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How AI and Machine Learning are disrupting the beauty industry

by Anh H. Nguyen

From the ancient Egyptians rimming their eyes with Kohl to the twenty-something

Instagrammers trying on the newest Pat McGrath Mothership palette, their goal has been virtually one and the same: to look their best, most youthful, most healthy, most beautiful self. For much of human history, women (and men) relied on word of mouth wisdom from relatives and friends to formulate their beauty regimen. The result of this rudimentary approach is that through the ages, due to the lack of dependable scientific proof, many harmful, even deadly, beauty products like makeup containing lead and mercury consistently made their way into people's routine. The 20-century customers, however, were more savvy in their selection, starting to identify brands with well-built reputation, knowing how to read labels, and turning to beauty experts for tried and tested advice. The global beauty industry is huge, valued at $532 billion and is on a swift upward trajectory.

Now, thanks to the burgeoning of technology and social media, not only the idea of beauty itself is challenged, but the path to achieve it also takes different shapes and forms. The narrow umbrella that used to encapsulate beauty has widened and become more inclusive. People have gradually begun to actively embrace their own body shape, their own skin color, even their (previously deemed) flaws. Two cases in point: Winnie Harlow, a model with vitiligo who models for Dior, Swarovski, and Victoria Secret, and Jeffree Star, a celebrity Youtuber/makeup artist/entrepreneur whose persona defies any preconceived notions of gender identity itself. Contrary to previous generations, a rising portion of millennial and gen-Z consumers refuse to conform to beauty standards dictated by the media and society at large. Beauty has ceased to be merely about checking certain boxes of outward appearance; instead it has become an effective medium for self-expression, even art. At the moment, beauty is more democratic than ever.

Model Winnie Harlow for Dior (from Dior Makeup)

Brands know that. Not only the stately old players, but also the small, independent brands that seem to crop up every year, many of which a logical response to this generation's obsession with social media and its "influencers," whose main job seems to be manufacturing more demands. A good example is ColourPop, a makeup company that does many collaborations with online trendsetters, all with affordable pricing. They attentively take note of their customers' feedback, adjust their strategies accordingly, and launch their new products with extreme efficiency. As customers grow more discerning than ever and brands oblige willingly to please, it was only natural that AI-driven tech would step in. Here are a few ways that AI and Machine Learning have broken new grounds in providing top notch service and bridging the gap between brands and consumers:

1. Hyper-personalized customer service:

Bespoke has always been at the height of luxury: to have an one-of-a-kind purse, suit, or dress is the epitome of class. Now, that level of personalization has been extended to the process of beautifying, except that here it makes even more sense. After all, no one's facial features, complexion, and makeup tastes are exactly the same. To offer unique services catering to each individual's needs and wants not only strengthens their sense of being pampered but also ensures customer satisfaction afterwards. Proven Skincare, an Y Combinator-backed startup has a fact-based method. Their AI solution has analyzed more than 4000 peer-reviewed scientific studies on the correlation between ingredients and skin. But the core of this AI model comes from the 8 plus million real reviews about skin care products posted online. From this combined data, Proven Skincare provides tailored treatments for each person's specific skin condition. This "all about you" approach has certainly paid off, judging from the glowing reviews featured on their website. Function of Beauty is another company that utilizes machine learning algorithms to develop customized products, in this case a haircare line including shampoo, conditioner, hair serum, hair mask, and hair oil. Function of Beauty has raised $12.2M in funding from Y Combinator, Bessemer Venture Partners, and GGV Capital.

An eye-catching product range from Function of Beauty (from

2. Mirror, mirror on the screen:

The magic mirror of today will not tell you who the fairest of them all is, but it sure can help you to be the fairest version of yourself. In 2018, L'Oreal, the cosmetics giant acquired ModiFace, an AI and augmented reality company. Its main focus is facial recognition technology that can detect facial features with great accuracy. Customers could "try on" virtually anything from blushes to eyeliners to derive at their most suitable makeup. Based on the customers' face shape, ModiFace would then match them with custom makeup and coach them on a step-by-step application if they so choose. Yves Rocher and Sephora are also clients of ModiFace. Coty offers Magic Mirror, an aptly named in-store app which uses computer vision technology to put different shades of lipstick on customers. On-screen eye makeup and blushes, matched to the customers' skin tone, are then virtually applied to complete the look. Not only is Magic Mirror a fun way to try on makeup, it is also more hygienic than the traditional makeup testers, which could potentially spread bacteria if contaminated. Then there is Perfect Corps, another augmented reality tool for makeup testing that works on smartphones. Magic mirror, smart mirror, virtual mirror, whatever you may call it, is becoming a thing.

Coty's Magic Mirror at the Bourjois boutique in Paris (from Coty)

3. Personal beauty assistant:

One little-talked about side of beauty is the communal aspect of it: while it is by and large a self-improvement activity, it simply is more fun to chat with your pals about makeup and skincare, sharing experience and news and offering advice. Now, with unprecedented advances in natural language processing, cosmetics companies have utilized AI tech to assist even the most solitary users in their quest for the perfect makeup. For example, Let's Get Ready is a collaboration between Coty and Amazon that uses a questionnaire to gather data points about a customer, including details about their hair, eye, and skin color, preferences, and the event they are attending. Then, from the 2000 combinations of makeovers stored in the app, it will offer a curated looks, visual tutorials, beauty tips, and recommended purchases from its wide range of products. Users could even attend makeup tutorials following Alexa (Amazon's virtual assistant)'s guidance on the screen. My Beauty Matches offers a simpler version of this (no tutorial) but their database contains a dazzling 400000 products with no biased leaning, contrary to Coty, which may be inclined to tout their own goods.

4. Smart beauty devices:

After the debut of the Clarisonics, which carved out the path for facial cleaning devices, the Luna Foreo started making waves in the beauty industry: it was cheaper, smaller, gentler, and generally more convenient to use. Now, the Luna Foto took it one step further: the moment the Luna Foto touches your skin, it starts analyzing the hydration levels and other factors to give you a personalized routine in seconds. Every time you use the Luna Foto in tandem with the Foreo For You app, it will suggest a different cleaning and massaging pattern with custom duration and intensity. The goal is to give you dewy, healthy skin based on the most infinitesimal changes in your diet, climate, habit, etc,. In the same vein, the Genius X Toothbrush is the newest model from the brand Oral B, an AI-based toothbrush using sensors to let you know when you are brushing too hard or too softly, along with which areas are neglected and should be paid attention to. It is known that 80% of people miss certain parts of their mouth when they brush, and Oral-B's latest solution probably would not be the last to protect your pearly whites from cavity.

The race to amp up personalization in the beauty industry seems to show no sign of stopping. Both the digital shopping space and the physical beauty and health stores are transforming to fit customers' expectations. Shivvy Jervis, Innovation Futurist and Broadcaster, explains: “Judging by AI advances and what customers currently want from their health and beauty products, personalization will lead the changes of AI’s integration into the industry. The ability to hyper-customise health and beauty products to your biological identity will greatly expand. The most successful brands will be the ones who can offer the most technologically-advanced bespoke service to the end user - whether that's recommending the perfect shade of makeup or in ensuring a customer receives the right supplements tapered to their unique body composition.”

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