Sticking the My UV Skin patch on your arm is a cinch. It's as simple as applying a Band-Aid or a nicotine patch. There's one crucial difference: This personalized sun protection device has five layers of micron-thin electronics, including near field communication capabilities.
But the creators of this particular wearable would just as soon you didn't think about any of that. For it to be successful, in fact, you'll need to conveniently ignore that it's a piece of sophisticated technology—so much so that you'll throw it away after five days. L'Oréal wants you to think of it as skin care.
"If L'Oréal put a product in front of you and said, 'Here, put this on your skin,' there's a good chance you're going to test it," says Liam Casey, CEO of PCH International, the engineering and design firm that helped create the product. "If, like, HP put it out there and said, 'Hey, put that on your skin,' . . . I'm sorry."
When L'Oréal's La Roche Posay skin-care brand rolled out its digital UV tattoo at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, it received widespread attention. A sticker that measures UV exposure and connects with your smartphone to notify you to put on sunscreen is a winning pitch. And it represents a far larger opportunity—the merging of the $115 billion global skin-care market with the $223 billion consumer electronics industry.
"Today you have a lot of NFCs in things like the hotel reader cards where it lets you open your hotel," says Guive Balooch, global vice president of L'Oréal Technology Incubator, where My UV Skin was born. "But . . . this is going to be the future. I’m sure of it. The new wearables in the next few years will be all around being able to put things on your body."
That said, producing a line of technology products doesn't come naturally to a company that has historically specialized in chemistry. And while L'Oréal pushes millions of tubes of lipstick every year, scaling up a supply chain in the electronics industry requires a different kind of know-how.
Billed as a "second skin electronic wearable," the patch monitors how much UV exposure you're getting on any given day and gives you personalized care recommendations based on your skin color, tone, and type. It all connects to an app that analyzes data from the patch's sensors and determines how much UV exposure you've received. (Hint: skin damage happens way sooner than you think!).
All that happens inside a patch that is about 50 microns thick (around half the width of a human hair). There are five layers, starting with the adhesive strip that sticks to your skin. The next layer includes an NFC coil, as well as the microchip that sends a signal to your phone to open the app. The next couple of layers contain the dyes that change color and pattern showing, even without a phone, that the patch is working. And finally a substrate that seals the whole package into a heart shape and prevents rusting of the metals inside.
"All these different materials come from different suppliers . . . and you have to have the accuracy of cutting this without deforming any of the substrate between each cut," says Andre Yousefi, lead engineer on this project and a key part of the team that has incubated products such as Ringly and the Birdi Smart Air Monitor. Once the parts are in place, the skin patch—which is about an inch in diameter—can be assembled.
That's when the manufacturing process get tricky, because the patch cannot be exposed to any light. "You manage that within a very controlled UV environment," says Yousefi. "And you’re running it through fast enough that it doesn’t get much exposure."
The layer above the electronics includes photo-oxidated dye that reacts to light. There are 16 squares in the middle, and 10 of the squares are reference colors, "so they’ll calibrate the measurement," says L'Oréal's Balooch. "And then you have six of these squares that change color . . . at different rates. This square is 20 minutes in the sun. This square is two hours in the sun. This square is eight hours, this is one day, this is two days, this is five days."
The squares are in a very specific order and color pattern—the pattern is essentially a mathematical algorithm represented as pixels. As they start to turn color, you take the app, take a photo of the patch, and little by little it tells you how much sun you've been getting cumulatively during the time you've been wearing it. It also tells you when the most sun-damaging times have been.
"That algorithm, it’s very complex," Yousefi says. It's "L'Oréal’s PhD secret sauce around the UV."
L'Oréal partnered with MC10, the Massachusetts-based flexible sensor maker, to prototype and miniaturize the product. After refining the design for more than a year, the cosmetics company turned to PCH for further engineering improvements as well as creating a supply chain and manufacturing process that could scale it into a consumer product.
"The problem with something like this is bringing together so many different technologies," says Liam Casey, founder and CEO of PCH International. "You have to get the expertise from L'Oréal around the layer that goes on the skin. You have to go to MC10 to get some experience on the technology part. That reason they’re more inclined to come to us, because they’re seeing all these great ideas, they’re saying, 'Okay, these are real ideas, how do we actually commercialize them?'"
As a result, L'Oréal and PCH entered into a strategic partnership that will lead to more products in the years ahead. The heart will be only one of the patch shapes, and there are more products in the pipeline.
"We want to build a series of products in coming years that are the link between technology and beauty," adds Balooch. "That’s not only around just wearables. It’s around personalizing, customizing cosmetics."
When the My UV Patch launches later this year as part of the La Roche Posay brand, the plan is to give it away for free. The sampling strategy is meant to get people used to wearing the technology. And more importantly from L'Oréal’s perspective, to raise awareness of sun and skin care.
"There is an inherent disconnect between people and understanding really how much sun exposure they have," says Balooch. "They just don’t know how much exposure they’re getting on a day-to-day basis, which by itself is going to be like an epiphany."
The app will also offer recommendations about what types of skin-care serums and sunscreens to use, of course—as well as what lifestyle changes to make. The UV filter market alone is expected to grow to $624 million by 2018. L'Oréal has been researching "photo protection" products for 35 years now, and Balooch thinks we're moving beyond the era in which sunscreen is considered a stand-alone product. "Which types of regimens of products should you use together based on the level of exposure you’ve had?" he says. "For example, you could have a serum and an SPF. There’s knowledge about the level of UVA that you’re getting and wrinkles and dark spots."
How it all works: For each of the five days that the patch works, it will tell you to take the scan every few hours and you’ll get a graph of how much exposure you’ve had. It will also give you recommendations around products to use as well as lifestyle tips. As Balooch explains, "what are the things that we would recommend for you to do to protect yourself better, like during these hours of peak sun, make sure you apply the right amount of sunscreen, make sure you go to the shade. Those can only happen if you truly understand how much sun is really on the person’s skin. With a weather app, you wouldn’t be able to do that, because they have one sensor in the middle of the city that’s assuming you’re out in the same area the whole time."
And in case you were wondering: You can apply sunscreen on top of the patch. It won’t change color until the product has been photo-oxidized. "That is very important," Balooch says.
The final packaging is still being perfected, but if Balooch's team can get mainstream women and kids used to wearing a near field communication device on their skin, it will represent a huge step in the mainstreaming of body sensors.
"Our position in L'Oréal is to bring tech in a way to empower the choices for the consumer," says Balooch. "In the next five years, I think people are going to be more demanding about having products that really work for their individual needs. The more we have technologies [to] understand what their individual needs are, the more we can develop better products." He adds: "That’s where technology will bring beauty to another level."