Wrinkles be damned: Researchers develop synthetic ‘second skin’

10 May 2016

The second skin polymer being stretched. Image via Melanie Gonick/MIT

Beauty may be only skin deep, but what if you could wear an entirely synthetic second layer of skin? Such a skin has now been developed by MIT researchers, with both cosmetic and medical uses in mind.

Skin is one of the most fascinating parts of the human body. It is its largest organ and also has as an incredible ability to heal itself and eject harmful material through its pores, so what could we do with a ‘second skin’?

In a new scientific paper published in Nature Materials, a team of MIT researchers has revealed that it has developed an ultra-thin silicone-based polymer that could be applied to our skin and almost replicate its functions.

During testing, the ‘skin’ was shown to have considerable elastic and mechanical properties and when placed under eyes was shown to reshape ‘eye bags’ while increasing the human skin’s hydration.

Potential uses other than hiding our skin’s imperfections could include wearing the ‘second skin’ as a means of providing UV protection from the sun, while it could also be applied to a particular area of the skin for drug delivery purposes.

MIT second skin 2

Example image via Olivo Labs

Applied like a cream, sticks for 24 hours

This ‘second skin’ is the result of 10 years of research by this particular team led by MIT professor David H Koch, which created a library of 100 polymer candidates, all of which contained the chemical structure known as siloxane.

By assembling these polymers into a network arrangement known as a cross-linked polymer layer (XPL), the best polymer was found to withstand stretching to 250pc of its original size compared with our own skin, which can withstand up to 180pc.

Much like the way we cover our skin in creams, the second skin would be applied in a similar fashion in a two-stage process that first applies polysiloxane components to the skin, followed by a platinum catalyst that is applied to the polymer, making it viable for up to 24 hours.

To bring this ‘second skin’ to the market, the XPL technology has now been picked up by a US start-up called Olivio Laboratories, which will look to continue research into the material with aims of using it for medical applications, such as the treatment of skin conditions like dermatitis.

“Creating a material that behaves like skin is very difficult,” said Barbara Gilchrest, a dermatologist at MGH and one of the authors of the paper.

“Many people have tried to do this, and the materials that have been available up until this have not had the properties of being flexible, comfortable, non-irritating, and able to conform to the movement of the skin and return to its original shape.”

This marks the latest development in polymer technology, which aims to replicate aspects of the human body, with another announcement made recently of a polymer that has been developed that is able to mimic the properties of animal muscles.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic