August 13, 2019.
At Allure, we've reported extensively on the future of personalized beauty — most notably, how product personalization is being made more and more possible, and accurate, thanks to technology. Atolla, an MIT-born skin-care brand that formulates customized serums using data science and machine learning, is a shining example of just this.
After a successful pop-up in New York City last year, then quietly launching in beta testing earlier this year, Atolla is finally launching to consumers today. The company will offer customized serums on a month-to-month subscription basis, allowing you to tweak your formula each month based on your skin's changes and progress, or lack thereof. Oh, and each bottle of serum (plus the testing to create it) only costs $45.
How are the serums customized? The entire ethos of the brand, according to Ranella Hirsch, a Boston-based dermatologist and one of the company's three co-founders, is to remove both the guesswork and emotion out of skin care.
"What's amazing about this is, because we're not theorizing or just going off of preferences, we're really creating what is exactly right for your skin today, and [also] realizing that your skin today is different than your skin in a month," Hirsh tells Allure. "Because we're using data, over time, the model is actually capable of being predictive, and what that means in English is that we can tweak your formula, based on the data we have."
Hirsch compares it to Netflix. The first few times you streamed a show, Netflix probably populated other recommendations for you that we're just OK — interesting but not really spot-on with your preferences. But then, the more you streamed, the better your recommendations got, until Netflix creepily knew exactly which shows you wanted to watch next before you even did. In other words, as you build your skin-data profile month over month, tweaking here or there based on your skin measurements, the season or a lifestyle change, the algorithm gets smarter and can better predict what your skin will need next.
"That's how this works," Hirsch says. "You're going to like it the first time, but by the fourth time, you're going to love it, because we are really creating a particular match."
Here's how the whole customized-serum process (which supposedly takes nine minutes, start to finish) works: After you sign up, you'll receive a Skin Health Kit in the mail. Once you have your kit in hand, you can begin what Hirsch calls a three-legged system — all of which is done through your personal account on the company's website.
First, you complete the intake interview, a semi-lengthy series of questions about your skin, lifestyle (what medications you take, how much water you generally drink in a day, etc.), and your environment (do I live in a grimy city with poor air quality? Check). Next, you'll use the special sensors in your skin kit (small strips of paper with stickers on one end, which you press onto different parts of your face) to measure your complexion's oil, moisture, and pH level. After you've held them on different facial areas for a few seconds, following along with a handy video guide on the website, you snap a photo of the sensors and the data is uploaded to your Atolla profile. The brand recommends that you do the skin-testing first thing in the morning, before washing your face, for the most accurate results.
The first time you get your kit, it also comes with a "preference test," which is four tiny vials of different base formulas that you get to choose from, ranging from a lightweight almost water-like consistency to a heavier, but still not very heavy, more oil-based formula. The system will recommend a base for you, but you also have the option to forgo it and just pick whichever one you like best.
Then, based on all of the skin measurements you just uploaded, your preference test and your intake questionnaire, Atolla generates your own custom serum. It also breaks down each customized formula pretty thoroughly, explaining the percentage and purpose of each active ingredient chosen by the algorithm, plus supplying a full ingredient list (which won't be long — the month-to-month subscription model mitigates the need to use a lot of preservatives since shelf-life is so short). After your 30-day supply is nearly up, you'll receive another skin testing kit — an abbreviated version, without the preference section — so you can test your pH, moisture, and oil levels all over again.
As far as the active ingredients go, the company's ingredient dictionary reads just as you'd expect it to, including things like hyaluronic acid, ascorbic acid, salicylic acid, squalane and vitamin E. There are also plenty of plant and fruit-derived oils, including avocado oil, coconut extract, argan nut oil, olive fruit oil, rosehip seed oil and pumpkin seed oil.
To test this whole thing out pre-launch, I visited Sid Salvi, another one of the brand's co-founders, at NewLabs in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Both Salvi (COO) and Meg Maupin (CEO), who were MIT graduate students when they founded the company, work out of this space in New York City, while Hirsch remains up in Boston. Salvi walked me through the process, which was much quicker and easier than I expected.
The testing identified my skin as follows: Somewhat oily (37 percent), healthy pH (5) and hydrated (98 percent — which I'd like to note, was the highest hydration level Salvi had ever seen tested! #proud). My personalized formula included 1.5 percent ascorbic acid complex and 1.5 percent alpha-arbutin, both antioxidants, plus rice extract and vitamin B5 as supporting ingredients. I haven't had the chance to test out the serum yet, but the explanations of each ingredient were informative and, for a skin-care geek like me, really cool.
The other cool part is that the company stores all of your skin data in great detail, so you can track your complexion's ebbs and flows from month to month. As part of your profile, the website also allows you to enter all of the other skin-care products you use in your routines (it has a very impressive database — all of the products I use, which is a lot, were in there as options to choose from, all the way down to the many different iterations of my favorite toner).
Cosmetic chemist Ginger King, who is not affiliated with Atolla, agrees that it's pretty cool and the science aspect is legit, although she aptly wonders if scalability might be an issue going forward. "Customization is important because people have different needs," King says. "I applaud them for thinking outside the box for this novel idea, [but] I question on business scalability." Only time will tell if her hunch holds merit, but I'd bet that the MIT-educated brains behind the brand have already thought this through.
To try out Atolla for yourself, starting today you can sign up at atolla.co. Like I said, it's $45 per month, which includes the testing, shipping and a 25-milliliter bottle of serum that should last you for 30 days if used twice per day, morning and evening.
Read the full article on Allure.