Driving Forces

By Christine Esposito, Associate Editor | April 5, 2011

Leaders in ethnic personal care talk about their latest innovations and where current R&D efforts are taking the next generation of hair and skin care products.

Luster Products. SoftSheen-Carson. McBride Research Laboratories. Ambi. These names are at the forefront of the multi-billion dollar ethnic personal care market. Together they are responsible for many of the go-to formulations loved by generations—and their laser-focused research and development teams are hard at work on new products that will deliver improved performance and aesthetics.

Happi checked in with key executives, scientists and staff members about their R&D philosophy, their standout SKUs and their newest launches. Although they are competitors in many respects, there’s a common thread: a strong commitment to answering the needs of their customer—whether she is a client in the salon chair or the professional stylist behind it.

“Our main goal is to meet the needs of our customers, and the professional stylist is our first customer,” said Sholanda McBride Armstrong, director of product development at McBride Research Laboratories, the Decatur, GA company behind Design Essentials hair care. “We provide stylists with the necessary tools to meet the needs of their textured clients. It is our relationship with stylists and our desire to make work faster, easier and effective for them that allows us to be a leader in the marketplace.

Fred Luster II (left), Luster Products executive vice president/director of R&D, in the lab with Manilal Patel, Luster Products R&D manager, and Melissa Soto, Luster Products R&D project manager.
“I have seen a tremendous amount of growth in the efforts to meet the hair care needs of African-American women,” said McBride Armstrong. “As general market companies have searched for new consumers to grow their businesses, they have looked toward ethnic markets to make that leap, and as the ethnic population has grown, the need to create products that cater to women born with curly hair has become increasingly important. As a result, formulations have become more sophisticated and targeted to specific hair care needs. In the past, African-American women’s options were limited to relaxers and permanent waves, but now there are products to support everything in between natural and chemically treated hair.”

According to Fred Luster II, executive vice president/director of research and development at Luster Products Inc., his Chicago-based firm is “organically in tune with conducting business that allows us to stay true to our equity of understanding and developing products that meet the needs of the American-American consumer target—women, men, children and stylists.”

For his company, it has been critical to stay close to the “real” end user by conducting primary consumer research studies at its in-house testing salon.

“The Luster Test Salon technicians are critical to the development process; they are the practical, functional arm of R&D,” he continued, noting that Luster—the maker of salon lines such as Designer Touch, Strait Shades and ArtEffex and consumer brands like ShortLooks, S-Curl and Pink—has strict guidelines regarding the experience, licensing and expertise a stylist must have prior to joining the R&D salon tech team.

Intuitive Development
SoftSheen-Carson is also keen on providing professionals with what they need—and sometimes even before the stylist knows she needs it. This month the company is rolling out the Optimum Advanced Keratin Whipped Crème Relaxer System, one of its biggest launches in years.

Shannon King, director of education, celebrity stylist Johnny Wright, and Angela Guy, senior vice president and general manger of SoftSheen-Carson (SSC), discussed the technology at an editor’s preview event in New York City early last month. To hear King’s take on the technology, log onto to www.Happi.com for an exclusive video.


The trio called the new system, which is designed specifically for professional use, the most advanced technology in relaxing history. Specifically, they pointed to three unique features—patent-pending Smart Lye, Oil Infusion (a blend of argan and coconut oils) and Pro-Keratin Complex—that result in uncompromised straightness, high-gloss shine and luxurious softness. Patent-pending Smart Lye, according to SSC, uses 25% less sodium hydroxide to significantly reduce damage and promote healthier hair. The relaxer works evenly on each strand to optimize application timing, allowing stylists to relax the hair with control and still achieve uncompromised straightness.

The line includes Keratin Whipped Crème Relaxer for normal and mild/color-treated tresses and Ceramide Gel Scalp Protector, a patented lightweight jelly that forms a barrier that stays intact to allow for optimal straightening time. Rounding out the collection is Keratin and pH Recovery Crème Conditioner, which Infuses optimal conditioning and moisture into open cuticles for softness while helping to restore hair’s natural pH level; Keratin Neutralizing Shampoo, which contains salicylic acid and a color indicator signal; and Keratin Leave-In Conditioner, which helps to detangle while rebuilding strength and elasticity into distressed hair.

Not only is the chemistry advanced, so is Optimum Advanced’s packaging. The relaxer, for example, comes in a stand-up pouch which cuts down on contamination, and the leave-in conditioner has a trigger-style pump designed to be much more user friendly in the salon setting. And there’s another plus: the relaxer has no unpleasant odor, which should be more than welcome by any salon team, not to mention their customers.

