In Part 1 of BeautyMatter’s conversation with Experiment’s co-founder Lisa Guerrera, we covered the brand’s journey through inception, securing funding, and relaunch. As part of the brand’s continuing evolution, Guerrera and fellow co-founder Emmy Ketcham, both working as cosmetic chemists prior to launching the brand, have debuted the brand’s first serum.
Super Saturated is a serum—which also doubles as a mask treatment in conjunction with the brand’s reusable debut product, the Avant Guard silicon sheet mask—that boasts a 30% glycerin content for barrier support and intense hydration, supported by humectants such as polyglutamic acid and soothing ingredients like niacinamide, prickly pear extract, and bisabolol. In a study of 30 people using the product, 96% immediately saw a boost in hydration, 97% felt skin-soothing effects, and 91% reported dewy-looking skin. After a month of use, 94% reported all-day hydration, skin feeling more soothed over time, and better skin resilience. 32% saw an improvement in the epidermis’s natural hydration levels. Packaged in a reusable pump container made of 40% recycled plastic, the serum produces 23% less carbon and 58% less waste than the average serum, Experiment reports.
BeautyMatter sat down with Guerrera and Ketcham to discuss the product’s launch journey, what makes a superstar ingredient, and the evolving nature of the hotly debated clean beauty category.
What was the journey of this product launch like and how does it factor into a pro-paraben narrative?
Lisa Guerrera: Super Saturated is the first-to-market formula that highlights glycerin as the main ingredient, which is pretty unique for a beauty product. Glycerin is the backbone of most of your hydrating skincare specifically, but it never really gets to be the star of the show. Not because it's not a wonderful ingredient and highly effective—it's actually one of the best humectants we have available to us, a dermatologist’s and chemist’s favorite for a reason.
But from a marketing perspective, glycerin is not the sexiest or coolest ingredient. Most marketers and beauty brands tend to want to latch on to novel, interesting ingredients that pull at consumers’ attention, so ingredients like hyaluronic acid or the newest, hottest plant extract. They'll attach claims to it and make a big story around it, but seldom do brands really use the backbone ingredients that are “boring” as the star of the show, simply because they feel like it's not going to pull at consumers’ attention.
The insight that Emmy [Ketcham] and I had when we started this development process is that glycerin is one of the best ingredients we have for hydration on the market, and at high amounts, it actually goes beyond hydration. It has barrier repair and irritation protection qualities at certain percentages, between 25% and 40%, where most brands are using it at below 5% or 10%. Pretty much nobody is going above that 10% mark simply because it's hard to formulate with and creates a tacky finish, which is the biggest no-no ever in formulation. But we wanted to show off glycerin’s unique hydration, barrier repair, and irritation protection qualities. Rebrand it to be this sexy cool ingredient that we think it deserves to be.
It’s paying off. We just launched and the numbers are great. Consumers are loving it. We're already getting amazing feedback, so that's awesome.
Emmy Ketcham: [With parabens] it's similar to choosing glycerin when we're formulating. A lot of brands start with storytelling and work forward from that, but we start with the science, the most efficacious ingredients that meet our goals, and then go from there. For preservation, parabens are the longest-used preservative in the history of pharmaceuticals and topical cosmetics. They have the longest amount of testing on irritation potential and safety data behind them. So especially for this product, because Super Saturated was also formulated to be used under Avant Guard, we knew that we wanted the preservation system to be really safe and gentle. Parabens were the best choice for that.
LG: Also, from a marketing perspective, I think consumers are actually ready to have more products with parabens. Overall the industry has canceled parabens out of fearful, reactionary reasons, and when you look at the trends on TikTok, Reddit, Instagram, the places where especially science-forward skincare trends are made, you see the tastemakers in the space—people with the largest audiences, hundreds of thousands of followers, dermatologists, chemists, subject-matter experts—talking about how parabens are fine, that we shouldn't be afraid of them and it's not something we should avoid. A lot more consumers are now more educated on that and know that if a brand is talking about being paraben-free, that's not always a good thing and something they should be looking for.
Moreover, there's more of a backlash coming around the overuse of “free from” terms, the overuse of fear-forward marketing tactics. So by using parabens, one of our broader missions is to fight misinformation. Making science cool allows consumers to tune out that misinformation and tune into the science. From a broader trends perspective, there is a lot of interesting stuff happening on social media in terms of the content that's being made around parabens, and clean beauty overall.
Whether it's retailers with clean guidelines or the misinformation on social media, it creates this situation where if you're pro-parabens or pro-sulfates, it causes an uproar because people haven't been fed the actual science on it, which has been under wraps from the industry for so many years. But it's really challenging for anyone that comes in with something that goes against that narrative.
