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The hottest new beauty treatment might be bioengineered silk

The biotech company Bolt Threads is spinning off a new direct-to-consumer beauty company, Eighteen B, that uses lab-created silk protein as a key ingredient.

The hottest new beauty treatment might be bioengineered silk
[Photo: courtesty Eighteen-B]

When I think about silk, I imagine beautiful scarves or neckties. But it turns out that silk has many properties that make it useful for more than just fabulous, fashionable accessories. For instance, silk has been used in the medical industry for helping to heal wounds, since the materials mimic the skin’s protective barrier and helps to retain moisture.

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[Photo: courtesy Eighteen B]
“The structure of silk molecules have endless applications,” says Lindsay Wray, the associate director of materials development at Bolt Threads, a materials innovation company that has found ways to manufacture silk and mushroom leather in a lab. “If you scan through peer-reviewed journals, you’ll see scientists finding uses for it in almost every industry.”

Wray should know. For the last decade, she has studied silk as a biomedical engineer. She earned her doctorate from Tufts, where she worked in a pioneering lab that developed ways to apply silk protein to tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. Five years ago, she joined Bolt Threads, then a 5-year-old company commercializing new materials. So far, Bolt Threads has developed Microsilk, a full-length silk protein, which it has used to make items like a $314 tie and $200 cap, and well as Mylo, a leather-like material that is made from mycelium, the underground root structure of mushrooms.

[Photo: courtesy Eighteen B]

Wray’s job at the company was to help develop new uses for lab-produced silk, and today, the company is announcing one new application of this technology: skincare. Bolt Threads has launched an entirely new company called Eighteen B, which debuts with two products, a moisturizer and a cream, both of which use silk as a key ingredient. Wray is serving as the chief scientific officer of this new direct-to-consumer startup.

Silk has been used in the beauty industry for some time, with brands like Silk Therapeutics and BioSilk using it as a key ingredient in their products. Silk proteins can serve as a barrier to protect hair follicles and the skin, which makes them a useful ingredient in moisturizer and conditioner. But most brands use hydrolyzed silk protein, which means that the chemical structure of the silk has been divided into smaller components with the addition of water, diluting its effects. Wray says that Eighteen B is different from these other brands because the company has found a way to manufacture the silk protein without hydrolyzing it or degrading it, which allows it to retain more of its valuable properties.

“If you think of the silk protein as a pearl necklace, hydrolyzing breaks apart each of the pearls,” Wray explains. “You can’t put them back together again. But our silk protein exists in its unbroken form, which allows it to be a more protective barrier for your skin.”

[Photo: courtesy Eighteen B]

Eighteen B’s protein, which it has trademarked under the name “B-silk,” is designed to work with the structural proteins found in the skin, like collagen and elastin. The company says that the products will form a breathable, protective barrier that will help the skin retain moisture, while also firming and smoothing the skin over time.

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Just like the products sold by Bolt Threads itself, Eighteen B will sit squarely in the luxury end of the skincare market, with its moisturizer priced at $75 and its cream priced at $95. The company is also positioning itself as a nontoxic beauty brand by ensuring that its products are free from sulfates, parabens, silicone, petrochemicals, and fragrance. The products use clean ingredients such as bark extracts, shea butter, and ceramides.

Eighteen B gives us some insight into Bolt Threads’ approach as a technology company. Rather than selling off its tech to other companies to use, which is common among biotechnology companies, Bolt has chosen to launch its own direct-to-consumer beauty brand, much like, say, Glossier or Beautycounter. Bolt Threads may well spin off more brands like Eighteen B, as it comes up with new applications for its materials. Wray says the strategy the company takes will depend on the particular material and application in question. “If there are consumer applications that work well for a direct-to-consumer approach, we will certainly consider doing that,” she says.

But what we do know is that Bolt Threads is thinking very broadly about what to do with its materials, including creating apparel, footwear, accessories, and beauty products. And as far as Wray is concerned, there are no limits to what we can do with silk. “I’m a huge silk nerd,” she says. “But I really believe that the sky is the limit, in terms of what we can do with silk.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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