Perry Romanowski

Vice President

Element 44 Inc

United States

Guest editorial

Personalized beauty continues to be a hot trend in the cosmetic industry. Numerous marketers are promising to provide consumers with products designed specifically for them. These include products like skin care targeted to different skin types based on a consumer’s personal microbiome or even their DNA. There are also hair care companies selling products created for consumers based on information from a long questionnaires and lots of collected data. These new developments seem like exciting times for consumers and product formulators alike.

Unfortunately, as with many trends in the cosmetic industry, the marketing of these products is way ahead of what science can deliver. Let’s look at this trend and the problems formulators face in delivering truly customized products.

Impediments to Innovation

When it comes to cosmetic technology, tens of thousands of patents are issued every year. Unfortunately, the number of these that have a real impact on products is miniscule. There have been few consumer perceivable technological improvements in the last two or three decades. The products people use now, are pretty much the same as the ones used years ago. Shampoos use the same detergents. Skin lotions use the same emollients and humectants. Even color cosmetics use the same colors.

Additionally, fear based marketing has proven to be effective in getting consumers to avoid ingredients that are perfectly safe. Large corporations have removed parabens, sulfates, petroleum based compounds, silicones and other chemicals because consumers have been convinced they are unsafe. On the whole this has resulted in products with inferior performance.

Discerning consumers

The other major problem is that there are few consumer-perceivable technologies that can make a company's product stand out. Every company can make products that work pretty much as well as every other company. And the few exceptions where companies have patents, the products don't have significant performance differences that consumers notice. Consumers don't notice subtle improvements.

Need something new

While consumers aren't good at seeing differences in product performance, they do find marketing stories compelling. So, cosmetic marketers have embraced story telling and by adding a dash of plausible science, personalized beauty was formed.

Personalized products

Personalized beauty products are not new. Products have been targeted at people with specific hair types like curly, dry, colored, etc. Similarly, skin products have been marketed for people with different skin types such as dry, oily, or sensitive. The new trend of personalization takes this to the next level promising to customize products based on even more specific information about an individual. There are three examples that stand out including skin care based on DNA, the microbiome, and hair care based on detailed information about hair type.

It's not surprising that cosmetic marketers have picked up on the genetics technology as a way to market products. Partial sequencing of a person's DNA is relatively simple and cost effective. Since genetics is responsible for 50% or more of changes due to aging, it isn't hard to get consumers to accept the idea that skin care products formulated specifically to their DNA will work. It is an interesting idea.

However, even though we can identify genes that might affect collagen or elastin production, science can't tell us optimal ingredients or levels that would be effective in exploiting that knowledge. The DNA based products are still composed of standard skin care ingredients such as occlusive agents, humectants and emollients. The main differences will be the story ingredients that have non-noticeable effects.

Skin microbiome is another research area cosmetic marketers have picked up on. While the topic of what lives on your skin is interesting, there is also much we don't know. For example, unknown is what organisms should be there, which ones shouldn't, what's the right mix, what ingredients are best to use and things like this. But products have been launched and claimed to be beneficial for the skin microbiome. We have no idea if the products are actually good for the microbiome, but it makes a compelling story.

Finally, customized hair care products have also emerged. One brand asks consumers to answer a questionnaire about their hair and then claims to use the data to customize a product. While they may be able to theoretically create trillions of unique formulas, they certainly can't make that many products for which consumers notice differences. Their products use the same surfactants and conditioning ingredients that everyone else can use. The story might feel personalized but the products aren't significantly different.

Personalized beauty products are an interesting and promising area of development. But at the moment the marketing is way ahead of what the science warrants.

Can beauty products be personalized?