“Magic is only science that we don’t understand yet,” Lauren Bowker, founder of The Unseen, a London-based innovation, product development and technology licensing company, tells me to explain the concept behind the launch of her new colour-changing hair dye.
Fire, as it’s called, it not the type of dye we already know that changes your current shade to a single different one, but the sort that literally and repeatedly changes from one colour to another, once on your hair, based on the environment you’re in.
“It’s a teenage dream come true, and that was the point of it,” Bowker, who refers to herself as a material alchemist, explains. She took inspiration from occult glamour and more specifically an iconic scene in 90s film The Craft, where the teenage witch does indeed cast a spell to change the colour of her hair.
“I was like, ‘I can do that, so I should just do that’. It’s about bringing sci-fi to real life, and why not? Material science is now at the point of bringing all the things we imagined as kids to life,” she adds.
The dye is responsive to the wearer’s environment, changing colour based on temperature fluctuations. One of them is black when cold, changing to red when hot, for instance. There’s also a black to white version, silver to powder blue, blue to white, and black to yellow. A semi-permanent fix, it lasts over a few washes, and acts exactly as any other hair dye in terms of not ruining your hair.
From a scientific perspective, it’s made possible by using thermochromic ink, which you’ll likely recall from Global Hypercolor t-shirts in the 1980s and 90s. This is the basis for much of The Unseen’s work, including a line of luxury accessories that were stocked in Selfridges in London.
The sort of thermochromic ink you can get off the shelf however, is completely toxic to one’s skin, Bowker explains, so they had to work on optimising it to make it safe to be anywhere near the scalp. “These chemicals that would normally be irritants on their own can be prevented from causing a negative effect with a process called ‘polymeric stabilisation’, in which chain-like molecules (polymers) wrap around the irritant,” she says.
The resulting dye will then change colour when it has a stimulant on it. Bowker explains this as breaking down the chemical bond in the pigment itself. “Above a certain temperature, one of the molecule forms is more stable than the other, and so a reaction takes place producing a molecule with a slightly different absorption of light, and thus a different colour… Essentially, the active part of the dye system is a complex carbon based molecule, which undergoes a reversible reaction with itself.”
Bowker has applied a set of data rules on top so the dye knows at which temperature it should change. She’s fine-tuned it based on either the average temperature indoors versus outdoors or that of the wearer themselves – if they blush for instance, their hair will also change.
“It’s quite whimsical,” Bowker says. “It’s what your body is going through expressed on your hair.”
The dye officially launches in partnership with Storm Models at London Fashion Week this weekend via a series of short films. Bowker is also planning to host some Instagram Live videos in order to show what the dye looks like in real-life, however, largely to prove to people that it’s not fake. “The films are so polished, people don’t believe us that it’s real,” she tells me.
While the overarching idea is a fun one that enables user to express themselves in different ways, Bowker also hopes it will help play a part in encouraging young women into science. Only 12.8% of the STEM workforce in the UK today are women, according to WISE (Women in Science and Engineering), she reminds me.
“I really believe it’s a great example of a product that celebrates women in science and to encourage young females to see the opportunity for creativity within science and engineering – bringing sci-fi to real life!”
Bowker’s other agenda is to seek a commercial partner to help take the innovation to market. The product, while ready to go, isn’t yet available to buy, and The Unseen have no intention of branding it as their own. The aim is to license it out to a major haircare brand that can really make the most of it. Her hope is that it will be on the shelves by the end of 2017.
This story first appeared on Forbes.com