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The Science Behind Your Volumizing Shampoo

Hair-care company Living Proof explains how it uses biotech to develop its products.
November 2, 2016

How much science is in your hair-care products? Some beauty companies, especially small ones, simply buy ready-made formulations from contract manufacturers, add an ingredient and fragrance, and put them on the market.

Living Proof takes a more scientific approach. Though the Cambridge, Massachusetts, hair-care company has only about 60 employees, it creates all of its products in-house, many based on patented, proprietary materials invented in its labs. “Instead of trying to improve an off-the-shelf formulation, we think about the end result we want the consumer to have, and we reverse-engineer a formula that will deliver those benefits,” says Living Proof’s vice president of product development, Ron McLaughlin.

The company was founded in 2005 by two MIT biomedical professors (among others) to use science to address common beauty challenges. Today, Living Proof sells 42 shampoos, conditioners, styling creams/sprays, and specialty treatments in 32 countries. It keeps its processes confidential, but recently let MIT Technology Review visit its labs to learn how it invents new technologies and creates its products.

Living Proof’s discovery lab scientists use long locks of human hair, known as tresses, to evaluate raw materials and compare their performance to those of competing brands.

Identifying unmet needs

Living Proof typically launches a new product every three months. The company’s scientists and marketers derive ideas from a number of sources, including trade shows, hair stylists, and consumer feedback. Once a product concept is approved, Living Proof usually creates and releases it within 14 months.

Proprietary technology

Most Living Proof products incorporate one of the company’s three proprietary molecules: OFPMA, PBAE, and ETAS. OFPMA stands for octafluoropentyl methacrylate, a material that the company calls its “healthy hair molecule” because it helps reduce surface energy on hair and protects it from moisture and friction, thus decreasing frizz and oil. PBAE is short for poly beta-amino ester, a polymer that Living Proof has dubbed its “volumizing molecule” because it deposits microscopic “dots” onto hair strands that make hair look and feel thicker. ETAS, Living Proof’s “volumizing and texturizing molecules,” are expandable, textured aero-spheres—tiny, air-filled spheres that are sprayed onto hair to create volume and texture. Living Proof has patents on OFPMA and PBAE and has applied for a patent for ETAS. 

Living Proof’s product development lab contains dozens of materials that its chemists use to formulate new products.

The discovery lab

Living Proof has three labs in its headquarters. It conceives most of its proprietary ingredients in a “discovery lab,” where it conducts fundamental research. The company likes to adopt molecules that have never been used in beauty products before. For example, the technology underlying PBAE was invented in the lab of MIT professor and Living Proof cofounder Robert Langer to transfer foreign DNA to host cells for gene therapy. After Living Proof found ways to apply the technology to hair, it decided to license the chemistry from MIT and use it to create a styling polymer of the same name.

To spur innovation, Living Proof intentionally hires scientists who have worked in diverse fields outside the beauty industry—such as cancer research and pharmaceuticals. It employs analytical chemists, biologists, biomedical engineers, chemical engineers, pharmacists, and polymer scientists. The company also meets regularly with Langer and its other MIT cofounder, Daniel Anderson, to share data and map its strategy. 

A tableau of most of the ingredients used in Living Proof’s Perfect Hair Day Dry Shampoo, which was released in 2015.
A Living Proof in-house stylist applies the company’s dry shampoo to a model in the company’s test salon.

Concocting product recipes

While Living Proof’s discovery lab scientists hunt novel technologies, the company’s formulation chemists use existing materials to develop new products. The formulas, which generally take two to four months to design, are a mix of proprietary molecules and off-the-shelf ingredients, including surfactants for making shampoos and emulsifiers for making creams. 

For example, Living Proof’s dry shampoo spray contains four powders that absorb oil and sweat, two powders that prevent the formula from settling and packing into the bottom of the product’s canister, three types of fragrance, a chemical that neutralizes odors, alcohol to keep the formula liquid, and OFPMA. Most of those materials are widely available, but the addition of OFPMA makes the product unique because it enables the powders to fall out of a user’s hair after spraying—and thus remove oil and sweat without water—instead of clumping onto strands and causing further buildup. 

Inside Living Proof’s analytical lab, where the company conducts its quality assurance tests.

The test salon

Though Living Proof’s chemists devise their formulations inside a lab, the company tests them on real people as soon as the mixtures are deemed safe for human exposure. These experiments can take place in the company’s office, in partner stylists’ salons, or in consumers’ homes. Living Proof’s headquarters include a small test salon, where two stylists try out upcoming products on people plucked from a database of 3,000 volunteers. The company estimates that 40 to 50 people participate in these trials in an average week. Living Proof’s scientists assess the test salon results using a grading scale and consider consumer and stylist comments when they finalize their formulations. 

Stability and quality analysis

After Living Proof formulates a new product, it subjects it to three months of stability testing during which the mixture is frozen, thawed, and heated to 45 °C (113 °F) to ensure it can withstand extreme temperatures. Living Proof also tracks product quality during manufacturing, which is handled by outside companies located in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Though these contractors employ their own testers, Living Proof requires them to send it samples of the top and bottom portions of each product batch. (Batches typically run 4,000 to 6,000 kilograms, which is large enough to make 50,000 bottles of shampoo.) 

Living Proof uses a rotator to invert product samples, extract the active materials, and verify that their dosages are accurate.

Manufacturing samples go to Living Proof’s analytical lab, where scientists examine the molecular weight, purity, and stability of individual components to make sure the batch has been mixed correctly. These evaluations can catch mistakes, such as too much air in the formulation, an incorrect level of active ingredients, or contamination from a previous batch. If the error is minor, the batch can be reworked; if it’s major, the batch gets discarded. 

Living Proof uses this spectrophotometer, which has an infrared beam splitter inside, to quickly analyze samples.

Living Proof conducts these tests using techniques and instruments common in pharmaceutical development, such as high-performance liquid chromatography systems and infrared spectrophotometers. The scientist in charge of Living Proof’s analytical lab was formerly a process chemist at the pharmaceutical company Merck. 

Proof tests

All personal care companies do market research, develop new materials, and engage in quality testing to some degree. What sets Living Proof apart is its advanced biotechnology and materials science. Since this R&D isn’t visible or easily comprehensible to consumers, the company constructs “proof tests” to demonstrate its products’ characteristics. These tests might use a fluorescence microscope to show sebum (oil) on hair fibers or a scanning electron microscope to visualize surface damage to hair. Living Proof places these images on store posters and its website to illustrate how its products work.

Living Proof took these fluorescent images to show how its dry shampoo absorbs and removes sebum from dirty hair.


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