Photo caption: Glow Recipe and Sweet Chef co-founders Sarah Lee and Christine Chang: “Similar to how we feed our bodies with these ingredients, we wanted to [introduce the idea to] our customers where they were feeding their skin, so it’s like a holistic approach to beauty.”
Why founders Christine Chin and Sarah Lee started with ingredients that “feel like home”
Interview by: Cai Subijano
“K-Beauty’s not just about snail mucin and sheet masks. There’s very much a long-standing history with natural ingredients,” Glow Recipe co-founder Christine Chang told an audience sitting in at a panel discussion at Make Up New York (MUNY) earlier this month.
She was there to talk about the intersection between K-Beauty and clean ingredients. She had built a successful career as a marketer at L’Oreal, where she met her would-be co-founder Sarah Lee, when she and Sarah noticed that the growing interest in K-Beauty in the US market coincided with the rise of brands that touted themselves as “natural,” “clean,” and “non-toxic.”
However, having spent part of their childhoods in Korea—Christine grew up in Louisiana and visited Korea frequently, while Sarah was raised in Korea and Hong Kong—their earliest recollections of natural beauty had nothing to do with marketing terms or greenwashing labels. Back then, having a natural skincare routine simply meant making use of everyday items that could be easily found in their kitchen pantries.
“My mother and my grandmother, when they would take me to the bath house every weekend, would splash milk on [my] skin. And I did not understand why [it worked] at that time, but milk has lactic acid in it, which helps to smooth and retexturize the skin,” Christine related to the crowd.
While these rituals taught Christine that “natural ingredients [could] be incredibly powerful, potent ingredients to use on your skin,” both she and Sarah understood that it would be difficult to introduce these cultural traditions to American consumers in their original form. This is where their backgrounds as beauty marketers kicked in.
“I think for us, the food ingredient was part of the inspiration because we wanted skincare to become more familiar to our customers. Skincare has always been, historically, a chore in the States and why not make it a little bit more fun with fun textures, great packaging, a good experience, and ingredients that feel like home?” Christine asked the audience.
“Our whole concept when we developed this line was not to introduce anything exotic or ingredients that people [had] not really heard of, but to reintroduce ingredients that we’re all familiar with that we know are amazing for the body,” Sarah adds when I interviewed the two of them over the phone. “We’re very passionate about taking these inspirations and our experiences and helping to modernize [them] into formats or textures that could be really convenient [and] also [resonate] with the modern consumer.”
Below, Christine and Sarah talk about other DIY beauty rituals they grew up with, which superfoods they eat for healthy skin, and which pantry item will be the next big thing in beauty:
What other DIY beauty rituals were memorable from when you were growing up?
Christine: My mom would make beauty rituals part of our weekly routine. So on the weekends, we would get together and she would have different powders. One of the powders I remember was called Job’s tears, I think that’s the plant it was from. And then she would mix [it] with yogurt or add in green tea, so it was a very DIY approach.
[Glow Recipe’s] watermelon-infused mask was also from this inspiration where our grandmothers rubbed watermelon rinds on our skin in the hot summer months growing up, for Sarah and myself. Every time I tell this story, there’s always people in the audience, especially of Asian descent, who agree with us and say that they did the same thing, so it’s really a regional tradition and we harnessed that food for our very first product.
Christine, you mentioned reading these ancient palace texts written by women that detailed their beauty routines during your panel discussion at MUNY. Could you tell us a little more about that?
Christine: I did a quick detour at a master’s in Columbia University. I was reading a lot of palace texts written by women. And even in those texts dating back millenia, there were a lot of literature about the beauty rituals they were using, like tea-infused water splashed onto the skin.
I distinctly remember there was a palace text where they talked about the rituals… the water after you wash rice was used as a brightening agent. So women would splash that water on their faces at the end of the day for healthy skin.
What are some DIY beauty rituals involving pantry items that you still practice today?
Sarah: Personally, I sometimes use green tea bags just to cool my eyes and detox in the morning. That actually is such an amazing trick that I’ve learned at a young age. After a long night or long travel, that little trick [always] does the job. I also use green tea leaves and mix them with yogurt and honey. Honey is really amazing for nourishing and brightening. [I] apply that on my skin, almost as a wash-off mask.
Which foods do you incorporate into your diet in order to help keep your hair, skin, and nails healthy?
Christine: Superfruits are a big passion of ours, not just for our skincare. So fruits like watermelon, avocado, pineapple, [blueberries]—they’re all very rich in antioxidants, minerals, and nutrients that we love to consume as well.
You have two very successful K-Beauty brands under your belt: Glow Recipe and Sweet Chef, both of which use superfoods. How do you decide which ingredients to use for each brand?
Christine: Between the two, the overarching umbrella is the mission of feeding the skin with amazing ingredients that you would consume for your body as well. With Glow Recipe, the focus is more on superfruits and antioxidants paired with really hard-hitting actives, whether it’s encapsulated retinol or AHA or Vitamin C to ensure that it’s a balance of both the superfruit ingredient that people are familiar with and also clinically proven actives to improve the overall effect. Sweet Chef skincare is more of a story of veggies and vitamins, so very similar to ingredients that you would find at a juice bar or a health food store that you would want in your smoothie.
How do you both feel about K-Beauty being so widely accepted in Western culture and about global beauty companies coming out with products inspired by K-Beauty without necessarily having that direct link to Korea?
Sarah: We always kind of joked [about] how blessed we are to be running a [K-Beauty] business [currently] because all of this was probably not possible or it might have been really, really difficult to achieve as of just 10 years ago. I don’t think that the interest or the power of how efficacious these K-Beauty trends and formulations were even known to the rest of the world. Being in the middle of where K-Beauty is being appreciated not only by the consumer, but a lot of the global brands are actually taking some of the technologies, ideas, and concepts from K-Beauty—we’ve seen that firsthand and it’s so special. It’s phenomenal to see and we’re very grateful, to say the least.
Christine: It’s something that’s been going on for several years now. A lot of global beauty companies also work with Korean manufacturers because they deliver best-in-class innovation. So all in all, I think it’s actually an amazing thing to see [so] much innovation out there in so many different forms from different brands. Because ultimately, it’s the customer that gets more choices and that’s always a good thing.
Keeping your sights set on what’s new and next, what is an underrated ingredient that you predict will be the next big thing in beauty?
Sarah: Oh, that’s a really good question and actually something that we talk about every day. It keeps us up at night, thinking about the next beauty ingredient. I would say ginger is this amazing, powerful ingredient. [It] is actually [an] ingredient that we use for Sweet Chef skincare. [It’s] really effective at brightening, nourishing, really helping with the evening [out] of the skin tone and texture. It is a healing ingredient as well; it helps to calm the skin. It is a super power ingredient and I think there’s more room for that ingredient to shine.
Cai Subijano is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. NY. Her day jobs include working as a real estate agent and as a project manager for a beauty incubator. She also designs Alajas, a line of mother of pearl accessories, and Casa Ysla, home decor made of organic materials, both of which are handmade in the Philippines, in her free time. Check out her designs at www.alajasnyc.com and www.casa-ysla.com.