For years, Dianna Cohen has been known among her friends as the go-to person for haircare advice. She can happily recite the best hair masks, heritage brand brushes and combs, and had even compiled a Google Doc containing step-by-step details of her haircare process, the products she used, and where they fell short for her. “It had caveats – like, ‘I like this towel but I wish that it was longer’, or ‘[these are] the two hair oils I love depending on the season,’” she explains.
That list eventually became the rubric she would use to launch her business, Crown Affair. The first item on the list to tackle? Hair brushing. While her 12-step guide to hair care had long featured a $200 Mason Pearson boar bristle brush, her friends had constantly complained that it was far too expensive, and that they simply couldn’t understand how it would be better than their plastic Tangle Teezers.
“That was the big a-ha moment for me,” Cohen says. “Where skincare and color cosmetics have been so democratized, that conversation just isn’t happening [in hair care]. It’s been so driven by styling and salon.”
In January 2020, Crown Affair launched with a collection of hair brushes, a wide-toothed comb, a hair-oil and towel. The company has since gone on to launch a dry shampoo (Cohen says her current personal best is an impressive 11 days between washes), and shampoos and conditioners are in the works.
The haircare market is huge – valued at over $92 billion globally – and is dominated by legacy giants like L’Oreal, Aveda and Garnier, who have typically either focused on creating products that can be sold at scale, or through salons. Mass-market consumption and premium salon products, and not much in between. Meanwhile, consumers who want products to help with specific hair health conditions such as dandruff, that have been tailored to their particular hair texture, or who want to find products that aren’t laden with ingredients that will strip their hair, have been left underserved.
Spying an opportunity, direct-to-consumer haircare brands are bypassing drug stores and salons (which typically derive as much as 25% of their revenues from selling hair products) entirely, and going straight to people’s bathrooms. The pandemic has only increased the appetite for these offerings – unable to hit the salon, people have been forced to find a way to maintain their locks at home.
Brands like Gussi and Owow have launched kits that let people keratin-treat their hair at home. Brands like Prose, Champo and Function of Beauty are focusing on personalization, creating shampoos and conditioners that can be formulated in endless ways. Prose says it can make up to 79 trillion different formulas to respond to both the needs of an individual’s hair, environmental conditions, the hardness of their local water supply, and other factors. Meanwhile, companies like Bread Beauty Supply, Ceremonia and Dizziak are creating products tailored to the needs of underserved customer groups, and Radswan and Ruka are rethinking the supply chain for wigs and hair extensions.
Hair dye in particular is a product category that’s undergone a profound shift since the pandemic began. It’s estimated that 65% of women and 46% of men aged 16-24 have experimented with hair dying, with just over half of people choosing to change the color of their hair at home.
To cater to those at-home hair dyers – a community which has grown throughout the pandemic – brands like Bleach London and Hally are trying to make it as easy as possible to switch up our hair color. Launched this year, Hally uses a foam formula, which the brand’s founder Kathryn Winokur says is far easier to apply than a conditioner-based dye. “You just lather it in, the more the better, and you don’t have to worry about painting it on section by section,” she explains. “[It makes] the whole experience feel much less intimidating. If you’re 19 and dying your hair at home, or you’re in a college dorm, this is a much easier thing to do.”
According to buy now, pay later platform Clearpay, the best selling beauty product in the U.K. between April and June 2020 was the "hair perfecter" treatment from salon brand Olaplex. Hair dyes were also extremely popular, with sales shooting up 23% year-on-year in the first week of April 2020.
While brands launching in the haircare space today are carving out their own niches, they do share one overarching message: hair care should no longer focus on bleached locks and salon-style blowouts which look good but leave hair frazzled, and instead pay more attention to the natural health of our hair and scalp.
Crown Affair’s Cohen says that for a long time, market-leading brands “have been telling women that their hair needs to be fixed and tamed, and that frizz is bad.” This provides an opportunity for modern haircare brands to act as educators, giving customers more insight on how ingredients like sulfates and parabens, which strip the hair of natural oils giving it that squeaky-clean feeling, work – and get them switched to gentler alternatives.
This communication is not an easy task, though. “The thing that’s really tough is that often the word ‘clean’ is associated with ‘not effective’,” Cohen says. “People have gotten really used to the fresh feeling that comes with sulfates.”
At Modern Mammals, a brand that makes sulfate and paraben-free "rinses" targeted at men, the tactic has been to focus on common hair complains that they have – itchy scalps, "poofy" locks. We’ve tried as hard as we can to make things as simple as we possibly can,” cofounder Wes Haddon says.
Rather than trying to convert people who are already clued up on concepts like "no poo" (a term used to refer to swapping out regular shampoos for more gentle alternatives), Modern Mammals' goal is to alert regular shampoo users that there could be a better solution out there for them. “We’re using the methodology, but then finding a way to distill it so that it’s digestible by the average guy who’s been using Head and Shoulders,” Haddon adds.
Hally’s Winokur agrees that transparency on ingredients is particularly important for the Gen Z customers her brand is targeting. “[People are] wanting to take risks with their hair but do it in a more gentle and caring way,” she says. “I would definitely still not say [our hair dye] is organic or all-natural, but we’ve certainly made a lot of effort to make it a lot more gentle on your hair.” One of Hally’s key selling points is that its product is “the first ammonia-free foam hair dye, ever;” ammonia has been known to cause scalp irritation.
The desire for gentle haircare products is largely driven by the wider wellness movement, as consumers become more conscious about what they put on and in their bodies. But there are also concerns that hair products that strip hair can disturb the balance of oils at the root level, causing skin conditions on the scalp.
Scalp health, therefore, has become an increasing important area of focus for brands. Since 2006, one of Swedish haircare brand Sachajuan’s top-selling products has been a scalp shampoo with soothing ingredients like rosemary oil and ginger. Soon after launching, Ceremonia released a massager – a spiky device that can be used to exfoliate the scalp and get the blood pumping to it. In January this year, Harry’s Labs launched its own scalp care brand, Headquarters.
With dandruff affecting an estimated 50% of the U.S. population, Ross Goodhart, the cofounder of dandruff brand Jupiter says the market is ripe for some new offerings that “break down” the stigma. “I’ve been a dandruff sufferer my entire life, and have been very frustrated with the solutions that were out there,” he explains. “They were either unclean, the directions were confusing, they didn’t speak to me as a modern consumer, I was embarrassed to have them in my shower, they smelled bad. There had to be a better solution.”
Goodhart says Jupiter spent two and a half years developing its range of over-the-counter and prescription dandruff treatment products before launching in April 2020.
“People are finally starting to understand that hair health starts with the scalp – a healthy scalp means healthy hair,” he says. “No matter what you might use on your hair, if you’re not looking after your scalp you won’t see nearly the same results.”
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