LG: Especially when you talk about retailers, what's fascinating is to see the cycle that gets perpetuated. Consumers are fed some information, either from a viral video or a brand that might come onto the market and start saying this ingredient is actually not good, and they go through a whole marketing campaign to convince people that that's the truth. That gets embedded into the consumer logic, other brands follow suit, and that creates a vicious cycle. Then the retailers are usually the last on the train, where, depending on which retailer you talk to, they'll observe that trend and demand for more clean products without these specific ingredients. Nowhere in that cycle is there a checks and balances when it comes to the science of what's actually being said.
There's no regulation, especially in the US, on that marketing. We create a vicious cycle in beauty—whether it's true or not, it doesn't really matter because it'll sell products. That's kind of coming to a head. Sephora just got sued for their Clean at Sephora mark, so we're going to start seeing more litigation around clean and these kinds of labels.
Did you receive any kind of pushback, whether from consumers or investors, with this launch in terms of wanting to speak out against the fact that there are parabens in the product?
LG: Funnily enough, no. It’s kind of wild; it's not what I predicted at all. We’ve had one question, and it wasn't “Why are you using parabens?” They were just double-checking that these are the safe parabens. But we've gotten one question this whole time. We got more questions about niacinamide and how much we were using in the product than anything related to parabens, which is fascinating. Ultimately, it shows people are told that they need to care about this, but I don't think people care as much as clean beauty or these retailers would have you believe. People want efficacious products that they trust.
EK: It's also a representation of our target market, that we are attracting consumers that are interested in the science of skincare, and those consumers are generally more open to what is actually the truth versus what they've been marketed.
LG: They're usually following people like Lab Muffin Beauty Science, Charlotte Palermino, different dermatologists on TikTok and Instagram. There's been a lot of content in the last year that has teed up this product for success on both the parabens as well as the glycerin front.
I wanted to come back to glycerin because I'm curious why you think it's gone under the radar so much? It's obviously been around for a bit, hyaluronic acid and vitamin C as well. We go through phases where certain ingredients are sort of touted as the new, exciting thing, when they have existed for ages.
EK: A lot of times when a product is being developed by a brand, they'll create a brief, and highlight the active ingredients that they want. Usually they're looking for either a “new innovation” or to capitalize on a trend and a buzz that's already there. Glycerin has never checked either of those boxes. It doesn't sound sexy. It's one of those tried-and-true ingredients that people think of more as an excipient.
LG: To create buzz around an ingredient is a capital-intensive, team-intensive process that requires a ton of education and time invested in making that ingredient a success. Oftentimes on marketing teams, you don't have chemists around, people who have deep knowledge about the ingredients that you're marketing. They can ask the product team, but having people who actually understand the mechanics of an ingredient, how it works, why it's cool, why it was chosen, is actually really interesting and fundamental to the beauty marketing process.
Having that at Experiment, we're able to take an ingredient that might not seem very cool and make it cool, because we have so much more knowledge about the ingredient and why it's interesting. I think also for glycerin, yeah it has that tried-and-true quality, but it's not exactly the easiest ingredient to incorporate at higher amounts. We went through 46 different iterations of this product to get to this point. That's not a small feat.
EK: When we were creating Super Saturated, we knew that the number-one goal was to make the best hydrating serum on the market. We felt like a lot of the competitive products, they're really lightweight, quick absorbing, it feels like your skin is exactly the same as it was before. We wanted something that you put on and get instant relief and long-term barrier protection properties, so it's preventing dryness in the future.
Then we evaluated all of our options and chose the best ones, knowing that as chemists, we could tell that story no matter what the star ingredients were as long as they were efficacious. The efficacy is the story, not actually the star ingredients. It just so happens that we landed on glycerin.
It’s actually very interesting, glycerin [at a percentage] between zero and 10%, can be tacky. If you get above a certain level, you hit a valley where it's not tacky anymore. We were able to nail that sweet spot of efficacy while reducing the tackiness.
From concept to finish, how long of a product development process has it been?
LG: We started this in December of 2020.
Which also speaks to the fact that our industry is so driven by newness and this idea of perpetually churning out product, that sometimes that speed can be to its detriment. Sometimes everybody is just doing the same copy of the same thing that's proven to be a bestseller.
LG: It also goes back to who's in the marketing room? Who is the person that's making the decisions on, “It's going to be quicker for us to get to market if we use this ingredient that's already got some ooh-la-la power, it's going to be easier to attract consumers, so that's what we're going to do, even though ultimately, it's not actually what's going to work.” The product may still work but it's not usually because of that ingredient, it's because of some backbone ingredients that the chemist included on the back end that we're not talking about, like glycerin. Even niacinamide was in that camp for a long time until it got popular. What I've seen in the data, and believe intrinsically, is sometimes it takes a brand to make something cool, to make it a trend.
