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Circuit Breaker

Personalization through tech is the future of the beauty industry

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I love trying on makeup at Sephora and taking samples home, but when I want to buy a drugstore brand, I have to commit the money without first seeing how it looks. It's an unpleasant experience. Now, makeup companies are experimenting with technology to give customers a more personalized and experimental cosmetic experience through augmented reality, actual custom-made products, and gadgets. Basically, they're offering a more user-oriented experience with the promise of delivering more suitable product recommendations.

Lots of brands, including Benefit, Estée Lauder, Nyx, bareMinerals, and Sephora have launched virtual try-on apps. Other non-makeup companies, like ModiFace, which creates these apps for the beauty brands, and Meitu, which built one of the most successful makeup apps and is worth billions of dollars, make their living off these companies that are trying to get into tech.

At CES this year and last, I tried multiple gadgets designed to help users assess their faces and hair. Last year, the HiMirror Plus scanned my face and told me I had wrinkles. This year, Neutrogena's SkinScanner told me my face could use some moisturizer. Henkel's Schwarzkopf Hair Analyzer suggested that I condition my hair. All these devices personalize the beauty experience while keeping you locked into a particular brand's ecosystem. HiMirror works with partner companies, as opposed to one specific brand, but still, the recommendations you receive are the fruit of a business partnership, not an organic product search.

As my colleagues pointed out last year, these gadgets can be problematic because they often tell you things you already know. I could feel that my hair and skin were dry, for example, because I'm a human who's been alive for 20-something years. I don't need a gadget to tell me.

But I can still appreciate these devices’ product recommendations. Yes, I recognize Neutrogena is only going to tell me about Neutrogena products, but if I'm a loyal Neutrogena customer already, it might help me tailor my experience with its products. I already tend to stay away from drugstore brands because I can't open the products and play with them in the store. If I had a gadget that told me what I needed to buy without having to hunt around or research what issues they address, that'd make my life a little easier. I still have to apply the product, though, so not infinitely easier!

Meanwhile, Henkel's Hair Analyzer and Customizer aren't meant for the end-user so much as a hair stylist. If you're going to a new salon that doesn't know your hair coloring history or really anything about your hair, the analyzer and its companion app are supposed to make the consultation process more structured and data-driven. The scanner claims to help stylists determine your natural hair color and health through the use of near-infrared and visible light sensors. It relies on near-infrared spectroscopy to quantify cysteic acid, which can help determine how processed hair is and your hair's moisture levels. Again, these are qualities your stylist has figured out through conversation for years, but Henkel tells me it thinks stylists will value the extra data. With all this information, the company's customizer creates shampoo with active ingredients catered to your hair needs. The devices are designed to sell Schwarzkopf, but if your salon already uses these products, then not much has changed.

I don't think connected gadgets and apps are going to revolutionize how we use hair products or makeup, but they could augment the current recommendation process. I read blogs, follow Instagram accounts, play with products, talk to Sephora employees, and ask friends for product recommendations. I appreciate data that helps me make sense of my favorite company's products. Lots of brands are talking about technology and how to use it to sell products. They're fully assuming tech will be important to the beauty industry future, and while they might be right, I think the tech winner will be the company that creates a brand-neutral gadget.