The world has been a mystery in terms of our own skin, and skin technology can make that mystery clearer.

Showcasing the ongoing fusion of tech and beauty, L’Oréal debuted My Skin Track pH by La Roche-Posay at this year’s CES. The wearable sensor and companion app measures a consumer’s skin pH to create what the company calls “customized product regimens to better care for skin.” The beauty giant says that the device is the first wearable to measure individual skin pH levels using microfluidic technology, providing an accurate pH reading by capturing trace amounts of sweat from skin pores through a network of micro-channels.

Guive Balooch, global vice president of the L’Oréal Technology Incubator, an arm of L’Oréal’s Research and Innovation, notes that while “the scientific and medical communities have long known the link between skin pH levels and common skin concerns,” the My Skin Track concept can “empower consumers with meaningful information about their skin, so that they can find the products that are right for their individual needs.” L’Oréal created the device in partnership with Epicore Biosystems, which specializes in microfluidic platforms and soft wearable sensors.

Here, Balooch talks about how the concept for the My Skin Track tech evolved, how L’Oréal plans to harness tech to inform its product development, and the launches it has set its sights on next.

In beauty, which areas of concern are currently at the forefront of consumers’ minds?

Skincare has become one of the most serious areas because of the link between wellness, lifestyle, health, and beauty. Biology could bring skincare to a new level. We want to launch projects that we feel are that link between technology and health and skin. With the La Roche-Posay My UV Patch app [launched in 2016], we really wanted to focus on this idea that education could lead to people trying to live a healthier life in the sun.

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My Skin Track pH by La Roche-Posay

How did the concept for My Skin Track pH come about?

It’s funny because for 50 years, in the academic world, we’ve known that pH is related to so many different skin conditions; the lower the pH, the better the skin. There’s a pH range which is the healthiest4.5 to 5.5but consumers haven’t been able to do anything with that information because they’ve never been able to manage their pH, because they can’t do a litmus test. You would need to produce sweat, run on a treadmill.

The My Skin Track technology is pretty cool because it’s actually using something called microfluid. It uses really small amounts of sweat that would normally evaporate, captures them, and measures the pH of your sweat within 10 minutes.

Does the app also recommend skincare?

The idea is to start with a recommendation but to finish with a smart relationship between the consumer and their topical product. The first step is: here’s where your pH level is, here’s the routine we recommend. But the step afterwhich is way more importantis to retest your pH in four weeks. Then, let’s see where you’re at, let’s see if there are recommendations that we can give you. Maybe you replace A with B, then maybe you could have different lifestyle and wellness tips to help you bring your pH down to the right level. You could then use the products that are more curated towards your needs.

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My Skin Track pH by La Roche-Posay

Beauty is largely driven by future anxieties or future need states. For women there’s the awareness of hormones and how they affect metabolic health, skincare, cortisol levels, and fitness and weight management, not forgetting the issue of pollution. Which need states are you trying to solve right now? Or do you start with the technology?

I have had situations where technology will be the first step, but I’ve never had a situation where I developed a product purely around technology. Because we’re in this world of “Who cares? Why do I care?” I do not want to create products that create that question.

Roozbeh Ghaffari [cofounder and CEO of Epicore Biosystems] told me two years ago, “I have this technology that can measure different things in the sweat.” I didn’t have a consumer need for that, but thought it was cool. But I’m not going to launch it just because it’s cool, and he doesn’t want that either. So he worked on a use for the technology for Gatorade to measure things like electrolytes. Then one day I called him and said “I have an idea. I read up about the fact that pH is so important, and I see our consumers are talking about it, and they don’t have a way to measure it. Now I’m ready, let’s do something.”

Photo recognition is one way of testing skincare’s efficacy. Could tech also bring about more accountability for skincare claims in the longer term?

I don’t think of it as an issue of claims, I think of it as an issue of precision. The world has been a mystery in terms of our own skin, and skin technology can make that mystery clearer and more accessible to consumers. It’s more about which products are more suited to me. It could be a positive thing because, if you think about it, the claims don’t come out of anywhere, they come out of real science. It could be a way to actually say, “Hey this is working, give it time to work.” We spend a billion dollars a year on research and we really do believe in efficacy.