For example, we had a conversation with the data platform Spate around glycerin not being trendy right now, but hyaluronic acid is actually on a downturn. What does that mean for glycerin as a result, because there will be a hydrator that takes that place, right? When you look at the history, niacinamide used to be in a similar place. It used to be an ingredient that was very under the radar, something that chemists and dermatologists loved, but it was in the corners of Reddit and science-y skincare forums. Then The Ordinary came out with their 10% niacinamide serum. For better or worse, that's what made niacinamide so, so popular. A product like that brings an ingredient to the forefront, makes it cool, makes it interesting, makes it viral. That’s how these trends are kicked off sometimes, and then you've got the copycats beyond that.
Glycerin deserves that level of hype because it does so much that people don't even talk about. I’m excited to see an ingredient that deserves that spotlight hopefully get its day. We see a lot of dermatologists and subject-matter experts talking about this, so it’s going to be interesting to see how that develops.
Higher percentages doesn't always mean better, right? That's another common consumer misconception. How do you translate that formulation process to the consumer in a relatable way?
LG: There's definitely now a backlash towards high percentages of niacinamide. There are still people who love it, but a lot more are saying this is causing irritation or breakouts, which I've personally experienced. But we've included niacinamide in the serum, and one of the messages that we're putting out there is that we put it at low efficacious percentages. We're going to start seeing more gentle or lower-level formulations. Paula’s Choice just came out with a whole Calm line in collaboration with [skinfluencer] Gothamista where they use 1% salicylic acid instead of 2%. We'll see more products with this narrative of you don't need to use 10% glycolic acid to get a good result, sometimes less is more. KraveBeauty is another good example of the less-is-more approach.
The way you translate that to consumers is still talking through efficacy, while emphasizing that it's actually gentle. We've gotten so many questions on: “Can I use this with glycolic? Can I use this with this?” Consumers are really concerned about one wrong move and their skin is irritated, so having a series of products or messaging around your products where you have the freedom to experiment, that's how you message it to consumers.
EK: It’s also the increase of awareness around your skin barrier, having a strong healthy skin barrier actually prevents a lot of skin disorders from happening in the first place. When The Ordinary became popular, they did something great, which is increasing transparency and education around ingredients. But they also kicked off that “race to the top ingredient” trend, where more is always better. We had a lot of people who damaged their barriers and had to then go on a journey to figure out how to repair it. Now that we're over the hump of that ingredient craze, people are coming back to the basics and understanding that a simple, gentle, efficacious skincare routine that actually prioritizes having a healthy barrier is the way to healthy skin, versus just trying to nuke your skin.
LG: Not just the race to the top of ingredients but to having a 10-, 15-, 20-step skincare routine. I was talking with a few people and so many of them are like, “These kinds of brands where you have multiple different percentages of things are a little confusing.” It’s fun for the real in-the-weeds skincare person, but for the majority of consumers, that actually is overwhelming. Not to knock the success of those brands, they have paved the way in terms of educating consumers on ingredients. They've done a really great job at that. It's just that we get to a point where there's an oversaturation, too much consumption. We're seeing traction of that as well; it's not just gentle routines, it's also smaller routines.
One of our philosophies at Experiment is let's create products that are multi-use. We don't want you to have a 10-step routine, it's not always great for your skin. It works for some people, but not for a lot [of people] as well. It's a little bit counterintuitive, I guess, for a beauty brand in this late-stage capitalist environment to be preaching under-consumption, but it's definitely something where I see more brands pivoting towards, because of how overwhelmed consumers feel around the immense amount of skincare products that are being launched constantly.
I'm also curious—obviously, there's no way to track it—but how many bad skin reactions to products are actually due to that single product versus a bad interaction of that product with something else they might be using? And those really extensive skincare routines don't feel in spirit with the wider cultural shift around being more conscious consumers, but I know that’s not speaking for everyone.
LG: Everyone wants that simplicity. It comes in different ways for different people, but most people would ultimately like things to be easier when it comes to their routines.
EK: One of the issues with having a multi-step or single active ingredient profile product is figuring out how to create your routine. When The Ordinary first launched, as a chemist, I was so excited about it. What they're doing is so cool, the price point is great, so I would direct a lot of my friends there. But then they would have to come back to me and ask which one they are supposed to buy. And two, how do I use it? When do I incorporate this into my routine? Then you have so many products with so many different actives and they don't even know what to do with them.
