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What Are You Really Getting With Bespoke Beauty Products?

A look at the customized hair and skin care taking over the market right now.
As customized as it gets. Photo: @functionofbeauty/Instagram

As customized as it gets. Photo: @functionofbeauty/Instagram

Once upon a time, the idea of "bespoke" was reserved for fancy men's suiting or fancy lady's dresses; a bygone era sort of fantasy of going down to some charming little atelier where time-worn yet sharp-eyed professionals would fuss and primp and measure you until they knew every curve and had sussed out every style preference. They'd rush off to handcraft an item just for you, to your exact specifications, and then every time you wore your new dress or shoes or snazzy pillbox hat, you'd know it was just right because it was made for just one person in the whole world. Of course, that sort of scenario was a daydream even for most people who lived in the pre-mass fashion eras, but it's not hard to see the appeal of it — a sense of specialness in an age of infinite replaceability, a reminder that your body, your hair, your skin, isn't just a number on a sales tally but a unique configuration that can belong only to you. It's romantic, in its way, this commodifiable individualism, and it’s also proven to be an effective business strategy.

Clothing companies like Stitch Fix and Trunk Club began banking on the Venn diagram overlap of personalization and mass market fashion in the early 2010s with the curated personal shopper-style services. Tell them what you like, and they'll send you options to either keep or return. No sifting through clothing racks at the mall or trawling the internet looking for the perfect thing to wear, no dressing room shuffle, no awkward human interaction of any kind. Like magic, clothing would appear at your door, just as money disappeared from your bank account.

Translating that concept to beauty was hardly a stretch. After all, brands like Prescriptives has been paving the way in the custom-shade makeup market since the '80s with moderate success (the company's shade-matching service folded in 2009, exactly 30 years after it launched, only to relaunch digitally in 2011). But the demand (and technology) for such personalization hadn't yet reached further into the beauty realm to the categories of hair and skin care.

One of the first major successes in the bespoke beauty industry is E-Salon, which launched in 2008 with the intent of bridging the gap between home hair color and salon-level expertise. For decades, boxed hair color had been sold at drugstores as the sole inexpensive option for those brave enough to try their hand at DIY, leaving the rest of the dyed-hair world to shell out for professional know-how, at professional prices. E-Salon set out to change that with an eye toward chemistry. It promised to be just as easy to use as the boxed version you might have been familiar with, but it would also consider your hair history — whether it was dry, or damaged, curly or straight, fine, coarse, or chemically treated — all factors that could affect the outcome of a hair coloring experience, and all things that your average box off the drugstore shelf would have no way to account for. 

Through pictures and a questionnaire, the company also assured users that their hair color goals would be built out from their current hair colors gradually, rather than jumping from dark brown to platinum in one process. Then, to sweeten the deal, they added in professional-seeming extras, like perfumed stain guard and stain remover for the skin around the hairline, application brushes and shampoo, along with the boxed-color standard gloves and conditioner. They also rolled out a maintenance line of in-shower glazes to help maintain color, for a reasonable fee, of course.

The gambit seems to have worked out for E-Salon: the company posted profits around $30 million for 2015. The proof of concept was so solid that competitors, like Madison Reed, began to spring up. Touting ammonia-free, argan-oil-and-keratin-infused color, along with styling products and a brush-on root touch up powder, the brand (which launched in 2013 tapped into a trending preference toward more natural (or at least seemingly "natural") products in the beauty sphere. 

But then brands began to expand the notion of customization beyond just the chemistry-heavy category of hair color. Recently, Function of Beauty has captured attention for its custom-blended shampoos and conditioners, which begin at $36 for a set. In order to create the formulas, customers can analyze their hair and scalp and identify "hair goals," like color protection, anti-frizz and oil control (along with some more questionable options like "fixing" split ends and "nourish[ing] roots," whatever that means) for a reported 12 billion different combinations. Notably, Function of Beauty also customizes the color and scent in each formula, as well as fragrance strength (yes, none is an option). Each product comes in a minimalist-chic name-imprinted bottle. Instabait at its finest.

Unsurprisingly, they're not the only game in town. Profilepro is working off of essentially the same model (though with less millenial pink advertising), while Shampyou has developed a more drugstore-friendly version by going for the mixology route with shampoo and conditioner bases with separate individual serum ampoules that you choose and mix in at home. 

Of course, hair care is only part of the equation. Personalized skin care has long been something of a beauty holy grail for all but the uber-elite. Even for those with regular access to a dermatologist, skin-care regimens are usually pulled together from a hodgepodge of drugstore, prestige, cosmeceutical formulas and maybe the occasional prescription. For those who can't afford that kind of set up, or who don't live close enough to visit a dermatologist regularly, it's always come down to word of mouth and lots of trial and error.

