The beauty and cosmetics industry has, in a few short years, seen a massive evolution that now reflects a new generation of consumers and their demands. It’s harder to make fools of customers now, who know exactly what they want when they’re shopping and not afraid to make it known. There are rabid, active skincare communities on Reddit and leagues of men and women on Instagram who talk skincare and science – a complete sea change from a time when retail sales assistants were gatekeepers to information.

Drunk Elephant, which comes out of the United States, is one such brand. Founded by Tiffany Masterson in Houston in 2012, the brand has a firmly-held philosophy of “clean” skincare. That is, that products should be created with efficacious and effective formulations and ingredients. Unlike many brands that ride a clean, green wave of wellness hocus-pocus, the brand prioritises ingredients – synthetic and natural – based on biocompatibility and its actual benefits to skin. It’s also been an industry leader in popularising the absence of what is known as the Suspicious 6: essential oils, drying alcohols, silicones, chemical sunscreens, fragrances and dyes, and sodium lauryl sulfate.

Most recently, the brand took a major step in expanding their reach by launching a series of hair and body care products – slated to hit Sephora stores in Singapore on 21 May. This new line was created in tandem with the Hollywood hair stylist Chris McMillan, drawing from McMillan’s expertise in cutting and caring for hair. That, combined with Masterson’s own focus on the scientific performance of her products, has led to one of the most interesting new beauty releases. The arching philosophy here is one that starts hair care from the scalp, and in treating the scalp with equal importance and reverence as the skin on your face.

Cocomino Glossing Shampoo, SGD35 from Sephora.

The brand has so far launched four products: the T.L.C. Happi Scalp Scrub, a chemical and physical exfoliator; the Cocomino Glossing Shampoo, which offers gentle and creamy cleansing; the Cocomino Marula Cream Conditioner, a fortifying conditioner which is formulated at a scalp-friendly pH level of 3.6; and the Wild Marula Tangle Spray, a superfine styling mist that simultaneously detangles hair and coats it with a light layer of heat protection against styling implements.

It’s a nifty little change of perspective, but a massively important one. Think of it as addressing hair care issues at its source, and in giving the literal foundations of your hair the care it requires. We spoke to Tiffany Masterson about her thought process on developing and creating this line, and about the challenges of translating skincare science for the scalp.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How different is the skin on the face compared to the scalp? How different, therefore, is caring for the scalp from skincare?

Skin is skin, so with that in mind, taking care of your scalp is not any different fundamentally from skin anywhere else on your body. It’s all about gentle exfoliation and substances that calm and nourish. What’s also important is that you avoid categories of ingredients that can sensitise and disrupt.

We didn’t skimp on actives and beneficial ingredients, because we feel that every inch of your skin – whether it’s on your scalp or below the neck – deserves the same advanced treatment as your face.

There are some practical differences, of course, as the scalp is covered by hair (for those of us who are lucky enough to have a full head of hair), which may mean adjusting application methods for certain formulas.

Can you give us an example of skincare applied to the scalp?

Let’s take exfoliation as an example: no matter where your skin is on your body, healthy and gentle exfoliation is beneficial. For the scalp, the most common issues are flaking, redness, excessive oiliness and loss of volume. Regular exfoliation alleviates these – hair isn’t weighed down, isn’t as oily, your scalp isn’t itchy and you can even see a reduction in flaking and irritation. Some hair loss is due to an excess of buildup that disrupts the healthy function of the hair follicle, so removing that buildup can encourage normal growth. It won’t change genetic hair loss, unfortunately, but it can help to avoid hair loss due to environmental factors.

T.L.C. Happi Scalp Scrub, SGD52 from Sephora.

When it comes to formulating exfoliants, like the face or body, you can go the chemical or the physical route. Chemical exfoliation can be broken into two categories of ingredients – alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs, like glycolic or lactic acids) or beta hydroxy acid (BHA, and there is only one – salicylic acid) formulas. AHAs exfoliate on the surface layers of skin, and BHA penetrates and exfoliates within the hair follicle. (FYI: Salicylic acid is a cousin of acetylsalicylic acid, which is aspirin, so it also helps to soothe and reduce redness in skin as well.) AHAs and/or BHA exfoliants are the most effective approach for dissolving and breaking down dead cells and other substances from skin, and combining them both into the same formula is even more efficient as it addresses multiple concerns.

Physical exfoliation, which is another way of referring to scrubs, is the other way. Unlike AHAs or BHA, physical scrubs work only on the superficial, outermost layer of skin – they can’t penetrate to exfoliate the follicle, nor can they dissolve built-up layers of dead skin. It’s better to think of physical exfoliants as a tool to boost your cleansing process, not unlike using a soft washcloth gives your facial cleanser a little more “oomph.

There is so much that can go wrong with physical exfoliants, as many use harsh abrasive agents – crushed nuts and shells, for example. Plant cellulose beads are the best choice for physical exfoliation, as they are gentle on skin, perfectly spherical (no jagged edges) and easily biodegradable.