LG: I've had the same experience with my friends as well. I would direct everyone to The Ordinary. That was the party line. And then they would come back—same story. There are whole Reddit threads about these different permutations of “How I put my Ordinary skincare routine together.” It is wildly complicated. It's like a whole algorithm that you have to go through in order to have a skincare routine. We're all tired societally, in the pandemic, we had that big skincare boom, but now we’re coming off that high, and people want that level of simplicity.
EK: And also, truly following the science kind of demands it. There is a limit to what skincare can do for your skin. Having 10 products is not going to increase the efficacy of your skincare routine much more than having two or three. Being able to recognize that and understand what products can actually do for your skin, how can we address those issues and ensure that the products that we're making are doing the best job of doing that?
LG: That's one of the reasons why the scientific influencer has emerged. People are looking for that more objective truth-to-power information around science and beauty. I gained a following on TikTok because I was talking about beauty science and saying “Hey, you actually don't need that,” or, “This doesn't actually work, don’t believe that.” People want to know what they're consuming, if what they're consuming is misinformation. We all have a little bit of a scarring from COVID in terms of how fast misinformation can spread and how damaging it really is.
Beauty is no different. Beauty is the gateway to a lot of health and wellness misinformation, unfortunately. It's really important that brands are more mindful of what they're saying, what they're spreading, and that's why we take that stuff very seriously here. One of the reasons we use parabens is because we're putting our money where our mouth is. The scientific influencer has actually changed the game in terms of what information consumers are looking for from brands. That's now given rise to a lot of science brands: ourselves, Stratia, Dieux—there's a lot of different brands that are now talking more objectively about the results you can see from products instead of warping that story and hyping it up too much.
We recently covered the Not So Pretty documentary—it's wild how polarizing it is. A lot of clean beauty brands are built around this idea of parabens, sulfates, or whatever is all going to kill you. When cosmetic chemists come back with the hard facts, it threatens their business model.
LG: I'm so passionate about that. I totally agree, it does threaten their model.
EK: The interesting thing is though, internally, a lot of those brands know that what they're saying isn't true. I've actually interviewed at a clean beauty brand that has an internal talks team and got the opportunity to speak with their toxicologists during the interview process. We had a long conversation about how much we love parabens, but that brand doesn't use parabens, because it's part of the marketing story.
LG: I know so many founders who, they're my friends, they love the product, they fully believe what we're doing is a good thing, but they're too afraid themselves to do that because it does cut you off from retailers. It cuts you off from being in Credo. It cuts you off from these different retailers. Sephora will prioritize you last. There's lots of backlash. There's lots of constant business consequences to that choice, and it's not an easy one. But I think their success still being fueled by that misinformation, and that's something that's hard to come to terms with when you built your entire business on that, which is why I feel like, rather than trying to change all these businesses at once, you need new businesses to come in and set the standard for that.
Even when Dr. Shereene Idriss was developing her skincare line, she mentioned she was not going to include parabens but not because she thought they didn’t work. It's that the education side for the consumer is so difficult that she didn't want to have to deal with having to explain to people why parabens are actually good in the product.
LG: There are three brands, including us, on the market today that are using parabens. It is possible to have a successful, thriving brand with parabens. It's really about the level of honesty, efficacy, and hype that you create. It's us, Stratia continuously launches products with parabens in it, and they're increasing their market share. They just raised a $2 million round of funding. They're a cult skincare favorite, especially among the scientific beauty consumer. And then funny enough, Lush, a brand that you would never suspect would be having parabens in their products, uses them in nearly all of their products. Why? Because they use a lot of natural ingredients that will definitely go bad without parabens. But also, they've made statements on not taking parabens out. They’re basically like, do you want mold in your products or not? Because ultimately, parabens is the thing that's standing in the way of you getting a product that works and is safe for you. More people need to be aware of that, that it’s possible.
There’s this idea that it's not possible to have in this clean beauty environment. When we were fundraising, I was told that clean beauty is table stakes, and I'm like, “I will bet you $100 million it's not, because that is where the market is heading whether you believe it or not.” Investors are behind the curve on that. They're looking at trends. We're looking at far future trends. We're at boots on the ground, they're looking at it at a high level. Every step of the way, brands are being told that they can't have a successful brand without being clean. And I don't think that's true anymore.
EK: It's difficult too how clean beauty and natural beauty has been tied into sustainablity. You'll hear [about] clean and sustainable like they're the same thing, but they’re not at all. The way you evaluate something for being clean and being sustainable have two completely different rubrics.
