The Future of Beauty Is Powered by Artificial Intelligence—But Is That a Good Thing?

How brands are adapting new technology to revolutionize shopping, shade matching, and more.

beauty ai technology

Welcome to the beauty industry’s golden age of artificial intelligence. What once was considered a novel, even borderline science-fiction idea is now becoming much more accessible to the masses thanks to new innovations across nearly every product category. And while this trend had already emerged in the luxury beauty space thanks to interest in new technology and customization features (like the handheld makeup printer developed with the Defense Department, or the NASA-backed skin-care micro mist), COVID-19 has rapidly accelerated AI’s entry in the public beauty domain. Ongoing health and safety concerns have also led to a need for shopping solutions that don’t include physical product testing. And lucky for us, the results will last long after the pandemic is over.

“The pandemic has pushed forward our virtual presence and how we live and shop,” says Melissa Hago, VP and creative director of beauty at Fashion Snoops, a global trend forecasting agency. “New challenges demand innovative solutions, and technology is innovating as our lives shift onto digital platforms.”

The Future of Shopping

Now, a year into the pandemic, beauty brands are finding new ways to keep consumers engaged and connected to their products. This includes exciting digital debuts, like Parfums-Givenchy’s launch on Animal Crossing, Hago says. “Social media is hugely influential, with TikTok [being] a major beauty player, while other new platforms are helping brands reach consumers [via] AI-powered products, augmented reality, and 3-D experiences, [which] help turn computers and phones into an inviting digital landscape.”

With health and safety concerns ongoing, virtual retail spaces have quickly become the new norm. “Stores like Shen are having to adapt their design to reflect pandemic concerns, while other stores like Beautyque are duplicating a realistic store experience, allowing browsers to ‘walk’ through the store and zoom in on products,” says Hago. “Though this is also due to consumers who have busy lifestyles and/or limitations that prevent them from in-store shopping.”

Entertainment is also a factor. “Virtual try-ons and the use of AI is something we’ve been tracking for some time, as it adds a smart, novel, and fun way to engage the shopper in making their beauty purchases,” says Jenni Middleton, director of beauty at WGSN.

With product web pages becoming the “new sales floor,” according to a recent Glossy article by Hilary George Parkin, we’ve seen an influx of social simulation programs like virtual try-ons, video product demos, and customer reviews that provide online shoppers with an authentic sense of product, all from their phone or computer. “The digital retail landscape has rich possibilities for highly personalized options or services that have not been possible with in-store environments, opening up a world of virtual possibility,” Hago says.

Next-Level Personalization

With consumers hunting for more personalized solutions to their new online shopping experience, brands are also expanding their product lineups to include AI-powered platforms. For example, Boots’ AI-powered Digital Beauty Advisor, created in partnership with beauty tech company Revieve, analyzes skin selfies and offers relevant product recommendations. With L’Oréal’s new system Color&Co, consumers answer a three-question survey about their hair needs and video chat with a trained hair colorist for 10 minutes; the colorist then creates a personalized hair-dye kit that’s manufactured and bottled on demand and contains everything you need for an at-home dye job.

John Paul Mitchell Systems, according to Hago, plans to launch their new AI hair-analysis tool, dubbed Hair AI and powered by Fitskin, which will evaluate consumers’ hair and scalp and recommend products across John Paul Mitchell Systems’ brands. Even hair dryers have gotten an upgrade from AI technology, thanks to Aer’s new AI SmartDry cordless hair dryer. “The new technology-driven company’s sleek and portable dryer will feature humidity sensors and AI technology that learns how consumers are drying their hair and in what environment in real time to optimize the temperature and air speed to reduce frizziness and hair drying out,” says Hago.

Google is also helping beauty aficionados try on new products virtually, all from the comfort of home. In December 2020, the company announced it was working with data partners ModiFace and Perfect Corp to help better visualize thousands of lipstick and eyeshadow shades from brands like L’Oréal, MAC Cosmetics, Black Opal, and Charlotte Tilbury. When searching for a lipstick or eyeshadow product, users can see what products look like on a range of skin tones and compare shades and textures in order to find the perfect match before buying.

