Skincare is a booming industry, with a global worth of $155.7 billion in 2023. Blink and you might miss the newest trending active or product on TikTok. Visit Reddit and you’ll find hundreds of comments seeking the holy grail skincare routine to banish all epidermal woes. Multimillion-dollar businesses have been built off the back of one viral product.
But amid that intense desire for poreless pores, smooth foreheads, and zit-free complexions, there have also been losses: bestsellers that leave the buyer disappointed or worse, cross-product interactions that leave the skin irritated, red, and raw. For the skincare connoisseur, the fight to assemble their Insta-worthy bathroom shelf of choice doesn’t come without collecting a few battle scars along the way. Single-ingredient–focused formulas have turned every bathroom countertop into an amateur dermatologist’s office.
For the industry, catering to this hungry crowd also isn’t easy. Demands driven by a “more is more” approach—higher concentrations of actives or overnight results to create the biggest bang for one’s buck, quick turnaround to restock sold-out products on shelves, the eager anticipation for the next release once a brand’s hero product has hit the mainstream—create a high-stakes environment. The competition to stand out among one’s peers becomes a challenge that only substantial investment, unique ingredient discoveries, or genius influencer marketing can help conquer. Once the purchase is made, a repeat buy isn’t always guaranteed, especially in today’s experimental crowd.
That crowd is more ingredient conscious than ever, whether it’s comparing formulas side by side for active percentages or seeking dupes that can offer the same results for less. With a science- instead of a trend-driven approach to skincare, offering single formulations suitable for all skin types, Motif hopes to demystify this complex world and give customers a sensorial yet straightforward skincare routine that delivers results.
The woman behind the brand is Devanshi Garg Sareen, a tech entrepreneur and mother of two. After finishing her Psychology and Organization Change and Innovation studies at Auckland University, Sareen conquered the fast-paced world of NYC enterprises, working as Chief Growth Officer at global technology firm Icreon, acting as Principal at Capgemini Invent, and founding DTC- and BIPOC/female-focused incubator Hyphen Ventures.
As someone well-versed in the importance of analyzing the data, she spent years developing Motif’s formulas with board-certified dermatologist Dr. Indy Chabra, who holds a PhD in Microbiology and Genetics from Stony Brook University alongside a BSc in Chemistry and Biology from Stanford University. Their debut product, Abundance Plumping PhytoCeramide Cleanser, is a non-foaming and pH-balanced formula that can also be used as a brightening mask. It contains pineapple ceramides, white orchid, and licorice, as well as luffa fruit for mild exfoliation. The creation has been made to suit sensitive, oily, mature, and dry skin. Their sophomore product, Power Brightening Bicelle Serum, sold out during its initial limited-run release and is now being prepared for a full launch.
Amidst the exciting buzz, Sareen sat down with BeautyMatter for an eye-opening conversation on the scientific skincare myths circulating among the industry and consumers alike, the case for a maximalist minimalist product approach, and the truth behind product claims.
What can you tell me about your evolution from being a tech entrepreneur to creating Motif?
I've always been an entrepreneur. I was selling chocolate chip cookies at age 11, so I've always had an entrepreneurial and creative streak, but I went that typical immigrant route of going into management consulting. I soon realized I craved something more creative, which is when I worked as a tech entrepreneur and built and scaled a company, which exited to private equity last year. Even when I left I stuck around on the board. Then I went into innovation consulting. My degree was in change and innovation and trying to understand the concept of change and what creates something truly innovative. I was working with a Fortune 100 in food and beauty, which are my two areas of passion. I joke that if I wasn't doing something in beauty, I would be doing something in food. That was my first foray into the business side of beauty.
I was working with all the big beauty brands and their C-suites, helping them understand how to innovate internally, instead of just acquiring innovation.
On the personal side, I've always had a love-hate relationship with skincare. I overused it and wrecked my skin, then I went to Cerave and Cetaphil and didn't want to do anything to my skin and only use derm stuff, then I would see a beautiful bottle at Sephora and buy that. I was pregnant and on maternity leave, and that's when I started thinking: What if I could create something that was truly dermatology-backed but also luxurious? I found myself oscillating between the two, very polarized with what was out there. The first thing I asked myself was: How do I have the right to play in skincare, to be a beauty founder? I just felt like such an outsider. But then if I went back to innovation and disruption, I think it truly happens when you merge industries. People travel from one industry to another and have a fresh outlook on the way they can challenge the status quo.
