For years, the big-name beauty industry players have followed a standard formula—launch a product a huge advertising budget, big claims, and a celebrity face. The formulators behind the products have been largely been anonymous, with the weight of marketing being supported by the brand’s reputation. However, over the past few years, thanks to more informed consumers, social media, and a buyers’ wanting the most value from their products—doctor-formulated brands have become one of the most popular segments of the market.
With the global skincare industry pumping out over $135 billion in revenue and expected to increase 30% by 2025, there is a lot of money at stake. It appears that having doctors develop science-backed formulas is giving consumers additional confidence that the products they are buying might actually deliver results. In fact, one of the most editor-hyped products of recent years wasn’t developed by a big name beauty brand, but by the Director and Professor of Applied Stem Cell Biology and Cell Technology at the University of Leipzig in Germany Augustinus Bader. The brand has taken off, with sales leaping from $24 million to $70 million in 2020.
To get a snapshot into how doctor-designed brands stand out, I interviewed the founders of three popular brands. Not surprisingly, each one of the brands also has a larger mission. Former emergency room doctor Sarah Villafranco, MD started her organic skincare line Osmia Organics to create skincare with a positive impact on human and environmental health. While Professor Bader is using money from his skincare line to fund research and development for those affected by severe burns and skin wounds. Dermatologist Dr. Macrene Alexiadis launched MACRENE actives with the goal to ultimately replace cosmetic procedures with skincare that achieves the same results.
Founder: Dr. Macrene Alexiadis
Brand: Macrene Actives
Bliss: What inspired you to launch your skincare brand?
Dr. Alexiadis: Like most career decisions in my life, it was something that chose me. I started working in the lab at the age of 12 after reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, determined to find non-toxic plant based alternatives to pesticides. When I got to Harvard at 16, the first thing I did was take a research job to search for ways to eliminate chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides. After Harvard Medical School and a PhD in molecular genetics, I finally became a dermatologist. I became an expert on plant-based active ingredients and non-toxic solutions for the skin care industry, working with brands such as L’Oréal Paris and Lancôme .When I founded my precursor brand 37 Actives over a decade ago, I was the first plant-based clean skincare brand in the luxury market. With the launch of MACRENE actives I have formulated clean luxury skin care with the goal of replacing cosmetic procedures while helping preserve a sustainable future.
Bliss: How has your career in medicine informed the brand?
Dr. Alexiadis: I have spent the last two decades in clinical practice and as a associate professor at Yale mastering all the medical cosmetic and surgical treatment options for the most common dermatologic concerns and conditions, including those that occur with age. Initially, my pioneering clinical research work running FDA trials on injectables and lasers replaced surgical treatment options with nonsurgical alternatives. Now I am identifying active ingredients to target each of these conditions and translate the effects of injectables and lasers into skincare, effectively replacing cosmetic procedures with topical active ingredients.
Bliss: What was the biggest challenge to running a skincare brand while also running your dermatology practice?
Dr. Alexiadis: I am a scientist and a doctor full-time. I also have an organic farm in upstate New York where I grow many of the Actives for the brand. Plus, a lab where I extract and discover new ingredients for the industry. It’s a lot of work!
Bliss: What has been the most satisfying aspect of launching the skincare line?
Dr. Alexiadis: I am improving the lives of others and the health of the earth, and it represents progress. MACRENE actives is organic, plant-derived, toxin-free, packaged in recyclable glass and uncoated paper board printed with vegetal biodegradable inks; I am not only providing people with at home solutions to maintain beauty but also preserving our environment for generations to come.
Founder: Professor Augustinus Bader
Brand: Augustinus Bader
Bliss: What initially drew you to your research on how skin heals and regenerates?
Professor Bader: I spent time working with burn victims at the Ruijin Hospital in Shanghai. I was quite impacted by my experiences in China and was motivated to create a therapy to help treat children with severe and disfiguring burns.
Bliss: Did you ever envision yourself creating a skincare product?
