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The next big thing in self-care is a mail-order skin treatment routine chemically designed just for you, your skin, and its environment.
Here are the primary obstacles to figuring out the best skin care regimen for yourself:
- It’s hard for you, as a layperson, to know what products and ingredients are best.
- Plus, there are many variables that influence your skin’s health, from diet to water quality, and mass products aren’t tailored to these precise things anyway.
- And yet, dermatologists are expensive and can be intimidating.
The newest idea in mail-order beauty tries to address all these problems in a fresh way: A pair of startups offers consumers the ability to complete a digital skin care quiz, then consult with a dermatologist before receiving a customized regimen. It’s not that the doctors choose products that will work for you—the brand custom makes them for you, with ingredients added ad hoc like a smoothie. So, if signs of aging are your main concern, they’ll up the dosage of retinoids to reverse and prevent wrinkles, fine lines, sun spots, and acne. Or, if your skin is hypersensitive and irritable, the algorithm pries for specifics: This tells the doctor which ingredients to prescribe in your skin care cocktail.
Two companies have taken the lead out of the gate: Curology, co-founded and helmed by Dr. David Lortscher, has raised $18.8 million from firms such as Forerunner Ventures, Sherpa Capital, 137 Ventures, and Advance Venture Partners. Lortscher’s aim was to create a business that cut big pharma markups and eliminated economic barriers to highly effective ingredients like prescription-only tretinoin (a type of age-reversing retinol). Curology’s two-month skin care sets—with a cleanser, moisturizer, and custom night cream—start at $60, or you can opt just for the custom cream for $20 per month.
There’s also Proven, which has raised $150,000 in seed funding this year, and is backed by Y Combinator, Social Capital, Soma Capital, and more. Co-founders Ming Zhao and Amy Yuan first built a proprietary skin care database that encompasses more than 4,000 research articles and 8 million-plus consumer reviews on over 100,000 beauty products, and 20,000 ingredients. This database, the Skin Genome Project, is the foundation of Proven’s AI-fueled questionnaire. Proven’s two-month skin care sets cost $145 and include three custom products (cleanser, moisturizer, and night cream).
Customized beauty isn’t exactly new: Birchbox has been tailoring sample-packed hair and skin care assortments for eight years, allowing consumers to test products that fit their profile. More recently, companies such as Hims and Hers, as well as Keeps, connect customers with doctors online to prescribe pills and creams for hair retention, wrinkle reversal, and even a sex-drive boost.
But these new programs offer a simplified, long-term personal solution I wanted to try out. With five-plus years covering skin care (half of them with Birchbox), I tested both brands for a month each—from questionnaire to product application. The two take slightly different approaches to the same end: Curology asks the top-level questions about sensitivity, aging, breakouts, and oil production, and then hands your results to a dermatologist to scrutinize and sign off.
Proven, the more expensive of the two, dives deeper, so you need to be tuned in to your flare-ups, sun exposure, diet, stress level, and even air travel. It then factors in your city’s weather patterns, water hardness, and more, before handing results to the dermatologist. With both services, you must upload well-lit photos of your face, so the doctor can further assess any conditions. You’ll get a summary of the ingredients that will be used in your product assortment, which includes a daytime moisturizer, daily cleanser, and corrective night cream.
My profile is standard for a 30-something: wrinkles, fine lines, mild acne, rough skin, moderate sun exposure. I have combination skin, which means I have an oily forehead, chin, and nose, and dry cheeks. I have been six months without using any retinol products, which is to say that my skin could be sensitive to it, which I knew to watch for in trials.
The cornerstone product in both services is the night cream, since the body heals and regenerates while you sleep. This is when those corrective ingredients matter most. Here then are the key ingredients that comprised my customized night-cream formula from each brand:
Tretinoin, Azelaic Acid, and Clindamycin
Low-grade tretinoin (0.018 percent) can be increased as the skin adjusts. This fights acne, unclogs pores, and reverses signs of aging. It smoothens skin texture, while the inclusion of azelaic acid combats hyperpigmentation to even out complexion. Clindamycin doubles down on clogged pores.
Copper Tripeptides, Granactive Retinoid, Vitamin B5, Marula oil, Niacinamide, and Glucosamine
The first two aid in renewal, to firm and tighten skin while minimizing acne and signs of aging. Vitamin B5 and marula oil are deep hydrators that counter dryness, while the final two key ingredients are complexion-clearing antioxidants.
While I would need 6 to 12 months to measure the full effectiveness of each brand, I noted daily firmness and brightness in the skin. Both subscriptions come with a major benefit: While I appreciate that Proven’s regimen is customized across the board—cleanser and day cream, too—I also like that Curology gives users the chance to opt out of the extra two products and simply ship the single customized night cream.
But I wanted a second opinion—a dermatologist’s—on the overall consumer benefits and drawbacks of such a service. “These may be helpful to those with mild acne, or who want to improve or optimize their anti-aging regimen,” says Dr. Carly Roman of Modern Dermatology in Seattle. “The convenience of seeking recommendations from home is the biggest advantage. However, if you have severe acne or more complicated concerns, these services do not replace an in-person evaluation from a board-certified dermatologist.” Your doctor can also prescribe you the hard-core stuff, she adds. “[Medical-grade] prescriptions typically have a higher percentage of the active ingredient, and that dermatologist can further discuss additional options including oral medications, chemical peels, or the use of laser devices.”
Written by Adam Hurly for Bloomberg