clock menu more-arrow no yes
Photo: Living Proof

Filed under:

Cancer-Fighting Scientists Are Changing the Way We Wash Our Hair

While revolutionizing haircare may seem less urgent than curing disease, Living Proof makes the case that it's just as worthwhile.

As I enter Living Proof's lab in the biotech district between the MIT and Harvard campuses, I'm handed a pair of goggles—you can never be too safe when you're surrounded by so many test tubes and beakers.


Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

In nearby buildings, scientists are hard at work developing treatments for rare diseases, but here at the Living Proof headquarters, the research tackles a more common concern: hair. One whole section of the lab is devoted to scents, with vials giving off wafts of citrus and vanilla. Bottles of colorful creams, powders, and liquids line shelves, easily accessible to scientists concocting cutting-edge shampoo formulas.

While revolutionizing haircare may seem less urgent than, say, finding a cure for cancer, Dr. Betty Yu, the brand's VP of new materials discovery, makes the case that it's just as worthwhile. She would know, since she left a career in pharmaceuticals a decade ago to lead Living Proof's beauty lab. "How we feel about our bodies impacts our mood, our self-confidence, and our happiness," she tells me. "Improving the quality of beauty products seems just as valuable to me as curing illnesses."

Over the years, Living Proof has hired some of the best-trained scientists in the world. Most arrive at the company without any prior beauty experience. This is deliberate: The company's founders want them to approach their work without any biases about what is—or isn't—possible in the haircare industry. As it turns out, the possibilities really are vast. Living Proof scientists have already invented technology around two new molecules that could fundamentally transform the way we wash and style our hair.

living-proof-2_2015_1

Photo: Living Proof

Forgive the played-out startup term, but it's about time someone disrupted the haircare industry. Bottled hair cleanser has existed for about 90 years, and during that entire time, it hasn't evolved much. Historians believe the idea of shampoo originated in India where, over centuries, Indians perfected the art of the head massage, applying tonics, scrubs, and oils to the hair and scalp. The British exported the concept to Europe during colonial times, and by 1927, a German chemist had manufactured the first synthetic shampoo. Since then, there haven't been any radical changes to that original recipe—only minor, incremental improvements.

Living Proof wants to change that, and in that quest, the company is armed with a secret weapon in the form of its chief scientist, Dr. Robert Langer. Langer just happens to be the most prolific inventor in the world. He has more patents to his name than anyone except Thomas Edison. He's received two presidential National Medals of Science and was the youngest person elected into all three National Academies (science, engineering, and medicine). If all that weren't enough, he's an MIT professor whose research has led to groundbreaking cancer treatments. Not a bad guy to have on your team.

He has more patents to his name than anyone except Thomas Edison.

Ten years ago, a salon owner in Boston named Mitch De Rosa noticed that most haircare products on the market were made with virtually the same ingredients and decided the industry needed some shaking up. He wanted to start his own beauty company built on a foundation of innovative research and development. As luck would have it, De Rosa cut Robert Langer's hair. He also counted prominent venture capitalist Jon Flint as a client, so in a strange twist of fate, all three men met up to discuss business opportunities in the beauty world, ultimately joining forces to launch what would become Living Proof. (They also now count Jennifer Aniston among their investors.)

"This serendipitous moment gets to the heart of what we do," says Eric Spengler, SVP of R&D at Living Proof. "Since the beginning, we've been in the business of putting unexpected individuals together to achieve unexpected results. We call it the sandbox approach, where we bring together, say, an organic chemist, a market researcher, and a salon stylist to a lab so they can play around with new products and generate interesting insights. The process is more akin to how Apple innovates than to what other beauty company companies are doing."

living-proof-2_2015_1

Photo: Living Proof

What exactly is Living Proof trying to fix? Consumers have a litany of frustrations with existing haircare products, and the company started by isolating the two biggest ones. "In our consumer research, we've identified that people's greatest concerns are achieving volume and preserving the health of their hair," says Spengler. "The holy grail in our industry is creating products that can do both."

In recent history, great hair has involved damaging chemicals. Think: the dyed punk styles of the '70s, enormous sprayed hairdos of the '80s, and stick-straight locks of the '90s. "For a long time, there was a real lack of commitment and attention to retaining the integrity of the hair," explains Rodney Cutler, a New York-based hairstylist and salon owner whose clients include Emma Watson and Naomi Watts. "The products were more focused on getting the result than keeping the hair healthy, so you would basically ruin your hair with harsh products and then spend a day undoing the damage with some sort of healing treatment."