Then there are brands like Dcypher Cosmetics, which is creating personalized foundations for consumers using AI diagnostics and a manufacturing process that closely matches users’ skin tones. And considering that testing a new lip color in person might never be a part of our cosmetics shopping experience (think of the germs), YSL Beauty has launched its Rouge Sur Mesure device, an AI-Powered at-home system developed through the L’Oréal Beauty Lab. The brand says it is the first-ever smart personalized lip-color device which can create thousands of different shades of the YSL Velvet Cream Matte Finish using single cartridges (which are also refillable). Once you’re happy with your hue, you press print and a sample pops out for use.

For brands like YSL Beauty, AI offers consumers the opportunity to create special, tailor-made products at a level we’ve never before experienced. “As a brand, we’re excited to give our community the chance to create a customized choice using the unique and exclusive colors from YSL Beauty,” says Stephan Bezy, international general manager of YSL Beauty. “It is a first of its kind in creating a shade virtually and making it a real, personalized product ready to wear.”

Troubleshooting Virtual Shade Matching

With in-person shopping continuing to pose a health risk for the next few months, Middleton says accurate shade matching has become increasingly essential for buying beauty products online. “Post-pandemic, consumers might have gotten used to using the tech to deliver reliable shade matching, and will feel safer and more comfortable using this method in the future—especially as touch-free becomes more important to people in the wake of the coronavirus.”

However, there are drawbacks to AI technology in this space. “Facial recognition technology is guilty of light-skin bias, as we’ve outlined in a report we did last year on Skinclusivity,” Middleton explains. “The Algorithmic Justice League’s research on systems used by big tech companies such as IBM and Microsoft showed they correctly identified the gender of a light-skinned woman 95 percent of the time, but threw up an error message 10 times more frequently when scanning the face of a Black woman.” The racial bias of AI is cause for concern and will continue to be a major pain point for these platforms if it isn’t addressed properly. “AI is really good at helping you narrow down products, but then it has its limitations on giving you exactly what you need,” says Saisangeeth Daswani, Head of Advisory—Fashion, Beauty & APAC for trend analysis company Stylus.

Leading the way in this space is Atima Lui, a Black woman and founder of Nudemeter, an AI technology that can more accurately shade-match foundations and hosiery for women of color. “Lui has trained her algorithm with images that represent the dark-skin spectrum, which she obtained from volunteers, and then ensured the technology could recognize the skin tone accurately on any device,” says Daswani. In this way, the tech is better serving the needs of shoppers with different skin tones and stands as proof that other companies can and should cater to all of their customers—not just those with lighter skin.

While brands that want to increase their profit margins see AI as a gateway to automation, personalization, and better understanding their consumer, the sharing of biometric data is a growing concern. “The trend is going toward regulating this. The challenge for brands right now is to understand the ethical complications and the willingness of consumers to share [their data],” says Geraldine Wharry, a futurist, designer, and educator. “There’s a civic duty for brands.”

AI: Beyond a Better Shopping Experience

Still, machine learning and AI have a future not just as tools to streamline online shopping in the beauty space, but also as potentially lifesaving resources. For example, La Roche-Posay’s Efaclar Spotscan scans the user’s face with a smartphone camera, checking it against 6,000 professional photos to help dermatologists diagnose skin conditions like melanoma—all without ever meeting their patient face-to-face. “This sort of autonomy in their pocket will really appeal to consumers who have lost control of most things during the pandemic and cannot see their dermatologist or skin salon during lockdown restrictions,” Middleton says. “If [someone has] been financially impacted by the crisis, they may not be able to afford to engage with their regular skin treatments.”

The convenience of this technology in reliably diagnosing, prescribing, and tracking skin conditions could prove increasingly useful for patients as we continue to shelter in place, and Middleton says it’s an area beauty brands should look to invest in the months and years to come. As consumers grow more comfortable with at-home beauty tech during the pandemic, it’s likely that the industry will continue to turn its eyes to the future—hopefully one that is more accessible, inclusive, convenient, and hygienic than ever before. 

Photo: Shot on-site at 6 Columbus. On Jonelle: Necklace, Baker & Black; Rings, Catbird; Hair, Angela Soto; Makeup, Andriani. 

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