You'll Never Guess The Weird Inspiration Behind This $12 Cult Favorite

When countless celebrities over the years vouch for a skin-care product that's not pricey, nor particularly pretty, without being paid for placement, even the biggest skeptic might start to perk up. The Kardashians (Kim, Kourtney, and Khloé), Priyanka Chopra, Natalie Portman, supposedly even Kate Middleton: They've all credited the same unassuming bottle of Bio-Oil with fading scars, keeping skin supple and hydrated, and helping prevent stretch marks during pregnancy — all for roughly $12 at the drugstore.
Even beyond celebrity endorsements, Bio-Oil has reached cult-favorite status as a skin-care multitasker since its debut in 1987. But while you're likely to find the orange and white bottle peeking out from the #shelfies of in-the-know women everywhere, it begs the question: Where did Bio-Oil come from? And what makes it so unique?
Advertisement
In the early 1970s, chemist and cosmetic scientist Dieter Beier began his research into oil-based skin-care products. The German native was living in South Africa at the time, where he acquired personal-care distribution company Union Swiss and ushered in a new era of skin-care research and development, exploring the potential of oil as a secure, oxygen-free storage unit for vitamins and other natural ingredients. Beier wanted to create a product that combined the "best of both worlds": the potency of an oil, with the light, fast-absorbing wear of a cream.
Somewhere around that time, ducks — yes, ducks — came into the picture. Beier found that, just like our glands produce oil, ducks' preen glands (located at the base of the tail) do the same. This oil buildup distributes through to their feathers, or plumage, to help them swim, creating lightweight yet water-resistant properties that Beier looked to recreate with Bio-Oil.
Rest assured, no actual ducks were used in the process of formulating Bio-Oil. The aquatic birds were only then used as inspiration to replicate in the laboratory, resulting in a proprietary substance called PurCellin Oil. The additive gave Beier's formulation a lighter, thinner consistency and skin-friendly properties — which led to Bio-Oil being brought to market in 1987 as a product geared toward dry skin.
However, Bio-Oil sat quietly on South African retail shelves for over a decade, until Beier retired in 2000 and handed Union Swiss over to brothers Justin and David Letschert. They sold off all of the developer's products, except one: a dry skin hero. Upon discovering customer testimonials, the Letschert brothers found that Bio-Oil's fans were using it for more than just dryness — they were finding success in treating scars, stretch marks, and hyperpigmentation, too.
Advertisement
After receiving more positive feedback through their own clinical trials, the duo updated the packaging to market it as a problem-solver, not just a topical treatment. Over the next five years, Bio-Oil became a bestseller first in South Africa, then a global phenomenon well into the 2000s, entering markets in the U.K., United States, and more. Now, it's available in 125 countries and has received hundreds of awards internationally. In 2018, over three decades after its initial launch, it was even named one of CVS' bestselling products of the year.
It's impossible to say what led Beier to conclude that ducks were the skin-care inspiration the world needed at the time. Perhaps it was a walk in the park, or an episode of Looney Tunes. But whatever it may have been, the unlikely realization gave us an iconic vitamin-packed oil that celebrities, moms-to-be, and dermatologists can't get enough of — and won't cost you an arm and a leg (or a webbed foot, for that matter).
At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.