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June 2, 2004
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Imaging of Human Skin with Tiny 2-D Scanner

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After a long winter, maybe your complexion isn't blooming the way you'd like. Cosmetics companies are always launching new products. But how many of them can really get deep down to fix your problems? As this ScienCentral News video reports, one nanotechnologist says he has come up with a way to do just that.

Skin Deep

As your complexion wakes up from the winter freeze, it might need some spring cleaning and rejuvenation. But how do you know which product will deliver the goods?

Perhaps nanotechnology, the science that works at the incredibly tiny scale of just a few atoms, can help you. The cosmetics company L'Oreal has been putting its "nanocapsules"—which can range between 130 and 600 nanometers in size—into its products since 1995. Active ingredients like retinol, an anti-oxidant, are reduced to a tiny size and coated with a biodegradable polymeric shell. The nanocapsules are small enough to get through the first layers of the skin; then, when the skin's natural enzymes dissolve the surface of the nanocapsules, the active ingredients get released. These products have been sampled by reporters at Small Times and The Wall Street Journal with some positive results.

Now, L'Oreal is working on getting a closer look at what's going on under your skin. Physicist Frederic Leroy, director of the Physics Department in the Advanced Research Laboratory at L’Oreal, has helped designed a sensor on a computer chip that allows him to see skin's structure. He says this new, highly detailed view will help his research team learn more about skin, and exactly what kind of care is best.

Leroy says that the state of your complexion—its dryness, oiliness, or sensitivity—is "governed by the chemical and physical structure at the nanometer level. So we want to establish the relationships between the chemical and physical structure at the nanometer level—about one millionth of the size of a human hair." Skin is made up of proteins that organize by means of chemical interactions. "We need to understand the chemical composition, and the physical properties of skin at this nanoscale level to better understand how to enhance it with cosmetic products," he says.

skin closeup
This is how skin looks through Leroys sensor.
Called the SkinChip sensor, Leroy's chip is based on STMicroelectronics' TouchChip silicon image sensor technology, which was developed for biometric fingerprint recognition. To observe the surface of someone’s skin, the SkinChip can capture detailed 500 dots-per-inch images in less than one tenth of a second.

When used with special software, the sensor can create a hydration or dryness map of -a person’s skin. This would help scientists to better understand the age-related changes that take place in the skin, and design skin-care products that would make a difference.. And the whole process would be non-invasive, unlike some other cosmetic procedures.

Leroy hopes his in-depth approach will help make cosmetics that work better for each customer. He says the SkinChip also can study the structure of hair and nails. "These devices are interesting," he says, "because they give the opportunity to increase our knowledge of hair and skin. Once we improve our knowledge of hair, skin, and nail structure and their chemical composition, we can develop new technologies, new cosmetic ingredients which will better enhance the properties of hair and skin."

This research was presented at the February 2004 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the World Congress of Dermatology, 2003, and was funded by L'Oreal.

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