By: Chandler Presson By: Chandler Presson | January 4, 2023 | Style & Beauty
In many ways, 2022 was the long-awaited year that finally changed the conversation surrounding hair loss. Hair loss can be triggered by a broad range of factors, ranging from changes in diet to an increase in stress or hormonal shifts. But it appears the straw that broke the camel’s back, finally bringing the topic to light, is Covid-19.
Reports indicate the Covid-19 vaccine can trigger alopecia areata (a type of hair loss) and researchers report that those with a history of Covid-19 infection are four times as likely to develop hair loss than those who were not infected. With Covid-19 and its health implications being such a focus of the past few years, what was once a taboo topic is now being shouted about from the rooftops. But let’s be clear: Hair loss has always been extremely common, even if it wasn’t being talked about openly. More than 80% of men and nearly half of all women will experience hair loss in their lifetime. It’s about time that the topic receives the research and clinical studies that it deserves.
Between healthy, strong hair becoming trendier than ever (hello Hailey Bieber bronde, goodbye over-processed platinum locks) and the “hairgrowth” hashtag on TikTok having 6.2 billion views at the time of publication, people are no longer willing to suffer in silence. The stigma has finally lessened if not broken, and the industry is rising to meet the demand for products that actually work to combat hair loss.
Here’s the issue: A trending problem creates a marketing opportunity, leading to hair care brands releasing products that don’t actually have efficacy. That’s why we are so obsessed with Virtue Labs, the hair care brand that values efficacy above all else thanks to its proprietary hair-healing protein clinically proven to absolutely transform hair.
Unlike any hair care you’ve experienced before, Virtue Labs originated from a biotech firm hoping to improve wound care by researching human-derived keratin’s role in reparative cell turnover (talk about a scientific approach!). The brand only recently expanded to tackling hair loss through its Flourish line after receiving customer feedback regarding new growth thanks to Virtue’s protein named Alpha Keratin 60ku.
Perhaps just as exciting as Virtue’s products is its ethos, as the brand takes pride in transforming customers’ confidence through hair. With off-the-charts clinical data and an unbelievably loyal customer base, Virtue’s research-driven corner of the hair care market is our favorite place to splurge. We tapped Virtue Labs founder and CEO Melisse Shaban to give us the skinny on all things hair loss, healthy hair habits, and the past, present and future of Virtue Labs.
Virtue Labs’ exclusive patented technology originated from a biotech company called KeraNetics. What’s the story there?
KeraNetics is a biotech firm based in North Carolina that has been working on services, products and proteins in regenerative medicine. The firm’s chief science officer, Luke Burnett, was a colonel in the U.S. Army, while also being a brilliant bio-tissue engineer. After serving, he refocused his career on regenerative medicine. Warfare has moved from bullet injuries to explosive injuries. The military is good at triage and extraction so they were keeping people alive, but medicine hadn’t caught up with these new types of injuries including very severe burns. Luke’s experience made him decide that his life’s work would be to improve the quality of life for traumatically injured people.
He and his team raised money from the defense department, the National Institutes of Health and private equity, and then worked to develop and commercialize a technology that can extract pure keratin protein from human hair. Their premise was that keratin plays a huge role in helping reparative cells turn over, making it instrumental in repairing nerve, tissue and bone trauma, while also healing external injuries such as burns, cuts, and scrapes. Turns out, this same protein helps heal damaged hair.
You’ve heard the word “keratin” as an ingredient before – especially in hair care. But the fact is that all keratin apart from Virtue’s is a byproduct of animals, such as beaks, hooves or feathers, that are then acid-washed at very high heat and broken down to become what’s called “hydrolyzed keratin.” So it's no longer a true protein. It's an amino acid, and while amino acids aren’t bad, they aren’t proteins and don’t perform the same way. We use the analogy of an amino acid being a letter and a protein being a paragraph.
So where does Virtue Labs come into the story?
As Luke and his team navigated this world and continued to raise capital, they had a young woman Ph.D. candidate working in the facility whose parents owned a hair salon. She casually mentioned that the keratin should work on hair too. Luke didn’t know or care much about hair, but she asked if she could use some of the lab’s waste to test on hair. She then came back and reported an improvement in the quality of hair from this new technology.
