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Call him the frizz fighter

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By Vanessa E. Jones
Globe Staff / April 2, 2009
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Robert Langer is a powerhouse in medical research. Last year, this MIT professor won the prestigious Millennium Technology Prize, which recognizes tech innovation. He's created a bandage to be used inside the body inspired by the webbed feet of geckos. He's exploring nanotechnology to battle cancer.

But one Langer invention is creating a stir in the beauty world. It's called polyfluoroester, and the molecule is the basis of a new line of products that Langer and his scientific team have created for Cambridge company Living Proof.

So, what does said molecule do? It tames frizzy hair.

The $24 product, called NoFrizz, won Allure magazine's Beauty Breakthrough award last fall, and was unveiled on QVC in January and at Sephora cosmetics stores in February.

"It gets a lot of buzz and then you have to have it," says Stephanie Kostas, a 30-year-old New Haven resident who learned about NoFrizz on the popular beauty products review website, MakeupAlley (www.makeupalley.com). Kostas says Living Proof's six NoFrizz formulations are some of the most talked about items on MUA's boards at the moment.

Since the 1980s, the hair industry has relied heavily on silicone-based products to combat the frizz that occurs when hair encounters water or humidity. But silicone has drawbacks: It can weigh down hair and make it look greasy.

In polyfluoroester, Langer found an alternative that avoids those problems, although some users on MakeupAlley have complained of dryness when using it. For his part, Langer believes his hair discovery is just as important as the advances he's created in medicine.

"We try to figure out things that make people have happy and healthier lives," says Langer. "I felt if we can make people happier, in other ways that's good too."

There's a lot of secrecy around NoFrizz and the hair and skin products the company - bankrolled by Waltham venture capitol fund Polaris Venture Partners - is in the process of creating. During a recent visit to Living Proof's office and lab, the scientists often hesitated before answering questions.

Visitors get a sense of Living Proof's clandestine nature when they step into the lab filled with bottles of ingredients such as fructose and sand; humidity chambers; and exhaust hoods. Langer gets cagey when asked about how polyfluoroester was discovered.

What the company's founders and employees will acknowledge is that they're taking a different approach to beauty problems.

"I've always felt that you can ask questions from a molecular standpoint," says Langer. " 'What do you really want from a material?' and design it from scratch, really figure out from a molecular structure what is really the best material."

The NoFrizz products took eight months to go from inception to launch, says Rob Robillard, Living Proof's CEO. Ron McLaughlin, the company's director of product development, first created a liquid formulation, which contains no conditioners so it delivers the polyfluoroester in its purest form.

Meanwhile, Mitch DeRosa, a cofounder of Living Proof who owns Mitchell John Salon, says the process of trying the various formulations out was "a blast." He and David Puerta, a scientist at the lab, would spray various polyfluoroester formulas on swatches of hair and put them in humidity chambers to see the results. The scientists quickly discovered that one product didn't address the various needs of women with straight, thick, and coarse hair. McLaughlin then created five additional formulas: a styling cream and treatment.

Who knew the battle against bad-hair days was so serious?

If users of silicone products have to be careful about how much product to use, the opposite is true of those who smooth NoFrizz onto their hair.

"It's a different type of product," says DeRosa. "With silicone, if you use more than a dollop you'll have a greasy head of hair. With ours you have to saturate the hair. If you have a ton of hair, you need a ton of product. Not half a tube, but you need a fair amount."

QVC was so excited about Living Proof's product that it began offering limited quantities to its viewers last October while NoFrizz was still in its test packaging. During a recent QVC appearance, Robillard demonstrated Living Proof's product by putting it on one side of a model's hair and a silicone one on the other. Then a steamer was used on the hair for five minutes. An additional eight minutes of steam was applied to the NoFrizz side to show how effective it is in the face of humidity.

"The hair doesn't move," Robillard said of the side with the NoFrizz product applied. "It really shows the power of the technology."

Allen Burke, QVC's director of beauty merchandising, won't reveal figures detailing Living Proof sales on QVC. He will say that with the help of Robillard, the products have momentum.

"The results get better," he said, "every time he's on."