Scientists work to give us better products

living proof

There has been a lot of buzz in the beauty trenches the past year or so about the new product line released by a newcomer to the personal care product industry, Living Proof. The academic pedigrees, business experience, and sheer intellectual prowess of the founding minds and in-house research team of this start-up is nothing short of dizzying, especially when one considers the size of the company. The board is composed of a brilliant team of scientists from MIT, investors and idea generators from Polaris Venture Partners, and two extremely talented and experienced stylists.

Living Proof co-founder Jon Flint (partner in Polaris Venture Partners) has a passion for investing in and developing new business ventures in all areas of technology and consumer products. He is always on the lookout for new ideas. Conversations held with prominent stylists Ward Stegerhoek and Mitch DeRosa about the current state of haircare and skincare products led to the inception of the concept of Living Proof. Their vision was to assemble a multidisciplinary team of scientists from the medical, chemical, and biotechnical fields to work in concert with top stylists to develop truly innovative products for skin and hair.

None of the scientists who were part of the original team had any experience in the personal care product development industry, but were all extremely prestigious in their own areas of expertise. Although this is stated nowhere overtly in the Living Proof literature, I believe this was purposeful, as their goal was to approach product development from a foundational, molecular level with a specific goal, and to do so without any of the baggage that might be associated with a common formulator mindset of, "but this is how you must design a hair conditioner, because this is how everyone designs a conditioner."

Breakthrough

The goal of the research and development team was to develop a truly novel product that would work to help control the universal problem of frizzy hair, especially in humid conditions. In order to have smooth locks, it is essential to have a hair product that will seal the cuticle of the hair shaft in order to prevent water from passing into and out of the hair. The product must be able to accomplish this task without weighing the hair down or making it greasy. (For more detailed information on hair, humidity, and frizz, review these relevant articles. Humidity, Humectants, and the Hair, Dew Point, Porosity)

People have relied upon oils and serums throughout history to tame their tresses, but have had to deal with greasy, unpleasant feeling hair that may have even still been frizzy. Many of these products were made of plant oils, animal fats, mineral oil, or fatty alcohols. Silicone oils were a revolutionary discovery in the latter half of the twentieth century, and became the go-to ingredient for anti-frizz serums and products. However, even these space-age polymers were not without drawbacks. Many consumers found themselves dealing with hair that became increasingly more unruly, lank, greasy, and even dry. This is especially the case for curly haired consumers, whose delicate locks seem to be particularly susceptible to the limitations of silicone polymers.

The scientists at Living Proof reasoned that one of the limitations of silicone polymers in hair care applications is their relatively large molecular size. These large molecules sit on the surface of the hair, can attract dirt and particles, and weigh the hair down. For this reason, it is recommended that silicone serums and products containing silicones be used in relatively small amounts. However, this becomes a drawback itself, as there ends up being incomplete coating of the hair by the silicone, and thus some hair strands are left vulnerable to the problems of ruffled cuticle, frizz, and tangling caused by exposure to humidity.

It became clear that in order to be truly on the cutting edge, it would be necessary to develop an entirely new kind of polymer that could conquer the problem of frizz by coating the entire surface of all of the hair, but that would not create its own set of problems. After a year of intensive laboratory and literature research, the Living Proof scientists discovered the polymer they call "PolyfluoroEster." Development of products based on this new polymer and field testing on real users gave the company the feedback it needed: They had a product that demonstrated real improvement over silicone-based anti-frizz products!

PolyfluoroEster, the little polymer that could

The self-purported magical component of the Living Proof line of hair products is a polymer only disclosed as "polyfluoroester", which is fairly non-specific in terms of revealing the actual molecular structure to us. The organization is understandably extremely protective of their intellectual property, as keeping the secret ingredient under wraps will help maintain their advantage in the competitive beauty products market. However, the CurlChemist has been digging in the trenches to discover what she can, so we can make some educated guesses about its structure, how that might affect its performance on our hair, and what sorts of expectations we can have for these products.

So what is it? Well, the short answer is that it is a modified fluoropolymer, which is a synthetic polymer made up of the typical carbon-based backbone, but with fluorine molecules either attached directly onto the backbone of the polymer or suspended from the sides of the chain as substituents. The fluoropolymer most consumers are familiar with is Teflon, or poly(tetrafluoroethylene).

Molecular structure of Teflon (PTFE)

PTFE, or Teflon, is prized for its unique chemical and thermal stability, its extremely low coefficient of friction, as well as its ability to act as both a water and oil repellent. It is truly "non-stick." However, one limitation is its extremely high molecular weight (too heavy for hair), and another is its complete insolubility in virtually any solvent, including water. For these reasons (and others), polymer scientists have experimented over the years with many variants of this molecule, using different monomers and different combinations of monomers to create modified fluoropolymers and copolymers as well (polymers synthesized using mixtures of different monomers). There are companies who market fluorinated reactive surfactants as well.