There was a perfect storm: I met my investor and now advisor Dr. Indy Chabra, through a friend of a friend who's a dermatologist but also has a PhD in chemistry. That's rare: to have that understanding of how formulations work, but also the understanding and practice of being a dermatologist for many years. We both bonded over our mutual dissatisfaction with consumer skincare, and decided to create something, and that something became Motif.
Clinical brands often have sensory elements missing or the luxurious aspect of the pleasure of the ritual. It's straightforward, no frills. The fact that it doesn't have to be one or the other, but can merge those two spaces is interesting.
Scientific sensorial is a bit of a tongue twister, but that's what we wanted to lean into. My background is in psychology as well, so I'm always looking at that while my tech background brings me to be very customer-centric and attuned to the user experience. If I’m creating a product, one of the things we all know is that consistency is really important in skincare. If you're not being drawn to using something and it's not intrinsically motivating, you're not going to get that loyalty. You're not even going to get someone to finish the bottle. You have to like the texture, the smell, the bottle, looking at it. You have to remove the obstacles for usage and think through a true user experience.
What was the path from inception to launch like?
It took us two years. One year of that I was still working my full-time job with two little kids, working on this in the evenings and on the weekends. Our formulation process was entirely different. When we went to the lab, they said, “Oh, you want to create this product, here are the ingredients. We're sending you the submission next week,” and I'm like, “Hang on a second, I want to tell you what ingredients I want.” They mentioned the ingredient claims, with a beautiful three-pager with a study, facts, and percentages, but I wanted to validate them as we didn't accept them as scientifically valid. We checked every ingredient in terms of real research to back these ingredients up. We want to challenge the validity of those claims that are actively used in the industry. That's what took us a long time.
Then we said we're going to scratch that process entirely and want this to be client-driven. We researched a list of 40 ingredients and gave them to the lab and they could only source 20 of them, so we built our product off of that. I have a lot of friends who work in this space, and they explained that you have a book with all these ingredients and claims and you pick the ingredients that you want. But this process of our derm picking the ingredients is core to our DNA. Now we have a glossary of these ingredients that we've already researched. We were reaching out to universities in Korea to ask about this one study that had this one product. We were looking at these ingredients from smaller suppliers that probably didn't have a lot of marketing muscle to promote them. It was truly an ingredient-driven and science-driven approach. It's what made me realize that the science claims that are actively used in the space are a different kind of science. The R&D process is long, but we're working on shortening it.
I would love for you to expand on that because there's never been more confusion around ingredients, whether it's around efficacy, safety, or sustainability.
During this time of COVID, clean and natural was the big thing, but deep inside I wanted to create science-driven skincare. I started looking at all these science-backed brands and wondering why product results were so highly individual.
Almost any ingredient under the sun, you put it into Google and you're going to find that it's great for your skin. Why is that? That was the first question. My science, psychology, and statistics background helped with that skepticism. Secondly, I felt there was a huge focus on what is not in your skincare like the Drunk Elephant Suspicious 6—[terms like] clean, natural, and nontoxic. It was all about what we're not putting in your skincare, but no one was having a conversation about what we are putting in your skincare. The conversation was around putting more, not trace, quantities [of ingredients in], maybe you would see that conversation, but you're not having a conversation about the rigor of the ingredients selection.
I also wonder about the bare minimum you need to put in to make the claim for an ingredient versus the amount that is put in for it to be effective. Do you have an example of that?
If it's within an efficacious range, even if you're in the minimum of that range, you're scientifically sound. Now again, that's very different to ingredient literature ranges. My viewpoint and our dermatologist’s viewpoint is if you're at the minimum of that too, there's not always a correlation between more products and more results. That's another fallacy in the industry. Ingredient-focused are selling you niacinamide at 10% or higher, when it is efficacious at 2%-6%. More is not necessarily better. The problem with trace quantities is not only are you getting ingredients that are not efficacious, but you're also increasing the risk for contact dermatitis because now you've added an ingredient in there just for the sake of it. We had situations where I wanted to use a green tea and we found one, but then our formulator said it was going to darken the formula over time so we should put a little bit in. I said no, if it's not in there to make an impact, it doesn't need to be in there.
