Drunk Elephant’s Founder Tiffany Masterson on How It All Began

Drunk Elephant is easily one of the most cult-loved skincare brands in town. Since its launch in Singapore last November, their products have flown off the shelves; they are much sought after for their candid rebuttal of suspicious or harmful ingredients that have conventionally been used in beauty products. It wasn’t a clinic full of scientists who called this out. Instead, it was one woman who dared to question the beauty industry. She is Tiffany Masterson.

While you took care of the house and your four children, you started selling bar soaps, didn’t you?

As they grew older, we struggled more with money — because you got to send these people to school, and also got to feed them, also have to give them clothes. For sure, it was a struggle, and it got stressful. I started looking around for something to sell, just to make some extra money… So, then I got a job with Arbonne — it’s a multi-level direct-to-consumer thing. And then my brother called me and said that he and his wife had found this little bar cleanser from Malaysia. I started to sell this bar cleanser [and talked] to friends and people, who would buy the bar, about their skin issues.

Prior to Drunk Elephant, you were first and foremost a stay-at-home mother. Where did you get your beauty education from?

So, I just started reading about ingredients — I just started looking into things. I would Google a product and look at all the ingredients, and kind of try to start understanding why they were there. [While] reading about the ingredients, [I would ask myself], “What is that in there for?”, “Is it drying alcohol?”, “What does toner do?”, “How does your skin function on its own?”, “What makes it tick?”, “What makes it healthy?”

How long did you spend learning about ingredients?

Well, it was 2009 to 2012. I didn’t figure it out in one year. I read, studied, tested, tweaked, and tried. You know this is a three [or] four year [process]. I started studying ingredients in 2009 [while] I was selling the bar on the side. I started looking at how products are marketed. I remember going in, undercover — I did it a lot — I would go to well-known facials in New York and Los Angeles. I paid to go sit there and listen to them and their reasoning, talk about why they were doing X, Y, and Z — just for me to learn. What was their reasoning behind what they’re doing?

“I think no matter what you do in life, two things: you have to be passionate about it, and it can’t feel like work,” says Tiffany Masterson, the founder of the cult-loved clean skincare label, Drunk Elephant.

What was the greatest takeaway from the three years you spent reading and surveying?

Every brand’s marketed towards something. So, what I’m saying is: perhaps the ingredients that we’re using on our skin to treat these conditions are actually creating the conditions. Sometimes, you don’t have to have a degree to come up with this theory that drying alcohols, essential oils, silicones, chemical screens, perhaps, can trigger sensitisation of the skin. SLS [sodium laureth sulfate] strips your skin — it’s not illogical to think that these ingredients could potentially be problematic for the health of your skin.

Here’s an example: if we’re drinking a bottle of wine every night, and our liver is suffering, we don’t say, “Oh, my liver’s sensitive” or “Gosh, I just have an unhappy liver.” No, you don’t! You’re drinking a bottle of wine every night. So, why do we say, “Oh, I’ve got sensitive skin” or “Oh, gosh, I just have acne-prone skin.” Look at the ingredients you’re putting on your face every day, it makes sense.

How long did your brand development process take you?

It took me a long time, I [ran a] test launch in late 2013. And then I tweaked and worked on the products to make them better. In July 2014, I officially brought my six products, very much as they are today, to Cosmoprof in Las Vegas.

What happened next?

I found all the beauty directors, 30 beauty directors, and I found all their email addresses. My designer and I made these beautiful boxes with bows, and confetti. We sent them out to [them] — that started getting the [brand] in magazines and online because of the way it looked. The name Drunk Elephant, and this funny whimsical packaging didn’t exist at the time. There was no one in skincare that had bright colours.

But when you got a rejection email, how did you react?

Great, rejection is great. Rejection is really the word of the universe — telling you where to go. So, when Barney’s rejected me, I just went, “Oh! That means I need to go this way.” And when Bergdorfs rejected me, I was like, “That means I don’t belong there, I need to go this way.”

The second something feels forced, it’s not supposed to happen. It’s just the universe telling you in its own gentle way that this isn’t right for you. And it’s not a rejection, it’s just a correction.

You eventually struck a deal with Sephora and launched with them in January 2015. We know the success story but tell us anyway.

Oh, we ran out right away, within 11 days!

This article first appeared in the October issue of ELLE Singapore.