In recent history, great hair has involved damaging chemicals.

Cutler says he's noticed a shift over the last couple of years as haircare companies try to create products that offer reparative benefits in addition to styling utility. Part of this push has come from changing trends; today, natural, healthy-looking strands are preferred over artificial, over-styled hair. "The luxury we've had over the last 35 years is that technology has gotten better," Cutler adds. "As hair stylists, it has made our jobs easier both in terms of producing healthier-looking hair and getting results."

But for many frustrated consumers, even these supposedly better products aren't cutting it. Their argument is that the very act of shampooing strips hair follicles of necessary oils, forcing the scalp to overcompensate by producing more oil. This creates a cycle of damage, since oily hair needs to be washed more frequently, which triggers even more oil production. The solution, according to proponents of the "no-poo" movement, is to reject shampoo altogether. The theory goes that after weeks of living with unwashed, greasy, matted hair, the oil balance in your scalp should return to normal.

living-proof-1_2015_1

Photo: Living Proof

Living Proof's scientists believes there's another way to break the vicious cycle of hair damage. They've created a shampoo that can keep hair cleaner for longer, so users don't have to wash it as frequently. To achieve this, the company has patented a new molecule called OFPMA, a key ingredient in almost all Living Proof products that creates an invisible shield around every strand.

"Shampooing and styling hair are events that cause damage," says Spengler. "However, we've found that people who use Living Proof shampoo can go longer between washes and extend the lifespan of a hairstyle." This result is surprising, considering studies have shown just how difficult it is to alter the frequency with which people wash their hair. For many, the act of hair washing is a pleasurable, relaxing routine they don't want to disturb.

The company has patented a new molecule called OFPMA, a key ingredient in almost all Living Proof products.

I visited the Living Proof lab on a particularly wet and windy day in Boston. Before my visit, I'd been given a sample of the company's best-selling Perfect Hair Day shampoo to try out, and I was relieved to discover that my thick hair held its own against the elements. Living Proof products take some getting used to, though, because they make your hair feel different, as if each strand is coated in teflon. Water slides right off it. But the fact that my hairstyle has remained intact through the rain means that I don't have to wash and style it before my dinner date, an unusual convenience.

Living Proof's brain trust is in the process of looking for other molecules that could fix similar haircare pain points. Langer has invented entire libraries of polymers from which he can draw. For instance, he developed a molecule called PBAE which creates space between hair fibers, creating the appearance of volume without damaging the hair's cuticle or making it feel stiff.

living-proof-4-2015_01

Photo: Living Proof

"The molecule was invented at MIT to deliver materials to cells for the treatment of disease," says Spengler. "And we, being a beauty company, wondered whether we could use that same chemistry to build a styling polymer." Living Proof has recently expanded into skincare with a technology called Neotensil that tightens under-eye skin without requiring surgery; it works by applying a polymeric film to skin that shrinks upon application to flatten puffiness.

While Living Proof has made serious waves in the beauty world, it's still a startup with less than 100 employees. It's currently increasing production globally, trying to penetrate markets as far away as Dubai and Singapore. And it's continuing to introduce new product lines, producing between 50,000 and 100,000 units for each new launch. It's also not the only company that's thinking seriously about innovation in the industry.

"The molecule was invented at MIT to deliver materials to cells for the treatment of disease."

Take Davines, a haircare company in Parma, Italy, that has also been using of-the-moment science to rethink shampoo. The family-owned business began as a research lab that created products for high-end beauty brands, but launched its own haircare line in 1996. While Living Proof uses research to improve product performance, Davines's scientists are tasked with making beauty more environmentally sound.

"We believe that the principle of sustainability needs to begin at the lab stage," says Laura Luciani, a chemist who runs Davines's educational and technical marketing. She points out that many ingredients used in popular haircare products are pollutants that damage the earth: "It's important to remember that beauty companies are effectively chemical companies. We think it's crucial to make products that show results, but that also respect the environment. As soon as an ingredient enters the lab, we check it's toxicity."

Scientifically-driven beauty companies are giving us a glimpse into our future. It's a future where we no longer have to pick between high-performance, damage-causing products and low-impact, safe ones. "We don't need to use the same products that were available 10 years ago," Luciani tells me. "The science and the ingredients have improved a lot." Just consider your good hair day living proof.

Longform

How Vogue Got Modern

Longform

México está lleno de ropa usada de contrabando de los Estados Unidos

Longform

How Celebrity Kids Took Over the Modeling Industry

View all stories in Longform