Alli Reed, like many of us, became fascinated with beauty through the subreddit Skincare Addiction. "I started learning about how the skin works, how ingredients interact with the skin, and a really interesting intersection of chemistry and biology that I found really fascinating," she says.
She got so into it that she started posting recipes for DIY skincare products on her blog—and we aren't talking strawberry sugar scrubs. "I really started to miss lab time from studying chemistry in college, and this extremely niche community of people on the Internet, especially the DIY beauty subreddit, were making skincare in their sinks or their spare rooms in a very scientific way," she says. "I felt like most of the DIY beauty scene was 'mix some lemon and some Greek yogurt and use it as a mask,' and this was more finding the right emulsifier for the percentage of oil."
Her first batch was an early prototype of her now cult product Liquid Gold, and she made about ten bottles and shipped them out to readers of her blog. They loved it so much that they started asking for more, Reed eventually quit her day job to work on making her products full-time, and Stratia was born.
Up until two weeks before our interview, Reed had never paid for marketing whatsoever. Stratia reached it's level of success purely through word of mouth, and of course, Reddit. We spoke to her about how she started her brand, gimmicks in skincare (like beauty fridges and applying products in an upward motion), mixing every batch of product by hand herself, and why she no longer announces products until they're ready for market.
The Stratia product line, Instagram @stratiaskin
On how the brand started:
I don't know what extremely generous life I must have lived in a previous life, but I had perfect skin through high school. I was a monster and I told this to anyone who asked, just wash your face in the shower a couple times a week and you’ll have perfect skin. But as I got a little older in my early twenties, it kind of caught up with me. I have super dry skin, and I think the reason I had such good skin in high school is that when you're going through puberty, you overproduce oil, which is why so many people around that age have struggles with acne. But since my skin was really dry, it was kind of balancing out to normal. And then as I got out of that hormone phase, it became really dry, flaky, red, and really unpleasant, so I had to figure this out from scratch all of a sudden.
I have always studied science and have been really interested in how things work. I'm thirty one, and so when I was growing up we didn't have YouTube tutorials or anything, all of the information I had about beauty and skincare and makeup, especially because my mom wasn’t into any of that, would be reading the labels at CVS, and that was not really going to satisfy my curiosity. So I started researching and discovered Skincare Addiction on Reddit and a couple other communities there. I started learning about how the skin works, how ingredients interact with the skin, and the really interesting intersection of chemistry and biology that I found really fascinating. I had made a blog for my about skincare product reviews, so while I was doing that I really started to miss lab time from studying chemistry in college, and this extremely niche community of people on the Internet, especially the DIY beauty subreddit, were making skincare in their sinks or their spare rooms in a very scientific way. I felt like most of the DIY beauty scene was 'mix some lemon and some Greek yogurt and use it as a mask,' and this was more finding the right emulsifier for the percentage of oil.
So for launching the company, I had a couple of formulas that I really liked, that were working really well for me. And it's hard to make product in small enough batches that I can use it all up so I was like, I’ll just make a batch of ten bottles and send them out to people from my blog. When I launched the company, I expected it to be very much a side business and that I would get a few orders fulfilled on the weekend. You know, I had a full time job. I worked in advertising, I was a copywriter.
Liquid Gold, Instagram @stratiaskin
On her first prototype that she thought really worked:
It was probably an early prototype of Liquid Gold. I definitely had plenty of recipes that I tried to talk myself into thinking felt good and worked and they didn't, but Liquid Gold and Rewind were the original two products that I launched.
I just hired a marketing director two weeks ago, so up until two weeks ago we hadn't done any marketing. So it has just been word of mouth, social media and kind of really trying to keep up with demand because we make everything in house. So it has been trying to keep up with this runaway demand.
On her perspective on the relationship between marketing and the quality of a product:
I think that relationship can be pretty muddy. I don't know if this is an opinion I have or a hope that I have, but if you don't have a good product, no amount of marketing is going to save you in the end. When our marketing director started looking at our numbers, they were like “your repeat customer numbers are insane." I feel like marketing is about getting the first customer and the quality of the product is about getting them to buy a second and third time. I've been hopeful about the future of our marketing because I have no idea what I'm doing with marketing at all. I'm very hopeful about the future of that because I think we've got really good products. So as long as we can get someone to buy it once, I think there's a good chance they’ll buy it again.
Mixing the C+C Serum @stratia
On Stratia's formulation philosophy:
Something that I’ve discovered from getting more involved in the cosmetic chemistry field and learning about formulation for brands is that the vast majority of formulation for brands is the marketing team telling the formulaters what they want, like “licorice root extract is really popular and we need something with that in it” or “we’re launching a campaign about anti-stress so we need an ingredient that we could technically say reduces stress.” So the formulator just has to meet that spec they’ve been provided with, so the marketing informs the formulation. But for Stratia, it’s the other way around. I just read a bunch of papers and journals and come up with an idea of this ingredient or this combination of ingredients that could address this specific issue and then formulate it. Then once we have a product, we market it based on the research and the efficacy so kind of flipping the script on that.
With Liquid Gold, I found some studies about the specific ratio. So the outermost layer of your skin is called your stratus corneum, which is sort of the bricks and mortar structure where the bricks are these dead flat skin cells called cornea sites, and the mortar is this fatty mixture that kind of keeps it flexible and waterproof and healthy and keeps all the outsides on the outside and your insides on the inside. That fatty mixture is made of ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids. I found some really interesting research on playing with different ratios of cholesterol, ceramides and fatty acids in topical formulations and finding the ideal ratio for promoting barrier healing. So based on that paper, I spent some late nights with an Excel spreadsheet on trying to find my own ratio and the source ingredients and that kind of stuff. So that’s what Liquid Gold was based out of, finding very research driven, finding a formulation that had that ratio and was stable, and I wanted to make it kind of a lighter moisturizer so that anyone could use it as opposed to just people with dry skin.
