Homebrew Beauty Revolution: Cosmetic Chemistry in Your Kitchen



This is the story of how my anger at the beauty industry made me start the Homebrew Beauty Revolution. [1]

In this blog post, you’ll hear a tale of how toxicity conducted at different levels of the beauty industry drove me to create the most radical experiment I’ve ever conducted in my life.

My name is Adeline Koh, former professor and founder of Sabbatical Beauty, a small batch, luxury, Korean beauty inspired beauty company. I founded Sabbatical Beauty in 2016, and we achieved a gross annual revenue of $780 000 in 2018. [2]

The Homebrew Beauty Revolution is my experiment to answer my research question below.

Research Question

Is it possible to radically change the beauty industry, so that we can get better beauty products and stop all the toxic infighting?

What if we acted by working together instead of tearing each other apart?

Introduction

I have 2 reasons for conducting this experiment.

TL;DR, it's because Imma Mad.

Reason 1: Because Beauty Companies Think We’re Stupid  

Imma Mad #1. In 2012, I was obsessed with the Sephora skincare section. I used to stare longingly at all the high-end, magical skin potions highlighted in Sephora’s different brand sections. Sunday Riley’s amazing facial oils and exfoliants. Tatcha’s beautiful Geisha packaging. Tata Harper’s sleek and gorgeously scented cleansers and masks. Herbivore’s minimalist aesthetic. All of them spoke to me in different ways with their beautiful packaging and appealing branding. And these continue to be some of my favorite brands till today, unlike the majority of high-end skincare.

picture of a shopping mall

I would walk through each aisle slowly on weekends, pausing to gaze on each product and its pretty, expertly-tailored-to-the-late-millennial-woman’s-aesthetic packaging. The beauty products looked like little diamonds in the spotlight. The bright spotlights of the store would catch the sparkle of the plastic packaging, making each product appear like a beautiful gemstone encased in a jewelry display booth.

I wondered what it would be like to be like Sunday Riley, who first started her line by mixing up experiments in her kitchen and giving them to friends and family to try. Or to be like Tiffany Masterson, who developed Drunk Elephant because she couldn’t get the exact mixture she wanted at Sephora. And I would dream of making my own potions one day, and of much how I would enjoy the process.

That dream ended up coming true. I started making my own skincare serums, moisturizers, oil balms and more in my own kitchen, in 2015. My skin changed, the way it hadn’t with all the other skincare lines I’ve used my whole life.

My skin in 2011. No makeup, no filters.

My skin in February 2019. No makeup, no filters.

My friends, awed, wanted their skin to change like mine had. So they bugged me to sell to them, which I first did at cost. And their skin changed. My experiments were so effective in changing their skin that they started nagging me to start my own beauty brand. And I did, with the launch of Sabbatical Beauty in late 2015.

In the process of starting Sabbatical Beauty, I took a class on cosmetic chemistry. In the class I heard the teacher pronounce that the active ingredients in most products were nothing but “fairy dust. That they were only included for marketing purposes, and not in percentages large enough to make them therapeutically effective. [3]

More magic, less dust in our skincare please.

And that made me mad furious.

Furious that the people who were formulating these products for us had so little respect for our intelligence. Furious that they thought we could be sated with clever marketing and scientific babble. Furious they thought we did not, would not, and would never know better. Furious that they thought we were too vain and empty headed to care, or ever know better.

And that is Imma Mad #1: why I want to conduct this experiment to prove that teaching you to homebrew your own beauty can only be good for both beauty consumers and beauty products.

Reason 2: Because I’m Sick Of Toxicity Of The Beauty Industry.

If you’ve ever known anyone with a Ph.D., you’d know that they probably are nerds. Incredibly obsessive nerds. Majorly, incredibly obsessive nerds. So majorly, incredibly obsessive that sometimes they turn their research interests into completely new careers. Mea culpa: I quit my job as a tenured Associate Professor of Postcolonial Literature and Digital Humanities and my role as Director of the Digital Humanities Center in 2017, because Sabbatical Beauty had grossed a multi-six figure gross revenue in 2016.