Meshing tech-age teledoctor services with the online customization, some brands have tapped into the desire for easier access to expert diagnostics and advice. Like E-Salon, acne-fighting company Curology's protocol begins by filling out a questionnaire and submitting photos for examination by either a dermatologist, nurse practitioner or physician's assistant. (For the record, this kind of treatment is within the scope of both nurse practitioners or physician's assistants, provided that they are trained in dermatology and how to work with teledermatology and are supervised by a derm, says dermatologist Dr. Annie Chiu.) According to the brand, these healthcare providers enable them to provide prescription-strength products featuring acne busters like azelaic acid, clindamycin, tretinoin and zinc pyrithione at drugstore comparable prices — $19.95 per month or $39.90 every 60-day period. 

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But could a few photos and a questionnaire really be enough to diagnose your most pressing skin issues? "Teledermatology is increasingly used, even in clinical medicine, to get access to dermatologic expertise for those who cannot get to a physician physically," says Chiu. "This is most often used, for example, to make sure a spot on the skin is not cancerous or determine if it requires further tests." 

That said, Chiu is hesitant about the idea of using teledermatology for true skin typing. "Often, people fill out questionnaires that describe the skin type they already think they have," she explains. "I have found a lot of people say they are 'sensitive' because someone mentioned it to them but cannot actually name something that truly irritates their skin." She's not entirely opposed to the concept of digitally sourced customized skin care, though; she merely notes that the formula recommendations you end up with would likely be more conservative than you'd get in-person at a doc's office. "The issue here is, truthfully, levels of care that slightly get eroded as you get further from the dermatologists office. Beneficial but potentially irritating ingredients like retinoids may be recommended less frequently to avoid customer issues as a face to face counseling is not occurring," she surmises. 

Highly personalized potency isn't a concern for the opposite end of the bespoke beauty spectrum. Dr. Barbara Sturm MC1 cream, which has scooped up big name fans like Rosie Huntington-Whitely and Kim Kardashian, is similar to the "vampire facial" that was all over the internet a few years back. Sturm formulates the cream by first drawing the client's blood using a special syringe that supposedly convinces the blood cells to begin producing healing factors. After that, the blood is incubated and then spun in a centrifuge before the plasma is removed to be integrated into the cream. It doesn't get much more personalized than that. With an initial buy-in of $950 (subsequent refills cost $450), it's Sturm's formula is a notable outlier from the many bespoke brands that also prioritize low-cost solutions. 

Sturm is not the only one looking to genetics for customized skin care. London-based GeneU offers a similarly-priced service featuring an in-store DNA test that, combined with a questionnaire, is used to determine an appropriate antiaging regimen. Skinshift has also developed a DNA-test based system of skin-care recommendation at a somewhat lower price point ($99 for the test, with the various supplements and serums that make up the product offerings all topping out at $75). In both cases, the companies pull from a mix of their existing formulas rather than creating all-original products.

Exactly how well these specialized products do or could work compared to the products at your local store is something of a head-scratcher. In part, this has to do with the lack of solid data on the science side. Despite the massive influx of antioxidant products on the market in the last decade, peer-reviewed studies on particular strengths and dosages have been limited, making it hard to say definitively whether a serum with a high dose of green tea extract will have a drastically different effect on skin than one with a low dose. It's possible it would; it's also possible that these precise-within-one-millionth-of-a-micron type formulations are making much ado about very little at all. 

You also have to take into account the likelihood of interaction — many customized blends, like Skin Inc.'s Custom Blended Serum, are actually using premade formulas to build customized products, which means that each potential component has to be formulated in a way that won't interact poorly with any of the others. That doesn't mean the ingredients are ineffective, but like a barbershop quartet, perfect harmony means that some potencies may have to be toned down. 

The availability of ingredients and technologies also plays a role. Take shampoo, for example: Sulfate or sulfate-free, vegetable-derived or synthetic — there are a limited number of surfacants that are likely to pop up in even the most specialized of cleansers. The potency may vary and other ingredients may contribute to how it affects your curls or whether it leaves your scalp dry (not to mention the look and scent of the formula itself), but when it comes to the heavy lifting of getting your hair clean, there are really only a few key players to choose from. Cosmetic chemist Randy Schueller explains that, short of specialized technology like the Sturm brand is using, most of these skin and hair formulations are likely to be relatively similar to what you might already find on shelves. 

Claims of prescription strength results may also be overblown, warns Chiu. Since these services aren't developing the personal relationship with patients that a doctor would have — and in turn, the trust that inspires patients to power through the side effects that can come with starting a new skin care regimen — digital skin-care brands may opt for lower doses or milder ingredients than a prescribing doc might as a way of discouraging clients from discontinuing use.

Whether or not bespoke beauty products are worth the hype depends a lot on what companies you use and what results you're looking for. Compared to the services of a professional with years of training looking at you in person, a digital consult is likely not going to compare. But for those who don't have access to those kind of services, or for anyone who wants to spend the time and money that goes along with that kind of in-person treatment, online customization is opening up a new world of beauty possibilities.

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