Jim Schwartz remembers feeling a little bewildered when he started his job developing beauty care products at Procter & Gamble Co.
Schwartz, fresh off earning his doctorate in chemistry, wondered about the scores of researchers working on Ivory soap:
"I thought, what in the world are all these people doing here? It's a bar of soap, for crying out loud!"
Two decades later, he explains: Researchers must decide the right mix of materials that go into a new beauty product; make sure it feels, smells, looks right and has added personal benefits without ill effects; and determine whether it can be made affordably on a huge scale.
"That deceptively simple product sitting on store shelves has years and years and thousands of person-hours that went into making it work well," Schwartz said.
In an increasingly competitive business, a growing army of scientists focuses on years-long projects to study the hows and whys of human hair, faces and skin, and what nutrients, moisturizers and even genetics affect them. Their results can mean the next big thing to meet growing demand for products that can help people look better and younger.
P&G has nearly doubled its beauty research staff, to 2,000, in the last seven years. Beauty sales, which include such brands as Pantene and Head & Shoulders shampoos and Olay skin care, more than doubled this decade, to $23 billion last year.
Researchers spend days peering through microscopes at human cells, analyzing genetic breakdowns, looking at facial pores blown up to look like moon craters and strands of hair that resemble tree bark, and lathering and rinsing rows of hair swatches. P&G buys more than 300 pounds of human hair (paying distributors up to $1,300 a pound) a year for testing shampoos, coloring and other hair care products.
Some workers wear safety glasses, and emergency showers are right outside lab doorways.
"Don't touch anything," Tom Dawson, a generally genial scientist with shoulder-length hair, warns visitors entering a lab that contains potentially hazardous materials.
P&G has made building its beauty business a top strategic goal, one that comes from some basic trends: the U.S. baby boom population seeks ways to defy aging and will spend for it. Young people, too, are spending more on looking better. And increasingly, people in developing economies around the world have money available to spend on their appearance.
P&G, which Wednesday reported its third-quarter profit rose 8%, said international growth for brands such as Pantene was strong, but slowed in U.S. markets. Officials said they remain optimistic about their beauty business, although the tightening U.S. economy has been affecting sales in areas such as higher-end, "prestige" cosmetics and fragrances.
P&G estimates the combined global market for beauty and personal health care at $360 billion.
The company, known for such household brands as Tide detergent and Pampers diapers, faces veteran cosmetics makers such as L'Oreal SA, Avon Products and Estee Lauder; consumer products competitors led by Unilever NA who also are expanding beauty product lines such as Dove; and a growing number of niche players with specialty products that catch people's attention.
"I think overall, it's a positive outlook, but it's going to be more challenging," said Karen Grant, beauty industry analyst for the NPD Group. "There are more people playing; competition is stiffer."
"A lot of the things that make it an attractive growth business to us, others see, too," said Bruce Brown, a P&G vice president for research and development.
Paris-based L'Oreal has steadily increased spending on research, and has some 3,000 people in that part of the operations, said Patricia Pineau, the company's director of research communications.
"If you want to be a leader and compete, you need to anticipate the consumer expectations ... and what is going to be possible in 10 (and) 12 years," Pineau said.
For many of P&G's new beauty products, a journey of what can take from five to 10 years to reach store shelves begins at the Miami Valley Innovation Center near the Great Miami River, miles outside P&G's Cincinnati headquarters.
"There is nothing farther upstream at P&G than us," said James Thompson, associate director of P&G's global biotechnology division.
Dawson just spent nearly seven years there studying the genetic code of fungus that causes human dandruff.
While the study could lead to a best-selling new version of Head & Shoulders, Dawson said there was no way when they began to project the outcome in business terms.
"It was a real start from scratch," he jokes.
With no way to predict the return on the investment, Dawson said, "they've got to make that commitment to the research."
In a conference room, Mike Robinson, a biotechnologist, talks clinically about the difference between "young butt" and "old butt" as he explains recent studies of skin aging. Biopsies were taken from arms and buttocks of 18- to 20-year-old women and from women ages 60-76 to compare sun-exposed and unexposed skin.
Other scientists work on human skin and corneal equivalents developed in labs, which P&G says have helped nearly eliminate the use of animals for testing.
Products in development go on to the suburban Sharon Woods Technology Center, where Schwartz, the chemist, works, for the mixing of ingredients, testing and preparation for marketing.
In one room, paid subjects try out the latest makeup formulations in closely monitored, precisely measured conditions.
Employees try them, too.
Brown recently returned from a New York business meeting with his sandy brown hair looking brighter, shinier. He had been personally demonstrating a new Clairol hair coloring product.
For Lauren Thaman, P&G's global director for beauty science, getting to use the latest products long before they reach store shelves is a nice perk. Usually.
"One day I'm in a meeting and this person looks across the table at me and says, 'What is that in your head?' " she recalled.
The co-worker jumped up, grabbed scissors, and cut out a chunk of Thaman's hair for lab analysis. Turned out that a new shampoo-conditioner was leaving a noticeable residue. Although study indicated few users would have that reaction, the plug was pulled.
"You get a really good feel for how it works, how it feels, and it also allows us to look for any issues," Thaman said. "We do things in extended testing, but there's nothing like personal experience."