Tiffany Masterson of Drunk Elephant on crafting “Clean Compatible” skincare formulas

In only a few short years, Tiffany Masterson has grown Drunk Elephant into a skincare empire that boasts not just impressive revenue growth, but also a spot on industry favorites lists typically dominated by established players. What started as a desire to develop better products for her own skin has blossomed into a cult favorite brand, and the company has ambitious plans to create a new skincare category: “Clean Compatible”.

We interviewed her to learn more about her founding story, the obstacles she overcame to find success, and the products she recommends for those new to the line.

HC: Tell us about your journey founding Drunk Elephant - what inspired you? How did you get started?

TM: Before I started Drunk Elephant, I was a partner in a small company that imported this little cleansing bar.  Those few years really brought to light my passion for learning about ingredients: what worked, what didn’t and what it would take to have healthy skin. I spent a lot of time talking to customers, dermatologists, beauty editors and industry insiders, and I was able to identify a need. I personally had struggled to find a product that was clinically effective and still felt safe to use.  Also, my skin didn’t tolerate fragrance or essential oils well, and I couldn’t find a line that didn’t contain them. Ultimately, I realized that to get what I wanted, I would need to develop it myself, so I made the big leap.

HC: What does it mean to be an "all-natural" and "clean" beauty product and what are some common misconceptions surrounding these terms?

TM: Drunk Elephant is not an all natural brand – it’s what I call “Clean Compatible.” In choosing ingredients, I didn’t care whether they were “natural” or “synthetic”, but wanted mine to be bioavailable, non-toxic, backed by clinical studies and biocompatible—meaning skin would recognize them right away and put them to work. I eliminated, of course, the obvious synthetics that are linked to internal health problems and external irritation and sensitization.

I made Drunk Elephant so that people (including myself) could finally have the option of clean skin care that was also clinically effective, non-irritating and safe for both our internal and external skin health. When I was developing the formulas, I focused solely on quality, pH levels, toxicity levels, and levels of actives, plus the exclusion of common disruptors. I took the best from both worlds to create what I think of as a biocompatible line that everyone can use, and that delivers real results. Beauty to me can be both natural and man-made, but needs to be honest, high-quality, done with integrity, and the consumer first in mind.

HC: Can you introduce us to some of Drunk Elephant’s products? What are the key ingredients, and what would you recommend to our readers who may be new to your line?

TM: A core part of my philosophy and approach to Drunk Elephant is the avoidance of the “Suspicious 6”, ubiquitous skincare ingredients that I believe are at the root of most skin issues. These are Essential Oils, Drying Alcohols, Silicones, Chemical Screens, Fragrance/Dyes and SLS (Sodium Laurel or Sodium Laureth Sulfate). From there, we use only ingredients that either directly benefit the skin’s health or support the integrity and effectiveness of our formulations.

I always recommend that people who are new to the line start with The Littles as it contains a 30 to 45 day supply of 8 travel sized products. When used together, The Littles supply all of your skincare needs and allow you to test my philosophy by taking a clean break from the Suspicious Six. Starting with this kit gives you the opportunity to see which products work best for your skin, depending on what it needs on any given day.

HC: What challenges have you faced and overcome throughout this journey of scaling your company?

TM: I think my biggest challenge, in a way, has been to buck the trends.  I knew what I wanted and I knew it hadn’t exactly been done before. 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, isn’t always interesting to me.

As a small company, you are treated as a small company, and people don’t always get the vision that is driving you... So in a nutshell, my biggest challenge has been getting people around me to trust that doing things differently can work, and work even better in some cases.  A smaller challenge I might note is that I’m a perfectionist. You have to let some things go.

HC: As a female founder, what advice do you have to college women interested in starting their own businesses?

TM: I've learned so many lessons, at least one a day! The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to keep your eye on the ball and not let others try to talk you out of your vision. Stick with your strategy and listen to your gut… just because it hasn't been done before, doesn't mean that it can't!

Always be confident in your beliefs, and stay true to your values. There will always be lots of outside pressure to do things a different way, to change things up to conform to the norm.  As you grow, there will be more people involved and more opinions at play. It’s fine to take advice and listen to opinions, but never forget why you are there. It’s your dream and your script, do not let anyone rewrite it.

 

At HerCampus, we tested some of Drunk Elephant’s award-winning products, which can be found in both Sephora and on the DE website, and come packaged in fun neon-colored bottles. As alluded to in their name, the brand is a supporter of IEF (International Elephant Foundation) and is cruelty-free.

Some of DE’s bestsellers include the Juju Bar, an ultra-mild fragrance-free exfoliating bar made from thermal mud and bamboo powder, with a pH level of 6.3 (versus soap which has a pH level of 9 or above, and strips the skin of its protective barrier), the Beste No9 Jelly Cleanser, a jelly cleanser named after the word for “best”  in Afrikaans, and the Lala Retro™ Whipped Cream, an airy cream made from a blend of size rare African oils, which locks in moisture and helps skin maintain a silky feel for hours after application.

We’d recommend the Drunk Elephant line for any skincare lover who is looking for clinically proven and yet clean products. We’ve taken The Littles with us on trips cross country, and the fun pink pouch has everything we need: the Beste Jelly Cleanser, four serums (Vitamin C day serum called C-Firma, a Vitamin B hydration serum called B-Hydra, an antioxidant eye serum made from fermented black tea called the Shaba Complex, and a Glycolic Acid night serum called TLC Framboos), a luxurious Marula facial oil, the Lala Whipped Cream, and a sheer physical sunscreen called Umbra. Though the items are all travel sized, a little bit goes a long way, and they work in all types of weather: they have helped my dry, sensitive skin stay hydrated in both sunny California and windy Boston. The pouch also comes with a mini instructions manual that details what each product is for. Essentially, this kit sets you up for success with a thoughtfully curated 8-step skincare routine, so you can pack for your next trip stress-free!   

Drunk Elephant also offers full size versions of all of the above mentioned products, and often has exclusive, pre-assembled sets such as the exclusive Big Reveal and Inspector Drunk sets. It’s no surprise, then, that Drunk Elephant is a best seller on Sephora and has won awards from publications like Allure and Oprah Magazine.