In Lyon, France, cosmetics company L’Oreal is growing human skin.

Each year, some 60 scientists cultivate 100,000 paper-thin skin samples in nine varieties simulating different ages and ethnicities—and then they test beauty products on them.

Long pressured to end animal testing in cosmetics, L’Oreal has been in the cultured skin business since the 80s. But it remains a relatively slow and expensive process. Earlier this month they announced a partnership with 3D bioprinting firm Organovo—3D printed skin, it’s thought, may offer a more scalable solution.

Organovo’s 3D bioprinter lays down cells layer by layer into living 3D tissues. Eventually, the firm hopes to engineer functioning organs. But for now, their aim is making tissues of high enough quality for lab testing. The company, for example, also recently partnered with Merck to test drugs on 3D printed liver tissue.

“Some of the biggest potential advantages are the speed of production as well as the level of precision that 3-D printing can achieve,” Guive Balooch, global vice president of L’Oreal’s technology incubator, told The Washington Post. “L’Oreal’s focus right now is not to increase the quantity of skin we produce but instead to continue to build on the accuracy and consistent replication of the skin engineering process.”

Currently, L’Oreal’s cultured skin is basically handmade.

It takes a large team of scientists about a week to slice and separate cells—sourced from tissues donated by plastic surgery patients—and grow samples layer by layer, in succession. Annually, L’Oreal cultures what amounts to a cowhide of skin, half of which they use and the other half sell to other cosmetics companies.

It’s a pricey process. In 2011, L’Oreal told Bloomberg small cultured skin samples cost some $70 each.

For now, they’ll work with Organovo to improve the quality of 3D bioprinted skin. But the ultimate goal is to automate the process, speeding production, increasing output, and in the end, hopefully lowering cost

As the Merck deal attests, 3D bioprinted tissues may also provide an alternative to animal testing in the pharmaceutical industry—a method that doesn’t always provide a very accurate proxy for human tissue.

We recently wrote about another group, for example, led by Anthony Attala and the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Attala’s team is making miniature 3D bioprinted heart and liver organoids.

Connected to other organoids (e.g., liver and lungs) on a microfluidic chip, researchers aim to simulate bodily systems. It’s hoped that by adding a testing step with human tissues, we might better choose which potential therapies go on to clinical trials and thus reduce the number of expensive clinical failures.

The Wake Forest Institute is also experimenting with their own 3D printed skin—only instead of testing cosmetics, they think it might have therapeutic value for burn victims.

For extensive burns, skin grafts can be impractical, requiring too much skin from other parts of the body. The Wake Forest printer—which scans wounds to determine size and depth and prints the right cells at the right layers—requires a patch of skin just 1/10 the size of the burn to cultivate enough cells for printing.

Though widespread practical applications for bioprinting are still ahead of us, L’Oreal and Merck experimenting with the tech indicates it’s gaining broader interest and credibility.

And Balooch, at least, is optimistic about the future—calling the technology’s potential “boundless.”

Image Credit: Organovo/YouTube

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.