Boyce Clark always loved science as a kid. He remembers every Christmas getting something related to science – a chemistry set, a microscope. He was president of his high school science club, and earned BS degrees in geochemistry and sociology from Millsaps College before coming to LSU to work on his PhD in biogeochemistry, in the LSU Department of Geology & Geophysics. But he never expected that he’d end up using his knowledge of geology and chemistry to create smart hair products.
A Crooked Path
“It’s definitely a crooked career path that I took. I never thought I’d be making shampoo,” Boyce said. “My PhD is in uranium biogeochemistry. I worked in a nuclear weapons lab, and then I went to work for the energy industry cleaning up oil and mineral messes.”
Then again, Boyce can see looking back that his love for the science within creative arts was always there. His hobbies included swimming (and mixing conditioners together to keep the pool chlorine from damaging his hair), and learning about the photochemistry of photography. Boyce continued pursuing his creative hobbies at Millsaps, getting a minor in art in addition to his BS degrees. Boyce still makes his own silver photographic paper today as a side project.
Following his PhD, Boyce worked in chemical cleanup for more than a decade, but it wasn’t his true passion. He didn’t realize his passion until his daughter Alden needed help with her hair. After literally cutting knots out of her hair several times, Boyce decided it was time to do something.
“My daughter’s hair needed repair, but I didn’t want to spend $500 on a keratin straightening treatment,” Boyce said. “I thought, ‘Let me see what the chemicals are in this treatment. I can probably figure it out and we’ll do the treatment at home.’”
But when Boyce looked at the chemicals used in keratin straightening treatments, he was taken aback. These treatments often use formaldehyde to open up the cuticle, the layer that surrounds the keratin protein core within each strand of hair, and inject keratin often extracted from chicken feathers into the core. The process is completed as high temperatures, upwards of 400 degrees Fahrenheit, melt the injected keratin into the core of your hair strands and seal the cuticle back down.
“They weren’t things I wanted to put on a twelve-year old’s head,” Boyce said. “I decided to learn more about hair.”
As a scientist, Boyce knew where to go to get more information. He started researching hair. He went to the East Baton Rouge Parish library and came back with books on the morphology, physiology and biology of hair, and started teaching himself.
“I wanted to understand what was happening on a molecular scale, or what the molecular reason was for a bad hair day,” Boyce said.
Equipped with an understanding of the underlying chemistry of hair, Boyce reached out to several chemical and pharmaceutical companies for samples of compounds he needed.
“They sent me samples to use in our ‘lab,’ which was my kitchen,” Boyce said. “Three nights a week, my daughter sat in our kitchen and we would split her hair down the middle, testing custom shampoo formula A on one side and B on the other. We would wash and dry her hair, and I took notes to see how easily we could comb her hair afterwards.”
How difficult can shampoo chemistry be? It turns out, very difficult. “You are essentially taking a bunch of compounds that don’t want to be together, like oil and water, and making them play nice,” Boyce said. But after five months and many failures, including numerous product mixtures that fell apart in big, ugly messes, Boyce had a breakthrough. Formula 17 was a winner.
“I mixed it up in a five-gallon bucket, and we were done. Or so I thought,” Boyce said. “She went to school the next day, and her teachers sent notes home with her asking questions like ‘What did she do? Where did she go? What is she using?’ People started stopping us on the street to ask about her hair. It was insane.”
Bad Hair Day?
"I wanted to understand what was happening on a molecular scale, or what the molecular reason was for a bad hair day." - Boyce Clark
Boyce gave people samples in cups. A month later, he got a call from Bumble Lane Spa. They’d been hearing about Boyce’s product, and they wanted to sell his “product line” in store.
“I’m on the phone with them, looking at my five-gallon bucket, thinking ‘my product line?’ That night I designed a label in Photoshop, ordered bottles, and started making more product to fulfill my first order.”
Since Bumble Lane Spa got its first bottles of Boyce’s product, his business, Lubricity Labs LLC, has taken off. His business moved into the LSU Business Incubator and in November 2016 he won the PitchBR competition for up to $250,000 in early-stage capital from Innovation Catalyst, a nonprofit venture capital organization in the Louisiana Technology Park. Now Boyce doesn’t have to produce thousands of bottles of product a week in his kitchen!
The Chemistry of a Bad Hair Day
Boyce’s products at Lubricity Labs, LLC are alternatives to harsh keratin straightening treatments.
