Sitting at my laptop, I placed my order by checking off things like gluten-free, vegan and my preferred farm-fresh ingredients. I felt like I was ordering a salad when, in fact, I was picking out my shampoo from Prose, a new customized hair-care line that lets devotees build natural, eco-certified products from scratch. In five days, I would receive my kit, complete with a gentle cleansing shampoo (no silicone, please), a color-protective conditioner (hold the heavy oils) and a volumizing mask, all tailored to my exact hair type and climate conditions, infused with my preferred violet scent and stamped with my name on the bottles.
Welcome to the world of personalized hair-care, a rapidly expanding market filled with smart-tech brands that want to radically transform the traditional one-size-fits-all approach. In the era of customized everything (sneakers, vitamins, lipstick), one could argue that hair-care has lagged sorely behind. Whether in the drugstore or at the salon, the range of formulas only speaks to pre-determined hair types and needs, the ingredients may contain outdated chemicals or animal by-products, and the search for a suitable match usually involves a lot of time, trial-and-error and half-empty bottles in your bathroom. And frankly, women—and men—are over it.
“I realized how unhappy people were with the products [out there],” says Zahir Dossa, the co-founder of Function of Beauty, a customized hair-care brand based in New York. Most companies, he contends, “don’t have the ability to target each person as an individual,” a problem that he solved by building a team of cosmetic scientists, MIT engineers and developers. That team devised a proprietary algorithm that delves into strand structure, scalp moisture and 17 different hair goals (from fixing split ends to defining curls) to blend shampoos and conditioners precisely calibrated for each client. “No two formulas are ever the same,” he says—literally, there are “more formulas than there are humans on earth.” Similarly, Prose analyzes 85 data points, including your diet (vegetarian? low calorie?), where you workout (indoors or out?) and if you color (permanent or semi-permanent dye?) to devise its bespoke blends, which are made from a pantry-like lab filled with 76 natural ingredients and scents sourced from Provence.
Getting this personal allows brands to directly zero in on those whose hair needs have been largely ignored or underserved until now. Form, for example, speaks to women from all different ethnic backgrounds who have a variety of textures. Online consultations touch on how you cleanse (perhaps with conditioner, co-wash, oils or nothing at all), what styles you wear (extensions, weaves, wigs), if you chemically treat your hair (with straightening, for example, or if you’re transitioning off it) and if you have braids or locs, among other factors. After probing this data, Form gives you a curated routine to follow using ready-made products from their collection—think 3-in-1 leave-in lotions, elongating curl crèmes and moisturizing pomades.
More inclusive hair-care means rarely talked-about issues—like hair loss—are now part of the customization conversation. Danish clinic Harklinikken, for instance, now offers online assessments to diagnose hair loss and thinning (an issue that affects 45 percent of women and men in the U.S.). Clients are given a made-to-measure Extract, a liquid composed of ingredients derived from plants and cow’s milk (and occasionally a low-strength minoxidil), along with a personalized regimen of shampoos and conditioners to stimulate regrowth.
Beyond the convenience factor, the results are impressive. Founder Lars Skjoth says clients typically see a “30 to 70 percent increase in hair quality and amount,” and the concept has taken off so well that he plans to open a clinic in New York City this summer. German dermatologist Timm Golueke, M.D., meanwhile, recently started offering his prescription-strength, bespoke Stimulating Serum to clients he meets with via FaceTime, and to maintain thickness and density, he launched an antioxidant-rich shampoo and root-strengthening supplement Stateside this spring.
For some, though, thinking about your mane on such a micro level can be overwhelming. What if you’re not sure about your scalp’s hydration level or whether your strands are of medium thickness? In that case, having an expert weigh in can be hugely helpful. Prose, for example, partners with salon stylists who can guide you through their online assessment, and Function of Beauty opened a lab in New York City this spring where you can work out your formula with a pro (and see it made on the spot). At Schwarzkopf Professional’s forthcoming SalonLabs, slated to arrive in the U.S. this year, you can get really sci-fi: stylists measure your strands’ moisture level, color tone and overall health on a molecular level using a handheld tool outfitted with near-infrared and light sensors. In true Jetsons-style, a Customizer machine takes all that data and mixes up personalized products, dispensed in bottles while you wait. With zero guesswork involved, consider this the wave of the future.
Main photo credit: Erez Sabag/Blaubut Edition/August