Why the future of cosmetics is 3D-printed skin
The body’s biggest organ is your skin, and now it can be 3D-printed, thanks to a joint project between cosmetics company L’Oreal and bio-engineering startup Organovo. L’Oreal will use the artificial skin to test cosmetics, significantly reducing costs associated with the testing process and improving the speed at which products hit the market
Skin isn’t the first organ that Organovo has printed. The company made a name for itself last year when it announced that it had successfully 3D-printed the first liver. But just how do you print a human organ?
How do you 3D-print skin?
3D-printing organs starts with living multicellular building blocks – something Organovo calls bio-ink. Then, as with more conventional 3D printing, it’s a case of printing these in layers using bio-inert “scaffolding” such as hydrogel to support the cellular structures as they’re being built. In this way, Organovo has been able to construct artificial living structures such as livers and kidneys.
However, to make skin is far more simple. The fact that it is effectively a living fabric made up of layers means it’s perfect for 3D printing. Organovo’s bio-printer places these living layers of bio-ink on top of one another, until the end result is a patch of living skin.
Because you’re worth it
L’Oreal is no stranger to R&D. In 2011, it spent 3.5% of its revenue on research, far more than its rivals; Procter & Gamble spent 2.7% and Revlon only 1.7%. Taking that into account, it’s no surprise that L’Oreal is the first to make the move into this developing technology.
And this isn’t the first time L’Oreal has worked on creating skin artificially. Since the 1980s, in an attempt to cut down on animal testing, it has been harvesting cells taken from donors, creating the ideal conditions for growth in its laboratories. It takes around a week to grow skin this way, and L’Oreal grows nine varieties of skin to cater for its consumer base. According to the BBC, the cosmetics firm currently uses this method to churn out more than 100,000 pieces of skin per year, with each piece measuring 0.5cm2 and 1mm thick.
Developing skin using 3D-printing techniques is much faster. Rather than waiting for cells to spread and grow on their own, Organovo’s method lays them on top of one another, which forces growth rather than simply promoting it.
Medical applications for 3D-printed skin
Although 3D-printed skin is currently only being used for testing cosmetics, there are obvious – and more important – medical applications, such as testing new treatments and drugs. Alongside reducing the need for animal testing, this would allow development to human testing far more quickly.
Beyond this, there’s also the potential for using 3D-printed skin directly on humans, where there’s a need to replace missing or damaged skin tissue. However, as with Organovo’s liver, this is some time away.