Occasionally in the biotech world, there are unexpected benefits from technology that migrate into cosmetics, whether it be eyelash growth, Botox freezing muscles for anti-aging, or now, this situation. There were tens of millions of dollars spent on perfecting this new keratin for drugs, and Virtue has also benefitted from that money spent on clinical testing and safety data, and it gave us a jump on things. That’s really how it started, and now Virtue can extract eight unique proteins, including the original Alpha Keratin 60ku which is the real workhorse of the Virtue product line.
Alpha Keratin works by being applied to the damaged site of the hair and filling the hair with human hair proteins, meaning it matches the exact size and shape of the damage, and where there’s no damage, it simply falls away, resulting in no coating or build-up. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen in my career. And Virtue holds the exclusive license to this technology for cosmetic purposes.
Tell me more about how you source Alpha Keratin 60ku.
The big difference between Alpha Keratin 60ku and other keratins out there is that we source from human hair rather than animal byproducts. It’s human-identical which makes it a perfect match for your hair. It’s also fully functional protein rather than an amino acid, which allows the molecule to heal the hair. We source virgin human hair ethically from vetted, reputable suppliers. It’s really a byproduct of the wig and extension industry, so it’s sustainable for the environment. We then process the hair in our lab in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where we extract and purify the proteins, and perform extensive quality testing. Then we ship the Alpha Keratin 60ku to manufacturers to be incorporated into our final Virtue product formulas.
How does Virtue Labs’ biotech approach to haircare set you apart?
We have real clinical data, not just consumer perception. We hold multiple issued patents. I’ve been doing this a long time and the world didn’t need another hair care company, I’ve run enough of them myself. What excited me about Virtue and what makes the difference for us is that we can measure what the molecule does by separating it from the cosmetic ingredients and testing it on its own. The molecule is the thing we have the clinical results on. Everyone knows what cosmetic ingredients do, such as creating shine because those are in every hair care line. But we’ve spent millions of dollars on third-party, statistically relevant clinical data. We’ve done placebo-controlled testing with hundreds of people across a long period of time to prove what our technology can really do. That’s very unusual in hair care.
What is Virtue’s ethos when it comes to hair care?
In a space that’s so closely tied to self-confidence, we have to hold ourselves accountable to true results and true benefits. Our technology is proven to have progressive benefits and our customers’ hair gets healthier and healthier. How customers style their hair is up to them and it’s their freedom to express themselves how they want, but truly, the healthier the hair the more beautiful the hair. We’re extraordinarily lucky to be working with a piece of technology that came from a higher place. This was Luke’s passion. There were a lot of people that suffered injuries, which led to Luke’s motivation to help them, and that never leaves us. The name Virtue is really important because it keeps us grounded in what we do.
In addition to improving overall hair health, Virtue Labs has really grown a cult following when it comes to hair loss. How did the company come to be in that space?
We were hearing from customers and hair stylists three to four years ago that they were noticing new growth, such as thicker hair, new baby hairs and changing hairlines. We started our brand by sampling about 8,000 customers before we had finished products or packaging, so listening to our customers has always been part of our DNA. We didn’t see this customer feedback as a business opportunity at all at first but were hoping to be able to do something to help. Hair loss was also close to my own heart because my mother suffered from it, so we were willing to look into it.
We created a small team. Our scientists started to look at how our technology could be affecting regrowth and how we could possibly accelerate it. The resulting Virtue Flourish line includes a complex that is 95% Alpha and 5% Gamma Keratin. This particular ratio helps with inflammation, which is a huge part of why women begin to lose hair. A healthy scalp grows healthy hair, and quelling inflammation at the scalp helps to allow new hair through the follicle.
Hair regrowth has traditionally been a bit of a snake oil category because there haven’t been any clinical breakthroughs since Minoxidil in the ‘80s. So we only wanted to bring products with clinical backing to the market.
It was a journey because we’ve always felt if we can’t create a better product, then we aren’t going to produce that product. The product development for Flourish included working with 1,500 customers to gather their needs when it comes to hair growth products. What we learned is that 7 out of 10 customers were unhappy with the products that they were using. The products embarrassed them, looked too masculine or medicinal, and were difficult to use. Traditionally, Minoxidil is hard on the hair, which makes compliance very low. Hair loss can have a huge impact on confidence, so using products that made the remaining hair look bad is tough on customers. Through all this feedback, we learned that Flourish needed to focus on scalp fertility, fiber survival, cosmetic benefit, and packaging that women wouldn’t be embarrassed to have sitting on the shower shelf.
