The words ‘beauty’ and ‘patents’ are rarely used together, unless you are talking to some passionate patent attorneys. Similarly, advertising the use of ‘chemistry’ or ‘chemicals’ in the manufacture of beauty products or cosmetics is rather unlikely. However, the three – chemistry, cosmetics and patents – constitute a successful formula that has been working for well over a century, resulting in the development of a variety of cosmetic products that we cannot imagine living without (and ones we might not actually need but enjoy nevertheless).

An 1888 US patent apparently gave the world the first deodorant, and, following on from the US patent No. 49 561 that claimed the first liquid soap in 1865, numerous patents directed to advances in skin cleaning have been filed around the world. The invention of a lead-free and effective hair dye in 1907 (French patent No. 383 920) by chemist Eugène Schueller launched L’Oréal’s path to become a leading beauty company, with research and development that now extends far beyond dyes and pigments to, for example, applying the modern ‘omics’ approaches to discover new ways to halt or reverse skin ageing.

Why patent?

Patents play an important role in enabling innovations to materialise into usable products. The need for appropriate patent protection exists whenever there is an intention or a potential to derive commercial value from a technological invention. Otherwise, the associated investment into research and development could be lost due to competitors taking advantage of the technology and manufacturing/selling the product themselves. Moreover, funding from investors is often required to translate research developments into commercial products, and having patent protection in place is usually a prerequisite for attracting that investment.

What can be patented?

Patent protection may be obtained for a variety of inventions, formulated as specific claims. Within the beauty industry, the most common category is likely to be compositions or formulations containing a mixture of ingredients, such as sunscreen, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, skin cream, fragrance and nail polish. Other common types of inventions are substances (eg a protein with hair strengthening properties) or devices (eg an electric facial cleansing brush). Methods, such as a method of reducing hair loss, minimising fine lines and wrinkles, or assaying skin condition, can also be patented, although this is an area where the boundaries as to what is/is not patentable vary between countries.

Further examples of patentable inventions include the use of a product for a particular purpose (eg use of a micellar suspension for skin cleaning); a process for making a product (eg a process for preparing hyaluronic acid); a method of administration of a product (eg a skin patch for delivery of cosmetic ingredients); or a ‘product produced by a process’ (eg coconut oil obtained without heat). Lastly, numerous patents are filed with regard to packaging, applicators and dispensers, such as lipstick cases, mascara brushes and capsules for serum.

What’s next?

According to Forbes magazine the beauty industry is thriving with consumers open to exploration, leaving plenty of room for innovation. South Korean cosmetics giant Amorepacific was one of the most innovative companies in the world in 2018.

Multiple developments have proven successful in the recent years, such as tissue facial masks based on transdermal patch drug delivery technologies, and products to repair damaged hair by using a Michael acceptor to tie up free sulfhydryls of hair proteins. Personalised cosmetics relying on genomics and artificial intelligence is tipped to be a hot area in beauty research. Whatever the next big beauty hits will be, some of the first people to find out about them will be intellectual property professionals.

This article first appeared in RACI's Chemistry in Australia magazine and is reprinted with permission.