Rolanda Wilkerson is telling a story about the time she ugly cried at work. The tears were over her hair, but — don’t worry — they were happy ones. It was the day Wilkerson, a principal scientist for Procter & Gamble, filmed a video for her colleagues for the launch of Gold Series, P&G’s first hair-care line for Black hair. For Wilkerson, who spearheaded the collection, it was the culmination of a decade of research and development. The emotion she felt came from creating products to help Black women best manage their natural hair and empower them to wear it however they want. For years she felt like she couldn’t do either.
“Before, if I had to do something professional, like talk to [the media], I would straighten my hair,” she says, gesturing to a boardroom full of curly-haired influencers and journalists (including me) on a press trip to the P&G headquarters in Cincinnati. The group is hanging onto her every word as she gives us the rundown on Gold Series, the new-to-Canada line for relaxed, natural, or transitioning hair, which includes shampoo and conditioner as well as six styling products, such as hydrating creams and oils and a curl-reviving spray. “Today, I go from my pineapple updo to coily-curly to twist-outs to my straight blowout. I do it all,” adds Wilkerson. “Being a part of this line has been a journey in helping me… to embrace my hair.”
It’s no secret that Black women have faced pressure to conform to conventional European standards of beauty — especially when it comes to our hair. There have been countless cases of discrimination against natural hair in the workplace and schools across Canada and the U.S. Black women have long used heat, weaves, and relaxers to appear, as Wilkerson says, “professional,” and whether or not that’s the goal, there was always the expectation for us to do something to our hair, resulting in a top shelf full of gels and creams. Then came another struggle: where to buy them. To find products that work for Black hair textures, it used to be that you’d have to go to a specialty beauty store. Hard to do if you live in, say, rural Newfoundland.
But in recent years, that’s slowly changing. Thanks to the work of women like Wilkerson and increasing demands from consumers, the beauty industry is finally paying attention to natural hair, marking a cultural shift to the celebration of Black hair instead of the denigration of it. Today, if you go into your local drugstore, along with Gold Series, there’s also brands like SheaMoisture and Mixed Chicks. L'Oréal, meanwhile, acquired Black-owned hair care brand Carol’s Daughter in 2014. Black celebrities have also taken matters into their own hands: Stars like Taraji P Henson (with TPH Hair), Gabrielle Union (Flawless), and Tracee Ellis Ross (Pattern Beauty) have all started their own brands that focus on Black hair.
Research at P&G (the behemoth personal-care brand behind everything from Pantene and Herbal Essences to Tide to Olay and heaps more) started a full 10 years ago with a small group of Black scientists and engineers, including Wilkerson and Sawanna Lucas. Lucas, who was born and raised in Cincinnati, says over the years, she tried practically every product on the market and her hair would still break or thin. She was frustrated that her stylist was continually recommending less-than-stellar products for her hair. “My come-to-Jesus moment was realizing that my stylist was bringing me the best products that were available to her, because you can only pull from what you have access to,” Lucas says.
So, they went to work.
The team spent years studying the anatomy of different textures of hair in the P&G lab. On the surface, it looks like your typical science lab: Pristine machines lined with beakers fill the space, and there are people in white coats and clear goggles everywhere. It’s only the rows of hair samples (everything from 3a to 4c curl patterns) hanging from white boards and metal hangers that make it clear what all this technology is for. Something else you might not see in a lab? An entire salon, complete with vanity mirrors and wash stations, where the products are tested on volunteers and employees daily.
So, what makes Black hair so special? Every hair type has its own structure that requires different products. “African ancestry hair fibre” — the term P&G scientists use to describe curly and coily hair — is “very unique,” says Wilkerson. “It has an elliptical shape and at every point that the hair turns and bends, there is an uplifting of the cuticle,” she explains, noting this results in more knots and less moisture. Black hair is also more porous. “The natural oil from our hair follicles is not transported as easily as on naturally straight hair. Our hair feels dry [because] our hair is drier.” Hydration and protection is key, which is why the Gold Series products are heavy on oils, including argan oil, found in the leave-in hydrating butter-crème, and silicones in the leave-on detangling milk (which detangles without weighing hair down) and intense hydrating oil (which protects hair pre-styling). (While silicones can have a bad rap, they are extremely effective at reducing moisture loss.) Notably, all products in Gold Series are priced under $8.
The collection also aims to clear up Black hair myths — like that Black hair won’t grow. “It’s that it’s breaking a lot before she’s realizing her full length,” says Wilkerson. In fact, the team found that a naturally straight hair fibre can be stretched over 37,000 times before breaking, but coily hair breaks after 5,500 times, which is why Gold Series includes the Split Ends Treatment, a weekly deep conditioner.
If we’re being cynical, it’s easy to assume the reason for big companies to invest in Black hair would be because of the lucrative revenue opportunities: Black consumers make up 86% of the ethnic beauty market. So, you can understand why I’d be skeptical of a massive corporation cornering a market that could otherwise put money back in the pockets of Black entrepreneurs. Especially since many companies capitalize on Black consumerism without using any actual Black people to do so. When Gold Series launched in the U.S. in 2017, these concerns were also front and centre. “Some of the press we got was that we could have started our own company,” says Wilkerson. There’s the big question. These Black women obviously have the capacity to create their own hair-care products. Why not go at it on their own?
For P&G researcher Rukeyser Thompson, it comes down to the scope of research. “I never would have thought that millions of dollars would go into the research of single fibre of Black hair,” she says. “Or [that I would have] the same instrumentation that NASA has [that allows me] to slice that hair in half to see where the active ingredient goes,” she says. Thompson says it’s about using that science to help the next generation let go of the pressures she faced as a six-year-old using relaxers or as an adult who felt like she couldn’t show up to work without a blowout.
“It’s about making sure that my kids don’t have to deal with that internal struggle surrounding their hair,” adds Wilkerson. “I want them to use products that help them manage their hair so that it makes it easier for them.”
Cue the happy tears.