Sunday Riley on creating a skincare brand that actually works

Sunday Riley on creating a skincare brand that actually works

I'm with the brand

Text: Renée Batchelor

If you haven't heard about Sunday Riley, the cult skincare brand from Houston, Texas, find out from its founder and formulator while it should be on your radar

Have you ever used skincare that promised hope in a jar, only to be disappointed at the lack of results? You're not the only one. Sunday Riley was one of the many people frustrated with formulations that didn't work as well as they could have. It resulted in the birth of her eponymous brand in 2009. And now the brand, along with a slew of new ones, has hit Sephora Singapore. A pioneer in the field of 'green technology' we discovered why this unisex skincare brand has such a strong following. We used the retinoid-packed Luna Sleeping Night Oil — and found that it worked almost immediately on our skin!

Fortunate enough to get a one-on-one interview with Riley, a mother of four who hails from the cosmopolitan city of Houston, Texas, we were more than impressed with her vibrant personality and deep passion for skincare. It's clear to see why the brand has been growing from strength to strength, and why fans are snapping up its products. From phasing out her makeup range to kicking out products that don't do as well for the brand, find out how Riley is her own harshest critic, and why she formulates everything herself. 

Tell us a little bit more about your background as a product formulator. What were your frustrations with existing products that led you to start creating your own brand?
Sunday Riley:
I think there are some good products in the market. But in general what I'm interested in are really effective products that work right away. So you know I would find that I could pay $400 for a cream, or I could pay $4 for a cream. And I would see the same results with it. I wasn't seeing any sort of real transformation.

And I know it can be done. It's not that difficult. And so that always  inspired me. When I put products together, whether it's Good Genes or whether it's Luna, I start with which active ingredient I want to use and whether I feel like it's going to be the most effective one for that particular product. I ask myself what is it meant to do,  and then I know how much I can put in — what's the strongest amount, what's the lowest amount and what's the sweet spot.

So it takes me quite a while once I have a product concept and I choose my main ingredients to actually decide what to do after all my research. There is thoughtfulness that goes into each product.

Do you work with a particular lab?
So when it comes to all the R&D and creating the formula and the prototypes, I do that all myself. And I have a lab in my office. And when it comes to making a huge production run, obviously we don't have that machine in our office so we contract another company — but I'm the one that writes all the formulas.

What was your background? Did you study science or did you just learn it along the way?
I'll say a little bit of both. I don't talk too much about my background only cause I have a philosophy on the past, I don't talk about the past very much. I always say I live in the present and walk towards the future But I will say that almost everything that I know, as far as formulations go, I have learnt on the job. Because although they have great programmes in cosmetic chemistry, the truth as with most things in life, it's not what you learn in school, it's what you learn when you are actually doing something.

I have about eight formulas going per day that I work on and it's all trial and error, and the whole point is just to figure out what works together, what plays together, how it works. So everything I learn is really all my continued education.


What is the ethos of your brand and why do you think it has resonated with so many people?
I think we have transparency. And I think people have faith in us that if we make something, it's going to do what it says it's going to do. I think our clients really buy into that. And the other thing we relate to is that when I go to source an ingredient, I always make sure we are using the absolute best suppliers because you know you could put lactic acid or you could put retinol in a product from a billion different suppliers but it's about vetting the supplier and making sure the quality is great. Our cost of goods is exponential in comparison to other brands. And so we don't make as much per product, but I think that's the whole point is by putting it all into our expenses.

We do marketing but we don't do as much marketing as other brands our size. We put it all into the product — a lot of our budget. So I think that's a big deal, people feel like there's a lot of quality behind it and then we do what we call 'green technology' which is essentially a mix of bio-technology, so highly active ingredients, with botanicals that help to kind of soothe the skin because active ingredients can be harsh on the skin. We talk about the whole 360° health of the skin and making sure that we are transforming you, and that you are getting nurtured and taken care of at the same time, because skincare is really self-care.

