Meet The Brains Behind The Future Of Beauty

Artwork: Georgia Murray
In 2018, skin care is a serious business. Long gone are the days when women blindly bought whatever product someone behind a counter told them to; in its place, a new era of intelligence, transparency, and information has arrived. While makeup has become more democratic — think Rihanna venturing into the industry with the hugely successful Fenty Beauty, or Into The Gloss founder Emily Weiss creating Glossier, a brand that’s just received $52 million more investment capital — skin care has veered far more toward the expert-led.
Now, it’s not just diehard skin-care fanatics who know their vitamin C from their cannabinoids, their AHAs from their vitamin A; customers overall are savvier than ever. As Cult Beauty co-founder Alexia Inge explains: “We are entering an age of 'skintellectualism,' whereby consumers are adopting a much more investigative approach to their routines, and educating themselves about the best ingredients for every stage.” With shoppers no longer content with generalizations and indefinite promises, they’re looking for solutions to specific skin care issues — acne, anti-aging, dehydration — which require the knowledge, research, and science of experts.
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Not only are those buying and using skin-care products paying attention to the latest buzzworthy trends and ingredients, but the brands creating said products are marketing their own doctor-backed, lab-formulated ethos more than ever. You won’t find the vague sentiment "dermatologist-approved" on the bottle containing the most hyped serum these days, but rather a detailed ingredients list, the time spent formulating the product in high-tech settings, and where the ingredients were individually sourced.
One such brand taking this approach to skin care is world-renowned aesthetic doctor Barbara Sturm, whose uncomplicated yet potent offerings have attracted the likes of Kim Kardashian West. "Today’s customer is deeply educated, and long past vague promises in a jar,” she explains. "They have tried a lifetime of products already, and are mostly unsatisfied with the results. They want to find products that work, and before trying them, they want to understand why, which is a scientific inquiry.”

"I think it is important to have a very deep understanding of ingredient science, as well as of the functions and scientific processes of skin."

Dr. Barbara Sturm
For her part, Sturm began her career as a practicing orthopedic doctor focused on anti-inflammatory research. Once she made the connection between inflammation and the aging process, she applied her knowledge to the skin, and used it as a foundation for her skin-care line. “I spent years developing my skin care in close consultation with my professors from Pittsburgh and Harvard," she says. "I think it is important to have a very deep understanding of ingredient science, as well as of the functions and scientific processes of skin.”
Daniel Isaacs, formulation and development director at Medik8, agrees. "The skin is the body’s largest organ, and it needs to be looked after just as you would the rest of your internal organs," he says. "It is vital to understand the biology of the skin and chemistry of its functions to establish the mechanisms by which skin care works.” Medik8, best known for its "time-released, low-irritation retinols," has science at its core — hence the brand name. With before and after photographs from clinical studies and patented, professional-strength products, it’s established itself as a skin-care authority that people can trust. “We have a rigorous approach to our formularies and products, which are critically evaluated prior to launch," Isaacs says.
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"Skintellectualism" has a different name for Dr. Phillip Levy: He calls it "medi-luxe." "Medical-grade ingredients and results, combined with a delightful luxurious experience, are what I envisioned for my products,” Levy says. An example of this is the brand’s Booster Serum; it went through 30 formula overhauls to finalize the texture and scent before becoming the product we now know. Its Stem Cell line? Levy developed it over three decades of working as a dermatologist. “My laboratories have spent years developing patented and powerful formulas,” he explains. “You will rarely find such a level of successful improvement for skin care using totally independent clinical data.”
If you’re inclined to believe that this is mostly insider baseball within the bubble of doctors and dermatologists, with little impact on what the average woman is putting on her skin, think again: The "skintellectual" output of these brands is without a doubt impacting customer behavior. Dr. Dennis Gross explained that customers coming to his brand had “literally doubled in the last 12 months,” while Previse's Sean Patrick Harrington said: “Our customers, whether patients in a clinical setting or shoppers in-store and online, consistently share their preference for a brand anchored in dermatology.” Perhaps this is because the internet has turned skin care from recommended-by-friends or passed-down-from-grandma into a playground of inquisitive exploration run by consumers with high, industry-level standards.

"Our customers are now really, really well-researched and well-read. For them, it’s not about being green or not; it’s how the formulas are put together."

Alexia Inge of Cult Beauty
Social media’s role in the beauty industry has been fundamental to the rise of "skintellectualism," which has been seen firsthand by beauty influencer Caroline Hirons. “I’ve changed the depth of my product reviews from ‘this is really nice, it’ll be out next week’ to me listing whether something is vegan, if it’s appropriate for certain allergies, who the ingredients would be suitable for,” she tells Refinery29. “It’s because of the readers’ demands — they give me my best questions.” Dr. Sturm also recognizes a rise in her customers' standards: “I’ve seen a significant rise in consumers coming to me as an expert, which can also be attributed to the rise of social media. I spend at least an hour every day answering questions sent via social media — I love doing that because I get to receive real feedback and questions, plus an insight into their skin concerns.”
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At a recent Cult Beauty panel on adult acne, Alexia Inge said: “Our customers are now really, really well-researched and well-read. For them, it’s not about being green or not; it’s how the formulas are put together. They catch me out sometimes and I have to put them in touch with the brand founders.”
And for what it's worth, "skintellectualism" shows no sign of waning. “Our dermatology and sustainability credentials aid a dynamic audience of women and men pursuing worry-free, highly efficacious skin care products,” Harrington states. Savvy, switched-on customers are more clued-in about skin care than ever, whether it’s regarding everyday SPF application or the type of acid suitable for oily skin. As Levy says: “If they’re investing in a treatment or product, they expect the best, and will not compromise on quality or value for money.” Long live the "skintellectuals" making our evening skin-care regimen smarter — and therefore more effective — than ever before.

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