Bridging The Generation Gap
A stylist’s recommendation matters, but when it comes to skin care, advice on what product to use often comes from sources closer to home. Mom’s go-to fade cream or an ever-present brand of cocoa butter bar in the bathroom has signaled efficacy to the next generation of consumers.

“We have learned that the usage of some Ambi products has been passed down from mother to daughter over generations,” said Theresa Chen, associate director, research and development, Johnson & Johnson Consumer & Personal Products Worldwide. “One reason is that women of color consumers don’t want to make mistakes with their skin care products.If they find a product that works for them, they often stay with it and even recommend it to their friends and family.”

In fact, ethnic skin care consumers gravitate to well-known formulations with ingredients that work—think cocoa butter, shea butter, glycerin and even hydroquinone.

“The most widely known ingredient for fading dark marks on skin of color has been, and still is, hydroquinone. In Ambi Fade cream, we have combined hydroquinone with alpha hydroxy acid that gently exfoliates skin and vitamin E that fights free radicals from the environment. This triple combination product is highly effective at fading dark marks,” said Chen.

Ambi is also addressing specific oiliness and sensitivity issues with the recent launch of Ambi Essentials Gentle Cleanser.

“This is the starting point for African American facial care,” asserted Chen. “Our studies have shown that African American facial skin is extra oily and more sensitive. This new cleanser provides deep cleaning down to the pores without over-drying sensitive African American facial skin.The skin is left feeling wonderfully soft and smooth, because it is specially formulated for sensitive skin and it is soap free.”

According to Chen, who in her role at J&J is also skin of cultures (SOC) platform leader, the scientific community has taken a greater focus on bio-diversity of skin and has increased its knowledge of the underlying skin biology responsible for unique skin care needs. And, she contends that presenting information at professional meetings of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) and the Society of Investigative Dermatology, and working with organizations such as the Skin of Color Society (of which Ambi parent J&J is a platinum level sponsor), has helped propel industry-wide advances for all ethnicities.

The Optimum Advanced Keratin Whipped Crème Relaxer System is one of SoftSheen-Carson’s biggest launches in years.

“In this way,” Chen said, “scientists have come a long way in understanding the unique skin care needs of African Americans, Asians, Hispanics and other groups in the last decade.”

To better assess the unique needs of skin of color, the Ambi team works closely with leading dermatologists and convenes dermatologist advisory boards to incorporate the newest learning from the medical community.

“With this increasing scientific knowledge and expertise in creating outstanding topical formulation, we researchers have a myriad of pathways that we can follow.The real sophistication comes in knowing how to deliver desired skin care benefits to meet the needs of each unique consumer,” Chen said.

It clearly takes a well-rounded team to develop cutting-edge products, and leading beauty companies Happi spoke with also pointed to the key role suppliers play in the process. When it comes to raw materials, vendors must come armed with great technologies and data too.
“They do more than just sell components; they come to Luster Products with ingredients, tips and techniques for improving the functional benefits of our products,” Luster said about companies his firm wants to work with. “They present the study results of how items work/perform, which allows us to make informed decisions during the development process.”

Quality Ingredients
“We look for quality ingredients with supporting research data first. They give us consistent and reliable results in our formulations,” added Courtney Jenkins, quality control analyst and research technician at McBride Research Laboratories.“We also look at the raw materials supplier’s ability to provide innovative ingredients and/or specialty blends that can serve a dual purpose. And of course, none of that matters if the supplier cannot deliver the products in a timely and cost effective manner.”

Advancements in formulation science and ingredient sourcing/development have allowed leading manufacturers to meet fluid regulatory compliance standards and “free-from” claims without sacrificing the performance and aesthetic attributes their customers expect.

Mixed Chicks’ Etheredge and Levy Honored by NAWBO-LA

On March 4, Kim Etheredge and Wendi Levy, co-founders Mixed Chicks, were presented with “Innovator of The Year Award” at the 25th Annual NAWBO-LA Leadership and Legacy Awards, held by the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners. The annual NAWBO-LA Awards pay tribute to top achievers and advocates in the women’s business community who have established a legacy of entrepreneurial excellence and contributed significantly to the advancement of women.

Levy and Etheredge—self-proclaimed “mixed chicks” who created a curly hair product because they needed it—have grown their company from a garage-based business into a firm that sells hair care products for multi-cultural women, men and children in the U.S. and internationally.