The Flourish line very much looks like Virtue’s other products. It was a long journey, but we ended up delivering a highly functional, drug-free product that performs on par with Minoxidil. Flourish can also be used preventatively, while nursing and pregnant, and leaves no residue. As always, compliance is critical, but we’ve had tremendous results and our clinical trial data is off the charts.
Hair loss has become a huge topic since the pandemic. Have you seen a change in the stigma surrounding the topic?
I have, and frankly, it’s part of our mission with Flourish to help shatter that stigma. I think younger women are used to sharing their lives more than generations before. So, more and more, women who are experiencing hair loss don’t suffer in silence as much. They’ve opened up the conversation, and they are starting to demand that the industry do more to address it.
The problem, though, is that it creates a marketing opportunity, and some companies go into the space regardless of product efficacy. It’s a cynical approach, and it’s unfair because this is an issue of self-esteem – hair loss affects how women feel about themselves every day. So, making sure you have real, clinical data is important.
What Virtue products would you recommend for those experiencing hair loss?
The Flourish Density Booster is the hero product, a 100% drug-free alternative to Minoxidil, made for the 50% of women who don't want (or need) to use a pharmaceutical. I have a lot of hair, but I use it preventatively because my mom had such severe hair loss. 50% of all women are going to have some degree of hair loss in their lifetimes. Those who want to avoid it should start growing thicker, healthier hair preventively. The problem with hair loss is that you don’t notice it until it's already pretty severe. It’s easy to think you’re imagining your part widening when in reality you're losing density. Our all-natural, drug-free Flourish Density Booster should be seen as a regimen to keep healthy growth coming in. We also developed a mask for the Flourish line. Hair loss products can be a little drying so the hair that you do have wants moisture without weighing it down. The Flourish regime as a whole works well to cleanse, purify, and enrichen the scalp, creating fertile ground for hair to grow. As each new hair emerges, it’s nourished and strengthened so it can survive and thrive. However, the Density Booster is our key high-powered hero.
Apart from product being important, what daily habits should those trying to prevent or heal hair loss incorporate into their routine?
There’s been this idea that you shouldn’t frequently wash thinning hair that’s losing volume, but really the opposite is true. Washing helps to stimulate the scalp and scalp health is a huge part of hair loss. That said, be careful with the hair; it’s fragile! New hairs are like babies and even something as simple as aggressive toweling can cause you to lose them without realizing it. Likewise with aggressive brushing. Don’t tear at the hair. We use the Manta brush, which was developed by a friend of ours in the U.K. whose wife had cancer. When her hair came back in, the texture was different so he developed a very soft brush that allowed her to stimulate the scalp and detangle but not tear at the hair. And don’t apply conditioner at the root, which can weigh the hair down. Stick to the midshaft to the ends. Diet and lifestyle also play a huge part in hair health, so be sure to get enough protein and sleep.
What are your personal holy grails?
Someone asked me the other day if there’s one product you could take to a desert island what would it be and for me, it's the Virtue Restorative Treatment Mask. My hair just drinks that stuff. I get all of this incredible bounce and elasticity from the product. In the office, we joke that it’s not your Sunday night mask but your Friday night mask. I love the immediate benefit to the texture and movement of my hair. I also love our Healing Oil, as does everyone – it’s a bestseller around the world. I use the Recovery Shampoo and Conditioner because I color my hair. And I sort of have a shag haircut, so I tend to use our Texturizing Spray as well.
What’s next for Virtue Labs?
I believe we have just scratched the surface of what our Alpha Keratin 60ku protein can do, and we’re learning more about it every day. We are not interested in chasing trends or making “me-too” products. We will only go where this technology leads us and where we can prove that it can deliver better results and help people solve problems. We have a very high repeat purchase rate, so we want to continue giving customers products they love. We’re proud of the breakthrough treatments we’ve brought to the market for female hair loss with Virtue Flourish. It’s the first real technological innovation in this fast-growing category in a generation, and we’re excited to be able to provide real solutions and hope we can help people grow hair.
Photography by: hair photo by Luibov Lichuk/Unsplash; headshot by Frank Terry; product photos courtesy of Virtue Labs