Drunk Elephant was one of the front-runners when it came to this concept of what ingredients should be in skincare versus not. I wonder what the term “clean beauty” even means today because it's morphed into something slightly nebulous and confusing.
Clean should be table stakes at this point. For clean, we're just saying are we using ingredients that are clean for our bodies and environments in terms of doing no harm? We're looking at things like if this enters waterways from when you wash your face, are there any known toxicity reports? That's just a responsibility, but it's not something to tout as a benefit, in the same way as inclusivity and diversity. That's the bare minimum that we expect.
Something that struck me in your brand mission was the idea of moving away from trendy ingredients and going back to science. What are some of the most underrated versus overrated ingredients in skincare at the moment?
The way we would formulate was that my derm and I would send emails of research back and forth, and sometimes I would try to source the ingredients for him because the lab had never sourced some of these ingredients before. I asked him about using rosehip oil and he went silent for three days. He re-emerged and said there are lots of studies about it, but confirming it's insufficient for any skincare effects. I was shocked—you'll see every publication touting its benefits, but in the scientific community, it has been proven to have no significant measurable scientific evidence for any kind of skincare anti-aging claims.
I found a study where someone was rubbing rosehip oil on a scar and they found the scar decreased over time. I sent it to our dermatologist and he pointed out that a scientist would know that the control should be rubbing something else on it instead of nothing because it's the rubbing that reduces the scar. There's the difference in scientific rigor that he would catch that I wouldn't. There were so many other examples, but that to me was the biggest disconnect between what is trendy and known to be true and what is scientifically known to be true.
There are many underrated ingredients, but we found this oxyresveratrol, which is in the same vein as resveratrol, but it's a bit more bioavailable. We found it in this South Asian fruit [monkey fruit]. It has amazing literature [to back it up], There are so many ingredients out there that people haven't spoken about that have a lot of great claims, but in the scientific community, they haven't been commercialized and popularized because their suppliers are much smaller.
You mentioned earlier the misconception that a higher percentage is going to be more valuable. Obviously, at a certain point, it just destroys your skin barrier and then you're left with more problems than when you started. Were there any other other any other big misconceptions that have presented themselves to you through the process of creating this brand?
In that vein, do no harm is definitely a core part of our formulation ethos. We are finding that a lot of the skincare philosophy right now is having a CrossFit moment; no pain, no gain. Then shortly after, you had a maturity where more gentle and consistent workouts took over the zeitgeist of fitness. I think the same thing about skin. It’s vampire facials, microdermabrasion, derm-strength glycolic peels being used every day. You're causing these problems, rushing to solve them, and flushing hundreds and hundreds of dollars down the toilet.
For us, it was about really gentle but potent formulations. Those two things don't usually come together. Historically, gentle does nothing but it does nothing. Then you have these potent, derm-strength brands that have become very democratized in terms of access that perhaps people shouldn't have that much access to, especially with how unregulated the regulations are here. Our core was: How can we move skin forward without taking steps back so that you'll see true transformation in your skin without irritation, sensitization, or dryness?
Your product is created with all skincare types in mind. I remember having a conversation with the founders of Malin+Goetz and they were saying most people have normal skin, they're just having a reaction to the products they're using. There are things that work for most skin types. It's just people are mistaking reactions for something else.
100%. it's a viewpoint that we have that differs from a lot of other skincare companies is that at the core of it, our skin is the same and we all want the same things for it. We've all lost our way, and what that looks like is a little different for us all. I don't like saying “for all skin types” because it makes us sound very mass, but it's really formulated to think of how this will help someone with oily or dry skin. I also don't want to create five face washes, but one beautiful one that helps heal everyone to this common goal of homeostasis that looks like healthy, radiant, which will be soft and plump.
But we've had to train people. Those with oily skin need a bit more convincing, but I tell them to try it for two weeks. They've been using different products for their entire lives but are finding that it actually helps tame their sebum production by leaving their skin not stripped, moisturized, and healthy feeling.
What was the challenge of formulating a product that manages those checks and balances?
