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According to folklore, ghosts only stick around after death if they have some unfinished business. Sometimes this unfinished business includes haunting houses and possessing little kids—those are the bad ghosts. Other times this unfinished business is to provide a service to the community, kind of like Casper who becomes friends with pretty much everyone he stars in a movie. The same goes for Ghost, our new favorite skincare spirit whose goal is to educate us on good skincare ingredients versus bad so we can make more informed decisions in what we choose to put on our skin.
Ghost Democracy is a a highly concentrated, exceptionally clean skincare brand founded by globe trotting, marketing expert, Rex Chou. The brand is as transparent as its mascot (hehe). Every Ghost Democracy product lists its ingredients right on the box, not hidden under a sticker like most skincare brands. And if you have any questions about the ingredients, you can find a full list of active ingredients and their purpose in the Ingredient Library on Ghost Democracy's website. You can also find a comprehensive list of the brand’s restricted ingredients and why they were banned. The brand's philosophy is based around three guiding principles: (1) following a higher standard of clean, which includes banning over 40 potentially harmful ingredients; (2) formulating with less chemicals and more active ingredients; and (3) being accessible to everyone by providing affordable and effective skincare products.
I talked to Chou about his experience marketing and developing products for big beauty brands around the world before finally starting a skincare brand of his own. What I learned is that marketing is very diverse from region to region, a high quality skincare routine doesn’t need to be complex or expensive, and ingredient lists don’t have to be a mystery to consumers. Keep reading to get schooled by Chou on potentially harmful ingredients that are still in many U.S. beauty products today and be sure to redeem Ghost Democracy’s Floodgate Hyaluronic Acid Serum in the drops section at 7PM EST. Your thirsty skin will thank you.
I went to school for finance. I got a business finance degree because I thought that's what you're supposed to do. Then I had an interview with one of the big L'Oreal, Estée Lauder, Shisheido beauty companies. I was like, "This will be fun. It sounds more interesting than going on Wall Street. So I'll do that for a couple of years, and then I'll do something else." I ended up staying there for 12 years. I joined the marketing development program. I spent three and a half years in New York managing a haircare brand. That was my first foray into beauty and I loved it.
Then I always wanted to move abroad so I moved to Madrid where I was in charge of consumer products skincare for the Spanish market. I had to learn a new language, a new market, a new consumer, a new distribution channel, everything. I did that for about two and a half years. The great thing about working at these big companies is I get bored very easily so every two years, I can switch categories or brands or roles or countries. It really worked out for my personality.
After I moved to London for about three years where I worked on global product development and international marketing for The Body Shop. That's where I got the product development bug.
The United States is exceptionally competitive. We have a lot of innovation, we have a lot of indie brands. Across the pond, there are less fragmented competitors and there are also very traditional distribution channels. It is less complex in that sense. I could take a lot of learnings from the U.S. on how to break through the clutter and really stand out and apply those learnings to countries like Spain.
But then in a role like the U.K., where I was managing global marketing, we would take a look at the Americas, the Europe zone, and then Asia Pacific zone. Consumers are very different by region. When you're launching new products, or you're thinking about how to expand a brand and really push the limits of a brand identity, you need to do so carefully. For example, if you launch too many citrus, fruit-flavored lotions, that's great for Asia, but Europeans really love comforting, nourishing scents like shea butter or cocoa. Also, the climate is hotter in Asian countries, so they want something light and refreshing. Whereas in colder countries, they want something more cocooning and nourishing. The Americans are all over the board because the country is so diverse. That really gave me a perspective. Taking a global view, you have to try to please as many people as you can without diluting everything. I think that opened up a completely different room in my brain that I didn't know I had.
After working in global product development and international marketing, I was called back to the U.S. to help relaunch a skincare business unit. I did that for about two years and then I took a break for three months. I was burnt out. I focused on myself and recharged after living in so many countries. Then I always wanted to do something different so I decided to go into HR. As you can see, I like to do a lot of things. Then I was about to go back into the business when I was approached by some investors with the opportunity to launch a brand of my own.
Verishop's CEO, who used to be the chief strategy officer at Snapchat, has a lot of experience in the tech world and he had this idea to launch a new way of shopping, a new ecommerce ecosystem. He brought me on board to launch brands that could help complement the ecosystem, but also stand on their own, which is relatively new as a concept. So this is all funded as part of that project and Ghost Democracy will be the first of many other beauty brands that I'll probably launch based on what opportunity I see, what unmet needs there are for consumers in the beauty space rather than saying, "This mushroom extract is super popular. Let's launch mushroom extract products."
I always knew what type of brand I would want to launch but never knew how to begin. I had to figure out everything from brand concept; to consumer opportunity; to market opportunity; to consumer insight; to consumer target; to what the brand philosophy is, to what the brand stands for; to what's new, better, different; to the product development side, which is the packaging and the formulation. I also had to figure out the launch strategy, the marketing strategy, the social media strategy, email marketing, website development, app development, and everything like that. I've essentially been a one man show.
I thought; what's clear and transparent? The first thing that came to my mind was a ghost. I thought, that's weird, but I’ll stick with it. Because I'm all about brand mission, and purpose, so I thought, what's the purpose of this brand? It's to democratize clean skincare. Democratize is a weird word. Ghost democratize? That’s weird. Ghost Democracy? That's interesting. That'll catch your attention and there's a lot of mischievous, unusual, unexpected elements to the brand. I decided Ghost Democracy will be a placeholder, and then it just kind of stuck.
