Let's fix that!
Perfect skin is a myth. From our very first pimple to the day we die, we are told that our skin isn't good enough. We are told that flawless skin is the norm and we should be ashamed to have anything but that. We are fed to believe that our imperfect skin should be hidden under layers of makeup. If we could just get our acne, our hyperpigmentation, our eczema, our psoriasis, our rosacea under control, then we can finally be happy and feel worthy and valid. This myth is outdated. We see through it, and luckily, more and more brands are on our side.
One of those brands is Topicals, a science backed beauty brand that is transforming the conversation around skincare by taking the focus off perfect skin and celebrating the fun of flare ups instead.
Both Olamide Olowe and Claudia Teng, Co-Founders of Topicals, have chronic skin conditions (Olowe has post-barbae folliculitus and Teng has severe eczema). They've experienced first-hand how the narrative around skincare and the pursuit of perfect skin can lead to a decline in mental health. They launched Topicals back in August hoping to reconstruct that narrative while also providing dermatologist-approved skincare.
I spoke with Olowe about how Topicals is flipping the script for those with chronic skin conditions. Keep reading to learn how Olowe and Teng founded Topicals and the key principles that make this brand so unique.
"During my undergrad, I worked at Shea Moisture, the multicultural beauty brand. I built a twin beauty brand for them while I was in college, and learned so much about how to build a consumer brand for groups of people who had been ignored by the beauty industry and I pitched to major retailers like Walmart, Target and Ulta. Then, in 2017, during my senior year of college, our parent company got acquired by Unilever and I was like, this is so fun. I had the time of my life and I found what I wanted to do. I was actually a pre med student. And I was like, I’m not going to go to med school. I actually want to build a brand that makes dermatology, particularly for chronic skin conditions, more accessible to everyone while making sure that the products were also safe for darker skinned women. I'm a dark skinned black woman, and I wanted the products to be safe and effective for me. So I met Claudia probably six months after I came up with the idea back in 2018. We hit it off because Claudia grew up with really severe eczema. She had been working at Stanford in their department of dermatology since she was 14. She had studied a bunch of different skin conditions and really understood drug development and product development. So I begged her to come join the team and to ditch medical school. I was so lucky that she did. We just really resonated with the fact that very few beauty brands spoke to people with chronic skin conditions and when they did, it was always from a clinical point of view. So we wanted to make our brand, celebrate the fun of flare ups. Topicals is transforming the way people feel about skin by making the treatment of skin conditions more fun."
"One in four people in the United States has a chronic skin condition and most people have more than just one...and people with chronic skin conditions are two to six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety. We’re seeing this weird dichotomy where so many people suffer from it but everyone is embarrassed of it or having some kind of mental health related issue because of their skin condition. We want to be the brand in the middle that opens everyone's eyes. This is super normal and it's not taboo to talk about it.
Claudia grew up with really severe eczema, like she was in and out of the hospital and she designed Like Butter to be like a salve that you can use. It's actually the first mask in the eczema category ever because eczema and chronic skin conditions generally are always ointments or treatment products versus being self care. We really want to make a connection between skin health, self care, and mental health. With self care, we saw how brands like Glossier and Drunk Elephant made it so fun to use your skincare but then we thought about when you're like us—I grew up with a bunch of skin conditions like acne, eczema, ingrown hairs. When you are treating those skin conditions, it's not fun and it's not self care, it's actually a chore. It's like you hate doing this, you hate that you have this skin condition. What we're trying to do is make it more selfcare oriented, which is why we don't really talk about it in a treatment way.
Last week was the first time we ever posted it before and after not because the product isn't working, but because we wanted to have our community tell us whether they wanted to see before and afters because most people with chronic skin conditions, their photos are always relegated to a before and after, like when they have a skin condition, they're not allowed to be happy. We think people with chronic skin conditions live their life in full color, but so much of what the beauty industry has shown is you're not happy when you have a skin condition, you're only happy in that after picture. We wanted to change that. Both Claudia and I wanted to be dermatologists and we have an advisory board with two doctors on it so we're not anti-science at all, actually the complete opposite. We are very much based in science, but we also think that science can be accessible and fun. It doesn't have to be terrifying or black and white. Your before is just as glamorous as your after. And if you have a chronic skin condition, it’s permanent. It's never going to fully go away. You can manage it. We're trying to take their mind off of the destination of perfect skin or clear skin, and to really celebrate the fun of flare ups, because it's something that's going to be cyclical. To hate 90% of your life, and only love 10% of your life when your skin is clear, doesn't make any sense."
"We believe that brands create cultural scripts or cultural narratives. Brands tell stories that we take and run with. As young women and as young fems, media puts that on us like that's what you need to live up to. We look at other bigger brands like L'Oreal and CoverGirl and for them having perfect skin, having clear skin, having nothing wrong with you is the ideal. For us, the only way we're going to be able to transform the way people feel about their skin is by rewriting those narratives. Claudia always says that the backdrop of our brand is like an early 2000s rom com or a teen coming of age movie, where only specific people were pretty and popular, but now we want to remix the rough with the smooth and have what we call the spotty hotties or the itchy girls sit at the popular table. We took the Mean Girls opportunity to do a social commentary on the burn book. The burn book is very much about talking bad about people and saying they're ugly, or they have this or that. And we took it and flipped it and made the burn book about how ugly the beauty industry standards are. We did it about beauty standards we wish never existed.
