Skincare founder Indie Lee has a story. It's a different one to the ones you've probably heard from other brand founders. It wasn't about a niche in the market or living a life-long dream. Her journey to start her eponymous brand started when she was diagnosed with a rare brain tumour.
"I was given six months to live," she explains.
She had no family history of tumours and no personal history of illness.
"When I asked the doctors how this was possible, they said it could have been something as simple as what I was putting on my skin," she says.
She found a doctor that was willing to operate on her. But it was risky. She was advised her chances of waking up from the surgery were less than 50 percent. When she miraculously made it through, alive and well, she had a new calling. She delved into the current legislation around beauty and found that many of the laws hadn't changed in the USA since 1983. And so began her mission to educate and empower others to live the healthiest version of their life.
We sat down with Indie and she shared with us the key moments from her journey to creating her line of clean beauty products - Indie Lee Skincare. We asked her all about the difference between "clean" and "natural", what we need to look for and what's the best beauty advice she's ever received.
Why did you decide to start your own skincare brand?
When I said to the doctor, nobody has anything like this in my family? How is this possible? And he said, we're seeing more and more of these things tied to the environment. I said, what are you talking about? I have a 750 square foot greenhouse in my backyard that I'm eating out of that, it's organic, like, What are you talking about? And he looked at me and he said, yep, that's good, and what do you put on your skin?
And it was in that moment that I realised that the rest of my life was going to be dedicated to creating a line that was safe, effective, beautiful, and educating and empowering. And the truth is, it is not regulated here [the USA], we do know that babies are born with a toxic load, we know that in some circumstances, up to 60% of the ingredients you're using can be absorbed, and in as little as 26 seconds. When you think about your skin being your largest organ, you really need to start thinking and be mindful that what you're putting in your body and on your body.
What is the difference between clean beauty and natural beauty?
It's probably one of the top questions I'm always asked was, how do you go clean, what's the difference?
I liken it to this, if you have a banana, and you take a banana and you mash it in a jar, and then you use it all over your face, that is a natural ingredient. If you take that banana, and you start to cook it, right, fry it, saute it, etc, it starts to change and caramelise, right? That is naturally derived, because you're changing its structure. That's the difference between natural and naturally-derived in the US. Depending on how many different processes you have on it, it gets very murky and people will claim things etc. And so it's become a very litigious society. And as a result, we've gone to using the word 'clean'.
How does that play into the way you manufacture and formulate your products?
When people say 'well then what do you stand for?' and I let my inky list my ingredient deck do the talking. We are botanically mineral etc derived just by looking at my inky deck. You can know what it is and if anybody ever has questions, I can say this is from burdock root, this is from wintergreen, this is from Himalayan and sea salt, the AHA's are from kaffir lime, etc. But that's that's the difference.
And the murkiness comes from the US because we are such a litigious society and somebody is looking for you to trip up on a claim. And so we have gone to the word 'clean'. For me, that's not enough. And so because all different people can use the word 'clean' because there's no real definite clear definition, right, or threshold, we have gone to a certification. So we are carried in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Hong Kong, we're in Canada, Europe. We have always taken the most stringent regulations and formulated to that.
We typically we'll take the EU Directive, which is known to be one of the most stringent and we'll formulate to that but we're also COSMOS. It's a global certification that you can have your ingredients and it's not just products. So this really takes from farm to face, it looks at the seeds, the growing practices, the farming agricultural practices, right, in terms of like pesticides. Is it organic? etc, goes there, then it goes to the distillation process, how those ingredients are extracted, then it goes to the manufacturing. This even goes down to what the basket are cleaned with. If your manufacturer has a cleaning company using really dirty ingredients to clean out the vat of the machinery that just made your product that then goes into the water table. So that's not okay with me, we need to look at what those what their waste management is, what is their environmental practices?
This really takes a look at this on a very larger scale, and then deep dives into the micros of it. So every supplier, ingredient, supplier, manufacturer, etc, need to be certified. And so we're in the process now. It's on an ingredient buying a product by product basis, we're in the process of getting the majority of our products. We're going through and having all of our manufacturers be COSMOS certified, and you get audited every year, and it's evolving. So let's say ingredient is okay and COSMOS certified this year. But next year is not, we're making the commitment that we will then reformulate. So there's an evolution there that is a constant, that's a constant. And that's our commitment to the consumers.
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Why do you think that someone choosing clean beauty over other beauty makes a difference?
I think for each person, the answer is going to be very different, right? So what is my reason it was very different than what your reason could be.
For me, it goes into the fact that you no longer have to sacrifice efficacy for clean, safe beauty. So if I can have a product that is formulated to a higher standard, and you're not losing efficacy, why wouldn't you do it?
We go back to why I started this brand, because there was no regulation and you can put potentially harmful ingredients in products, you no longer need to do that. We shouldn't be doing it. And so for me, there's a there is a standard for your health, but there's also standard for sustainability. And that's again goes to the COSMOS certification. So I think it's, there's not one right answer here. It's really what is important to somebody.
It just depends for me, though, I don't see there's any reason why you shouldn't use a clean product, because there are so readily available and they're at the same price points as the conventional brands. So why not make a choice that's healthier for you, and healthier for the planet?
Would you say clean beauty as a step in the direction of a more sustainable future?
I would like to hope so. But I don't think it's just that. I do see the conventional brands making a lot of steps towards sustainability. For me, I'm really interested in regeneration and how are we working towards regeneration of the earth? And that means what we're taking out of the soil, what are we doing to put back in the soil? So are you planting? This goes to a very agricultural practice. Are you doing alfalfa and cover crops when you're you know, harvesting so that you're replenishing the soil with what you just took out of it? Are you able to harness wind power for electricity? Are you able to do you know, XYZ? So I do think that we are going towards regenerative and sustainable. I think it's going to be not enough to be just clean goop inside. We need to start thinking.
What do you wish more people knew about the beauty industry?
I think that in the clean industry, I can say that it's very collegiate. Like, I've never had any experience anything but all brands rising with the tide, and that we're in this together. And I'm very proud to be a part of those founders. And some of them I consider dear friends, and I feel very lucky. So I think that's probably different. I hear that's not necessarily the case in conventional beauty. I can only speak from my experience, which has been incredible.
I can now say that I don't think clean beauty is a trend. I think it's here to stay. And again I go to you no longer need to sacrifice efficacy for cleaning products.
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What's your best skincare tip or hack?
It's not even a product. It's sleep. It's really important. Eating healthy is really important. Drinking water is really important. And looking in the mirror and believing and seeing that you are already enough. Stop to every judging yourself based on what you see on social media. Everybody's highlight reel. It's not healthy. It's not going to help you.
What's the best beauty advice that you've ever received?
The best beauty advice I was not given - that I wish I was - is using Eye Serum.
That's a really hard one. I think it's that don't just focus on your face. Your skin is your largest organ. Don't neglect the rest of your body. When I put on my facial products and stuff like my moisturiser stuff, I put it on my hands like as soon as I put it on my face, it put on my hands. I think it's so funny that people spend all this money right here, on the face. And then their hands looks like the cryptkeeper. I'm proud to say I have 50 year old hands and you'd never know.
Also using sunscreen. Sunscreen is key.