And what is it mean to you to have your name on your products? Is there any additional pressure? I did not want to do it actually. Before we launched I had presented the line to the Barneys Department Store and the buyer at the time said that she would take it, if I made some changes. And one of the changes was that she wanted the line to have my name on it. Cause at that time when I presented it, it was unnamed. It was just a concept. And I was really on the fence about that because I felt like if it had my name on it, I could never sell the brand because I would be selling the rights to my name and that's just not really something I would ever want to do.

So it's like someone offering you a dream job but saying you have to do it for the rest of your life. And so I definitely thought about it and I came back and said "Yeah, I can do this, I can do itP. So it's a big commitment. It's like getting married with no option for divorce.  And then on top of that, my standards are pretty high and I'm a perfectionist so if I'm working on it, it's not just me putting my work into it but it also has my name on it. And I've got to make sure that it's up to standard. For whatever reason if I think a product is great and people come back and say it's not, I have to go "Okay!' I'm going to listen to you." I have to put my ego aside because there is that trust relationship. It actually has my name on so people kind of feel connected to me and I feel therefore I have to be connected with that. And  I want this relationship to be truthful.

Who do you test the products on?
First what we do is I go through a multitude of drafts that are just trial and error and most of them are horrible. Because I had this idea that I'm going to make a serum, it's going to be watery... and when I make it it's thick and gloopy. It's hundreds of drafts to actually get it right and then once I think it's alright, I take it home and I try it.

And if I feel like it's really good and it's worth and it's not burning me or whatever weird thing, then I give it to people in the office to try and I get a lot of feedback because there's a lot of different types of skin trying it. You can't make everyone happy all the time but when everyone comes back and says this is great, then you know you have something. And then we do consumer testing. But I test on myself first, then the office guinea pigs and then other people.

Does testing skincare on yourself take its toll on you?
No. Since I know what goes into it, I know I take a lot of care and that everything is really safe and it's really great. I did make a mistake once though, I was making a plumping lip balm which has, as you know irritants in it to make your lips plumper, like pepper or something similar. And I had been talking when we were making it and I poured too much. I wasn't paying attention and so when I put it on my lips, they were on fire. It was my mistake but it was funny because obviously I made a mistake and I just put it aside. But men loved it, they thought it was so cool. So all the guys in our office would ask for that really hot lip balm! (laughs). But most of the stuff I try at home and know that it's a really high quality and I'm not going to have reactions. 



What was the very first product that you created?
Good Genes was the first (well we launched with 10 products and of the 10, only Good Genes is in existence). And three or four months after launching that, we launched Juno and that's still in existence. Everything else just came along the way. Good Genes was not popular at all when it launched . No one was using acids in America and it just kind of grew viral by word of mouth. No one was also using oils at that time as well. So again, with Juno, they were like "You're crazy, you launched an acid and an oil? No one is using that!" And I told people, "It's really good, trust me, you'll love it."

It was about five years ago maybe, when we started exponentially taking off because before then it was slow growth. And then we hit this momentum, and I think what happened is that we hit this kind of critical mass of people trying the brand and with social media, they were all sharing it with each other and talking to their siblings, friends, family members and work colleagues It wasn't about us paying influencers as much as people organically trying it and talking about it. So I think that again goes back to the trust relationship we have with our fans.

Some people love the chic packaging of the products and even for the oils, they have quite soothing or interesting colours. Is that on purpose?
Yes, it's all thought out. So Luna has blue ransy and German chamomile which gives it a natural blue colour and it's also going to be used at night which is why we used midnight colours. Retinol is also light sensitive, it has a lot of depth of colours so it's protected naturally.

