Photo: Courtesy of Olaplex.
In the middle of a day filled with back-to-back balayage and root touch-up appointments, Aura Friedman — the cool-girl colourist of Sally Hershberger Downtown salon in New York City — went to take a phone call. It's not normal for a stylist to be interrupted, mid-process, for a call at such an establishment, so Friedman assumed it was important. “It’s Tracey Cunningham,” the receptionist whispered, referring to the famous hair painter, responsible for Gwyneth Paltrow’s honey blonde and Jennifer Lopez’s inimitable caramel.
“Take a message,” Friedman instructed, concerned that she had, perhaps, made a mistake on one of Cunningham’s A-list clients while they were in town. But, later that day, she was surprised to see Cunningham herself at the salon’s front door, demanding to be seen. “She handed me a bag filled with product, and she basically said it would change my life,” Friedman recalls.
The product in question was Olaplex, a single-ingredient wonder created by chemist Craig Hawker, the co-director of the Materials Research Lab at the University of California Santa Barbara. Hawker is a nationally recognized scientist, and his research group is focused on molecular engineering, specifically as it applies to biomaterials and energy. According to Dean Christal, a beauty-industry entrepreneur, Hawker’s inventions had never contributed to the beauty world — until the two met.
“We talked for a few hours," says Christal. "[After that conversation,] he invented Olaplex in one night and handed it to me after I told him what I wanted.” According to Christal — who had been looking for the next big thing in beauty — it was a huge game-changer: “Basically, when you put chemicals in the hair — from colouring, or peroxide developers, or straightening treatments — the sulfur bonds split, and they then become sulfur hydrogen." This process can eat away at the hair proteins, which causes damage. Olaplex prevents the splitting from happening. In short, "It links [together] broken bonds in the hair caused by chemical processes...preventing them from damage.”
This is a massive claim to make for a young beauty company, especially considering Christal is not relying on clinical trials or lab experiments for proof. “Most of our testing is real-world stylists,” he explains, pointing to the brand’s Instagram, which is full of remarkable, frizz-erasing transformations.
And, once it ended up in Cunningham’s hands, Olaplex' fate was essentially sealed.
“I have to tell you, I get things from companies all the time that I never try," says Cunningham. "But, I just decided that what Dean said, about it eliminating breakage…there’s just never anything new like that in the industry." She called up a client who had had a particularly damaging experience going from red to blonde, and invited her back to try the process again. “I thought, 'I’m going hard or I’m going home,'” she says. After mixing the liquid form of Olaplex (step one) in 40 Volume bleach (industry speak for one hell of a dosage), and then painting all over using the Olaplex cream (step two), she was sold. “It should’ve broken all the hair. I left that on for a half hour. It was as if a miracle had happened.”
And so, Cunningham’s salon, Mèche, became an Olaplex dispensary, using the product for every colour process on the books. “I told Dean that he gave me superpowers,” Cunningham recalls. Christal ended up having to cook special batches in the chemist’s kitchen just to keep up with the demand. “Every single client at my salon gets Olaplex now,” Cunningham says. (And, you better believe that includes her Hollywood regulars.)
As far as Friedman, the product has transformed her entire hair mantra — one that’s focused on instant, radical transformations. “I know that when I use it, it won’t break down the hair," she says. "So, for people I have to take from virgin to platinum in one day, it’s perfect. It allows me to push the boundaries." It’s also revolutionary for a colour detox: “Once you go fully platinum, it can be hard for the hair to hold colour when you dye it back,” she explains. “This repairs the hair, but also keeps the colour intact.”
If there’s one thing you can bank on in the beauty world, it’s word of mouth — especially in a salon environment. “In less than 12 weeks, we [were] in over 7,000 salons,” says Christal. “And, once Tracey used it on about 2,500 people and told every [colourist] from Aura to the team at Nine Zero One Salon, we started looking at trademarks, how we’d scale it up, and all that… We filed a patent, too.” In short, "overnight success" would be the correct term here.
So, when Friedman encouraged me to go from black to silver, the first time I’d be double-processed in my entire life, she swore my hair wouldn’t be compromised for eternity. After taking the plunge — even though I still have that nitty-gritty feel of freshly-bleached strands — I’m surprised at how soft and easy it is to manage, especially post-shampoo.
Upon hearing this, Cunningham is unfazed. “On my life, this is the best thing that’s happened to hair in a long time,” she says. Before your next appointment, you may want to make sure this miracle molecule is within reach — especially because it won't be available to buy anytime soon. “I’m dedicated to making this a professional hairdresser’s product only,” Christal says. “Professional services are what keeps the industry alive for hairdressers.”
And, perhaps, thanks to Olaplex, their jobs are about to get a whole lot easier.