they innovate

A Private Tour Of L’Oréal’s Laboratories

March 13th 2017

Shiny hair, long-lasting tints and thickening effects are just some of the many promises kept and announced by products stemming from the 32 brands of the L’Oréal group that are available in 140 countries. So that professionals and consumers can totally take advantage of these benefits, an army of chemists, biologists and researchers are on site at the company’s laboratories. FAB sneaked into L’Oréal’s international center of applied research and capillary development on the outskirts of Paris to find out more.

Photo credits: Alexis Raimbault for L’Oréal

In 1992, to meet the very diverse expectations of professionals and consumers regarding the beauty of their hair, L’Oréal created a research center with a Research & Innovation program focused on coloring, haircare (shampoos, conditioners) and shape, from hairstyling (hair sprays, gels, wax) and permanent hair waving to hair smoothing and hair straightening. In this 25 000m² building, there are based: ethologists (those who specialize in the science of behavior and analyze the way we react to a product); mathematicians (the people who make calculations to improve formulae); optical engineers (who measure hair shine, for instance); materials specialists; physio-chemists; opticians… In fact, in total 500 people work here, sharing their knowledge, innovating and checking a number of unconditional criteria that must be met, such as toxicology and product performance.

From Eugène Schueller’s Days To Now

Back in 1909 women dyed their hair with henna or chemicals that damaged the scalp. Then along came Eugène Schueller, who dealt with this issue and invented the first inoffensive hair coloring. Following this revolutionary invention that affected all parts of society – for until then the only women who dyed their hair were either actresses or “loose women” – he founded L’Oréal. More than a century later, L’Oréal has expanded but it still follows the same philosophy, which is to make skincare, make-up and hair care products that meet each person’s expectations while respecting skin and hair fibers’ balance, and much more. Paris, São Paulo, Vancouver, Shanghai, Johanessburg… from one country to another, hair and customs around the world are not alike. “We measure hair quality on 8,000 people worldwide,” says Isabelle Walter, who is in charge of communication, research and innovation at L’Oréal. “In North America, there are hair curlings that are completely different to the blond curlings in the Seychelles and the Islands of the Saints, for example.” In front of us there is a map made of locks of hair representing various countries that illustrates this explanation. “In Africa, hair varies from not very curly to hyper frizzy. In Australia, hair can be sometimes blondish red like in Ireland, which can be due to migrations.” On this surprising map, a great majority of dark hair can be seen. “Blond hair is recessive. Like blue eyes it has become unusual. Eighty per cent of the population has a base of dark hair and this is on the increase,” explains this expert.

Photo credits: Alexis Raimbault for L’Oréal

There are, of course, also differences in habits and customs. In Europe women wash their hair two or three times a week, whereas in Asia and especially in Japan they wash their hair up to twice a day. This is why although the Saint-Ouen research center is known as the global HQ, other centers in six areas of the world (China, Japan, India, South Africa, Brazil, the United States) work in connection with populations surrounded them. “A product isn’t systematically launched in every country. For instance, some shampoos were created in Brazil because Brazilian women like to have long curly disciplined hair. In China women are not used to applying conditioners. We had to invent a shampoo that would give the same result as a shampoo followed by a conditioner,” says Isabelle. The set of data collected thanks to Saint-Ouen’s global center and the six regional hubs feeds the processes of capillary innovation.

Photo credits: Matteo for L’Oréal

Each Property Is Examined

On this wintery morning, men and women in white lab coats are busy going from one room to another among noisy machines that mimic with amazing accuracy our everyday beauty routine. There is a shampoo machine, a combing machine, a detangling machine, a blow-dry machine. Here, each property is appraised “We had to develop our own tools to measure hair properties because there weren’t any,” explains Delphine Trillat, who is in charge of the capillary instrumental evaluation. “For instance, when we test an anti-curls product, we work on hair with various degrees of curlings in order to see how hair resists to frizz. We always go for a realistic approach that enables us to stick to consumers’ routines.” Color fastness, homogeneity of the color from root to tip, tactile perception, softness, styling performance, anti-frizz… an abundance of machines with mysterious names test and come to conclusions. Here, tribology estimates hair resistance after various treatments such as coloring, hair smoothing and permanent hair waving.

Photo credits: Alexis Raimbault for L’Oréal

“We can notice a possible mechanical damage – have the protein within the hair been damaged? So we look for new formulae to improve the existing product. Here, a dynamometer estimates the detangling power of products such as a conditioning treatment or a shampoo in order to boost their properties. And there, the spectro-colorimeter measures color: has the lock of hair been tinted from root to tip? Is the covering capacity homogeneous? Has the tint reached its expected level? Those are the questions that this tool answers.”

In another room, a machine that looks like a marshmallow twister tests the propensity of hair to break. “It’s the blow-dry stress test,” says Delphine. “A brush turns and combs a wet hair lock. On the surface, the hairdryer is in a progressive drying process. After a session of 120 brushstrokes, we obtain a mass of broken hair from which we deduce a percentage. When we work on a superficially conditioning product with the aim of limiting breakage, we can easily understand that when the brush doesn’t get caught in the hair this limits breakage.”

From high performance hair care products for each person to the Hair Coach, the latest connected brush by Kérastase, or the Steampod by L’Oréal Professionnel, the high performance hair steam straightener, one might think that nowadays there may be nothing left to create? But Isabelle Walter’s reply is quite clear on this: “A researcher’s mind is constantly creative, so there will always be things to discover!”