Drunk Elephant’s founder shares the *real* reason why the brand has a cult status across the globe


By Wei Yeen Loh

Drunk Elephant’s founder shares the *real* reason why the brand has a cult status across the globe

With an ardent following of skincare mavens and “bare-faced” beauties in more than a handful of countries, Drunk Elephant‘s cult status is well-founded on the basis that the products actually work. The brand’s ethos is to only use ingredients that can benefit the skin—everything else that doesn’t can (and should) be omitted.

Instead of stamping on the ubiquitous “clean” label as most new-age beauty brands do these days, Drunk Elephant is a little more selective of its labelling, preferring “biocompatible” and “clinically-effective” as opposed to “all-natural” and the like.

Ahead, founder Tiffany Masterson shares her thoughts on what gives Drunk Elephant an edge compared to other beauty brands in the market, along with the challenges she faced upon launching the brand:

1. Please share with us how and why you got interested in skincare. What was your first skincare memory?

“I got into skincare as an adult, partly because I was searching for solutions to my own skincare concerns, and partly because I had friends and family asking me for recommendations. Before developing Drunk Elephant, I had all sorts of skin issues—my skin was break-out prone, sensitized and I struggled with mild rosacea and visible pores. I figured out what I believed was problematic for my skin through trial and error.

Silicones, drying alcohols, essential oils, fragrance, dye and chemical screens were in everything I picked up, in some combination of a few to all of them. I began studying ingredients and their effect on skin, which led to my curiosity and passion on the topic. I suspected there were a lot of people out there who shared my issues.

“I didn’t care about anything being ‘all-natural’… the idea of joining the good synthetics with the good naturals, while leaving out my triggers, really intrigued me enough to do the line. Plus, there was nothing on the market at the time (even still today) that didn’t include some combination of the six categories of ingredients I hold responsible for a multitude of skin issues. It was the most exciting thing ever to realize that.”

2. With so much competition from other skincare brands, what is the key to Drunk Elephant’s success? What sets it apart from the rest?

“Drunk Elephant is different on many levels. We formulate all of our products without the ingredients we believe are at the root of confused, unhappy skin: silicones, essential oils, drying, alcohols, fragrance/dyes, SLS and chemical sunscreens—what we call the Suspicious 6. We put pH first, and use blends of dozens of antioxidants and actives at percentage levels we know are scientifically proven to actually work.

“We are different because we look at internal health and external skin health when we are formulating. We cut out the marketing ingredients that are only there to make a product feel, look or smell better in favor of ingredients that can reset your skin to a balanced, healthy, glowy state, allowing people to go bare-faced.

“We include blends of literally dozens of antioxidants in our line so you are getting so much out of just one product, and a ton of benefits and results out of using the line as a whole skin care solution. I think the key to Drunk Elephant’s success is simply the fact that the products work.

“My approach to developing the brand is to think about how I want the products I am putting on my own skin to be made. By doing this I’m never tempted to cut corners—I want the best for myself and our consumers. They absolutely come first, as I’m a consumer myself and I live in their shoes. Lastly, we don’t advertise or pay influencers. I firmly believe that if the products truly work, people will tell everyone they know. Drunk Elephant has grown by word of mouth.”

3. How did you navigate the journey from being a stay-at-home mum to a beauty mogul? What was that learning curve like?

“Coming from outside the beauty industry has been an advantage for me in many ways. From the beginning I had my own unique philosophy and approach, and I still avoid looking at what other brands are doing so I’m not influenced by trends and stay in my own lane. I don’t consider myself as a beauty mogul, just someone who is passionate about learning and helping people address their issues and concerns.

“I think if I’ve successfully navigated the journey it’s because I’ve always trusted my gut when making decisions. I knew what I wanted and I knew it hadn’t ever been done before. And that can be scary. I had to move on past certain manufacturers, formulators, packaging companies, etc. who couldn’t think outside the box. They were stuck in a rut wanting to stick with the tried and true, or not-so-true (in my opinion). I would give them my criteria and they would come back with something that had been done a million times.

“‘Everyone does it this way, you should too.’ Many like to play it safe; but playing it safe, or staying mainstream, wasn’t in keeping with my vision or philosophy so I had to stand firm on that. When you are a small company, you are treated as a small company and people don’t always get the vision that is driving you. I wanted to give consumers what they ultimately wanted, not what they thought they wanted.

