I donned gloves, a lab coat and a rather fetching hairnet at Boots HQ to find out if darker shades are more difficult and more expensive for brands to create

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Is it more difficult and more expensive to make foundations for darker skin tones? That is the million dollar question. Because when I rack my brain to try and find a reason why some brands still don’t cater for them, that is the only explanation that I can come up with that may go some way towards explaining it. So, to find out and to help provide me with a better understanding about what goes into making a foundation, I journeyed up to Boots HQ in Nottingham to meet with No7 Colour Scientist, Dr Jo Watson.

The mastermind behind the brand’s Match Made Service  and portable match finding device - the first of the UK’s kind - Jo has played a pivotal role in bringing a more inclusive range of foundation shades to the high street. A project which brought together an extensive level of research and development, I was soon to find out that the first steps for foundation range revision don’t in fact, start in the lab.

Is there the demand?

In order to offer a foundation range that reflects the needs of the population, the groundwork begins with gathering data to measure demand. No7 embarked on its Match Made Service project in 2008, with its primary objective being to make its foundations more skin true by obtaining a more accurate evaluation of the variety of skin tones that it needed to cater for. “We went out and measured the skin tone of over 2000 women in the UK across a range of different skin tones,” says Jo. “We then took that colour data, clustered people with similar skin tones together and used it to see which foundation shades we’d need to match the skin tones for the people in each cluster. That left us with 50 foundation shades that we wanted to test. We knew we couldn’t launch with 50 shades as commercially there would not be enough room, so what we needed to do instead was find the optimum shades to make sure there was something for everyone’s skin tone across the UK.”

MORE GLOSS: Laura Mercier’s 10 makeup dos and don’ts for darker skin tones

With so many in the initial selection, how were they able to whittle it down so it was both commercially viable and reflective of consumer needs? “We called back 700 women who took part in the first study and assigned them the closest foundation shade to their skin tone using their colour measurement,” explains Jo. “At the same time, we also got them to self-select a shade themselves and see whether they preferred the ‘computer-generated’ shade or their self-selected shade instead. On the whole, everybody preferred their computer match to the one they had self-selected which made for a really positive outcome to the trial.” An interesting way to test the human element side of shade selection, the data provided a useful point of comparison for testing the accuracy of a computer-based helping hand.

“Taking the feedback we received on board, we then did some more statistical analysis to find out the number of shades we’d need to cover the majority of the population that we’d measured. That’s how we ended up at 17 shades in the UK because we found that the extra shades would only cover a small proportion of the population - about half a per cent - and so from a commercial point of view, you have to make a decision. Some batches may have been really tiny and it was those sorts of implications we had to think about too.”

Looking at the wide shade ranges within the No7 portfolio, it’s clear to see that the data reflected a definite demand for darker foundation shades on UK beauty shelves. So, could greater production costs be to blame instead when it comes to other brands' less inclusive lines? Under the guidance of Jo, I mixed up my very own batch of my Match Made shade to find out.

Is it in fact, harder to make darker foundations?

In a nutshell, no. My time in the lab making my own foundation match ‘Mocha’ revealed that all foundations are made using the same 4 pigments - red, black, yellow and white. Are there any additional differences though that require extra efforts? “From a colour matching point of view, no,” says Jo. “However, what you might want to do from a base point of view is to try and eliminate certain ingredients that leave an ‘ashiness’ to the skin,” she explains.

“When we develop a base, we’ll be looking to make sure that we don’t include any extra powders in the formulation, (those that help with texture or optical blurring for example), that can sometimes cause an ashy look. What you need to do in that case is try and swap out some of those ingredients in the formulation instead.” Are those swaps more expensive? Surprisingly and rather interestingly, no.

MORE GLOSS: Download ‘The Ultimate Guide to Foundation for Darker Skin Tones’ here

What can other brands do to step up their games?

Essentially, follow No7’s example and devise ways to stay on top of their data and continually develop ranges to suit.

One such way is to invest wisely in technology to act as a running tracker. The No7 Match Made Device does more than just provide your perfect foundation match, it also acts as the brand's ‘man on the ground’ so to speak, for making sure its shade ranges remain relevant by recording any changes in skin tone and shade demand. “We realised we would need to keep re-measuring as skin tones change all of the time, so what we’ve just been able to do is to activate the devices so they collect skin tone data,” says Jo. “When people are measured in-store, we can continually monitor things to see whether skin tones are changing and whether the palette is still fit for purpose.”

It’s this kind of continual research which proves invaluable commercially and cosmetically. “Data has really driven this project,” says Jo. “We now have the opportunity to monitor skin tone changes over time and then change our palette accordingly. Each device holds 500 measurements, so we can rack up millions of pieces of data over a short space of time.”

It seems a lot of brands (particularly those on the high street), could take inspiration from No7 when it comes to balancing both consumer and commercial interests. My time at Boots HQ revealed that creating foundations for darker skin tones was neither harder nor more expensive to do and, with the face of beauty continually evolving by the year, brands that don’t offer a more inclusive shade range will have to make a change sooner rather than later in order to survive. The data would appear to demand it.

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