The other thing about scientific method is that it needs to be thorough. When you're pulling research, it's not created to get to the outcome that you're looking for. It's created to reach a true outcome. When you use a lot of these ingredients, the sample sizes scientifically are more diverse to be significantly and statistically relevant.
Our ingredients selection is based on science, trying to think of things that complement each other, but because we're using more of a creamy formula in our cleanser, we have added some very subtle exfoliation to help with that clean feeling and circulation for people that are used to something a bit more aggressive. With exfoliation, we looked really far and wide to find products that didn't scratch your skin, and that weren't intrinsically hard like shell and seed powders. Instead, we found luffa fruit which, instead of being exfoliating particles, is a fiber so it rubs against your skin versus potentially scratching it. Again, always trying to minimize the possibility of any harm was very important to us, and thinking about texture, form, and function as well.
Were there any other key points when it came to ensuring the scientific validity of the formulations and the skin compatibility?
The scientific method consists of systemic investigation. There’s a few different cornerstones to that. One of them is peer-reviewed process, ensuring that the research you're publishing meets minimum standards for scientific quality. What we're finding is the research that we would get offhand on these ingredients was done by scientists who work for those ingredient manufacturers. No one is approving it to be published because it's marketing literature. We only use peer-reviewed statistics.
Another part of the scientific method is that it tries to minimize any bias or prejudice in the experimenter, thereby improving the results. If you're a scientist that works for a university or independently versus working for and collecting a salary from an ingredient supplier to do that research—they're your client, so you have that core, undeniable bias That's the biggest thing.
Terms like dermatologist tested or approved or recommended can be quite nebulous when you dig into the validity of those claims. From my understanding, dermatologist tested just means there was a dermatologist involved at some point, but often there isn’t a person named so you can't really know.
100% agreed. I know dermatologists who have created lines of products as a natural extension for their practice, where they haven't been involved hands-on. They don't known how to do formulation. They haven't done that research of ingredients, but they've broadly talked about what they want. The lab does the same thing: recommends ingredients, they look at it on the surface, approve it, and it's done.
Even dermatologist developed isn't saying what we have done, right? Dermatologist tested is the same. As a precursor to launch you have to do an HRIPT test, which is a human repeat insult patch test. As a brand, you just tick a box and have the study supervised by a dermatologist, which just means you're getting a dermatologist stamp on it. Let's say I approve it with 50 subjects and I'm paying $2,000 for that test. I pay another $200 for a dermatologist to put their seal of approval on that test.
That's one of the biggest problems in the industry is that these terms are all so nebulous. Even science backed, what does that mean? That's causing real problems for the end consumer because they believe in that word and are using products that are irritating and sensitizing their skin, compromising their skin barrier.
It’s such a complicated web in terms of brands designing according to what is being asked for in the market, trying to meet consumer demand, and that consumer demand is often driven by social media, but then the information spread on social media isn't accurate. But then formulators will use those types of claims in their marketing materials. Where does the responsibility lie to break that chain of misinformation?
That's something I saw when I worked in beauty. The same trends being recycled and that cycle needed to be broken. We're giving too much information into the hands of the consumer for whom skincare is not a full-time job, giving so much power and the paradox of choices. Now they have to figure out what ingredients layer above each other.
I want to take the power back into the hands of the experts, which is the dermatologists, scientists, and chemists. They're the ones that should ideally be telling us what we need as humans, of course working with regulation, protocol, and everyone's best interests at heart. It's not just a profitability motive. When we talk about these ideals, we're partly talking about an altruistic society, but it will work when we're all doing our part. Our part as a brand is to put products out there, not only that people want, but knowing what they need. That's where the beauty of things like design, user experience, and packaging comes up, because that's a tool to switch what consumers want into things that they should be choosing, instead of focusing on things that they don't or are ill-equipped to choose.
It's such a minor point but when I was looking at the design of the cleanser and the specific shade of Merlot red that you chose—hearing what you mentioned about trying to find this space between clinical efficacy but still having it be a luxurious product—visually that translates because there is a minimalism to it, but it's not so clinical that you can’t display it on your shelf.