Molecular structure of a fluorinated copolymer

Armed with all of this information, my best educated guess is that this PolyfluoroEster is possibly a fluorinated polyester (a polymer with a polyester backbone, with fluorinated substituents as pendant side groups) or a fluorinated acrylic copolymer (similar to many of the acrylic copolymers currently used in styling products - just with a fluorine twist, if you will). Whatever the specific case may be (and as a polymer scientist, I am so hopeful that one day we can know the actual structure), it is most certain that this polymer has a significantly lower molecular weight than PTFE and most silicones used in hair care products. The marketing material of Living Proof states that these smaller molecules do not weigh down the hair, and that for this reason the consumer can use much more of the product and coat all of the hairs on her head entirely. This creates a very flat, sealed cuticle layer and forms a true protective shield against the ravages of humidity upon the hair.

PolyfluoroEster is both hydrophobic and lipophobic, meaning it is neither water soluble nor oil soluble. Different ingredients in the formulation work to help emulsify the polymer and actually get it into solution in their product. These polymers not only repel water, but also repel oils and dirt (particulate matter) from the environment, so it becomes possible to go longer between shampoos, which helps to minimize the inevitable damage that occurs with shampooing. That is a great feature, especially for those of us always in pursuit of that elusive creature, beautiful second-day hair.

Fluoropolymers have extremely low surface energy, which allows the polymer to spread very evenly and to form a very smooth, thin film on the surface of the hair (referred to in their product literature as a microfilm shield). This low surface energy and smooth film formation helps to increase slip and decrease friction between adjacent hair strands. This prevents tangling and eases combing, which can be very beneficial to the health of hair. It also acts as another mechanism for frizz prevention, because it helps prevent static charge accumulation that can occur from friction between hair strands.

This polymer is reported to have a low refractive index, which is credited with giving it the ability to impart high gloss and shine. I have to admit to being perplexed by that, because silicones have a high refractive index, which is responsible for their ability to be such fantastic glossifiers. I intend to review my understanding in that area a bit and also to contact Living Proof directly, as I have a few more questions for them anyway. I will be happy to report back anything they share with me.

Is this PolyfluoroEster compatible with curly hair?

These products definitely look promising for curly-haired consumers who suffer from problems with frizz, especially in humid climates. It seems as if the product line is very gentle, with their sulfate-free shampoo and their moisturizer-rich conditioners. Their styling products look very reasonable as well. The polymer is most definitely not water soluble, so one might have concerns regarding a shampoo-free (CG) routine. However, it is my hypothesis that due to its molecular structure, this polymer does not build up on itself, similar to amodimethicone, so many who get good results from amodimethicone-containing products might be very successful with this as well (perhaps even moreso). Much like amodimethicone though, I am curious does thoroughly remove it from one's hair, as it wouldn't seem to be susceptible to most usual surfactants. I am hoping to get more information on this from the scientists at Living Proof.

Most of the reviews I have seen for the product have been really good, so I feel that the NoFrizz line of products is very promising. Apparently, performance of this product improves with repeat applications too, so make sure you use it for a few days or longer when evaluating it on your hair. I have heard that at least one of the styling products can be quite stiff for those of us with curly hair, and that can make the hair feel brittle and dry, so be careful which product you choose and perhaps layer it with their leave-in conditioner.

The main downside of these products is their cost. However, the polymer itself is in the products at higher concentration than other polymers usually are, and it is probably quite expensive to make right now. Also, a huge amount of money has gone into the acquisition of the absolute crème de la crème of the brains in the scientific and beauty industry and into the building of state of the art laboratories. All of that comes with a price! I am hoping to try some soon myself. (Dear Santa...)

I am really interested in these products and in this innovative new company, so I would love to get e-mails or comments below from you guys about how you feel about it after trying it.

Addendum

I had the most wonderful opportunity to speak to Jessie Vallette, a customer service representative at Living Proof, after I had completed this article. I was so pleased with the level of knowledge she had and her willingness to discuss my questions in detail. Again, my hat is off to this company. So, on to the information she shared.

Polyfluoroester is definitely completely hydrophobic, and so is not water insoluble. However, when the hair is immersed in water, some small quantities of it will come off of the hair. Immersion in water will also still cause the hair to swell and the cuticle to open, so it is still possible to clean the hair and for conditioner to do its job. They have found that their own very gentle shampoo does remove the polymer from the surface of the hair, so it is not necessary to use a sulfate-containing cleanser.

Also, she confirmed that polyfluoroester does not build up on itself once it has adsorbed onto the surface of the hair, so it seems to behave in a very similar manner as amodimethicone in that respect. Many curly-haired consumers who use a no-shampoo or low-shampoo regimen have been successful with products that contain amodimethicone for this reason. According to Jessie, this polymer should be even easier to work with, so the No Frizz line may well outperform products that contain amodimethicone when it comes to frizz-fighting.