The ethically murky marriage of technology and beauty

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The last time I bought foundation, I couldn’t decide if I was a “Fair” or a “Light.” Confusing names aside, shades of cosmetics are particularly tricky for me — a relatively pale Asian woman with yellow undertones in my skin. Colors designed for Asian complexions tend to be a bit dark or dull for my liking, while those for white skin look unnatural on me.

I’m already luckier than many people whose complexions fall on the darker range of the spectrum: Finding an accurate shade may be a challenge, but I can almost always get an option that’s close enough. For others who are more tan, though, that’s not always possible.

The latest spate of beauty tech seems intent on changing all that. Companies are using tech to provide highly customized products like makeup, corrective skin care and shampoos that are tailored to your exact needs. But while on the surface these appear to be well-meaning efforts to promote diversity and inclusivity, the industry needs to carefully examine every step as it moves forward or risk exacerbating problems around perceived ideals in beauty.

Lancome launched its Le Teint Particulier custom liquid foundation in 2016 at select Nordstrom stores. It uses a skin scanner to detect your complexion at various points on your face with the help of an onsite consultant and creates a formula that’s best suited for you. The company says it can detect more than 72,000 skin tones and mix your foundation on the spot. Oprah magazine’s Manouska Jeantus even said it “answered all our prayers for a foundation that works for dark skin tones.”

Meanwhile, businesses like Curology, Insitu and Skinceuticals have sprung up in the last few years or so, offering personalized skin care with the help of tech. Curology and Insitu learn about your skin from your pictures and answers to online questionnaires, while Skinceuticals’ Custom DOSE(Diagnostic Optimization Serum Expertise) will use in-person evaluations when the service launches this summer.

The idea is that the traditional way of classifying your skin as oily, dry or combination is no longer enough — you should be able to get products based on exactly how dry, supple and pigmented your skin is. That’s good news for people who don’t fit neatly into a category and want to treat their faces with a precise combination of moisturizers and active ingredients. And it’s not just about your complexion. Benefit Cosmetics, which launched an AR brow try-on app earlier this year, said: “All brows are unique, so we built an AR solution that is customizable for any person.”

But while these products seem to promise greater inclusivity for more diverse skin types, they also come at a cost. Literally. Lancome’s Le Teint Particulier will set you back $88 per 1-ounce bottle (price includes the consultation, although refills also cost $88), while the brand’s other foundation lines like Teint Idole and Teint Miracle, which have more-limited shades, cost $47 for the same amount.

Meanwhile, systems like Custom DOSE and Schwarzkopf’s smart salon, which scans your hair to better understand its moisture and color profile for a more accurate treatment, aren’t available everywhere. When Skinceuticals launches DOSE, it will start with specific dermatology and plastic-surgery clinics, while Schwarzkopf’s service will hit select partner salons first. It’s not clear where these are located yet — whether they’re in primarily affluent neighborhoods and major cities — but typically plastic surgeons don’t see very diverse clientele. Reports from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons show that almost 70 percent of all patients who underwent cosmetic procedures in the US were Caucasian, while Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American people made up 11, 9 and 7 percent, respectively.

That goes against the very notion of inclusivity. Higher prices and limited availability impede access to these products, so, many people still will not be able to enjoy the benefits. Those aren’t the only factors, of course, and things like income inequality and expensive materials aren’t necessarily the beauty industry’s problem or something companies can control. But they do have a say over other parts of the challenge.

“As more and more companies are using technology to develop customized cosmetics, they need to pay attention to issues of accessibility not only from the standpoint of price and availability but from a marketing standpoint as well,” said Tiffany Gill, associate professor of history and Africana studies at University of Delaware.