People have been using beauty products to enhance their eyes, brighten their skin or smooth their hair since ancient Egyptian times. But over the years, the beauty market has grown into a $445 billion industry, with companies competing to sell us different versions of the same thing.
Brands like Glossier and Milk have garnered impressive cult followings, thanks to their social media-friendly packaging and refreshing approach to beauty. But, by and large, most brands seem to be all about finding the next trendy ingredient, featuring it in their products and convincing us that their formula is better than the others on the market.
The fact is, certain products don’t work for certain people. We’re all unique, with different skin types or hair types, and have different goals for what we want to achieve. Most beauty brands aren’t selling products tailored to individual consumers. Instead, they’re selling a brand, a luxury, a lifestyle or some product that will magically work on every skin type and solve every skin problem.
Still, we continue to buy into the hype, thinking we’ll look like every other Instagram model with glowing skin. (According to a study done by SkinStore in 2017, the average American woman could spend up to $300,000 on face products in her lifetime.)
There’s really nothing personal about big beauty. And that’s where artificial intelligence comes in.
Artificial intelligence is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as:
1: a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers
2: the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior
More and more companies are embracing the individuality of their customers, creating products designed specifically for each of them. With the help of new technologies, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, the possibilities seem infinite.
One such brand is Proven, “an inclusive beauty brand that creates personalized skincare products based on the largest beauty database in the world,” co-founder Ming Zhao explained to me. “Our mission is to use cutting edge technology to improve the everyday lives of women.”
Instead of selling one-size-fits-all products, Proven uses technology to develop skin care tailored to its consumers, because what works for a twentysomething living in high humidity might not work as well for a fortysomething living in a dry climate.
Zhao and her co-founder, Stanford scientist Amy Yuan, technically founded Proven a little under a year ago, though the database at the center of its business model was about two years in the making.
“This database encompasses more than 8 million consumer reviews about skincare products, more than 100,000 beauty products that are on the market and 20,000 beauty ingredients and more than 4,000 scientific articles or peer-reviewed journal articles about skin and about ingredients,” Zhao explained, noting that the database allows for transparency about suppliers, ingredient origins and efficacy.
Bots continuously scrape the data in the database and, through machine learning, are able to make connections between different product categories, ingredients and review ratings. Zhao explained that Yuan would use semantic searches to pick out different key words ― acne, wrinkles, etc. ― and then make sense of the ingredients and how they affect those skin concerns for different people. All of that data is then further filtered into categories relating to skin type, ethnic background and geographic region.
On the user experience end, consumers just fill out a short quiz (developed by a dermatologist) that asks for things like age, skin type, skin goals, ethnicity and geographic location. Data from the quiz are then calculated (based on information from the database), and the user is presented with a unique skin profile and a suggested skin care regimen with custom-made products to suit their individual needs.
“From our data we know that many products have ingredients that do not fit certain [skin] types well and can actually cause harm,” Zhao said. “For us, not only can we put in various beneficial ingredients in high dosages for people who need them, we also actively take out ingredients that we know are not a good fit.”
Proven isn’t all artificial intelligence, though. While the database plays a huge part in how the brand develops its formulations, there is also an important human aspect to what they do. Once the database provides it ingredient recommendations for a consumer’s products, the information is given to a cosmetic chemist who uses his expertise to create the formulations, because, as Zhao explained, there are some things a machine just can’t do.
“A machine is not able to know what feels good, what feels moisturizing, what percentage of oil is good for cold weather,” she said. “All of those require an expert’s inclination,” Zhao said.
Another brand taking the tech-heavy approach to personalized skin care is Curology, an app-meets-medical-practice-meets-subscription-service that uses digital technology as a supplement to human interaction. Curology offers personalized skin care solutions aimed specifically at those dealing with acne.
As dermatologist and founder David Lortscher explained, “We’re a tech company and ultimately what we do is help connect people with licensed medical providers, whether it’s a nurse practitioner or dermatologist.”
At the same time, he said, Curology is a medical practice that employs over 25 full-time medical providers. And it’s a pharmaceutical company, because it makes custom medications for its patients.
Similar to Proven, Curology’s process for consumers begins with a questionnaire that asks for details like skin type and skin goals as well as medical history. Then users are matched with a medical professional who will design the custom formula to target unique skin care needs. Through online chatting and photo uploads, users then discuss their progress with their provider.
“Technology is super critical to what we do in a lot of ways,” Lortscher said, adding that the aim for Curology’s technology was to make it easy for both the patient and doctor to connect with each other. The idea came to him, he said, while he was practicing in New Mexico and his patients were driving one or two hours to see him. He began encouraging them to send him photos of their progress instead of having to come in for a check-up, especially if they were satisfied with treatment results and weren’t experiencing serious problems.
The app aspect of Curology includes an automated check-in service. If someone responds with any dissatisfaction, they are encouraged to follow up with their provider.
Lortscher, like Zhao, also believes machines alone can’t create the perfect solution to an individual’s skin care needs.
“What we don’t do with technology is use any sort of automation or algorithm to prescribe things to our patients,” Lortscher said. “Ultimately you need human judgment in there. We don’t use technology to replace human judgment, but we use it to support it.”
For hair care, Function of Beauty has pretty much done away with the human element, relying mostly on computers and other machines to deliver customized shampoo and conditioner to its customers.
Again, as with Proven and Curology, the customer experience begins with a quiz. Customers enter in their hair type, hair structure, hair goals and other preferences, and that information is filtered through an algorithm that “transforms all of those inputs into very precise outputs of ingredient combinations,” CEO and co-founder Zahir Dossa said. The algorithm is technically capable of coming up with an infinite number of combinations, he said.
Once a consumer confirms their formula, it’s sent to a fill line, where the bottles get printed and filled with just the right amount of product. (There are some humans involved in the assembly line, Dossa said, but for the most part it’s machinery and robotics.)
“The ability to automatically fill every bottle individually and do so at scale is something that we weren’t able to do until two years ago, and we basically had to use the latest technology and robotics in order to be able to achieve it,” Dossa said, adding, “It’s impossible for humans to be as precise as machines in most of those areas, so we just saw it as kind of a necessity.”
But what makes the machine-based approach better than heading to the salon?
In Dossa’s opinion, it’s the fact that consumers are getting a product made specifically for them based on statistics and data, as opposed to a stylist’s potential personal or professional biases. In addition, consumers have the ability to provide feedback and tweak their formulas to their liking, he added. Oh, and no two will people end up with the same formulation, even if they fill out the quiz exactly the same way.
“Appreciating the individual aspect of customers is super important, but I also think it’s super necessary,” Dossa said.
Of course, Proven, Curology and FoB aren’t the first companies to incorporate advanced technologies, with or without human aspects, into their business models in order to provide consumers with truly customized products. Their use of advanced technologies, artificial intelligence and machine learning ― things that are often presented as terrifying, bleak and impersonal ― have allowed them to adapt to a digital age in a personal way.
For Dossa, that’s the direction the industry is moving in general.
“Not only is it using technology to improve little aspects of things, it’s actually using technology to fundamentally change the products that each and every single person gets and ideally would be able to do so on a very individual level.”