Desirability enables continued usage, right? We're all attracted to beauty and beautiful things, and that's something that is missing in the clinical side of product formulations. You want a product with heart, soul, and beauty. That's what the biotech companies miss out on when they create skincare. Also, you want to be part of a movement, which is where community comes in. As a consumer today, our money is our vote. We want the brands that we're using to reflect out into the world who we are and what we stand for. There's a huge identity-shaping process of consumer behavior. This is what I buy, this is who I am.
Beautiful packaging design thinking is a skill I've developed through my tech experience. It enables that brand affinity, brand loyalty, and love. When we talk about creating brands that go beyond a one-time purchase—and we are seeing that in our repeat rates and gifting subscriptions— it's so expensive for a brand now to acquire new customers. I was very clear from the start that it only made sense if we would have a higher lifetime value than other brands. Otherwise, it's not financially viable.
How has the reception been?
It's been amazing, been better than I thought it would be going into it. We did heat maps and realized how much people wanted to know my founder story, so we are bringing that more to the forefront. Everyone told me nobody wants a cleanser. Everyone's feedback was, “All my other products are really elevated, but my cleanser is the last product to upgrade.” I thought: Who's going to give a no-name non-celebrity brand a chance, maybe they will on their cleanser? Maybe not their serum quite as yet until we prove ourselves. Everyone said, “Who has a hero cleanser that makes no sense?”
But people have loved the cleanser and have been surprised at how transformative it can be. It gives us the credibility that we can piggyback off of for our future products. We are seeing that repeat rate. We're still small and getting the word out there, but we found a small niche of influencers that genuinely love us. In the past I've created a profitable business and I know it's a bit harder to do in beauty, but that's my goal overall is not to grow faster than we can manage and support.
This concept of newness within beauty and especially within skincare as it relates to ingredients, unless you're getting a biotech-created ingredient, the palette of ingredients you can work with, especially if you have a discerning eye for the type of ingredients, can be limited. How can you create newness, given those tools and those confined measurements?
Creating a new ingredient is one thing, but when you think about the percentage that these active ingredients need to work, it’s 1.5%. You're not putting 10% of anything in there, usually it's a maximum of 5%. So you come up with these great ingredients, but it’s going to be a small percentage of your whole formula. You start to see people come up with these patented ingredients, they spend so much money on that, they use it over and over again to make sure that they can amortize their costs over multiple products. In an attempt to push skincare forward, the newness comes from scientific literature and breakthroughs. We don't need to be doing all of it, we need to tap into it. I see us as a vehicle where we are mobilizing, accessing, and translating the best of scientific breakthroughs and academia to package it up and create it as consumer products. I see us doing that to start with for facial skin and then so much more. That's what excites us both: it's truly a way to make an impact in an industry where there's a lot of guesswork.
You've mentioned data being such a core part of the creation of Motif and also your super-strength. There's often been this myth of the creative genius in the lab and the idea just comes versus having the numbers and evidence to back things up. How do you humanize data? A lot of people think data is very cold, straightforward, and might miss the nuance of being human or unseen shifts in demand.
Data is not human, but the only way to utilize it as knowledge is to humanize it. When we're looking at things like heat maps and clicks, there's a person out there who's going through and clicking things and looking for something, not finding something, and getting overwhelmed. Those insights aren't available to us without the stories and the human aspect. Brands that get caught up in the data don't realize that it's a means to an end. I didn’t just come up with our cleanser—it was a nagging feeling, which then was confirmed by cleansers being a huge market.
Everybody buys a face wash, but people don't think it's efficacious because it's a rinse-off, so they spend the least dollar per ounce on it. But masks are also a rinse-off and that's the most dollar per ounce people are spending. People are buying masks that are like $20-$30 a pop, but they're spending like 30 cents a pop on a face wash, so there's something about the time there. The weird thing is in terms of efficacy, if you're using a great mask once a month, that's like eating broccoli once a month, you are not going to get any benefits from it. The results come from the repetitive exposure of your skin to these ingredients in efficacious quantities of these select ingredients. So we just have to change our delivery mechanism.
Data, layering over that anecdotal human-interest storytelling, creates a true insight that affects product development. I'm a busy mom, do I have time to sit down for 20 minutes and put on a mask? No. Can I put on a mask for a minute every day? So if I am masking for a minute in the morning and the evening, when I'm brushing my teeth or shaving my legs, that adds up to 14 minutes a week of the same ingredient exposure which is maximizing my results at the end of it.