On the size of her team and how they manufacture their products:
There's four of us now, counting the new marketing director. We have an office in Pasadena where half of it is regular office space and there’s a door to a lab warehouse so it's all connected. I'm actually in the process of making Liquid Gold right now, it’s heating which takes a few hours for it to get up to temperature. I do really enjoy the manufacturing process but I have learned how different formulation and manufacturing are. In the beginning, formulation was making 100mL of a product and then I would just make a litre of two to sell. But now, formulation is still working on such small scales, but I'm having to manufacture twenty five gallons of a product. It’s just it's a whole different ball game. It’s coming to a point where it doesn't make sense for me to keep doing it personally. We’re still going to keep it in house, but bringing in someone who has more experience on the manufacturing side. I think it would be important.
On upcoming products:
I'm always working on the next development. I think I took a month off after I launched C+C because that one was such a nightmare to formulate. The development process is one that I do personally, I formulate all the products and I don't think that will ever change. So it's kind of a slow process because I'm the only one doing it. I come up with a formula and make a batch, I send out testers to volunteers, they give me feedback and iterate on that twenty, fifty times. Then once I have a formula I think works, it has to go in for stability and preservative testing, which could take several months. So the formulation and development process is a really long one and because anything can happen, it could be in its final stages of testing and then fail a test and need to go back to the beginning. And I don't want to announce products until it is ready to go. I am working on several products right now, but I'm not gonna say what they are because what if they don't work?
There were times where I was planning to just give up on the vitamin C. And honestly, I might have had I not shared way too early that I was creating a vitamin C. It took fifty or sixty prototypes before I got one that worked.
On beauty fridges and whether or not we should be keeping certain products refrigerated:
On Stratia’s Instagram we have FAQ's and one coming up is “do I need to refrigerate my skincare?” And the answer is pretty much no. If something has a very short shelf life, like under three months, then keeping it in the fridge can extend it. If you live in a place that gets really hot, even stored in a drawer away from sunlight, and it’s over eighty five or ninety degrees, if the fridge is the only place that is room temperature or below then maybe the fridge is better. But other than that the shelf life testing happens at room temperature or above room temperature so it's meant to exist there.
On gimmicks in skincare:
I think gimmick is a strong word, especially if something works for you, I don't want to say it doesn’t. Jade rollers in particular, you know, I have one and it feels great and I think it does probably help temporarily with circulation and evening things out. I don't necessarily think long term it has any significant effect. I’ve heard people say that when you apply skin care products be sure to do it in an upward motion so that you aren't pulling your skin down, which can cause it to sag. Gravity is working 24/7, your internal organs are working 24/7 and the two minutes you spend rolling it out or applying skincare products is not going to make a difference.
On her skincare and beauty routine:
So I'm going to sound like a crazy person not because it's very long, but because it's so rigid and specific but I need to have a routine that I don't have to think about. So strap in. I have curly hair that right now is very short, and I use the curly girl method. In the shower I have a low-poo from Devacurl that uses very gentle surfactants as a shampoo and then a very rich moisturizing conditioner that I leave in while I’m doing the rest of my stuff. I use Dove body wash because I think it's great. Having dry skin I need something moisturizing enough and other stuff does great too, but Dove is much cheaper. And then when I get out of the shower with my hair still soaking wet, I crunch in another product. The two that I’m loving right now, because my hair is so short that I kind of want that messy wavy untamed kind of look, I used the Devacurl Believe In and Creme of Nature Argan Oil Flexible Styling Snot. My stylist recommended it to me recently, he’s a Devacurl stylist, and it is so great. So I use that and then I scrunch out the water with an old t-shirt and blow dry it upside down with a diffuser.
My skincare is pretty Stratia heavy. I start with the C+C serum and then wait for that to evaporate for about three minutes. My rule is waiting till you can't feel the silicon feeling anymore. In the mornings, instead of Liquid Gold I use Belif Moisturizing Balm because it’s thicker and I need a pretty heavy moisturizer during the day. Then the Glossier sunscreen. I used a lot of Japanese sunscreens for a long time, and those are still my favorite but my husband really loves the Glossier sunscreen and it’s the only one he’ll wear. It’s important to me that he wears sunscreen. Then for makeup, I have gotten to a point in my life where I can accept certain things about myself, and one of them is that I'm never going to wash makeup brushes, and so I apply everything with my fingers. I use cream everything, cream blush, cream eyeshadow. So I just do that because I will wash my hands. Then in the evening, it's pretty similar, depending on how much makeup I was wearing. I will use the Hadalabo oil cleanser and the (Stratia) velvet cleansing milk. I’ll use them together if I’m wearing heavier makeup. Then sometimes (Stratia) Soft Touch AHA and then (Stratia) Rewind, Fortify. If I don’t use Soft Touch I’ll use my Curology anti aging which has tretinoin, niacinamide and vitamin C. I end it with my DIY sleeping mask; a little bit of Aquaphor and a couple of pumps of Liquid Gold. I mix it in my palms and get it all over, around my eyes, and then put some Aquaphor on my lips. Have you ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Aquaphor is my Windex.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.