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Made for Melanin: 4.5.6 Skin's Mission to Cater to Forgotten Skin Prototypes

December 22, 2021 Carla Seipp
December 22, 2021
4.5.6

“Melanin-rich skin, in our industry, has been like the white elephant in the room that everyone sees and swears is not there,” 4.5.6 Skin founder Noelly Michoux passionately declares. Fellow voices in the industry like Dr. Anne Beal have appealed for skincare that caters to the specific needs of this demographic, but a majority of the industry operates on a skin type-specific, rather than biological makeup-specific approach. Customized products offered by the likes of Revea or Veracity are another avenue taking ethnicity into consideration.

Michoux’s journey exemplifies the need for a paradigm shift away from traditional methods of product creation. If brands proclaim themselves as embracing diversity, the journey needs to begin in the lab, not in their marketing campaign creation strategy. 4.5.6 Skin was given the rare opportunity of being part of the LVMH Research Center’s Cosmet’up Program, giving the company a chance to build their own lab and production unit from the ground up, led by a diverse team every step of the way.

She created her brand’s skincare based on the Fitzpatrick system, which classifies skin into six different categories depending on factors like sun sensitivity. As Michoux explains, the industry operates all of its innovation, research, development, dermatology, treatments, and skincare based on the prototypes 1, 2, and 3, which all are within the white skin range. 4, 5, and 6 are the more melanin-rich skin types, often from geographic areas like Africa or Southeast Asia. For those who have moved away from these climates, their new environments affect their skin health in a profound way: deregulation, skin sensitivity, moisture loss. Furthermore, the two camps of skin prototypes (1, 2, 3 vs. 4, 5, 6) age differently.

In the following interview, Michoux explains the science behind differing skin needs, authentic diversity, and building a disruptive skincare brand in the French Cosmetic Valley.

What was the gap in the market for melanin-rich skin?

We grow up in a society where we feel that skin is skin, right? We never get to look at the nuances that actually make people different. I grew up as a Black woman in France, not ever being very satisfied with my skincare products. I was never able to find one that was hydrating enough for my skin, so I just felt that my skin was not compliant. You never think that the problem is that these products are not made for you in the way that they should be.

If you look at the structure and the function of the skin, you'll see that Black skin, as opposed to white skin, is denser, thicker, and produces more collagen and elastin. It's a much stronger barrier than white skin which ages a lot more, hence why the industry is all about anti-aging. When you think about that, and correlate it to hydration, which is the mother of everything, the problems start there.

Then you look at what we call the desquamation of the skin [shedding of the epidermis]. People with darker skin actually desquamate 2 and 2.5 times more than light skin. If you combine that with the lack of hydration, you get dull skin. That's what we call ashy skin. When you look at how melanin is produced and the cells that produce the melanin pigment behave for white skin, they're really small. For prototypes 4, 5, and 6 they are huge, very active, and very robust because they have to produce so much melanin, which plays a protective role. But that is a double-edged sword, because if melanin protects your skin, that also means that anything your skin interprets as an irritation is going to trigger the melanocytes side to go into overdrive mode, which is why hyperpigmentation is such a pain point.

The industry is just not factoring these very important facts into the genesis of product creation. People have been confusing that problem with lack of representation, which is a completely different issue. What you see brands doing now is going, “We’re inclusive, all about diversity, and putting people in our marketing campaigns.” That's just part of the problem, it's not very genuine. If you're creating products having one type of person in mind, and then you're financially targeting other kinds of people, that is bizarre to me. You're seizing a financial opportunity that's not being inclusive.

For skincare, you really need to look at people’s physiology, because there are differences there. There are so many nuances in us as a species. These differences are what make us interesting and beautiful. If any brand today is going to prove that they’re inclusive and about the whole system in their communication, then this is where they actually need to start. As a brand, if you know that your entire value chain will not be inclusive, then you should say, “I want to be an ally, but today I'm not able to be inclusive.” That's okay, because not all brands can tend to all people.

What challenges were there in setting up the brand?

The industry itself has been conditioned by its drivers. Skincare is a marketing-driven industry, so the person with the most means gets to tell the story of how it should be done, what it should be like, and what the ideals are. It has nothing to do with the truth or what is actually right.

When I started talking to the lab in France, the response was, “We don't do products for darker skin tones, but you can use the formulas that we have and tweak them, add key ingredients that speak to your community, some fragrance, and you should be good to go.” This is how the industry works now. 99% of the stock you see out there is those formulations. The big guys have their own labs and R&D. Anyone else that does not have that access goes to existing formulations and packaging.

