Well, Actually is a weekly column by Slate’s Shannon Palus. Each week, she’ll test health and wellness products to help readers figure out what they should try, what they should skip, and why.
“I was obsessed with shampoo. I thought if I could find the right one, my hair would be the hair I always wanted,” Frances McDormand’s character, Jane, says in the 2006 movie Friends With Money. “Like, every time I washed it was a new opportunity, a new chance to be pretty.”
Jane, a rich fashion designer moving through L.A. in a fog of depression, is explaining to her husband why she’s given up on washing her hair: The world requires our hair to be pretty by specific standards. The sheer variety of shampoo offers Jane an endless opportunity to achieve follicle perfection. And yet, she never does. So what’s the point?
I have spent much of the past 13 years since watching that scene trying different shampoos. I’ve washed my hair with the pricey salon shampoos, tested the drugstore finds my shiny-haired friends swear by, and emptied bottles of honest-to-God MIT-formulated technology (I believe it may have helped … a little?). I had a highly inadvisable “no-poo” phase in which I only washed my hair with apple cider vinegar or conditioner. The only upside to that: I saved money, and acclimated to having gross hair. My current regime is cleaning my hair with cheap L’Oréal, then taming it with a combination of eye-poppingly expensive keratin treatments and a blow dryer. The end result is … fine.
In all these years of searching and buying and washing, I haven’t come close to achieving the hair of my dreams. And yet, standing in front of a new bottle feels like contemplating a slot machine in Vegas when you’re firmly in the red. Don’t you just want to put down a few more dollars and see if maybe this time it works?
The latest gambit is custom shampoo formulations, tailored just for your hair. Among the small wave of these personalized shampoos is a company called Prose, just a little more than a year old, very good at following me and my mediocre hair around on Instagram, and boasting the power of artificial intelligence.
Prose consultations can be performed at a salon or online. Since I am jonesing to get going, I opt for the latter. To make customized shampoo, you start by taking a quiz. I tell Prose my age and that my hair is wavy. I tell Prose how much of my scalp I can see when I part my hair, and that my hair sometimes “retains environmental odors.” I tell Prose that I often experience stress, and about the nature of my diet. Prose then takes into account the conditions where I live, whether I need products that are gluten free (no?), and what kind of fragrance I want, and spits out some numbers about my hair: oily (90/100), dry (79/100), and dandruff (2/100). How Prose has nailed my dryness to double-digit precision, or what it would mean to score full marks on any of these numbers is unclear. But numbers, just in general, do sound legit.
Finally, the big reveal: a special formula shampoo and conditioner for $25 a pop, as well as a pre-wash mask, which currently retails for $38. That’s a lot of money but not a lot of money if it works. I skip the mask, in order to fairly compare Prose against my current routine (and also because: $38!). The set arrives a week later with each bottle bearing my name and ZIP code. Welcome to, as Prose puts it, “hyper-tailored hair care.”
Prose advertises “a unique formula that’s one in 50 billion possible outcomes” across the three products it sells, but to cosmetic chemists, shampoo comes in roughly four formulas. There are the deep cleansers, which have a little more detergent than the rest. There are the moisturizing shampoos, which are strong on conditioning agents. There’s baby shampoo, which isn’t as harsh but also doesn’t clean as well. And then there’s anti-dandruff shampoo, which counts as an over-the-counter drug. It is from these foundations that companies make tweaks to craft and justify a variety of sales pitches: Shampoos with extra detergent strip hair of oils, making hair lighter, so they add volume. Shampoos with more conditioner are good for damaged hair, long hair, dry hair, curly hair.
“The reality is, that’s a story,” Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist, tells me. He should know: He spent a chunk of his career formulating shampoos at Alberto-Culver, which makes Nexxus, Tresemmé, and V05 (what he currently uses). Interestingly, Prose co-founder Paul Michaux tells me the same. He used to work at L’Oréal and saw labels like “curly hair shampoo” as “marketing criteria.” Your typical shampoo company will “put people in boxes and put products in those boxes.”
Michaux’s response is to sell bespoke products with bespoke stories. Prose chemist Mathilde Sitter tells me in an email that the algorithm collects 135 data points on each customer, who of course cannot “understand their total hair needs on a molecular level” as well as Prose claims it can. (One example Mathilde gave me: “A person who reported virgin hair on their first consultation, and who then reports that they now color/bleach will require a formula adjustment to account for the damage. In this case, we would add sacha yushi oil and oat kernel oil. Together these ingredients help repair damage, repair the cuticle and restore hair proteins and lipids for longer-lasting, vibrant color.”) Romanowski, who currently runs an educational site, Chemists Corner, has a different take. He argues that we’re all already customizing whatever shampoo we use to our hair’s needs: “In the shower, you’re going to use the amount you need to clean your hair,” he says. If you want a shampoo to cleanse less, you can simply put less of it into your hand. Indeed, in all my years and dollars of experimenting, the most notable difference that I’ve ever seen in my own hair from shampoo is by watering it down.
One thing you can’t really change on your own is the smell, though. Romanowski told me that when he used to test his formulas against competitors, testers would describe the formulas whose smell they preferred with other good qualities—better rinsing, better sudsing—even though he could see in his lab that objectively they were not those things. (Pantene always came out on top, he says. “Probably the most important thing is people like how Pantene smells.”) A 2009 study done by a consumer research company in the U.K. illustrates just how large an effect smell can have on our perception of a shampoo. Participants assessed, in jars and on swatches of hair, what appeared to be a variety of shampoos in varying scents: A shampoo with a leafy scent and one with a camphor scent both ranked as tacky and sticky, while a rose scent and a floral scent each got high marks for being creamy. The trick: All of the shampoo was the same; it was just the smell that changed.
The contents of my Prose smell fine—less abrasive than the drugstore stuff, vaguely floral, like an expensive perfume, but muted. I use it for a week, then return to what I was doing before. My hair remains unchanged.
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I won’t go back to Prose, but I understand the appeal. Even if your hair remains … your hair, all the numbers and the pamphlets promise that you are treating it in the most thoughtful way possible. Prose will help you tweak your formula, adjusting ingredients in future shipments as the seasons change, as your hair grows or is cut, is bleached and styled. To me, the money’s not worth it for the result. But if you desperately want to get off the shampoo-trying train, what Prose can offer is some sense of control.
While I remain skeptical of Prose, reporting this piece has only heightened my sense that the right shampoo for me is out there. Now I understand that all I have to do to find it is open bottles and sniff.