Me in 2011 in my past job as a professor. I'm with my dissertation advisor, student and fellow colleagues, on a panel I organized at the National Women's Studies Association. I'm the second one from the left.

My obsession that spawned Sabbatical Beauty started in 2015, a year after Into the Gloss first published the article featuring Charlotte Cho, owner of Soko Glam, and the 10 Step Korean skincare regimen. I was inspired by the products, the regimen and the entire concept. The product names recalled all the Asian herbs I used to have to eat to boost my health, as a child growing up in Singapore. Ginseng. Sake. Goji berries. Bamboo. Every child with an Asian parent knows of which I speak, because they’ve been forced to down bitter herbal tonics in the name of improving their health or doing well in their finals.

And the entire 10 step regimen sounded sooooo soothing. I was exhausted after a whole bunch of academic political battles (spoiler: white male professors who were at the top of my digital humanities subfield were furious that I was leading the vanguard in pointing out the whiteness, and maleness of the field) , and that sounded like something that I could enjoy meticulously performing while in the bath, another one of the ways I sought to relax.

I was desperate for a way to deal with my persistently dry, yet oily and acne prone skin. I grew up in Singapore, which is hot, humid and tropical all year around. When I arrived at the University of Michigan in 2001, I went from never having seen snow before to landing in the middle of January in a snowy Ann Arbor with four foot high snow drifts. I was completely confused. I didn’t know how to dress for the snow. I didn’t know how to walk in the snow. Or that my sneakers would get drenched--and I would freeze--if I tried walking with them in heavy snow.

Most confused of all was my skin, which went from oily adolescent skin in tropical humidity to a -20F January Michigan. And I had no idea how to deal with flaking, red, constantly irritated skin.

So I basically ignored my suffering skin. And just put up with red, inflamed skin every winter, while constantly feeling tight and uncomfortable with heated rooms and arid air.

In 2010, when I landed my first full time professor gig, I’d decided--I’d had enough. I was going to try and solve this once and for all. My skin had gone from just red and irritated to my having really bad acne.

So I went to a dermatologist. Who took one look at me and declared that I was allergic to all moisturizers. (No joke, according to a Google search I made of the derm when I was writing this article, apparently says to all of her patients. Still. Lol.) She told me, basically, use moisturizer and you’ll have acne. Stop using moisturizer and start using my acne treatments instead to get rid of the acne.

Those of you with dry skin know what happens when you’re using a prescription acne treatment. Usually your skin dries TF out. And mine did, and I was forbidden to put moisturizer on it. It hurt like crazy, because it was so dry and tight for a while. Eventually I got used to the tightness, but the dryness just got worse. The acne treatment got rid of my acne, but it didn’t get rid of my dry skin, and in fact made it worse --coupled with the sudden lack of moisturizer, I still went around with red blotchy skin on most days.

Until I created my own Sabbatical Beauty products.

However, beginning Sabbatical Beauty was so hard that I almost quit in my early days.

When Sabbatical Beauty was in its infancy, US-based Korean beauty bloggers and the whole of Asian Beauty Reddit led an entire rampage against me, accusing me of having “stolen” a recipe from one of their own.

This Asian beauty blogger vs. me drama started in January 2016. Sabbatical Beauty, my unknown baby company that I had just literally started was featured in a Slate article, “Radical Self Care: Meet The Feminist Academics Who Love K-Beauty” in January 2016, while I was stuck in Chicago for the Modern Language Association annual meeting. [4]

The Slate article went viral.

Sabbatical Beauty was getting an unheard of number of web hits and more sales than I ever thought were possible.

This made the U.S.-based Korean Beauty Blogging scene uncomfortable that my brand -- a Korean beauty influenced line -- had come into being and gotten publicity without their blessing. So: they went on a rampage against me. They accused me of stealing a recipe from one of their own, even though a simple comparison of each product’s ingredient list would easily show that this was false.

The attacks were swift and felt extremely personal and aggressive. They wrote some hit pieces on the poor journalist who’d written the piece, declaring her a “shill” for my products. They were mad that she had cited their pieces in her article, berating her for lumping them with “feminists.” [5]

They only stopped when I posted a conversation between me and the blogger I was alleged to have stolen from. The conversation clearly showed that the blogger declared my recipes my own and not stolen.