“For example, people think they want a product that smells good. But when they learn that ingredients put in for that specific purpose are not good for their skin, then they might reconsider and be okay with a product that just smelled like what it was and that only contained safe ingredients that were there for a beneficial purpose.

“I had to get people around me to trust that doing things differently can work, and work even better in some cases. If people try Drunk Elephant and it helps them with their skin, that’s really all I care about.”

4. You coined the category of ‘clean-compatible’ skincare—please share more about what this means.

“Drunk Elephant is clean, as we all should be and most are these days, but in my opinion, “clean” is not nearly enough when it comes to caring for skin and scalp. We are committed to using only ingredients that either directly benefit the health of the skin or support the integrity of our formulations. We never take into account whether something is synthetic or natural, instead choosing ingredients based on safety and biocompatibility.

“That’s why we focus on healthy pH levels, formulations the skin recognises, small molecular structure that’s easily absorbed, and effective active ingredients that also support and maintain the skin’s acid mantle. But what we leave out of our products is just as important as what we put into them, so you will never find the Suspicious 6 in our line.

“We believe that these six ubiquitous ingredients are at the root of almost every skin issue, and when they’re removed entirely from your routine—that is, when you take a “Drunk break”—skin can reset and return to its healthiest, most balanced state.

This ingredient-elimination diet benefits all skin types and inspired the #barewithus Instagram movement, a collection of bare-faced selfies that chronicles the Drunk Elephant journeys of people who have found not only healthier skin but more importantly, healthier self-confidence. Think Whole30, but for your face.”

5. How did you discover or determine each biocompatible ingredient in your formulations?

“Biocompatible means that the ingredients won’t cause harm and that includes to the skin itself (in the form of sensitisation, irritation, inflammation, congestion, etc). I always start the process by thinking about what I would want as a consumer. I just want the actives to really get in there and do what they’re supposed to do.

“I load my formulations with interesting, wonderful ingredients and I get to choose every one. I choose ingredients that are 1) backed by scientific study, 2) proven safe and skin-compatible, 3) bio available or easily absorbed, so that nothing blocks absorption and the formulations can all be mixed together for ease and customisation.

“I always think, the more the merrier. If one beneficial ingredient is good, then five is better. That’s the way I formulate every product I have. I go through and study what makes each ingredient good, what are some exciting antioxidants we haven’t thought about. If there’s an active ingredient, I am very picky about the amount that goes into the formula, so I know that people who are buying it are getting the most effective level.”

6. You avoid essential oils in all of your formulations—what are some misconceptions about using essential oils in beauty products?

“Essential oils smell pretty and are even ‘clean’, but they can lead to inflammation and sensitisation in skin, so I won’t use them. I’m opposed to anything that doesn’t have a clear and direct benefit to the health of our skin or to the safety and efficacy of the formulation.

“Irritation and its resulting inflammation can lead to excess production of oil, larger pores, acne breakouts, collagen breakdown and ultimately, premature aging. Nobody wants that. There are no benefits to essential oils that can’t be replicated by other non-fragrant ingredients (that do not share their downsides).”

7. Your brand’s acquisition was one of the biggest for a skincare brand—how is this going to change for the brand moving forward?

“The best thing about the partnership with Shiseido is that we will stay the same. From the beginning we agreed that if we can’t continue to be who we are, that it won’t work. Shiseido will give us autonomy so that our uniqueness will live on. Shiseido isn’t here to change the brand, only to help make us stronger and better and more readily available around the globe.

“It’s business as usual with a lot more access to innovation that will allow us to improve future formulations and packaging, sustainability and innovation. We can expand globally and deliver the products to more markets who have been asking for them in a more efficient way. We are very excited with the decision and it was a very natural next step in the life of this brand.”

8. What advice do you have for budding female entrepreneurs in the beauty industry?

“Don’t look around too much. Be yourself and operate from your own perspective and instincts. Being the consumer and living in those shoes is what has guided me. I think if I knew too much about the beauty industry and its way of doing things, I would have blended in with all the other brands. I taught myself about it and I knew that if it didn’t work, then it just wasn’t where I was meant to be.

“It’s actually very easy today to be a copy-cat brand because you’ve seen something work so you think you can replicate it… however, the consumer can see through that these days and authenticity has become really critical to long-lasting success.”

9. What was the best beauty advice you’ve received that has stayed with you until now?

“There is nothing more beautiful than just being kind.”

Check out Drunk Elephant’s bestsellers below:

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Drunk Elephant is available on Sephora.

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