How Procter & Gamble Co. scientists cracked the code on skin aging

Will stronger science lead to rising sales?

MASON, Ohio -- Color-coded dots fill the monitor like static on an old TV. Each dot is a point-in-time snapshot of a human skin-cell gene. Procter & Gamble Co. researchers collected millions of these pixels to paint a complete picture of skin aging in women of different ages and ethnicities.

“It is step changing our innovation,” said Dr. Frauke Neuser, associate director for science and innovation communications at P&G.

They’ve been at it for seven years now in what’s believed to be the largest skin study ever conducted. Already, it has led to the discovery of gene expressions that cause some women to appear younger than their chronological age. It also spawned two major product launches for the Olay skin care brand in the United States and China. And it could fill the new-product pipeline for years to come.

Dr. Frauke Neuser

“Olay is not a brand that completely changes ingredients every two years and always runs after the latest greatest-sounding ingredient,” Neuser said. “They really need to be proven to work.”

Olay’s research is an example of the “irresistible superiority” that P&G leaders are seeking for all of its brands. They hope to grow market share with products that are so good consumers can’t do without them.

Sales results so far are promising but not conclusive. The science has proven solid enough for the American Academy of Dermatology to publish a journal article on the Multi-Decade & Ethnicity Study, authored by P&G scientists in Cincinnati and Japan, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital and the genetic testing firm 23andMe Inc.

“This study was designed to collect and integrate data at the molecular, cellular and tissue levels to help produce an overall model of aging skin,” the November 2017 article states. “As part of this study, gene expression patterns common in women who were ‘exceptional agers’ and appeared years younger than their chronologic age were identified.”

Olay researchers used robots to process gene samples.

A look inside a P&G research center

WCPO got an exclusive look at the Mason laboratories where most of its analysis was conducted. It's a vibrant place in the midst of a $300 million expansion, and it's already brimming with high-tech tools and top-flight talent from all over the globe.

“This is one of our multiple robots that we use to prepare the samples,” said Jay Tiesman, a research fellow and genomics group leader. “We’ll process that sample … and then the robot will isolate the genes that are being expressed.”

P&G interviewed more than 300 women, ranging in age from 20 to 74, taking pictures and biopsy samples that could be analyzed for genetic differences in their skin cells.

“When you do a skin sample, it’s really just a snapshot in time of that person’s gene expression profile,” Tiesman said. “You need a large collection of women in order to get an idea of what the real critical genes that are changing over time really are. That’s what we were able to do when we did the MDE study.”

Olay researchers found 10 percent of women are "exceptional agers" with high levels of "gene expressions" tied to younger skin.

The "eureka" moment came when Tiesman’s team realized that certain genes are more active in younger-looking women, regardless of their age in years. These include genes that regulate cellular repair and promote “skin barrier,” which keeps harmful toxins out of the body and vital fluids in.

Jay Tiesman

“We’re very excited when we make those kind of aha discoveries,” Tiesman said. “We’re really justifying our existence, right? Because we’re saying, ‘This was really worth it.’”

Equipped with newfound knowledge, P&G searched through a database of 15,000 ingredients for a substance that could make those anti-aging genes more active. They found it in the carob seed, a chocolate-flavored health food first discovered by the ancient Greeks. P&G determined that carob extract significantly increases the synthesis of Activin A, a protein that accelerates growth of those barrier cells on the skin’s outermost layer.

"In the early days, when people were doing skin care they were just taking stabs in the dark,” Tiesman said. “They were guessing. Or someone, somewhere had said, 'Oh, this ingredient, this green tea was really good for my grandma, or something like that.’ Now, we can actually say why it really works."

Olay used photo analysis to analyze skin aging.

And apparently it really does.

“We started measuring reductions in fine lines and wrinkles after one week,” Neuser said. “It got better after two weeks and even better after four weeks.”

Better science, better sales?

Of course, lab results are one thing; sales and market-share gains are another.

Olay Regenerist was reformulated in 2017.

P&G launched its new formula for Olay Regenerist in January 2017, leading to a resurgence of the product line by midyear. While U.S. revenue declined 4 percent to $245 million in the 2017 calendar year, P&G said its Micro Sculpting Cream grew sales and market share in April, leading to sales growth for the entire Regenerist product line starting in August 2017.

A similar approach appears to be working in China, where Olay is enjoying double-digit growth just a few months after P&G added its “first ever super peptide formula” to the product, Chief Financial Officer Jon Moeller told analysts in February.

P&G’s beauty segment was the fastest growing of the five it reports to shareholders each quarter, with 5 percent organic sales growth led by strong performance by its skin care brands Olay and SK-II. 

But those numbers aren’t strong enough to convince skeptics that the brand is irresistibly superior.

“None of my four daughters or my wife have been running out to get Olay based on some (new ingredient) that they’ve heard about,” said P&G retiree Keith Lawrence. He left the company in 2009 and now works as a consultant and retirement coach at Sustaining Success Solutions LLC.

Lawrence said Olay’s problem isn’t product superiority but a crowded shelf of skin care products that makes it hard for consumers to cut through the clutter.

“Show me the marketing message that’s going to resonate with consumers,” he said. “Show me the winning plan.”

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