For chemists, it's a tale of beauty and the beaker

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."

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