Making Over the Cosmetics Industry

Fairleigh Dickinson University Alumna Balanda Atis Uses Science to Benefit Women of Color

By Kenna Caprio
Alumna Balanda Atis is a highly respected chemist for L’Oréal’s Multicultural Beauty Lab, where her discoveries have led to color barrier breakthroughs in the beauty industry. (Photograph by: Benedict Evans/Redux)

Growing up, she struggled to find makeup that matched her skin tone. “I remember thinking, ‘There has to be a way to fix a problem that affects millions of women.’”

Science. The answer was science.

Balanda Atis, MA’99 (Metro), became a scientist, even though her parents wanted her to be a doctor. By the time she reached graduate school at Fairleigh Dickinson University, the East Orange, N.J., native knew she wanted a career in cosmetic chemistry.

“Family and friends were always struggling to find makeup because the colors were often too red, giving skin a bruised look, or too black, making skin look muddy,” says Atis. “I personally struggled with the same issue. I only had three options: buy an assortment of products to mix together and hope it worked, wear the wrong shade [of foundation] or not wear makeup.”

The L’Oréal USA chemist devised a fourth option: formulate new products in shades reflecting the full rainbow and spectrum of skin tones.

“I work on projects that make me very proud to be a scientist in the industry,” says Atis. “It’s incredibly cool that I can innovate products for men and women to use around the world to feel beautiful and confident.”

Photograph by: L’Oréal USA

In the company’s Multicultural Beauty Lab, which opened in 2014, she and her team work to represent all skin textures and colors. “There are hundreds of shades and undertones — we are all unique. We’re doing this for the industry and for all people of color.”

Like many great adventures and discoveries, this one started with a road trip.

“My team crisscrossed the country to events and fairs in Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Texas. We measured more than 1,000 women’s skin tones and collected 20,000 data points that were representative of 57 countries. Once we were back in the lab, we used these data points to create prototype shades,” she says. The team worked on weekends, at lunch and after work to “make batches, test formulas, strategize order and gather raw materials. It was hard work, but I knew it would pay off.”

With company support, the team presented its findings, and L’Oréal brands expanded their color lines. “There was an unmet need, and we were devoted and tenacious enough to stay focused on solving it. Women are beautiful in so many different ways, and we were able to develop something that further enhances inner and outer beauty.”

Into the Blue: Balanda Atis, MA’99 (Metro), discovered the key to formulating darker and richer foundations: ultramarine blue. It’s a tricky pigment, but Atis saw its value. “As long as the customer is at the heart of your goal, the rest will fall into place.” (Ultramarine blue photograph: Michael812/Almay Stock Photo)

Developing truly inclusive foundation hinged on one color: ultramarine blue. The traditional pigments — white, yellow, black and red — “yield a limited color range, often resulting in one-dimensional colors that are flat and lack luminosity or appear oily. People tend to shy away from ultramarine blue because it’s not easy to formulate, but from the very beginning we knew it was essential.”

They made a bold choice tackling ultramarine blue, knowing one color could change so much for so many women of color.

“Creating foundation shades for women of color involves understanding the colors that make up individual skin tones and finding the right colorants to address them,” Atis says. The blue pigment offered a deepness and richness missing from other products, allowing the team to develop “deeper shades, new tones with vibrant golden hues to create a broader range of colors and fine-tune existing shades to give them more radiance.”

Photograph by: L’Oréal USA

The beauty and cosmetic industry has struggled for decades to break through color barriers and represent dark-er skin tones. “We invest in diversity because it’s critical to our vision, our people and our business. We’re focused on customization, personalization and thinking about every single woman individually,” Atis says. With the ultramarine blue discovery and the Multicultural Beauty Lab, Atis is poised to lead the next beauty revolution.

And she’s taking that revolution right to a new generation. Atis regularly visits elementary, middle and high schools to talk science and cosmetics.

“Young men and women are surprised that you can be a scientist for a beauty company — they don’t realize you can be a color chemist, a supply-chain expert, work in a technology incubator — and that you can create and reinvent the future of beauty.”

“More girls need to be exposed to women in STEM fields, so they can understand that scientific careers allow you to break new ground and invent something new.” — Balanda Atis, MA’99 (Metro)

In conducting experiments with the students, “to show them how engaging and creative science can be,” she carries on the spark of the late Salvatore Gimelli, former FDU professor and chemistry chair, whose passion and intellect, she says, had a great influence on her.

“It’s important for people, especially women, to be curious and explore different career paths in STEM. I never expected to work for a global beauty company and to work behind the scenes, developing, experimenting and innovating on the back end of beauty products.”

That message has particular resonance for her. “I hope young girls read this and recognize the additional career opportunities open to them in beauty. Believe in yourself and in your potential.”

Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2018 edition of FDU Magazine.

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