The Kombucha Effect Comes for Hair Care

When Beyoncé wore a “Kale” sweatshirt in her 2014 “7/11″ music video, it was seen as a seminal moment for the leafy green’s cultural ascent. Once a decorative garnish, kale quickly made its way from health-food craze to cult beauty ingredient, attracting the interest of conglomerates like L’Oréal Group along the way.

Now, another trend in the health-to-beauty pipeline is being elevated by Beyoncé, along with a growing number of prominent startup founders: fermented ingredients from a varied group of sources such as rice and honey. After the US wellness set became obsessed with kombucha around the time of peak kale, fermented ingredients began showing up in beauty — first in skincare and now hair care. Its popularity is thanks to a confluence of wellness culture, inspiration from global beauty practices, a DIY TikTok craze and the industry’s growing interest in the microbiome.

The Rootist is a new brand focused on fermented ingredients.
The Rootist is a new brand focused on fermented ingredients. (The Rootist)

Beyoncé’s three-month-old hair care brand Cécred contains fermented ingredients such as bioactive keratin, honey, rice water or purple willow bark in all seven of its products. David Chung, who founded skincare brand Farmacy, debuted fermentation-focused hair care line The Rootist in January; it partnered exclusively with Sephora for its launch.

“When you look at what’s going on in food, and you look at what’s going on with health and wellness …it’s all pointing to [an] enlightened understanding that consumers have about fermentation,” said Cécred CEO Grace Ray.

The Wellness-to-Beauty Pipeline

The rising popularity of kombucha among health-oriented consumers expanded to a range of fermented foods like kimchi and kefir over the past decade as online wellness influencers lauded them as beneficial to gut health.

Used globally in both food and beauty practices throughout history, the process of fermentation — the chemical breakdown of a substance using microorganisms, which in beauty products are generally bacteria — has been adopted by international consumer brands like SK-II for decades. Fermented ingredients have now made their way into products by countless US skincare brands such as Drunk Elephant, Tatcha, Fresh and Estée Lauder. The jump to hair care has occurred more recently, with only a handful of US-based brands listing fermented ingredients. While skincare claims around fermented ingredients are often focused on strengthening the skin barrier, benefits promoted by hair care brands include shinier, stronger hair and a healthier scalp.

Fermented ingredients are part of a broader wave of microbiome-related beauty products seeing a surge. In September 2022, Shiseido acquired London-based microbiome-focused brand Gallinée, which has fermented ingredients in both skincare and hair care. In December 2023, L’Oréal Group acquired Denmark-based probiotic research firm Lactobio and has plans to develop products for both skin and hair.

Pia Fisher, a beauty strategist at WGSN, describes the fermentation phenomenon as a “from-the-pantry” trend. “Not everyone has time to boil up their rice, ferment it and spray it in their hair, so then they’ll look for products on the shelves.”

Global Roots of a TikTok Trend

Before Cécred hit the market this year with its Fermented Rice and Rose Protein Ritual, DIY fermented rice washes began taking over TikTok as early as 2020. Viral videos showed hairfluencers such as Anisa Sojka and Audrey Victoria creating and using their at-home concoctions. The process often involves soaking rice in water, boiling the water and letting it sit for several days before rinsing the hair with it. The hashtag #ricewater now has 1.2 billion views on the app.

Cécred's shaking vessel for its fermented rice wash.
Cécred’s shaking vessel for its fermented rice wash. (Cécred)

“Fermentation has been a beauty secret for centuries. We certainly aren’t the ones who started that,” said Ray, who said the brand takes inspiration from “Middle Eastern, Asian, African and European cultures.”

In China’s Guangxi autonomous region, for example, tourists flock to Huangluo Village to watch fermented rice hair washing demonstrations by women in the Yao ethnic minority group. The China Long Hair Museum that opened in 2021 in Huangluo Village even features an onsite factory, which produces fermented rice-water hair care products it sells in its gift shop.

While a newer trend in North America, Chung said, “the Asia market understands this concept pretty well.” He plans to launch The Rootist in China next, followed by other countries in East Asia and Europe. While marketing in East Asia will be focused on what consumers already know, The Rootist invokes the idea of kombucha in social media campaigns and in its “kombucha for hair” tagline for its North American audience.

“North America is probably the toughest market … It’s not as immediately known what fermentation means or what is involved in it,” said Alison Yeh, chief brand officer of The Rootist. “When we’re talking to potential partners or introducing the brand to people in Asia, it’s the opposite. They’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, of course.’”

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