If the Future of Skincare Is AI-Generated Serums, I’ll Pass

If the Future of Skincare Is AI-Generated Serums, I’ll Pass
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

On Instagram, I am besieged with ads for personalised skincare and hair care. Curology, Skintelli, Proven, Skinsei, Prose, Function of Beauty — you name it, and I have been targeted by it. The general gist is that either via a selfie, quiz, or sometimes even a form of DNA testing, I can get a direct order beauty product that is personalised for my skin, hair, or whatever else I’m insecure about thanks to society’s unrealistic beauty standards.

I’ve never believed in any of it. All of these products seem like clever marketing gags that capitalise on both my vanity and insecurity to part me from my hard-earned money. Not only are self-reported quizzes prone to error, but these services aren’t exactly cheap. Still, online ads are persistent and pernicious. Also, I was curious. My willpower finally crumbled when a friend messaged me to say I should check out Atolla, a skin serum backed by the power of artificial intelligence. Allegedly.

Atolla

WHAT IS IT?

An algorithmically generated skin serum

PRICE

$US45 ($64) a month

LIKE

Uses periodic tests to refine your personal formulation

NO LIKE

Expensive. I... can't tell if it works?

In a crowded field of personalised beauty products, Atolla has, at the very least, the veneer of science. I believe the words “algorithm” and “AI” were tossed around in the ads I saw, which meant for reviewing purposes, it counted as tech. (Skincare tech is actually a product category that some major beauty brands are actively experimenting with; it had a huge presence at CES 2019.) Atolla requires you to answer a hyper-detailed quiz about your diet, lifestyle, environment, and skincare regimen, and then every three weeks, the company prompts you to take a series of tests to measure your oil, hydration, and skin’s pH levels. Based on your results and your skincare goals (minimising fine lines and discoloration, refining pores, etc.), the data you provide is then fed through Atolla’s patented algorithm to generate a serum that is for you and you alone.

The feedback loop was at least a little different from the dubious quizzes that make up most of this online beauty trend. The idea that periodic testing and AI could take the guesswork out of skincare is a powerful one because the skincare industry is extremely confusing. The basic principles of skincare are simple — wash your face, use at least SPF 30 every day even if you’re indoors, moisturize, and if you wear makeup, remove it before bed! — but the specifics are complicated as hell. There are entire TikToks, Instagrams, and subreddits dedicated to de-mystifying ingredients and explaining why you can’t really trust claims like “clean beauty” — and yet no matter how many explainers I read or videos I watch, I still haven’t found the right combination of products to minimise my fine lines, pores, and dark circles.

On top of the “science” angle, the company was founded by three folks with expertise in these areas: a data scientist, an engineer from MIT, and Dr. Ranella Hirsch, a cosmetic dermatologist who once served as the president of the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Aesthetic Surgery. Company founding stories are still marketing and shouldn’t be blindly trusted, but at the very least this didn’t immediately raise red flags. So, with that in mind, I figured it couldn’t hurt to at least try an AI’s recommendations.

Atolla’s initial survey is extremely thorough, covering everything from my goals and allergies to my lifestyle, the products I currently use, and my zip code to factor in environmental considerations. It even asked me to list my medications. The website’s mobile dashboard — there’s no app — was easy enough to navigate and included some helpful features, like being able to track your progress and test results over time, as well as which ingredients in my serum might interact with other products.

I got a package in the mail a few days later, containing my first serum, a test kit, and a handy card explaining my formula. My first formulation contained 1.5% Ascorbic Acid Complex (basically a gentler vitamin C) and 1.5% alpha-arbutin, which Google tells me is used for hyperpigmentation. Some supporting ingredients were rice extract, vitamin B5, and Rumex Occidentalis extract. It came in a little 15ml bottle and the instructions said to use a “dime-sized amount” every day — twice a day if I wanted results faster.

Sure!

I did as instructed every day, but also used Neutrogena’s Skin360 app to document my progress. The way that app works is you take a selfie weekly and it then uses an algorithm to analyse the quality of your skin based on fine lines, smoothness, wrinkles, dark circles, and dark spots. Ideally, you take the selfie under the same lighting conditions each time. It wasn’t the most scientific method of evaluating my progress but at the very least I’d have my before and after photos in an easily compared format.

You get an oil test, moisture test, and pH test.  (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo) You get an oil test, moisture test, and pH test. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo)

Right on schedule, three weeks after I received the serum, Atolla emailed to remind me to take my first test. This part was legitimately fun, even if you do look stupid. The test takes about 10 minutes overall, and there are three components total — one for oil, one for moisture, and a final one to measure your pH — and you stick each strip to your forehead and cheek. If you take the test using your phone, you can take photos to let the company’s software automatically scan your results. Otherwise, you can do it on a desktop and manually select the picture that best matches your test strips.