Which brings me to: Imma Mad #2: Toxicity in the beauty industry is bad for everyone’s skin.

Instead of being scared that I was a competitor, what would have happened if instead of defaming another maker, the Korean Beauty Blogging community had embraced me?

Which brings me back to my Homebrew Beauty Experiment.

Is it possible for us to get rid of this toxicity by embracing one another and seeing each other as community members to be helped, rather than evil enemies to be vanquished?

Hypothesis

  1. Toxicity sucks
  2. We can get rid of toxicity by teaching other people how to make beauty safely and effectively.
  3. We can make money doing so
  4. It’s not a zero-sum gain. By teaching the ordinary person how to make skincare, the beauty industry will GROW rather than stay stagnant, with companies fighting over their market share.

Methods

In about a month, I am going to share a recipe for my brand new, unreleased product, the Sabbatical Beauty Carol’s Sake and Fermented Rice Serum on the Internet for free.

I designed the Carol's Sake and Fermented Rice Serum for my friend and SB customer, the lovely Tang Siow Leng Carol.

screenshot of my spreadsheet for the carol serum

I’m also giving exact weights and quantities needed, and links to buy all my supplies and equipment.

I’ll even be releasing formulation videos and doing a “Make With Me” live YouTube video for my audience for the serum.

Heck, I’ll even be releasing a kit to make it easier for you to make that serum along with me.

Results

I have just started the experiment, so I do not yet have results.

However, the following are my predictions:

I expect to show that there is a ton of interest among beauty consumers in making and customizing their very own skincare products. In a way that does not water down the process, but teaches them exactly what to do and to do it safely.

I expect to show that far from being disengaged, flighty folks, people who love the beauty industry are interested in serious science when explained clearly and well.

I expect to show that ordinary people, when given the right tools and right education, can be taught to formulate effective skincare. And that they want to.

I expect this first experiment will show that the time for the Homebrew Beauty Revolution is right now.

I expect that together, we are going to do to the beauty industry what craft beer did to the beer industry. [6] To re-envision the beauty industry the way it was because big beauty dominated the landscape: small communities of women and men passing on cultural knowledge and tradition, while having fun with one another. Instead of how it currently is, with virulent lies and backstabbing rampant, just to maintain power.

Discussion

If the expected results were to come to pass, they would show that democratizing the beauty industry -- by radically sharing and teaching one another as a feminist act--can only mean two things: better skincare and beauty products, and happier consumers.

In other words, that yes, the beauty industry can be democratized, and that the only winners are: all of us!

Because all of us are sick of the big brands that think their consumer is disinterested, and so put barely anything effective in their products. Just to keep profit margins high enough.

Because we’re sick of brands that see us an an enemy, rather than a community member.

Because we’re sick of beauty secrets that remain secret.

Join Us In The Homebrew Beauty Revolution Experiment

Are you also sick of the same things?

Did this blog post resonate with you?

If so, sign up for the FREE Phase 1 of the Homebrew Beauty Revolution Experiment: the How To Read a Beauty Product Ingredient List Like A Professor!

In the FREE Phase 1 Training for the Revolution, you will learn:

- How to avoid the top 7 mistakes customers make at the beauty counter

- Steal my top 5 tricks to decoding an ingredient list even if you don't know what the words mean

- How to steal my new Carol's Sake & Rice Serum recipe, AND get access to my ingredient and equipment suppliers, so you can make your very own version.

Want in? Space is limited. And it’s FREE.

See you on the other side, friend.

And what kind of nerd would I be if I didn't include an infographic breaking down this entire post?

Here you go, because ILU.

Of Course I Have Endnotes!

Homebrew Beauty Endnotes

[1] My thanks to Doniki Boderick-Luckey, Dorothy Kim, Marissa Rhoades, Carly Kocurek, Zelideth Maria Rivas, Valette Piper Bledsoe, Hayne Kim, Megan Burelle for comments on this piece.