NAWBO-LA represents the largest women-owned business community in the U.S., and is committed to the success and growth of the greater Los Angeles business community—a region where more than 509,000 women-owned businesses reside. In fact, the women-owned business community is the fastest growing segment in the economy, with such small businesses creating two out of three new jobs, according to NAWBO-LA.

The Leadership and Legacy Awards luncheon attracts more than 1,000 women business owners, community leaders and celebrities.

For example, Jenkins pointed to Design Essentials’ Form Holding spray, which was created with the combination of two hair polymers instead of one.

“This innovation allowed us to give customers the greater hold they desired and also remain VOC compliant in states with more stringent rules,” Jenkins said.

In addition, the company has also introduced a natural line of products that is sulphate-, silicone-, paraben- and mineral oil-free without sacrificing sheen, hold or effectiveness. “The natural ingredient innovations found in the newer oils and butters were instrumental in helping us to achieve these results,” McBride Armstrong concluded.

One of the hottest new products to come from the McBride stable is Hydrastrength Relaxer System, which has added vitamins C, D and E and proteins including biotin.“We infused this blend into almost every step of the system, and hair was left more moisturized and stronger.”

Meanwhile, at Luster, standout SKUs include Renutrients, which marries natural ingredients with a patented conditioning process for styling versatility. The Salon Formula No-Mix No-Lye Conditioning Relaxer System has olive oil infused in the system, which offers patented conditioning to protect hair from breakage. The Neutralizing Conditioning Shampoo, meanwhile, has an indicator to identify relaxer left on hair.

A more recent breakthrough, according to Luster, is the ShortLooks Colorlaxer Kit in Diamond Black, Sable Brown and Passion Red, a 3-in-1 relaxer, conditioner and semi-permanent color. It works synergistically to improve color penetration and conditioning properties, while providing softer, silkier hair with a deeper more vibrant color deposition. The system’s no-mix lithium patented formula offers great value and saves the consumer time by combining steps, according to Luster.

With decades of success under their belts, leading companies in ethnic personal care are moving ahead to the next generation of breakthroughs.

More to Come
According to Luster, his R&D team is looking for multi-functional ingredients capable of moisturizing, repairing damage and heat protection—such as quaternized polymers and silicones, amino acid complexes, and, of course, natural ingredients.

“We think that the technology needs to improve upon instrumentation processes like HPLC-MS (high performance liquid chromatography mass spectrometry) or GC (gas chromatography), which could help to replace chemicals with natural ingredient substitutes in cosmetics, thus allowing formulations to be more natural than chemical,” added Jenkins of McBride. “These natural substitutes could allow us to create efficacious products that are able to provide hold and sheen, without causing any harm to the environment.”

Within the Johnson & Johnson Consumer & Personal Product Worldwide R&D team, a number of investigations have been completed and more research is in progress, including active collaboration with skin of color dermatologists. In addition to scientific posters presented at recent American Academy of Dermatology and Society of Investigative Dermatology meetings, the J&J team will be at the upcoming World Congress of Dermatology in Korea, scheduled for next month. According to Chen, recent work has included a clinical investigation into erythema and other skin irritation responses across Caucasian and African American subjects, as well as a comparison of clinical grading of irritancy on light and dark skin, which included a meta-analysis of 20 modified cumulative irritancy tests performed in 2004-2008 with Caucasian and African American subjects.

Chen also highlighted another issue in ethnic skin care: UV exposure.

“We have also learned that African American women may not realize that they need to use sun protection on a daily basis to maintain more even skin tone and help prevent damage from ultraviolet light,” she said.

According to Mintel, less than one-quarter of Black women use lotions with sunscreen or anti-aging properties.

In addition, Chen said studies have also shown that African American skin is more reactive and even generates more free radicals than Caucasian skin. “This indicates an ever-present need for better skin-calming and for particularly soothing ingredients in these formulations.”

A Sunny Forecast
As leading manufacturers drive new ethnic-focused personal care products to market, the category is expected to post healthy gains during the next half decade.

According to estimates from Packaged Facts, Rockville, MD, U.S. retail sales of ethnic-specific health and beauty care products will jump from $2.6 billion in 2009 to $3.6 billion by 2014, posting a compounded annual growth rate of 6.7%. And while that rate is slower than the 8.3% CAGR posted between 2005 and 2009, it’s growth sure to be welcomed by all in the category.

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