Hello, Bespoke Beauty

Beauty companies backed by artificial intelligence—such as Atolla and NakedPoppy—show us that beauty can be techy, too.


In a world where Gmail predicts our email responses and Instagram pushes us content it already knows we’ll like, it was only a matter of time before similar technology ventured into the beauty world. Two US-based companies in particular, Atolla and NakedPoppy, are changing the way we wear (and buy) beauty products by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence (AI).

Artificial intelligence is associated with names like Siri and Alexa, and with companies such as Netflix. Historically, it may even conjure up images of sci-fi movies and laboratory coats. But most recently it has—much to my delight—made the crossover to cosmetics, using the advanced technology it so often uses in apps and other services to help consumers better navigate the vast world of beauty.

“By integrating an AI-powered solution into their skincare routine,” explains Sid Salvi, co-founder of Atolla, “people can avoid the pain and frustration of trial and error, of spending countless hours surfing Reddit, and potentially even harming their skin by doing too much.”

Atolla is a monthly, personalized serum that uses information about your skin gathered over time in order to evolve along with it. The company is spearheaded by professionals with interlocking expertise: Salvi brings a data-science background; Meghan Maupin handles design; and Dr. Ranella Hirsch is a dermatologist.

The process is simple: A very discreet Skin Health Kit that includes hands-on equipment to test your skin’s oil and moisture levels, pH level, and base preferences is sent to your home. Information, such as your skin concerns and what products you already use as part of your routine, are also collected. I have to admit, I originally thought I would have to send my completed kit back via snail mail (the horror), but I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized I would not have to run to the post office, à la DNA tests, to complete the process. Perhaps surprisingly, absolutely nothing from this kit has to be sent back to Atolla through the mail. All of the results gathered from these quick tests are photographed right on your phone and uploaded into their system.

Once information is submitted a customized serum is then calculated and is eventually shipped straight to your door. Mine in particular included ingredients such as salicylic acid, turmeric extract, and vitamin B5. When the month is up, the process is done all over again.

The system was borne of the founders’ own skin frustrations, and can help manage a variety of issues including breakouts, dryness, and discoloration, just to name a few. Customers can expect to see an improvement within three to four weeks of usage. In my case, I witnessed less congestion and clearer, brighter skin within two weeks.

Years ago, I began my lifelong love affair with Sunday Riley and CeraVe. But there were still issues, such as the pore congestion on my chin and the dull, dry skin I experience in cooler months. My personalized Atolla product helped me with these two problem areas, areas that have only been remedied in the past by getting pricey hydrafacials. (Sigh. If only this system was around when my college-age self struggled with a long list of skin problems, resulting in probably one too many cortisone shots to the face.)

“This gap between what we are told about our skin and our real-life experience causes the pain people feel—they simply don’t feel in control of their skin,” says Salvi. “An approach to skincare that evolves with a person’s skin changes and is customized to their skin will help people achieve better skin health and feel more empowered. Using the power of data science, we can help people manage their skin health and prevent skin issues, rather than reacting to them.”

NakedPoppy is a fellow startup—this one focused on clean cosmetics—co-founded by Jaleh Bisharat, who has been an executive at companies such as OpenTable and Amazon, and Kimberly Shenk, who was formerly the head of product/data science for various Silicon Valley companies, including Eventbrite. The company also uses AI but in a slightly different way—information is compounded to help curate a selection of beauty products tailored to the user’s personalized needs and preferences.

I found the firm’s personalization process to be painless: After creating an account on NakedPoppy’s website, I was guided through a multipart questionnaire that started off with basic questions, such as hair and eye color. Then it dove deeper into the nitty gritty, with inquiries such as: Look at the underside of your wrists. What color are your veins? And: Would you say you look best in white shirts or ivory shirts? The whole survey took me just five minutes. My responses were then calculated to create a customized marketplace of beauty offerings from the company’s pool of 460 SKUs which includes brands such as RMS Beauty, Kosas, and NakedPoppy’s own in-house cosmetics line.

My results suggested that Clove + Hollow’s Lip Velvet in Fiesta, a fiery red, would work well for me if I were going for a glamorous look, or Suntegrity’s Sunrise Peach lip color if I wanted something more subtle. I was able to pick and choose what I wanted to purchase and the items were swiftly shipped right to my door.

Everything worked out well for me, but customers have the option to backtrack and edit their answers or return items that may not have worked so well for them. Returned items are donated to a nonprofit called Project Beauty Share. Signing up for NakedPoppy felt similar to enlisting a clean makeup mentor that does all the legwork for me, leaving me with only an assortment of beauty items that actually make me feel good (literally, it’s healthier) to put on in the morning.

“The thing that I felt was missing was a quick, simple, and enjoyable way for women to transition to clean beauty without getting overwhelmed.”

After talking with hundreds of women regarding clean beauty, Bisharat and Shenk learned that women were frustrated in two areas: how to tell which items were genuinely clean and which were just marketing hype, and how they could find luxe, clean beauty products that they loved as much as the favorites they currently used. “We solved the first problem by hiring a clean chemist focused on clean ingredients and sustainability to review every single ingredient in every single product we carry,” adds Bisharat.

 In fact, NakedPoppy uses only 700 carefully screened chemicals in their products, compared to the 12,500 allowed in the U.S. and 7,000 allowed in the E.U.

“To solve the second problem—what will look beautiful on each person—we built our AI-driven algorithm,” says Bisharat, “Women spend three minutes to complete their assessment, complete with wrist photo, then our algorithm develops her personalized boutique complete with her perfect picks.” Bisharat adds that the algorithm continues to get smarter over time.

By sorting and sifting through countless beauty products for us, NakedPoppy uses AI to cut through an otherwise saturated market where hazy terms such as “clean,” “green,” and “natural” are thrown around. It showed me just how much gray area surrounds these buzzwords, and how incognizant I may have been of the differences between each.

“Our definition of clean makeup is that it’s made with ingredients that are safe for human health, better for the environment, and cruelty-free,” says Bisharat. “Clean makeup is actually different from natural makeup. Natural makeup refers to makeup made from ingredients coming from nature, but those ingredients aren’t necessarily safer for human health.” Bisharat uses Japanese honeysuckle as an example and explains that even though it is derived from a flower it is also likely estrogenic.

“Clean makeup, on the other hand, is especially screened for human health and includes both ingredients from nature and carefully screened safe synthetic ones,” adds Bisharat. Bisharat cites hyaluronic acid to be an example of this, noting that even though it is created in a lab it has still been shown safe for human health.

While I am not sure if I will solely depend on these companies for all of my makeup and skincare needs going forward—I reserve the right to worship at the altar that is the Neiman Marcus beauty floor—it is undeniable that these two AI-backed brands have a certain something that is not usually synonymous with traditional customized products—convenience. These brands, and the technology behind them, aim to streamline an often tedious process and help to dissolve the hit-or-miss uncertainty that goes hand in hand with buying beauty products in general.

The downside? You lose that tangible experience associated with purchasing new beauty items. The upside? You lose that tangible experience associated with purchasing new beauty items. There is no wrangling the behemoth that is Sephora while experiencing sensory overload from an excess of product. There is no room to make impulsive drugstore makeup purchases while standing in the aisle haphazardly Googling product reviews before you check out. Instead, the task is seamlessly integrated into your everyday life and becomes as simple as placing an order on Seamless or scheduling a Lyft ride.

In the same way Netflix and Hulu have altered the way we watch television and mobile deposits have made getting paid that much easier, bespoke beauty backed by AI has the power to set a new precedent in a rapidly growing industry. And whether we are ready for it or not, it’s safe to say it may just be the future.