I couldn't find a partner that was willing to do what I was trying to create, because they were not seeing the problem as well. In the pre-Fenty era beauty industry, basically the attitude was an outdated aesthetic, with a lack of representation in campaigns and R&D, as well as lacking awareness in terms of the suppliers. Things are changing, but we have a lot of work in terms of educating consumers, bringing it back to their physiology, understanding themselves so that they can use that knowledge to make better-informed decisions about their beauty products.

How important is representation in the C-suite and on that infrastructural level, having someone in that room asking the right questions?

That's what will constitute diversity 2.0. When you're assessing your customers, make sure that you are factoring those in your entire value chain. When companies are setting up strategic goals, they need to factor in the nuances of people that are going to buy from the line. That should go into who is sitting in the boardroom and making a decision, who attributes the budget and how that budget can be used to support that vision. These factors have to be implemented in the entire value chain, otherwise inclusivity becomes a mockery. The value chain today needs to be representative of the people that actually buy from this company, and that's not the case unfortunately.

That diversity 2.0 is perhaps becoming more about specifically tailored products as opposed to one brand trying to do everything for everyone, because obviously the skin needs are different. Performative diversity can't be the answer either. If you're marketing a product towards everyone but actually that skincare is not suitable for melanin-rich skin, then how inclusive is it really?

That's why people confuse being inclusive in the way you work and just showing diversity in your campaigns. It's two different things, but also this has been working for this industry and that's why the change is slow. What happened with skin prototypes 4, 5, and 6 is, the darker you get on the melanin spectrum, the more people have been left out of this visibility equation. People yearn for belonging, they want to be included. We're in the premise of a new era now where we're having so many whistleblowers. People are getting to the level of awareness where they're asking: when you portray yourself as inclusive, are you really inclusive and am I going to sanction that with my money? Do you represent me in the way I want to be seen in this world?

This is going to become a huge challenge for big brands because their culture is to serve the standards. They're right there in the middle, and that's their lane. They don't even have the capacity to shift left or right, because there's bureaucracy and politics. To even bring about the slightest piece of change, it takes years for these companies. A lot of them are looking to overcome this problem by acquisition, and that may be a solution, but we don't know how people are going to react to that trend. That's where the niche brands are dominating the growth, [in situations] where you need to bring in a specific type of expertise, and see people for what they are.

But also another conversation that is starting right now for everyone, white skin included, is: what are you really putting in my skincare, that's the conversation for everyone starting right now, white skin included. What are we buying, what is that formula inside the pretty bottle? How is this good for my health? And that price that you're making me pay, is it really worth it?

What was the process of being supported through the LVMH incubation program in the beginning of your journey like?

It was very interesting. In France, we have this huge network called the Cosmetic Valley. This is an initiative by the French government and some of the biggest cosmetic companies in the country to help foster innovation. We don't have a lot of innovation in our cosmetics; if you compare it to Asian skincare, for example, they're a lot more advanced in the way they formulate. We've been resting on our laurels with that historical advantage that we've had with skincare.

I went there and presented my project to the committee, and they loved the project and asked how they could help. I told them I want to work with experts that understand melanin-rich skin and how we can solve skincare for them in a way that is elevated and really aligned with their skin. That's how I met one of my co-founders, Imen Jerbi Azaiez, who has a PhD in pharmacy and is a skin researcher. She's an amazing formulator, and brings in that pharma-like rigor and comprehension of the skin to 4.5.6.

The two of us were able to get an incubation with the LVMH Research Center. They incubate about two products every year, so we were super lucky. They opened their suppliers to us, it was great to have that LVMH card. That's huge in terms of the help that we were able to get through them. We also had access to equipment, anything that they could help us with, they did. But it was a very separate process that was overseen by my co-founder, not by the LVMH Research Center. That's where we started our R&D, and then we raised some initial funds. Just being at LVMH opens a lot of doors. We were able to finalize our R&D, buy our raw materials, go through testing panels, create the formulas. We also created our own R&D lab and manufacturing units, so we're fully integrated. The only thing that we get done by external service providers is the legal testing.

Everything that we're doing is not trying to follow trends or use whatever everyone uses, so it was not an easy process. Change and real innovation is never easy, but the result is we have amazing products that really perform. That is just Phase A, we can do so much more, which we will as we grow and have more money.

