For most people, getting a facial means a chance to relax and mentally check out. But for Liz Whitman, the former president and CMO of the Elizabeth Arden-owned spa brand The Red Door, it sparked a business idea.
When she first started with The Red Door in 2015 and began testing out its services, her facialist “talked a lot about why The Red Door mixed [the ingredients for its] masks, serums and treatments fresh in the moment before applying them to guests.” The reason: “Beneficial ingredients for your skin, mostly antioxidants and acids, are super fragile and degrade rapidly once exposed to air, light and water,” said Whitman. “I was thinking, ‘OK, if that’s true, then how effective can these pre-mixed retail products actually be?’”
Fast forward to Thursday, when Whitman’s skin-care brand Exponent officially launched via DTC. Calling it a “self-activated skin-care” brand, Whitman spent two years in development to come up with a new system: Powder-based ingredients are mixed with a liquid serum right before use to preserve ingredient potency better than a typical brand on the market. The powders have a recommended expiration date of three years, and opaque packaging protects the powders from light as well as air.
“We think of Exponent as a completely new category within clinical skin care,” Whitman said.
The brand is starting out with four products in a dry powder format: vitamin C, CoQ10, green tea resveratrol and probiotic enzyme.
“We were trying to solve for ingredients where degradation is an issue,” said Whitman.
When ready for use, the powder product is mixed with a separate hyaluronic acid hydrator via interlocking jar lids that are connected and twisted together. Whitman emphasized the brand’s “precision dosing” to prevent overdoing it on the percentage of the active ingredient. Doses are measured by the lid, which releases an exact measurement of powder when twisted. Concentration percentages are listed on the brand’s site. The vitamin C dosage is 10% L-ascorbic acid, which Whitman said is the “optimal concentration” for results without irritation.
While skin care may be about dealing with aging skin, more beauty experts are focusing on the products’ own aging issues. Skin-care potency has been a growing topic of discussion due to the short shelf life of products with the popular ingredients of vitamin C and retinol, for example.
As part of the R&D process for the brand, Whitman sent 20 top-selling skin-care products to an independent lab for analysis. According to her, the results showed that 60% of the products “didn’t even have a starting concentration that would have benefit for your skin,” she said. What’s more, she said, all products lost 40% of their concentration over eight weeks.
The Exponent starter kit, which comes with a dispenser, powder, hyaluronic acid and jar, is $168. Powder refills, which are 45 doses each, are $88. The hyaluronic acid hydrator refill, which contains 90 doses, is $68.
Exponent is the latest brand to launch with an emphasis on potency. Skin-care brands like Beautystat and Matter of Fact have emphasized the stability of their vitamin C products, while the Opulus skin-care device was unveiled in 2020 with single-dose creams.
When it comes to product potency issues in the beauty industry, “There’s an awareness there, and I was aware of it,” Whitman said. “The order of magnitude” of the lack of product potency that was found in her study “was, quite frankly, what shocked me the most.”
In order to get consumers used to the new system, Exponent product boxes come with a QR code that can be scanned for a video tutorial on how to dispense the mixed product.
The system was designed to be quick and easy to use, said Whitman, based on the idea that “no one’s going to mortar and pestle a bunch of stuff in their bathroom.”
Investors have taken note of the potency trend. Exponent has an undisclosed amount of seed funding from seven funds, including Founders Fund (Ritual, 8Sleep), Unilever Ventures (Kopari Beauty, Saie), SugarCap (Starface, Snif) and Bullish (Harry’s, Care/of), as well as 15 angel investors. These include Sara and Erin Foster, who serve as advisors and investors of Exponent and have worked with Bumble and Summersalt in the past.
Exponent has earned B Corp status. Its powder refill packaging is made out of recyclable glass and aluminum, while the reusable base and twist caps are plastic.
For its marketing, Exponent emphasizes what it is “full of” vs. clean beauty’s typical focus on “free of,” said Whitman, adding that consumers are becoming more interested than ever in the benefits of active ingredients. She said she is “extremely supportive” of the concept of clean beauty, but added that keeping out harmful ingredients should be “table stakes” and “we should just assume that all products are clean.”
Clean is “only half the equation,” she added. “‘Free of’ is important, but also: ‘What is in our products that is delivering real benefit?'”
This year, Whitman is planning to launch two additional products. And for retail, the brand is focusing on DTC, for now. While Whitman is interested in the possibility of partnering with a “small specialty retailer” this year, wholesale is “not the main focus for us,” she said.