L’Oréality UV

Our common UV angle and a bit of scuttlebutt

One of the attendees at the 2014 NIWA Workshop I convened was Megan Manco, a young US citizen who was working at the New York office of L’Oréal, Paris. The company was, and still is, interested in the UV damage to skin, the money that can be made from selling protective products (and skin whiteners), and any UV damage to those products. And they make a lot of money.

That year, their profit was approximately 4 billion Euros. Liliane Bettencourt, whose father founded the company, was the largest stakeholder in the cosmetics giant. Bettencourt and her family still owned one third of the company – so the family profit share that year was more than a billion Euros (about 1.5 billion US dollars). When she died in 2017 at age 94, she was reportedly worth about 40 billion Euros, making her the world’s richest woman and among the 20 wealthiest people on the planet.

A still spritely-looking Liliane Bettencourt with her grandson Jean-Victor Meyers in 2012. Photo credit REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

A couple of years before her death, while I was working on contract for the company, it appears her long-time chauffeur harboured aspirations to share some of that stupendous wealth. Liliane’s, health was failing, and when the family found he’d persuaded her to pay him an 10-figure bonus (reputedly US$1.5 billion from their potential inheritance) for services rendered, they took him to court. Of course it wasn’t that they needed the money. It was mainly out of embarrassment. He was found guilty of frailty abuse and money laundering. In addition to fines totalling  about half the amount of his ill-begotten gains, he was sentenced to three years in jail - of which he served two and a half. Still a tidy profit, it appears. Better than L’Reality TV! They should make a movie about it.

Enough scuttlebutt. It was good working for L’Oréal because for the first and only time in my research career, money wasn’t in short supply. But unfortunately those sort of numbers never flowed my way…

Megan and her colleagues at L’Oréal had begun work to measure personal UV exposure using UV dosimeter badges developed by some of my colleagues in New Zealand (Martin Allen and Zim Sherman). But they were uncertain how to calibrate them, or how to interpret the data and compare it with available ambient UV. After the workshop, she contacted me to see if I could act as consultant to them to help with the work. Her boss, Rui Pereira, was based in Paris, and warned me that I’d be expected to go there three times in the next six months. I told them I’d do it only if they provided business class travel. I’d already decided that I’d had enough of Europe. It’s too far from New Zealand. But when they agreed to those terms, I of course had to accept them. The pay was OK too.

A couple of weeks before my first - and thankfully last, as it transpired - visit to Paris, they contacted me to see if I could help with purchasing the air tickets. They’d discovered that New Zealand is rather a long way from Paris, and advised me that they could buy a new BMW for the price of the tickets they’d been offered from their travel people (who obviously knew how to price gouge wealthy clients).

They wondered if I could do better? I took the problem to my local travel agent, Aaron Dyson at House of Travel, who found me a fare for a fraction of the cost they’d been offered. As luck would have it, my visit coincided with the opening of the French Tennis Open at Roland Garros. I can honestly say I’ve been there now. But sadly, I was unable to get a courtside seat at such short notice, so had to return to my hotel room to watch the games while I prepared for my discussions the next day.

Those contracts from L’Oréal proved very helpful for funding my travels. I was no longer gainfully employed by NIWA, so couldn’t find travel money from that source. The L’Oréal work presented another option to visit our son and his family in San Francisco. As luck would have it, another group from the same company was based right there in the same city. They were developing wearable UV sensor patches that felt and breathed just like human skin, but included a matrix of UV-sensitive dyes that would change colour after different exposure to UV. Wearers could deduce their exposure by using a smartphone app that photographed the sensors and compared them with reference exposure images.

The contract I landed with the San Francisco group was to help them to develop and calibrate the product before its successful marketing. My main contact there was Sophie Shi, a young American of Chinese extraction. Interestingly, the main target client base for the product was also Asian women - mainly from China and India - who were more concerned about maintaining a white complexion than worrying about more serious skin damage. They lived mainly in the polluted cities of Asia, making my job of estimating the ambient UV they’d receive much more difficult. It’s not easy to quantify the relationship between pollution levels and their UV absorption.

I remember being surprised at the low threshold they’d used to indicate a harmful personal dose of UV (which would of course trigger the user’s need to buy and apply more skin products). Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

If you’re interested in knowing more about these wearable UV-sensing devices, you can read about the commercial product here and their technical details here.