LG: We preach a thoughtful, sustainable approach, which is around the idea that sustainable doesn't mean glass packaging, it means evaluating a product based on its carbon footprint, waste profile, supply chain, and understanding and trying to make changes to it that will reduce its waste and carbon footprint. We use Bluebird for that, which is almost akin to a clinical trial, double-checking that we're making the right decisions that are reducing our footprint overall. That is the future of sustainability: brands objectively measuring where they're at and making changes to reduce the number of carbon emissions and amount of waste they're putting into the environment. That doesn't mean simply switching to glass packaging and calling it a day. That doesn't mean using only clean ingredients that they then source all over the world and use a ton of agriculture to produce for no reason other than to say it's all plant-based. Synthetic doesn't mean bad, clean doesn't mean sustainable. There's so many kinds of different narratives that have wrapped itself into clean that it's become this indefinable thing that confuses a lot of consumers at the end of the day. That's ultimately why Sephora is facing a lawsuit on it, because they were not very clear. Nobody is very clear.
Also that need for that myth-debunking going all the way through the chain, through to the journalists writing about it and the consumers purchasing it. Even to the point about simpler routines, that's a great way to reduce your footprint, not producing so much in the first place.
LG: Stop producing so much product on the brand side and produce products that are better for the environment overall—do your best. Avant Guard, our first product, was a prime example of that. It replaces a single-use item, that's a clear winner. But when it comes to a serum, it's a little trickier to create a more sustainable serum. What does that really mean? That's why we had Bluebird [on hand] to benchmark it. For Experiment, we make a lot of effort to create products that actually fill a gap in the market, that actually fill a need.
EK: That's one way that innovation is driven for us. As a sustainable company, we have to strongly believe that anything we create is actually bringing something new to the market. It forces so much thoughtfulness at the beginning of the product development process.
LG: And that's not easy. A lot of brands with the pressures of the industry that we're in—investor, retail, and overall consumer pressure—it’s very hard for them to keep that intentionality. But there's definitely a few brands that we look to, like KraveBeauty. Press Reset Ventures is one of our investors for a reason, they are incredibly intentional about the products they put out, and I think we're going to see more places doing that.
What is the future of the “clean” beauty category?
LG: Frankly, it’s on the decline. I see VC firms changing their thesis to focus on scientific innovation in beauty rather than a focus on “clean.” This will change who becomes the market leaders of the future. Many consumers and brands are waking up and realizing “clean” means too many different things to be meaningful. They are realizing it’s ultimately misleading—I can only push for retailers to examine their ingredient policies to follow suit. The EU has banned the use of misleading marketing like “free from X” when that ingredient wouldn’t be harmful or be in that particular product to begin with, so this will shift brand strategies for sure.
I think brands will quiet on the “clean” rhetoric and shift to a new language to show consumers they care about the formulation and health— language like “transparent” and “conscious formulation”—and focus on using sustainability language.
Speaking to the future, what's coming down the pipeline?
LG: Honestly, we didn't predict that the serum would do so well, so we're very excited about that. There's a ton of word-of-mouth around it. We are definitely enjoying that success. Our goal is to push the serum as far and wide as possible, especially in conjunction with our mask. The serum is literally life-changing on its own, but with the mask, it's also a really amazing hydrating treatment.
We are coming out with more products, obviously, and we formulate our skin products in-house. Emmy is the formulator behind everything, which is also an unusual and interesting part of the brand as well because we have the ability to make unusual products that are a little bit more unexpected. For the future, expect the unexpected. Our whole tagline is “futuristic skin essentials” for a reason. We want to push the beauty industry forward in creating innovative products actually filling a gap in the market, that may be a little unusual but that all approach scientific beauty from a fun, future-minded perspective that engages consumers on both an efficacy and shareable, social media–friendly level.
We view ourselves as science-backed beauty 2.0. We talked a lot about The Ordinary, these brands that have come before us—CeraVe, Paula’s Choice—all amazing brands that have paved the way but I really consider them the 1.0 version of science beauty. We’re the next generation, which is not just looking at science from a black-and-white, lab coat, very serious perspective, but more so as a weird, interesting world that can be colorful and not take itself too seriously. The products that we come out with are really serious about results—we clinically test everything—but don't present themselves too seriously online, because that's more relatable and interesting to the consumer. You can get the best of both worlds and that's what we're building: a very fun, ridiculous, science-backed beauty world. That’s the future. People think this product is innovative, the next one, get out of town. It is very good. We're targeting a March 2023 launch for that, fingers crossed that the supply chain doesn't get us in 2023 like it did for pretty much every brand this past year. That's our New Year's resolution: fix the supply chain on our own and pave the way.
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