By Elizabeth Lee and Avinash Boppana
Dec. 21, 2021 • 7 min read
It is a little suspicious how every company today promises improved results using the same ingredients they were using 40 years ago.
Maybe it’s a thinning hairline that becomes apparent when styling your hair in the morning or increased fallout from shedding in the shower. It could even be a nagging bald spot that catches your eye in the mirror at the salon. Everyone experiences hair loss in different forms and at different stages, but the frustration is an overwhelming constant: the hunt for advice, the optimism of trying new products, the ultimate disappointment when the results don’t match the promised claims, and the increased distrust with each product you try.
Regardless of where we all are in our hair loss journey, what’s that one place we all inevitably visit? The internet. All it takes is one google search and we are immediately bombarded with a monsoon of ads from dozens of companies showcasing their new products on YouTube, Instagram, or Facebook - a dizzying number of foams, creams, serums, and supplements that seem to call out our deepest insecurities, all touted as revolutionary solutions with improved results, impressive claims, and most specifically: special, new ingredients.
At the end of the day, there are three simple factors that make up these “revolutionary” products: Marketing (the promise), Packaging (the appearance), and Ingredients (the results). Put them together, and we have a product.
Marketing + Packaging + Ingredients = Product
Marketing impacts the way we emotionally interact with the product, packaging dictates how we physically interact with it, but only the ingredients define how our bodies actually respond to it. So when a hair loss company claims new and improved results, there absolutely needs to be something different about their ingredients. Right? A secret formula that sets the product apart from the rest, a novel innovation that no other product has. It’s crazy to think that there are companies that put hundreds of thousands of dollars solely into marketing and packaging, with no consideration on what’s actually addressing hair loss itself.
Or is it? Let’s take a step back and assume that this isn’t the case. We’ll start by talking about ODMs and OEMs.
Hair Loss Product Have (and Take) the Easy Way Out
ODMs or Original Design Manufacturers (also known as private labels) are companies that provide an existing, tried-and-true formulation for a cosmetics company to use. As the article (linked above) mentions, “we do everything for you.” The only step the client has to do is print its brand on the package and sell it. What blows our minds is that this exact formulation can already exist on the market, sold by a different brand. We should be appalled if a company takes this strategy with age-old ingredients and claims new and improved results. Notably alarming is the fact that “the cosmetics ODM market size will surpass $12.02 Billion in 2021.”
What this tells us is that this does occur, and it happens on a huge scale. The numbers are there. However, corporations would never willingly reveal this.
So what about hair loss companies that truly claim innovative, new ingredients?
OEMs or Original Equipment Manufacturers are companies that help a brand to design a new formulation. A company working with these formulators has complete design control over their products and oftentimes has the ability to customize the ingredients to fit their branding. Brands can add or remove fragrance, adjust texture, tweak color, and even add the special ingredients that they source and discover themselves. This is much better. There exists a service that hair loss companies can use to provide new ingredients and ideas to make products with legitimate, real results.
End of story? We’re afraid not.
Yes, there is an avenue for customization, but the obligation now falls on the hair loss company to actually discover and validate the ingredients they supply to an OEM. OEMs have existed for decades, so it would be nice to assume that some companies have earnestly taken up the challenge and proven themselves in recent years.
We attempted to validate this by interviewing over 40 women about their hair loss journey and the implications were astounding. When seeking professional help, women were strongly recommended a minoxidil-based product (like Rogaine). And oftentimes, minoxidil was the only solution that had any effect on their hair. This ingredient has unequivocally been the gold standard (for both men and women) since approved by the FDA for hair loss in the late 1980’s. But it goes back even further. Minoxidil was specifically developed (and failed) in the 1950s as an ulcer medication. Hair growth by vasodilation was just an unexpected side-effect! After over 40 years of use, minoxidil, the number one ingredient that is still professionally recommended and constitutes the foundation of dozens of corporate products:
- Is associated with a laundry list of unpleasant side effects
- Is shown to variably work 50-60% of the time
- Can lead to even worse hair health if you stop using it
- Doesn’t address the root cause of hair loss
- Was accidentally discovered for hair growth
In today’s world, would you use a computer built in the 1980s? To us, it sounds like no company has taken up the challenge of innovating and discovering better, novel ingredients for hair loss.
But don’t take our word for it. Let’s show you.
4 Decades of Hair Loss Ingredient Innovation Condensed into One Graph
We investigated 84 products with claims of visibly thicker and fuller hair from 18 different companies and compiled a master list of ingredients. After removing identical ingredients (or the same ingredient in different forms), we were left with over 600 unique ingredients.