Professor Bader: At the time, I’d only ever worked in a medical or academic setting and I had never imagined that I might create a skincare product for consumers. It was sort of by accident that I came into skincare, but it’s with a purpose.
Bliss: What propelled you to start your brand?
Professor Bader: The reason we launched the skincare brand was to provide a platform to allow for the continued research and development of treatments that alleviate suffering for those afflicted by severe burns and wounds. We have created a circular process—the research allows the commercial activity to be disruptive and competitive—and in turn, the skincare activity will finance the research.
Bliss: How has your career in medicine and your experience as a scientist informed the brand?
Professor Bader: When it comes to our skincare, we are not traditional beauty developers; we have decades of scientific research behind our products. My approach to skincare focuses primarily on respecting, first and foremost, human skin physiology and skin health and we will only release products that bring a real solution to our customers. It’s about maintaining the highest efficacy levels while viewing the long-term goal of better overall skin health. In this respect, we are pioneers in our niche.
Bliss: It took two years for you to be convinced to launch a skincare product. When did you decide it was something you wanted to do and why?
Professor Bader: It was Charles Rosier, my partner in this enterprise, who had the vision to apply the technology to skincare consumer products in order to fund my research. He thought if the technology could turn burned skin into perfect skin, then the know-how could be used to develop an innovative skincare to help with wrinkles. At the time, the idea did not wholly convince me, but I started to prototype a skincare product with certain patients with problematic or fragile skin. The creams made a real difference to the people, and they kept coming back asking for more. After two years of Charles’ perseverance, I finally understood this potential to apply this knowledge of intrinsic stem cell communication to develop a skincare-approved product.
Founder: Sarah Villafranco, MD
Brand: Osmia Organics
Bliss: What drew you to a career in medicine?
Dr. Villafranco: I’ve always been fascinated with the science of our bodies and minds, and I loved the idea of putting people at ease during a stressful or scary time. I still practice many aspects of medicine, but I miss suturing and putting dislocated shoulders back in place—procedures were always my favorite.
Bliss: What made you want to leave and start something new?
Dr. Villafranco: Western medicine is wonderful in many ways, but we’ve lost some common sense when it comes to caring for patients. In the ER, it seemed like I was putting out fires instead of sparking people’s interest in their own wellness. At the end of a shift, I knew I had helped a handful of patients, but most of them left our emergency care without any new tools for daily, longterm health—we simply didn’t have enough time. It often felt like I was applying tiny band aids to massive problems, so my sense of purpose got hungry after a decade in the ER.
Bliss: What propelled you start Osmia?
Dr. Villafranco: It was a perfect storm of professional discontent, hormones, and grief. My second daughter was five months old when my mom died from pancreatic cancer, and I was shaken by that combination. Somehow it allowed me to see my life from above, and realize how little time I had to make a difference in this precious life. I took a class making soap at a local ranch, and fell instantly in love with the process. Once I started researching skincare ingredients and their impact on human and environmental health, I knew I was onto something. After a few years of research and development, I was ready to launch a brand.
Bliss: How has your career in medicine informed the brand?
Dr. Villafranco: I can’t imagine creating a skincare line without an MD, actually. We can’t disconnect our skin from the rest of the system, so formulating products for the skin without understanding the way our bodies work feels incomplete to me. I’m so grateful for my education and my years in practice; seeing how diet, stress, and lifestyle affect health firsthand really broadened my view on wellness and my ability to help people achieve it.
Bliss: What was the biggest challenge to making the career switch?
Dr. Villafranco: My ego! I worked hard to become a board-certified ER doctor, and it was difficult to walk away from that. It felt like a strange career move—physician to soap maker—and I wasn’t sure I liked how that sounded. But I put my ego in a soundproof room and let it bash around for a few months while listening to my intuition and my passion. Finally I sorted myself out and made a fat leap of faith. I’m so glad I did, because I feel like I’m finally practicing a brand of medicine that makes sense to me.