Did I learn anything new? No. I know my forehead is oilier than my cheeks and, lo: My test results said I was 40% oily on my forehead and 20% oily on my cheeks. The test results also said my skin was “70% hydrated” on my forehead and cheek, while my skin overall had a pH of 5.5, which I was told is good. But while I was clueless as to what that meant, the algorithm decided it was going to bump up the percentage of ascorbic acid to 3%. I was also asked to restate my skin goals and prompted to enter my zip code — again for environmental factors — and woo! A few days later I got another package with another little bottle. This time, though, the formula was a deeper orange-y colour than before. I admit, I thought, “Wow, my results actually mattered?”

After three weeks, the testing process repeated. Again, my results were roughly the same, and yet my formula changed again. This time, Rumex Occidentalis was bumped off the ingredient list, alpha arbutin was upped to 2%, and vitamin C stayed at 3%. The serum was also completely clear this time.

My forehead is 70% hydrated. I look stupid. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo) My forehead is 70% hydrated. I look stupid. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo)

Cool! Clearly, my results were impacting the formulation I was getting, but visually, I didn’t see much of a difference. Likewise, my scores weren’t improving in the Neutrogena app. If anything, they were getting slightly worse, especially in the areas I wanted to improve. Not by much, mind you, but there are a lot of things that factor into your skin’s health outside of the products you use, like sleep and exercise. It’s peak product review season so, no, I’m not what you’d call relaxed. Prime Day had my brain melting out of my ears. I got married, and haha, weddings are totally chill. (While lovely, they’re decidedly not chill.) I replaced the dying lightbulbs in my bathroom, which means it’s easier to see my nascent wrinkles in the Neutrogena app selfies due to the harsh, unforgiving light. All these things could have as much an impact on my skin as say, a tiny little bottle of serum.

This week, I took yet another skin test. My results were again, pretty much identical to the ones before. My goals have remained unchanged. My next formula is also mostly unchanged, though this one adds ferulic acid, which Vogue UK tells me is both anti-ageing and an antioxidant that helps the efficacy of vitamin C. My reaction is basically as follows: ¯_(ツ)_/¯

I have scrutinised my skin in the mirror, in selfies, and in my wedding photos. I’ve annoyed my husband for the past three months asking, “Does my skin look better to you?” His answer is always: “You look the same.” I suspect he’s a filthy liar because, I don’t know, I think my pores are marginally smaller. I can’t tell. Then again, I met up with a friend who I haven’t seen in months this past weekend and one of the first things she said was, “Yo, your skin looks great.” To be fair, she was also a socially distant six feet away.

I can’t definitively say Atolla doesn’t work just because it didn’t really do much for my skin. Anecdotally, I know the formulation changed based on periodic feedback and that feels like something. Like all other skincare products, what does or doesn’t work for my skin isn’t a guarantee it will or won’t work for another person. It’s more a matter of whether the cost was worth the experiment.

Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

At $US45 ($64) per month, Atolla is a bit much for my wallet, especially since I haven’t seen much improvement on the issues I want to fix. That might just be my luck. However, the service has an easy-to-use interface, and I appreciate that it’s easy to pause a subscription, change renewal dates, and if you’re unhappy with your progress, schedule a skin consultation with an advisor. In all fairness, it’s a smoothly run service and fun to try. But, it’s not as simple as just paying $US45 ($64) to try Atolla. You’d probably have to commit to $US90 ($128) realistically to see if its feedback-based approach works for you. If you have insurance and have serious skin issues, for that cost you might as well make the effort to see a dermatologist first.

My biggest frustration on my skincare journey occurred after I tried slugging on a whim. Slugging is yet another internet skincare trend that involves slathering petrolatum (Vaseline) over your face at night. I didn’t even use fancy petrolatum. I used the cheap-arse, half-used jar of generic Amazon-brand petroleum jelly we had lying around. I spent three months squinting at my reflection in the mirror, trying to figure out if this AI-generated serum was doing anything, and after one night of slugging, I woke up a glowing goddess with baby soft skin. Them’s the breaks.

README

  • A personalised, AI-generated skincare serum that is refined and customised with periodic oil, moisture, and pH tests.
  • Costs $US45 ($64) a month. Look, skincare can be expensive.
  • Smoothly run service with a nice, easy-to-use website.
  • My results? ¯_(ツ)_/¯