So there’s Lady Gaga in rhinestones on the cover of her LoveGame single, sporting metallic silver nails and launching a trend that spawned thousands of copycat manicures. The now-ubiquitous Minx adhesive foil nail wraps, available in myriad colours and patterns, are also favoured by fellow celebrities Beyoncé and Scarlett Johansson, and have featured on the catwalk at Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. When it comes to creating a cosmetic fad, so far, so normal.
What is not so typical, however, is where this fad originated pre-Gaga: in the car industry. Here’s the story: in 2006 California-based Janice Jordan, owner of a graphics business supplying adhesive decals for racing cars, grew fed up with the damage that daily tasks inflicted on her manicure (and her nails). It occurred to her that similar technology could be used to create a solid nail coating that would both protect nails and decorate them. “It took two years of talking to engineers and looking at adhesives that, unlike existing nail glues, wouldn’t damage the nail,” she says.
The result took Jordan out of her graphics workshop and into the global beauty business (along with her co-founder Dawn Lynch Goodwin). Her tale is simply the most recent example of the way beauty has been tapping into other industries’ know-how since 1922, when the first modern nail varnishes were created.
That revolution came courtesy of Revlon and a make-up artist who realised that the technology used for painting motor cars might work for nail enamel. Previously, nails had been stained, but Revlon developed a diluted version of car paint and created a lacquer that could be painted over the nail.
Fast forward a few decades and in 2000 the beauty industry turned from automotive inspiration to fabric technology thanks to Giorgio Armani, who decided he wanted to create a cosmetics line that reflected his fashion philosophy.
“Armani wanted formulations that had the lightness, transparency, layering and subtlety of colour of his collections,” says Sylvie Guichard, scientific make-up director for L’Oréal, the company given the task of creating the products. “To achieve this, we looked closely at the sorts of compounds that allow fabrics to stretch and screened a number of ingredients that would give these properties to foundation. The resulting formulation is a network of thread-like molecules that not only mimic a woven fabric structurally but also have similar sensorial qualities.”
Clairol tapped into a different world when it wanted to create a new foam hair colouring. The company needed to make a foam that was also an effective dye. Research by its parent company Procter & Gamble’s Fairy Liquid and Ariel teams enabled Clairol to devise a product that started as a foam – easier to handle than the usual dye – but once on the hair collapsed to create a liquid that allowed the colour to be distributed evenly.
When another P&G brand, Pantene, was looking to reformulate its range, one of the technologies it turned to was Micro Computed Tomography, or Micro CT, a scanning process that at the time, in 2008, was being used to measure bone density by P&G’s pharmaceutical division. Hair researchers used Micro CT to reveal how different types of hair fibres interact and subsequently used this information to calibrate the way in which products deposit ingredients on to the hair.
Not that such cross-industry pollination stops at a conglomerate’s front door. As part of the same reformulation process, Pantene has used microscopes otherwise employed by Nasa.
Frauke Neuser, a scientist for Pantene, says: “P&G has a large base in Cincinnati and frequently works with Ohio State University on projects. One of the university departments was using a technology known as Atom Force Microscopy, which allows you to observe substances at a molecular level. We wondered what would happen if we used it to examine hair in such detail.
“Ideas like this come to nothing 80 per cent of the time but, in this instance, we were able to see very real differences between different types of hair. We were also able to see what was happening at a molecular level when we applied different types of ingredients, which really made a difference to the end product.”
Beauty researchers undoubtedly love the opportunity to mess around with high-tech toys and make themselves look like rocket scientists, but isn’t using a Nasa-grade microscope to make a shampoo like using a sledgehammer to crack nuts?
“The research that we’ve done has unquestionably helped us to formulate products that perform better than our existing products,” says Neuser. “We’ve not only proved that at a molecular level but, when we tested the end products on consumers, the results showed that they could see – and feel – a difference.”