From a formulation perspective, going from skincare to haircare, what were the major adjustments needed to ensure these Drunk Elephant products worked for the scalp and hair?

From a product development perspective, it was about how to make these formulas easy to use and work for different hair types and concerns, but not sacrifice any of their innovation or effectiveness.  

The philosophy was an easy fit, of course, because it’s a direct expansion of our skin-first product development approach. It just seemed intuitive to us that without taking care of your scalp, how can your hair look healthy?

The products took two years to develop with Chris McMillan. What was the first product or aspect that both of you worked on and tackled?

I already know the core products that I wanted to start with and these are the essentials I think everyone needs for healthy scalp and hair.

Chris helped by testing the entire line on all types of hair, making sure that they worked just as well on someone with fine hair as they did on thick, curly or coarse hair and everyone in between (including those with processed and or colour-treated hair).

Cocomino Marula Cream Conditioner, SGD35 from Sephora.

Was there a major, recurring idea in mind when you were creating these haircare formulations?

It was always my vision that these formulas remained flexible, that they could adapt to the individual and meet their changing needs, just like our skincare products. That means you can mix them and tailor their usage to your needs – those with coarse or damaged hair, for example, can mix a bit of the Cocomino Marula Cream Conditioner with the Wild Marula Tangle Spray as a leave-in, smoothing hair treatment.

We have a lot of fun tips and tricks that we can’t wait to share, and we are sure to learn a lot from our community as they share their favourite ways of using the line.

You’ve avoided using the Suspicious 6 in the product formulations. How have you replaced, or made up for, each in terms of functionality?

First, it’s important to note that we aren’t saying these are bad ingredients per se, or that they aren’t safe. That’s not what the Suspicious 6 are about – it’s that they have the potential to sensitise or disrupt skin, and pose formulation issues such as preventing actives from reaching skin or building up on hair. That’s why we avoid them in our formulations.

Our goal is to formulate for the healthy function of skin, whether it’s located on the face, body or the scalp. Perfume and dyes don’t have a place in that philosophy, and so we leave fragrances, dyes and essential oils out. It’s our perspective that such ingredients are a waste of space in a formula. And, of course, there’s a lot of research demonstrating that they’re problematic due to their potential to sensitise.

Drying alcohols are often used to decrease the dry time of haircare formulations, and to create a lighter, thinner texture. However, because it can also provoke inflammation in skin – which includes the scalp – it wasn’t even something we considered and it certainly wasn’t missed.

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and other harsh surfactants are rather antiquated now. Sure, they are easy ways to remove oils and styling products quickly, but they can also be pretty hard on skin. Today, there are plenty of alternative surfactants that are mild yet effective at removing substances from the scalp and hair without the drawbacks. While not all sulfates are bad, many are quite hard on skin, so it’s easier to avoid them all and look for alternative gentle surfactants that end in -aine or -ate, like cocamidopropyl betaine or sodium cocoyl isethionate.

Skin care lovers tout sun protection as one of the most important ways of protecting the health of their skin. Did that line of thought find its way into the Drunk Elephant haircare line?

No haircare product can legally be rated for UVA/UVB protection, so sunscreen actives are a waste here. The reasoning is that there’s no way to standardise testing for haircare application in the same manner as applying sunscreen onto skin. The only reliable way to keep your hair protected from UV damage is to reduce the time spent in the sun – or wear hats.

Wild Marula Tangle Spray, SGD35 from Sephora.

On that note, what was the most challenging part of developing the line?

Formulating without silicones. Because they’re the industry-wide shortcut to getting smoother, shinier hair. Unfortunately, they’re also insoluble in water and have a tendency to build up on the hair and scalp. So finding alternatives that accomplished those benefits wasn’t easy, but we love a challenge and think we’ve cracked the code to haircare formulas that don’t rely on them, but still smooth, boost shine and help strengthen the hair.

It was tough to formulate without silicones, but we found some great combinations of plant-derived ingredients which have the dual benefit of smoothing, boosting shine and improving manageability without building up on the hair and scalp.

The T.L.C. Happi Scalp Scrub notably uses AHA/BHA – popular skincare staples – to exfoliate the scalp. Were there any crossovers with the other products that you have in the brand?

In developing our hair line, we pulled from these same categories. For example, the same blend of amino acids that are used in Protini are used in our haircare formulas, which nourish the scalp as well as both improve shine and help strengthen the hair shaft.

Besides using these new products that you’ve launched, how has your personal haircare routine evolved? Especially from the perspective of giving more attention to the scalp through skincare.

I was never able to find hair and scalp formulas that were consistent with our philosophy – especially in avoiding the types of ingredients I knew were problematic, which was also something that my consumer was telling me. They wanted the Drunk Elephant philosophy head-to-toe. So part of developing this line was so that I (and our customer) would be able to make that happen.

I had been experimenting with using my Juju or Pekee Bar as shampoo, and B-Hydra as a hydrating detangler, but they didn’t quite work out the way I had wanted them to, so I had a lot of incentive to make this happen!

As told to ISSUE Magazine.