
Bouhadana adds that in her industry, the products launched cannot present any risk, they must be 100% safe. To guarantee this safety, numerous tests are carried out, particularly those performed in vitro on human skin models reconstructed in the laboratory.
"You could say the media played a role, particularly during the 1970s at L'Oréal," says Bouhadana. "At that time, the entire cosmetics industry was experimenting on animals, which was problematic both for ethical and scientific reasons. Scientifically, the results lacked reliability, as human skin is very different from pig skin, for example."
In 1979, one of the group's researchers succeeded in creating the first epidermal cell culture in the laboratory. By 1989, the reconstructed skin model was used to test the effectiveness of products. Later on, the company would go on to sign a partnership with the American bioprinting start-up Organovo in 2015, sharing the same goal of continuing to advance scientific research in the field of 3-D printing human skin.
"[3-D printing technology] allows us to enter and study the infinitely small organ, skin"
Luc Aguilar, a biologist and the director of advanced research at L'Oréal, explains the many possibilities for bioprinting, such as the ability to "analyze and fight against the formation of pigmentation spots." Aguilars says the technology allows us to "enter the infinitely small organ (skin) and study its micro-anatomy."
Another possible advancement that could come about because of bioprinting is the study of atopic eczema, a condition that affects millions of people. "Thanks to bioprinting, we are able to reproduce eczematous lesions in a healthy environment, by printing healthy and damaged cells on the same epidermal area," says Aguilar, who recently published a scientific article on the subject in the journal Nature.
And finally, another advantage of bioprinting is that it allows us to obtain much more reliable predictive models for testing. Virginie Couturaud, Dior's director of scientific communications, says that previous iterations of reconstructed skins were basically made by hand.
"Now, since they are manufactured according to predefined computer parameters, we can benefit from more stable and more calibrated models," says Couturaud.
The luxury brand has been using this technology to develop its skincare products for over four years. "It allows us to better determine the way each ingredient behaves and interacts, which is an essential element in the early stages of product development," say Couturaud. "We are only at the beginning and it is clear that bioprinting offers great opportunities for cosmetics."