“They are all naturally derived – everything comes from coconuts, pine nuts and raw apples. But they are also incredibly effective,” Boyce said. “Coming from a background in nuclear weapons, it’s very fulfilling to now create products that have such low environmental impact.”
Before starting this project, Boyce says he didn’t fully appreciate the relationship that many women, and men, have with their hair.
“I didn’t realize some people are spending hours on their hair every day, especially those with hair prone to frizz,” Boyce said. “With my product, those hours can become minutes. Being able to make something they can use that makes their day better, and their perceptions of themselves better, is amazing.”
There is in fact a chemical reason to a bad hair day, Boyce says. Understanding the chemistry of hair, and why it gets frizzy, was the first step to creating a natural solution.
“A strand of hair has a core of keratin, and then it has layers on the outside, like shingles on a roof,” Boyce said. “Those shingles, or cuticles, you want them to lay flat. If they don’t lay flat, when each strand of hair rubs the strand adjacent to it, these cuticles ‘catch’ and rub together, creating tangles or static electricity. When the shingles don’t lay flat, moisture from air humidity can also seep into the hair. When this happens, a strand of hair swells, but only in spots, not along its entire length. When certain spots swell, but others don’t, the result is ‘kinks’ in the strand. That’s why hair gets frizzy when it’s humid outside – there’s uneven swelling along the hair shaft.”
But what if you could seal the hair shaft, locking down the cuticle with disulfide bonds between hair proteins?
“I’ve worked with compounds that do this,” Boyce said. “They produce really cool side effects. When the cuticle ‘shingles’ are all over the place, they act like little mirrors. When you look at someone’s frizzy hair, light is hitting it and is bouncing back to your eyes, but the light is bouncing in all different directions. We perceive that as the hair being dull, because we aren’t seeing all the light or all the color from the hair. But when the cuticle is flat, like a smooth mirror surface, when light hits someone’s hair the full spectrum bounces back to our eyes. The result is hair that is shiny and full of rich, deep colors.”
The result of locking the cuticle down chemically is incredibly soft, shiny hair. Unfortunately, many products and treatments currently used to treat hair frizz don’t address frizz on the level of chemical bonds. Current keratin straightening treatments essentially “laminate” your hair, sealing added animal product keratin into your hair with formaldehyde and heat.
“The product is spectacular… the first time,” Boyce said. “But the heat used in current keratin straightening treatments is damaging to your hair, and the only style you can wear your hair in after the treatment is completely straight. But if you have natural curl to your hair that you like, you just want to get rid of frizz, then a keratin straightening treatment is going to be disappointing.”
Boyce’s products are not straighteners. Instead, they change the chemistry of hair to remove frizz at its origin. Keratin straightening treatments also take hours and cost hundreds of dollars, while people can use Boyce’s products at home in two 15 minute steps. The results are immediate, and a maintenance shampoo and conditioner can treat new hair as it grows in.
“It’s all about chemistry,” Boyce said. “The primary ingredient is glycolic acid, which dermatologists have use for decades now to perform chemical peels. It’s made from raw apples.”
Boyce was reading some research papers written by a company that creates an ultra-high pure form of glycolic acid when he came up with the idea to use this ingredient in his products. He found that glycolic acid is great at pushing the hair cuticles back down after hair color treatments, for example.
“I started thinking, if this compound is so great at locking the cuticle down, then there would be a lot of other benefits to the hair that aren’t related to color.”
Glycolic acid is a tiny molecule compared to all the other molecules in hair. Not only does it help lock the cuticle down around hair’s keratin core, but it can make its way into the core of a strand of hair to bind with keratin, making the core more resistant to frizz-creating moisture. Boyce’s product can also make hair semi-repellent to water, resulting in hair that dries faster, which can be useful for swimmers.
Boyce is also using silk proteins in some of his products, long ribbon-like proteins that wrap around each strand of hair and give hair more volume. Boyce is exploring silk protein products specifically as a solution for women going through chemotherapy, a treatment that thins the hair.
The big difference between Boyce’s products and typical conditioners is that most conditioners simply coat the hair, like wax, while Boyce’s products create chemical changes in hair.
It’s All About the Chemistry
“I was able to apply geochemistry to hair, because I have a fundamental understanding of how compounds behave,” Boyce said. “I’m not an expert on protein chemistry or polymer chemistry, but I know how proteins and polymers behave, and what I needed them to do in my hair product mixtures.”
Boyce's broad educational background in the sciences prepared him to apply his scientific knowledge in the diverse range of fields he has worked in, including hair chemistry!