Ghost Democracy's logo being similar to Snapchat's was not intentional at all. The funny thing is, when I presented this, Imran Khan, the former exec for Snapchat was like, "Oh, it's Snapchat." And I was like, "No, I swear, I've never thought about it. I don't use Snapchat personally. So it literally never came into my mind." I wanted Ghost Democracy's icon to bring a smile to people's faces. There's not a lot of brands that use cartoons or icons and the reason why is because for skincare you need trust, credibility, authority, and expertise. But at the same time, I genuinely believe as a person, you're allowed to laugh and smile too. It doesn't have to be so serious. What's interesting about Ghost—His name is Ghost, actually, their name is Ghost. They don’t have a gender identity yet. The thing is, Ghost will pop up and wink at you and be cute, but then also talk to you about 18% tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate. Our brand is all about unexpected juxtapositions.
In the U.S., cosmetic products aren't regulated heavily by the FDA, it's up to each individual brand to self regulate. I decided on our list of banned ingredients based on the research that I've done. A lot of brands are jumping on the clean skincare bandwagon. They're saying we're no sulfates and no parabens so we're clean. We go beyond by formulating without what 95% of the industry uses, which are silicones, essential oils, fragrances, dry alcohols, and 40 other potentially toxic or linked to harmful effects ingredients, and we have that all on our website. My lab said this was one of the most strict charters for formulation that they've ever received.
Silicones are great to make your skin feel temporarily good, but they'll rinse off, they can clog pores, and they don't really do anything for your skin. Fragrance and essential oils are great for aromatherapy and candles, but not in direct contact with your skin because it's a known allergen and irritant. Dry alcohols are a trick of the industry. If you put them in moisturizers it'll make them feel like they're absorbing quickly but all it's doing is evaporating off of your skin quicker so it can actually dry your natural moisture barrier. We 100% avoid anything with drying alcohols. We want to raise the bar for what clean skincare stands for, not just take advantage of a buzzy, trendy thing because we honestly believe that it's here to stay.
It's notoriously difficult to formulate without these things because a lot of these things are what gives you that sensation of it glides really well, it absorbs really easy, and so it was really tricky to get those textures right. In the end, I'm really happy with the way that we were able to keep the integrity of the formulas while creating something very aesthetically pleasing and application pleasing for the customer.
By using less filler ingredients, we can pack our formulas with more active ingredients like 18% vitamin C, 12%. Probiotics. HuffPost said 2.1% hyaluronic acid is one of the highest concentrations they've ever seen. In my experience, a lot of these big beauty brands will just put a drop of vitamin C and say it's the latest, greatest vitamin C moisturizer because they want to keep their costs down.
The bioavailability of active ingredients is also really key. If you have too much of a glycolic acid, for example, you'll burn off your skin. I wanted to make sure that we could create the highest potency effective formulas, but always on the other side of the scale, making sure that it's appropriate for all skin types, especially sensitive skin. That's why our vitamin C is 18% but it's a different derivative of vitamin C which is THD ascorbate, which is lipid friendly, so it's completely waterless. It's more stable so it doesn't oxidize to light, water, and air as much as traditional ascorbic acid. That's why our vitamin C is in a clear glass bottle. You don't have to hide it in a dark amber jar or a plastic bottle. We also pair it with .5% bisabolol, which is a derivative of camomile to make sure that it calms any inflammation. A lot of people who have sensitive skin love the cleanser as well because it's so gentle. It's a rinse off AHA cleanser so you'll get that gentle exfoliation rather than leaving something on for 20 minutes and burning the top layer of the skin off. My philosophy is it's better to go to the gym every day for 10 minutes rather than doing one four hour boot camp on Sunday. I take the same philosophy for exfoliation. Gentle daily exfoliation is much better than doing one extreme peel or treatment once a week.
Clean skincare is also really price prohibitive because it's relatively new. Cleansers will start at $40, moisturizers, oils, and serums will be $120 to $300 to $450. There's a huge gap between who wants to use clean skincare and who can afford to use clean skincare. The ethos of the brand is to make clean skincare more accessible to everyone. The way that we do that is we're direct to consumers and I don't believe in spending half a million dollars flying 30 influencers to Morocco so they can post and say, "I love this hyaluronic acid."
Another way I cut costs is I'm pretty much a one man show. I'm not paying a lot of creative designers and all of that so I'm managing a lot of things, but that reduces the cost. Everything is all about providing the highest quality, most effective products at at surprisingly low costs for consumers because I truly believe like everyone should be able to feel confident and use the products that they want to use. And unfortunately, a lot of us don't have Goop money.
The Floodgate Hyaluronic Acid Serum was a combination of what I wanted, what I saw on the market, what consumers are asking for, and then validating that with our chemists. I knew I wanted 2% hyaluronic acid. If you go beyond 2%, hyaluronic acid to four or five or 10 or whatever, because it's a salt derivative, it can actually suck out moisture from your skin. It's almost like a bell curve, you don't want to go too much. We ended up with 2.1%.
The first submission I got, I turned it upside down and it was like glue. It didn’t move. I was told it's not possible, but there's different weights of hyaluronic acid. Typically high molecular weight hyaluronic acid is the least expensive because it just sits on your skin and it's thicker and it doesn't really penetrate the skin. I was like, why don't we do a mix of them but really go heavy on the low molecular weight? That's the formula that we have now. It costs more, but at the end of the day, it was such a beautiful formula and I saw such amazing results on everyone that tried it, that I decided to go for it.
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