Also the idea of evolving past the 11-step skincare routine, this idea of more products equals better results, I do think there's a certain timeliness as well for the concept of fewer products. Why buy three different products when you can have one that marries all those benefits, but also shifting the tides to something that is more in tune with our current economic, social climate. I was wondering if you have any thoughts about that evolution of the skincare game but also the cultural underlying shifts?
When you create a brand, sometimes you can't escape your desires. You make it a little biased from your own point of view. I was someone who cared about beauty but was not obsessed with beauty. I wanted to create a line for people like that, who are overwhelmed with beauty out there. For me there was the North Star of: can I create skincare with headspace? Can I give them formulas that will work and hence remove that whole process of figuring things out and can I give them that minute for themselves and then they move on with their day and do bigger, better things? It's not just about their skincare routine, it's removing an obstacle.
We had a review from one of our subscription customers who has a job in the male-dominant gaming industry, and she mentioned that she was going to talk in front of 2,000 gamers at a developer conference and didn’t have to worry about her skin. That really captures the essence of what I'm trying to do. I hope I have an attitude of a minimalist routine, because that's what I tend to gravitate towards. I don't want to be prescriptive about that, but I want to design for that. If something is not adding value, remove it. That's definitely how we design, but consumers will go through their own process of exploration. Maybe there's that concept of the maximalist beauty, minimalist routine. I can afford something beautiful, thoughtful, and curated, but I don't need a lot of it.
And consumer choice ultimately being driven by the results, right? You could write great marketing copy about a product, but if at the end of the day it doesn't do much for you, that's not going to be a repeat purchase.
With marketing, I was looking at stats about how anti-aging does very well. It’s just so difficult in terms of can I talk about skin health without talking about those things. I want to take a stance, but people are looking for that with these parameters. Do I take a philosophical stance and have them not find me? I want to stand for skin health but I don't want to promote all these skin problems. Great that they know what it is, but we don't need to obsess over it. If you look after your skin, if you do the right things, it will be okay.
In terms of future perspectives from Motif, you recently launched the Power Brightening Bicelle Serum.
Our serum was ready this summer and everyone told us you don't want to launch a new product in the summer, everyone is traveling. It’s a beautiful treatment, gentle but potent. My mom suffered from really bad melasma on her cheekbones and has been using our R&D samples for the last year and it's gone. It has bakuchiol, but also a powerhouse of brightening ingredients. We have Ecklonia cava, which is a seaweed that I haven't seen used before. We learned about it from a university in Korea and then sourced it from a supplier, it's 32 times more potent than kojic acid. It's our version of a vitamin C serum without the irritating, unstable nature. We have it through the oxyresveratrol as well. When we're sourcing ingredients, we're looking for the exact scientific name that was in the study. With orchids, there are 200 varieties of orchids, and the labs would say, “Use this one from Thailand,” We’d say, “No, we need this one from France.” That's another reason why our product development process does take a little while. We have this beautiful white orchid [Phalaenopsis amabilis] we use in our cleanser and serum. Our dermatologist found two orchids that have scientifically found benefits in skin brightening—one of them was patented by LVMH and the other one is what we're using.
In terms of raising the standard within skincare, there are so many different layers to where misconceptions are born and perpetuated. What will be the key thing to break through that noise? With clean beauty, it often feels like we're in this gray zone, even of the science itself. Of course, brands making claims that they don't have the efficacy to back up don't want that to come to light because your business model would crumble, but I wonder what will be the key to clarity?
I will say that I don't appreciate industry bashing—it creates fear and distrust and passes on a burden to the consumer. This fearmongering, I never wanted to be that brand. I'm still trying to figure out how much I want to talk about the science. Can I show them the science through the product as I'm telling them the science? I agree with you completely that too much is riding on perpetuating a cycle of misinformation.
Can I say it's the media's responsibility? I don't know. It is so entrenched that it will be challenging to break. But we can solve a lot of these things through innovation, which is having brands that are doing things differently and people starting to choose them. Unless we do a coup, I don't see another way to change that except slowly through consumer choice.
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