If I say "hot new beauty brand", what do you imagine? No-makeup makeup, just a lick of mascara and lip balm? A minimal colour scheme, probably in millennial pink? Perhaps fronted by an impossibly glossy A-list darling with their own painfully cool aesthetic? Well, how about this: highlighter-yellow packaging, dedicated acne products and a spokesperson in the form of a giant, grinning, space-dwelling cosmic entity named Big Yellow. It could only be Starface.
Founded by former Elle US beauty director Julie Schott and her business partner Brian Bordainick, Starface is an acne-care line, with the emphasis on 'care'. "Acne can happen at any point in your life for any number of reasons," explained Schott, who had acne throughout her 20s. "Towards the end of my media career, all I was seeing was this look of the effortless cool girl who doesn't need makeup and who has naturally really even skin. It's not attainable for so many people, and not having perfect skin doesn't mean you’re not drinking enough water or you’re not taking care of yourself. Sometimes that's just your skin! We just wanted to put forward something more fun, more attainable and more honest."
The brand's first launch was Hydro Stars: neon yellow, star-shaped hydrocolloid patches which come housed in a little plastic version of Big Yellow. (The packaging has been compared to AirPods but I think it's a little more Lego-esque.) For the uninitiated, hydrocolloid patches absorb spot secretions to promote healing and dissuade picking. They’re usually clear and circular, and worn overnight. "Acne patches are more common now but when we started this journey, they weren't," said Schott. "We couldn’t even find a manufacturer who was willing to make the star-shaped ones. People said, 'Why would anyone want to wear a patch people can see?' But the purpose was to make this uncomfortable moment and turn it into something positive and self-acceptance and pride, almost."
This is the key Starface difference: they're choosing to enhance and accentuate where other brands might conceal. "I said to myself, 'What if we approached acne differently?' I’ve spent so much time feeling ugly and not self-confident, and honestly almost like I don't know how to take care of myself, like I'm some kind of failure," explained Schott. "I don’t think anyone should have to feel that way, teenagers or adults. What if we could change that? Acne products always use words like 'blemish' and 'imperfection', and I thought, let's start there. Let's change that conversation."
Space Wash, £13, a gentle foaming cleanser which gets rid of oil and makeup without making skin feel tight or stripped soon followed, and there’s also a rainbow version of Hydro Stars, £13, which donates 100% net proceeds to the Black-Led Movement Fund and the Hetrick-Martin Institute For LGBTQ+ Youth. Moisture On Mars, a light, oil-free moisturiser is launching soon. Prices are mid-range, starting from £13 for Space Wash and £16 for a sheet of 32 Hydro Stars, and Schott notes that they've recently been able to bring prices down as the business has increased in scale. "I don’t like the idea of luxury pricing for the sake of it," added Schott. Everything's vegan, cruelty-free, pregnancy-safe and formulated to meet US retailer Credo Beauty's 'clean' beauty standards, which Schott indicated were the strictest they could find. "When you have reactive, acne-prone skin, trying new products can be really stressful and anything can break you out," she said.
As for Big Yellow, the choice to have a non-human 'face' was deliberate. "When you see a human face, it's just another place to compare yourself and project yourself," explained Schott. "Young people already have so many arenas for comparison, and we didn't want to be another place for that. I found myself thinking about animated series from childhood, things like Snoopy and Peanuts and Pokémon that just make you feel good no matter what."
The idea of skin positivity can be difficult. For me, it's more about neutrality, and not having your sense of worth wrapped up in your skin.
Julie Schott, starface
The psychological effects of chronic skin conditions can be devastating and life-altering. Ofcom research indicates that 44% of us edit our selfies before posting them, and 82% of women say that they feel the need to look their best in selfies. Yet acne touches more and more of us with every passing year, with 85% of 12-24-year-olds experiencing it and more than 50% of women in their 20s experiencing breakouts (these numbers continue to rise among those in their 30s and 40s).
Plenty of people who get spots know how irritating and upsetting it is to receive unsolicited skincare advice from strangers on public transport or on social media, and how you can end up feeling at war with your skin. "It's always, 'Eat this one thing, don't eat this one thing'," recalled Schott. "And then the idea of skin positivity in itself can be difficult. For me, it's more about neutrality and not having your sense of worth wrapped up in your skin. Acceptance and comfort in our skin is a goal, and being able to feel desirable and worthy regardless of what your skin looks like, not a case of 'When I have clear skin I can do XYZ'. You can spend so much time waiting to look a certain way and I think that’s just a waste of life."
The sceptical position is that it's all just cute branding and there are heaps of acne-control products on the market, and Starface is still trying to make your spots go away. How can Starface square skin acceptance with skin-improving products? "Really, I want to encourage people to celebrate individuality," explained Schott. "I’m probably always going to have some spots and that's okay with me. Finding joy is more important to me! I don't want a product by my sink that says 'blemish' or 'imperfection' or that implies I don't have my shit together somehow. No one should have to spend money on that unless they want to. You're spending money on this, it should be nice to you!"
Why shouldn't your acne-care products make you feel positive and encouraged, and not like a patient?
Like it or not, the messaging and world created around a brand changes how you feel using it, especially in the social media age where our favourite brands also make memes, reply to our comments and even show support and allyship for political movements. We invite them into our worlds and they invite us into theirs.
For the same reasons you'd likely boycott a brand if its founder made racist remarks or underpaid its workforce, we’re also more likely to embrace a brand that does good, both for us and for the world at large. Using Biologique Recherche probably makes you feel Parisian and fabulous, using La Mer makes you feel decadent and using Glossier makes you feel like an off-duty model. So why shouldn't your acne-care products make you feel positive and encouraged, and not like a patient?
The sky’s the limit for Starface's future but as Schott sees it, the ultimate goal is to change the conversation, not just your complexion. "Skincare can be a safe space, a fun space, a non-comparison place of wanting your pores to be smaller or smoother," she added. "There are endless ways to feel inadequate and less than on the internet. We don't want to be one of them."