There is a small, faded black-and-white photo of the late Graham Wulff, inventor of Oil of Olay, on the wall of Procter & Gamble’s Cincinnati archive room. Likely snapped in the 1950s, it shows the chemist standing in front of a prop plane. He has a relaxed smile, as if he has just flown home to Durban, South Africa, from a golf retreat, but he was more likely returning from a business trip. “He got his pilot’s licence so he could fly to England and distribute Oil of Olay to drugstores,” says Lisa Mulvany, beauty archivist for Procter & Gamble. As guardian of the brand’s history, she scours eBay for early Olay advertisements and packaging, like the original vessel for the cream—a brake-fluid bottle, chosen because it was inexpensive and easy to source—which still eludes her. Mulvany says that at one point, the ambitious Wulff, who was working in the wool-washery business at the time, felt his career had stalled and asked his wife, Dinah, what product he should invent. “She said, ‘[Women] need a lotion that absorbs quickly and works.’” The pink-hued “beauty fluid” he developed had a texture similar to a serum, and he came up with “Oil of Olay” by playing with the letters of the name of its main ingredient: lanolin, a derivative of wool—a substance with which he was very familiar.
More than 60 years later, Olay, now one of the world’s top beauty brands, is attempting to transform skincare shelves once again, thanks to its ambitious Multi-Decade & Ethnicity Study (done in partnership with Harvard Medical School and genetics company 23andMe), which included tens of thousands of ethnically diverse women aged 20 to 75. Using the participants’ selfies as well as third-party opinions about the images, researchers identified women who looked up to 10 years younger than their real age, dubbed them “outliers” and then analyzed the activity of their skin genes. They found that 2,000 genes were working harder in the outliers than they were in the other women. “We all have those genes, but in these women they are more efficient due to DNA, the environment and choices in skincare, lifestyle and habits,” explains Dr. Jay Tiesman, a genomics group leader. “If we understand how to activate them, we can make everyone an outlier.”
So far, that has translated into reformulating serums and moisturizers in Olay’s anti-aging Regenerist line with new ingredients like carob seed—known for pumping up collagen growth and assisting with cell renewal—and launching two new boosters designed to amplify the delivery of those ingredients. In order to get these products into the right hands, Olay created its Web-based Skin Advisor using artificial intelligence (AI). The first diagnostic beauty tool powered by what is known as a “deep learning” algorithm, it scans a selfie and uses a questionnaire to identify the user’s skin age and potential areas for improvement and then offers personalized product recommendations. The algorithm, explains Dr. Frauke Neuser, principal scientist for Olay, mimics how the human brain works in terms of how it processes very complex information. “The more diverse data points the algorithm processes, the smarter it gets,” she says, which is why Olay trained it using images of thousands of different women and its accuracy is sharpened with every new user. The 2.0 version rolls out this summer with new features, such as an algorithm that identifies poor selfie quality. It can suggest that the user retake the photo after removing her glasses or finding better lighting. It can even detect when the user is grinning, instructing her to keep her facial expression neutral instead. Because smiling, as Graham Wulff was that day in front of his plane nearly 70 years ago, won’t yield the most accurate results.
Infused with hydrating glycerine and dark-spot-fading niacinamide, Olay Luminous Miracle Boost Concentrate ($35) preps skin for Olay Luminous Tone Perfecting Cream ($35). Olay Regenerist Miracle Boost Concentrate ($45) features an anti-aging peptide that works in tandem with Pal-KTTKS, a peptide in Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream ($45), at londondrugs.com.
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of ELLE Canada.
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.