“We're not an influencer brand. We don't have access to celebrity, but what we have going on for us today is that we have amazing products that deliver results.”
By Noelly Michoux, Founder, 4.5.6 Skin

It also raises this important point to have capital and backing. A lot of times there's this perception that if you just have the dream and the product it'll take care of itself, but that's such a small piece of the puzzle. There is also that need for retail representation, industry support, funds, and financing.

Full-funnel brands, that's another part of the chain today. Name one amazing indie brand out there that has done great over the past years that was not financially backed, didn't bring in money, or had access to money—this is not possible. This is a cash-intensive and marketing-driven industry. It's crowded, so the space belongs to those who make the most noise, have the most visibility, can pay those influencers and celebrities, can finance new product launches and everything that goes around it.

Sometimes I hear people say, “Well, we have not really seen any successful melanin-driven brand out there.” My response to that is always, we have not had the financial and retail network. It's complicated to make it in the industry if you don't raise the money, which is hard because investors want to see your product before they invest, but you need the money to make the product. Once you overcome that, you need to show that your sales are up to par. It's super hard to have investors understand this problem because it is a bit far away from them. The average VC today is a white guy, 40 something, and most likely doesn't have a diverse social group, so when you bring a problem about diversity, there's going to be a disconnect. We, as founders of color serving communities of color, need to overcome that disconnection problem as well.

Hopefully we'll see more VC-backed skincare brands that are melanin driven, and these VCs will start seeing that there's also opportunities for these brands to be great returns on their investment. We want to see these brands going into B series and C series, raising $100 million, being valued at $1 billion so they can truly go global. That would be the next wave of continuous support.

In terms of cutting through the industry noise, sometimes the social media algorithm can be a bit of a disservice.

Yeah, I mean, who built the algorithms? They don't come up with their behaviors themselves at the beginning, you feed them with information. So if you feed them information that is representative, inclusive, and empathetic, that's what they'll keep learning and amplifying. What we see today with social media, is it's still an amazing tool for you to get out there and be seen, even if it is really tough to find your own space and people online. It's getting very expensive as well. There's a new landlord online, it's becoming harder and harder for newer brands to make it through social media because the costs have gotten so high. It's become a game for those who have the most money. Social media was supposed to be that equalizer for all people in all businesses to gain visibility, but it's much tougher now to reach further.

How has the reception to your brand been like from the consumer side?

Great. We came onto the market at a time where people also really needed a brand that said, “We're all about you.” That's been keeping us going. We're not an influencer brand. We don't have access to celebrity, but what we have going on for us today is that we have amazing products that deliver results. We have amazing customer service and a brand ethos that connects and resonates with people. And we deliver on our word.

Are you remaining in DTC or looking for retail spaces?

Right now we're 100% DTC. But obviously, my vision in my mission with 4.5.6 is to make high-performance and high-quality skincare available to people with melanin-rich skin all over the world. If that's your mission, then being exclusively DTC is not possible. But we wanted to be DTC coming out because retailers aren’t going to make space for us not knowing who we are, and it certainly was the easiest way for us to start.

We also wanted to really be close to our community, foster those relationships and our intuition in terms of our process, products, and how we can talk to our people. We are already having some very initial conversations to understand what it means to be retail ready, but obviously those are things that we'll be looking at further down the line.

What are your future plans?

We're still in the very early stages, so concentrating on building our community and strengthening 4.5.6 by introducing it to the US market. That is really the market for commercial success for us, seeing how it is up to 24 times higher depending on how you analyze it. We'll also want to work on more products. We've been developing a sunscreen with no white cast, and are working on a serum that targets acne, acne scars, and hyperpigmentation. What we see in our community often is that they will get a product that solves acne, but not the aftermath of acne or even the inflammation that can be created by the product they are using to solve it. We want to address that specific issue for melanin-rich skin. The larger picture here is to have a full head-to-toe catalog. There's still so much more that we can do in terms of making makeup products that fit darker skin tones in the kind of pigments and undertones that we use. We're going to be focusing on skincare on the outside, including body care products, but also the inside with nutraceuticals.

Noelly Michoux in conversation with BeautyMatter founder Kelly Kovack.

Brands with big ambitions to change the status quo, and a desire to do it the right way, require freedom and independence to think outside the current industry constructs to build new ones. Successful ones are led by dreamers who believe they can change the world and have the grit and determination to make it happen. Noelly joins Kelly to discuss how she is building a vertically integrated brand, backed by science, to address the needs of melanin rich skin. Click here to listen.

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