A lot of people posted it on socials. That campaign was actually one of our highest sales or was our highest sales day ever, which was so cool to see that you don't need to sell people this fake dream for people to understand who you are as a brand and want to support you. I think people support Topicals because they see how much attention to detail we put into the product. Our products are extremely effective within a shorter amount of time than most other brands because Claudia has developed our products almost like prescription drugs without the negative side effects, which a lot of beauty brands don't really design their products like that. They designed them for fun, versus for us, we do it with fun and with effectiveness and safety."
"I think a brand that we look up to and think is amazing is Glossier. I think what they found out that a lot of other brands have now started to emulate is that older brands used to do top down conversation. It was them telling you what you needed. I think now with social commerce and social selling, you no longer have to tell your customers what to do because you're having a conversation. The customers tell you what they want, and then you use your judgment to be able to provide them with what they want. Another example of this that we've done is with Faded, our best selling product. She smells or she used to smell because we don't use any fragrance in our product because it's very bad for people with sensitive skin, especially people with eczema or psoriasis or any of those inflammatory skin conditions. People were telling us, we love the product, it works really great, but if we could get one that didn't smell, we would love that. They weren't like, we're gonna stop using it if we don't get one. It wasn’t an ultimatum kind of thing. It was just them giving us feedback about it. So we surprised everyone and probably two weeks ago, I announced that we had reformulated and had not included any fragrance, but we had the percentage of one of our ingredients, which was a natural deodorizer to combat the smell. Now the product doesn't really smell that much. In that comment section of that post, our community was so happy and they were like, it's so crazy to actually see a brand listen to people when they're talking to them about something."
"Faded is for dark spots, discoloration, and it reduces the appearance of melasma and hyperpigmentation. We've gotten so many fun results, which I think is just because of the way Claudia designed the product. She knows that most people with hyperpigmentation have gotten it because of an inflammatory skin condition like acne or some kind of texture. The product actually works really great for acne as well and for texture. Most people use Faded after they've had a flare up of any sort and they have some kind of discoloration or while they're having an acne flare up or getting some kind of texture or congested nature of their skin. It has a ton of really great acids but it was designed very different from a lot of other acid type products in that it has a lot of acids but it balances out with having a lot of moisturizing ingredients as well. It has centella asiatica, which is a moisturizing ingredient for people with really dry skin. Usually when you use an acid, your skin gets really sensitive and gets really dry but ours doesn't because Claudia has balanced out the formula. Most people only go one side. Claudia is a genius when it comes to product development and she has really thought through the steps of what it takes to have your skin improve.
Like Butter is for dry, sensitive, eczema prone skin. We've seen great results for people who have psoriasis as well. It's a deeply moisturizing mask that also doubles as a moisturizer if you use it very, very sparingly. I'm someone who doesn't have dry sensitive skin really or even eczema, but I use Like Butter for deep hydration. I have oily skin and I think a lot of people don't know when you have oily skin it really is like having dry skin but your face just over produces oil and moisture. So using Like Butter I noticed that my oil levels are down significantly and my pores appear smaller. I think it's just they're cleaner and moisturized and tighter so I love using Like Butter even though I don’t have dry, sensitive, or eczema prone skin."
"Topicals isn’t specifically formulated for people of color, but they've been formulated with people of color in mind. I worked in Shea Moisture before, like I mentioned, and their whole story was about this fact that people of color or people with curly, kinky, curly hair could not use typical shampoos that we saw on the shelves at Target or Walmart. Fenty Beauty is another really great example of how darker skin women couldn’t find their foundation shades before. But what both of those companies did is they didn't just focus on people of color, but they made their lines so inclusive that anyone from straight hair to the curliest of hair or from the lightest skin tones to the darkest skin tones could enjoy their brand. We've done the same thing.
Our customers span the lightest of skin tone to the darkest of skin tone, but what's really exciting is that it works for all of them, it's safe for everybody's skin tone. There aren’t ingredients that are included in there that are negative for darker skin tones or are ineffective. Vitamin C isn't that great for clearing hyperpigmentation for darker skinned women. It's not that effective. Ingredients like hydroquinone, while they're super effective for darker skin tones with misuse or prolonged use they actually lead to permanent skin cell death. I don't think enough brands think about diversity, not just as different skin tones in their ads, but they need to be thinking about it through actual product development, which is why we call out the fact that it's been tested on all skin tones, because we do formulate for the lightest of skin tones to the darkest. It's safe and effective from the ends of each spectrum. We've become really vocal about our brand being for all skin tones and showing that when you make a product that works on people of color, you actually make a better product for people who have lighter skin tones because darker skin tones are a little bit harder to treat, they're more complex because of the makeup of their melanin. So being inclusive is actually good for the whole ecosystem versus just being good for darker skinned people."
"We've worked with a couple organizations and we're hoping to work with more in more impactful ways. We've worked with Sad Girls Club, Black Girl Therapy, the Jed foundation and Fearless Femmes. We've donated to causes that are for women of color, specifically for black women. For queer folks we've donated generally to suicide prevention. I mentioned earlier the stat about people with chronic skin conditions being two to six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety. As a brand, we really want to be holistic when we look at the person. We don't want to look at you as just like, how do we fix your skin or how do we clear your skin? Because that's not the message that we're talking about at all. It's like, how do we find products to help you manage it and have fun with flare ups? On the other side it's like, how do we manage your mental health in the process? We feel like there's a huge connection between skin health and mental health. We think a lot of brands haven't been speaking about it, but we want to put a stake in the ground and say it's not just about skincare because skincare and self care have become synonymous."