[2] I’m telling you this not to show off, but to show you that I know what the heck I’m doing. I’ve formulated many effective high end skincare products that have sold out immediately upon launch and continue to have a rabid fan base. Enough for me to have quit my full time job as an Associate Professor of Postcolonial Literature & Digital Humanities to pursue Sabbatical Beauty full time.

[3] “Fairy dust” basically means that the majority of products on that Instagram-worthy skincare shelfie is not as it appears. “Fairy dust” probably means that if you were to manage to closely study the ingredient list, you’d notice that a gorgeously styled “Honey Skin Cream” would contain less than 1% of actual honey. Probably a lot less than 1%. Probably more like 0.01%.

[4] This is the annual professional meeting for literature professors.

[5] That appeared to me, both then and now, to be a very odd hill to die on:. bBeing upset for being called a feminist… These were women in their mid 20s to late 30s, getting angry for being called a “radical feminist.” One wonders if they would still be so angry about being called a feminist, under the Trump administration.

[6] Kathy Peiss's Hope in a Jar (2011) has documented the brand stories of beauty brands ranging from Elizabeth Arden to Madame C.J. Walker, and argues that beauty rituals used to be about community before beauty businesses were taken over big big corporate brands. I write more about this here. Also, a close study of medieval figure Margery Kemp shows how she was an alewife--medieval women who sold their homebrew beers against monks and their monastic beer monopolies (see: Karl Hagen, "Medieval Mystic Margery Kempe and the Economics of Beer Brewing, Judith M. Bennett, Ale, Beer and Brewsters In England: Women's Work In A Changing World, 1300-1600.)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adeline Koh, Ph.D. is the founder and CEO of Sabbatical Beauty, a small-batch, handcrafted Korean-beauty influenced company based in Philadelphia, PA. Sabbatical Beauty has been featured in media outlets like Allure, Slate, Shape and many more.


WHY SABBATICAL BEAUTY?

WHY CHOOSE US?

  • Our products contain higher percentages of active ingredients than the majority of products on the market. This means you can see amazing differences very quickly, and with only a scant amount of product.
  • Our products are manufactured in-house by a small team of women in Philadelphia, PA, in small batches, with love.
  • Our products are never tested on animals, just Adeline and Sabbatical Beauty employees.
  • Everyone who works for Sabbatical Beauty earns a living wage.

WHAT DO PEOPLE LOVE ABOUT SABBATICAL BEAUTY?

  • Our stuff works. And works quickly, period. And we sell sample sizes, so you don't need to commit a lot financially to test if a product works for your individual skin chemistry.
  • Our mission as a feminist company is not to sell you skincare as something that you need, but rather a routine that will help you with prioritizing yourself and own needs for self-care.
  • Our products come with an amazing, supportive Facebook community of people always willing to help, even in issues outside of skincare.
  • We have a generous thirty day returns and refunds policy.

10 comments


  • Susan Shoemaker

    My own journey to crafting my own skincare products has direct parallels to yours.
    Sick of the hype and price for ineffective goop containing toxins in over designed packaging. However, you are light years ahead in your business, so impressed! Thank you for reaching out to share a community. Happy to participate!


  • Jennifer Olson

    I am just too excited! I have very few words. I’ve been trying to reinvent the wheel for so long. I can’t wait to tinker more with my personal skin care line. It will be a refreshing change to find more like minded individuals who love to create and make products that actually work. Thank you ❤️ Jen


  • Linda

    I love collaboration, inclusiveness, and giving. Your company is bursting with these and I am so glad I found you. I love every single product I’ve tried, and I feel I’ve tried many. I like the blog and I wish you well with this new exciting chapter.


  • Sharon

    I am excited fir this opportunity. For years I have been looking for a natural product for skincare. And even more excited to be able to create my own. Can not wait!!!


  • Natalie B

    I’m really excited about this. I’ve long been angry about the Beauty industry taking advantage of the consumer. Filling their products with fillers and using so little of actual active ingredients in their products. And yes in effect selling “fairy dust”. It’s infuriating. That’s why I’ve been so happy to spend all my money on SB, there’s no BS if you read the ingredient list there are the active ingredients right at the top of the list. Actual “fairy dust” that is proven to work on skin. I look forward to learning more from you Adeline. Beauty industry beware!!


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