Could these types of technologies encourage a direct consumer relationship?

I think so. Also, we have to make sure that we can empower our professionals with even better technology. We’re going to be launching the My Skin Track pH first with dermatologists, because we want people that go to their dermatologist to be able to get information on what the state of their skin is today.

Could we see pH facials in the future?

Maybe one day, you never know.

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My Skin Track pH by La Roche-Posay

How do you define technology and are you creating any new materials or ingredients?

In L’Oréal we have a number of teams working on all kinds of things from bio to regenerative medicine, seeing how any of these fields could be in some way helping us develop our future products. I personally am in the space of where technology meets design and beauty. But biology is not necessarily aside from that. There are a lot of new technologieswhen you look at pH, this really is a grey area between wellness, health, and beauty. I don’t have very many limits in my job. It’s just more making sure that we have the right projects. There are also biology-based things like ingestible sensors. We have teams on thatnot my teams specifically, but we have teams in L’Oréal.

Does your data inform product development, such as topical ingredients in cosmetics?

I think is it happening, but I don’t think we’re there yet. I wanted to be there way faster, because I thought “We’re getting in all this data and all this stuff we can develop.” I think part of the challenge is that we have to know how to use that data. It’s about understanding which different doors we can unlock with that kind of information.

We have a world-wide anonymous database on levels of UV exposure. Have we developed specific products around that? No. But we’ve learned more about our different consumers and different parts of the world, and the types of real exposure they have to UV, and it’s created knowledge. What we have done is created our algorithms with it, because the more data we have the more the algorithms improve, and the more we can measure these things accurately. But developing the products is something that I think still we’re a few years away from.

What other wearables have you launched?

This is our fourth year at CES. Our first year we launched My UV Patch, which is the little skin sensor that collects more short-term data. Then the year after we did a hairbrush [the Kérastase Hair Coach Powered by Withings, launched in 2017]. We did a prototype and we ended up not launching the brush. The goal of that brush was for us to see if it would help our labs and our internal teams to be able to have something that could measure hair in real life. It inspired a lot of new work that we’re doing internally. Then we came with the UV Sense [a battery-free, wearable, electronic UV sensor]. We’ve done a lot of things in different areaspersonalized skincare, foundation. Makeup Genius [an app to virtually try on makeup] was our first wearables launch, five years ago.

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My Skin Track pH by La Roche-Posay

Can you describe your long-term strategy?

We launched Makeup Genius five years ago when it was just me and my team, and a partner called Image Metrics, which created the software used in the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. They were so inspiring and they had a technology that worked on core, front facing, real-time augmented reality before anybody had this kind of stuff. We launched the app and we had 20 million downloadswe were so excited.

But then the question became, “How do we do a channel approach and put it everywhere?” And that’s when we started thinking that, as an organization, augmented reality is strategic for the future of our company. We acquired a company called Modiface about a year ago which is an augmented reality team. Our digital teams are in charge of that acquisition and they’re working on all kinds of stuff, putting it on as many brands as we can and thinking about new kinds of applications. They just launched a nail version [Virtual Nail Salon app for the iPhone], so sometimes what we do on our team ends up leading to a larger corporate strategy. Then we move on to newer areas of research so that we can continue seeking it out.

Are there any other skin metrics that the brand might expand into measuring?

The My Skin Track pH sensor can measure how fast you’re sweating, which is important in terms of hydration. Beyond that I think, as you said, pollution; connecting the dots between UV, pH and pollution, and giving really interesting, holistic information about skincare.

How do hormones impact skincare?

When you think about hormones, they’re absolutely affecting the bacteria and microbiome of the skin, which then leads to changes in the pH. So the main question for us becomes more about how we make the links between all of these things without developing new hardware for each of them—because we all know consumers don’t want 10 things in their bathroom, in their purse or in their man bag.

For more on beauty tech, see our CES 2019 roundup.