The power of pitera

The mineral test conducted at SK-II's Kobe Innovation Centre, with tubes containing Pitera, water and ordinary lotion.

THIS is a story about craftsmanship, about how science took inspiration from an ancient art to create a “miracle” product used by millions of women the world over.

The serendipitous discovery of the Secret Key has its genesis in the production of saké. As the popular lore goes, scientists from Max Factor in 1970s’ Japan were looking for new ingredients to create skincare products with more efficacy, and were pointed towards saké brewery workers whose faces were marked by age but not their hands.

Thus began a five-year relentless research into the nature of yeast, seen as the link to ageless skin, and more specifically, the strain of yeast that would most effectively help them get there, as well as the work that went into harnessing that power for a practical and commercial purpose.

That brings us to a recent cool and windy March day when a group of journalists from Malaysia were gathered outside a nondescript factory in Yasu, an uber-old city in the prefecture of Shiga, Japan, where we were given an insight into SK-II’s pitera captured in a neat bottle.

As dictated by local hospitality and efficiency, four managers were present to brief us before and after the plant tour, besides the respective leaders of the sections. The KK Shiga plant, located roughly under an hour’s drive outside Kyoto, was opened in 1971 by Max Factor. It was taken over by Procter & Gamble in 1991 when the American conglomerate acquired Max Factor.

Plant manager Kogi Ogaki said the Shiga plant is currently spread across 1.2ha, equivalent to 18 football fields, and employs 200 employees. He said it was the only one to manufacture SK-II products with pitera as the main raw ingredient.

Garbed in a shower cap, lab coat and disposable booties for shoes, we were led through the production process with clear instructions to follow a drawn path, not unlike Dorothy going down the Yellow Brick Road.

There were five main sections ahead: weighing of the raw materials, mixing and manufacturing, packing, quality check and shipping.

But unlike Dorothy’s perilous journey, ours was a safe stroll through a sterile and clinical environment where every movement was precise and calculated to prevent contamination, wastage and substandard products.

One is filled with wonder at how a single strain of yeast is isolated, cultured and “grown” from a small tube to fit a two-tonne tank as it ferments over the course of a week, to yield the pitera that is then mathematically formulated within a closely guarded equation for the magical result.

The most treasured of the concoctions from SK-II is, of course, the Facial Treatment Essence (FTE). It has the highest pitera content at more than 90%.

According to operation packing department manager Kinya Tsuda, 50 bottles of FTE are produced per minute. Creams and foundations are also made here.

While the production figures fluctuate according to market demand, Ogaki said the plant stocked approximately 11 days of raw materials, 400 different raw materials and thousands of packaging materials. The plant had to reduce the quantity of raw materials stored on site because of limited space.

It recently expanded to a new building housing more than 15 fermentation tanks, of which five are already in operation.

Past the packing line, we dropped in at the Microlab that has several responsibilities, among which are ensuring there are no contaminants in the packaging materials, conducting chemical tests on the raw ingredients and holding defective samples (for five years) for testing. There is also a section of the lab where odour tests are conducted by panellists.

Working with such delicate and sensitive products, one can only marvel at the effort that goes into maintaining such a smooth and continuous production. The fermentation and monitoring of the process runs round the clock.

To give you an idea of just how sterile it is, workers in the packing area sanitise their hands every 15 minutes. The air is filtered and the room temperature is strictly controlled.

The spring water used in the fermentation process is filtered at least twice to ensure its purity.

Operation group manager Tomoaki Ozaki said employees undergo constant training while equipment in the production line is checked daily, weekly and monthly to minimise downtime from repairs.

After shipping, samples are kept for more testing and archiving. If a complaint is received, SK-II takes the defective product to test and compare against the sample in the archive.

We also visited the Pitera Museum, which showcases the original Secret Key – a lotion that pre-dates the pitera, alongside the Secret Key II Facial Treatment Essence that debuted in 1980. The name Secret Key II was shortened to a more contemporary SK-II and pitera was subsequently added to the mask and cream.

Even back in 1980, a bottle of the FTE was priced at ¥15,000.

Despite the price tag, it was never short of admirers as one user after another attested to their skin tone becoming brighter, refined texture and firmer skin, better resilience against wrinkles and fewer dark spots.

In contrast to the rigidity and grey-white blandness of the plant, the grounds are a green oasis incorporating elements of a traditional Japanese rock garden. The industrial area is surrounded by traditional rice fields, vegetable farms and ancient mountains.

Surely, that’s abundant inspiration for the crafting of a miracle.

Related stories: 

Beauty defined

It all started with a little sake

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Women , SK-II , Japan , P&G , Beauty product , Innovation


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