In addition, we set aside ingredients sourced from nature (like sunflower seed oil or panax ginseng root extract). We recognize that natural ingredients are exploding in popularity, but again this isn’t the full story. Ingredients from nature have existed for hundreds and thousands of years, without any agenda to specifically stimulate human hair growth. Providing new versions of only natural ingredients to these OEMs is often what happens. Companies take advantage of the popular sentiment that natural means safe and use “all-natural” as a cheap substitute for a lack of real and improved results.
The 18 brands we considered include Grow Gorgeous, Keranique, Nutrafol, Vegamour, and many others. These are reputable, present-day companies at the forefront of addressing hair loss with access to the latest science and technology to discover new ingredients and create better formulations. We hold these brands to a high standard, given their claims of science and improvement over other treatments that exist today. To figure out how “new” these ingredients really are, we delved deep into records to find the earliest, documented cosmetic use for each and every one. We used four strategies in our search.
- Cross-referencing official cosmetic ingredient lists (ie: INCI, CosIng)
- Searching scientific article databases (ie: PubMed)
- Searching patent databases with cosmetic applications (ie: Google Patents)
- Web searching for cosmetic related content (ie: blogs, news presses)
After writing computer algorithms to gather information from these sources as a starting point, we meticulously searched by hand to pinpoint the dates of earliest cosmetic use. Although this took a significantly long time, it was necessary to accurately document and attribute the history of each of the ingredients. As the hours progressed, the story became all the more interesting and the time spent became well worth it. The graph below is a summary what we found:
The labels underneath each bar represent the ingredient category. Natural products were separated from the rest, which were then split into time periods for which their first cosmetic application was documented. The height of each bar represents the number of ingredients (from our list of 600 unique ones) that fall into the labeled time period. Here’s what we noticed:
- Over a third of the ingredients are natural, or a close relative of a natural ingredient
- Around half of these ingredients are from over 30 years ago
- There’s a painfully sharp decrease in new ingredient innovation in the past two decades
What this tells us is that hair loss companies either can’t find better ingredients or are not willing to.
We were interested in the ingredients in the 2011+ category, as we felt that 21st-century ingredients should really bring something novel to the table. So we took a closer look into the ingredients noted in the past decade:
- A source for bis(tripeptide-1) copper acetate dates the ingredient to 2014. In actuality, this is just a mix of copper and some amino acids, all of which have been used for cosmetic applications for several decades.
- Peg‐12 dimethicone (2011) is simply just a blend of polyethylene glycol and dimethicone. In fact, this ingredient is not even included for the purpose of hair loss. It’s main role is to help the physical consistency of the formulation it exists in.
These tangential roles are especially prevalent in the categories denoted with an asterisk (*) from 1991-2010. Myristamide DIPA (2012) is a surfactant used for foaming, while menthyl ethylamido oxalate (2011) is a cooling agent. Additionally, butylphenyl methylpropanal (2006) is an ingredient used for fragrance, polysilicone-15 (2002) protects against UV radiation, and poliquaternium-67 (1998) claims to condition the hair by preventing static texture.
We can list out many more examples, but one thing is abundantly clear. While there are a small number of ingredients that might be relatively “newer”, an even smaller portion is specifically related to hair loss.
Other notable dates that appeared in our timeline research include some well-known hair loss active ingredients.
- Nanoxidil (2008) - Nanoxidil is a close relative to minoxidil, and is only different from minoxidil by one single molecule. It claims better absorption due to lower molecular weight.
- Dutasteride (1998) - Similarly to minoxidil vs. nanoxidil, dutasteride is a close relative to finasteride, boasting higher DHT blocking than the original ingredient. Released nearly a decade after finasteride, the ingredient has been available for over 20 years now. However, while the effectiveness has increased, they still haven’t seemed to figure out the whole side effects question.
- Procapil (2005) - A blend of biotinoyl tripeptide-1 (2005), apigenin (1983), oleanolic acid (1954). While this might seem new at first glance, the novelty is really just in mixing the three ingredients together. Even biotinoyl tripeptide-1 is simply a combination of biotin and tripeptide-1 (also called glycine-histidine-lysine or GHK), which is a bunch of amino acids naturally found in your body.
To End Hair Loss, We Need to Break the Cycle
In the last 30 years, hair loss companies simply have not contributed significant novel ingredients to support hair growth, yet the claims of new and improved results are constantly increasing. Companies seem to rely on marketing and packaging to counteract weaknesses in true ingredient innovation.
This model has worked and may work for years to come, but we strongly believe things need to change, for all of our well beings. We need results-first companies that deliver results, not just promise them.
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