And then U.F.O which was part of our green line has this beautiful green tint. And Juno is a super food oil, so it's got purple in the bottom. And the C.E.O line is orange because of its main ingredient, vitamin C. And actually we're revamping Tidal, we're launching a new jar in a few months and it's beautiful. The whole idea behind the jar is to imitate the feeling of water. So when you see it, I hope you get what I was thinking of! At the end of the day, people want products that work but they also want them to look good on their bathroom counter. It's true. No one wants a hideous product on the counter. With our client, they're investing in the brand, so the least we can do is provide beautiful, unisex packaging. We do have a lot of male clients as well.

You started a makeup range but stopped a couple of years back? Why was it important for you to concentrate on the skincare?
Well we had a really large makeup range with over 100 products so we had everything from foundations to blushes to eyeshadows to lipsticks And it cost us a lot of money and a lot of investment and inventory. And I realised at the time — it was 2011 or 2012 —  that we were a little young for this type of growth. So I decided we should slow down for a second and  grow more organically and develop a real fanbase and clientale before we brought makeup back in.

How do you see the brand's expansion and direction in the next few years?
We are extremely strict. So any product has to pass the test of time and people have to really like it. If a product isn't selling, we give it a chance, we try and make sure people hear about it, sample it, but if for whatever reason it doesn't take then I try to not put my ego into it. If the customers didn't like it, I'm not going to shove it down their throats. We can make a new one. We can bring things in. So if something doesn't sell well enough, we cut it, and we bring in a new product in to replace it or take over its spot in our line-up.

But with that being said, we're going to be developing a lot more products in the second half of 2018 and 2019. And we're going to make sure that we continue to develop products that are regional specific. Because there's things to do with the climate in Singapore for instance and that's totally different to what people are looking for in London. So we want to make sure that we offer products that people in each area is actually looking for.

You mentioned when you first started out, you created the oil and the acids, and people were not ready for that. Do you think sometimes for certain products, they might not do well because people are not ready for it, but it's actually a really, good product?
Sometimes, I think that can be true. I had such faith in Good Genes, Juno and Luna, that I was like no let's push through. But the C.E.O serums, a vitamin C serum, when it started it was kind of doing just okay, and then just recently it's taken off. It won the Allure Reader's Choice Award, and a Cosmopolitan one. It's winning all these awards, more than any other product we've ever done. I think our whole production team is in shock because they didn't expect to have to produce more of it.


Fans of the brand really love the names of your products as well, like Good Genes and U.F.O. How and why do you come up with them? 
We come up with it internally. Sunday Riley is a very serious skincare line. And I think the packaging is really serious which is what we want. We're not whimsical. But I think that we need just a touch of whimsy to make it a little bit more approachable and not as intimidating. So the names are meant to kind of to make people feel like they can approach it, and it's not so scary. Because we really do want people to try something and have a little bit of fun with it.

What are the star products for the brand, or what are you most excited to introduce newcomers of the brand to? 
Well every single one of our products is a hit and that's because if it's not, we cut it. So they're all hits! But I would say our global bestsellers, if I had to narrow it down to three would be: Good Genes, Luna and the C.E.O Serum. And our moisturisers do incredibly well as well. The whole line-up is very successful.

And that's not by accident as well right?
Yeah, it's not. If something was an underperformer, we just don't keep it on so...

What are some dream products that are in the works for the brand? If you can reveal anything at all...
Well, and this is truthful, we need to continue to innovate in the mask category. We're missing a lot of masks so that's definitely on my radar. And I really love lighter-weight moisturisers, so I think just continuing to have really hydrating but lightweight moisturisers.

What are some of the products that you use all the time?
I actually have all the products, obviously, but these are some main ones that I use more often and the other ones, I'll layer in as needed. I'm pretty dedicated to washing my face with Blue Moon — that's my favourite cleanser of ours. It removes my makeup and it's really gentle and soothing on my skin so I like that. I have very dry skins so I have to be careful with it.

I use Good Genes every single day, sometimes twice a day and then I use C.E.O Serum as well. I'm a big believer in vitamin C and I want a high-power, high dose product. So that one has 15 percent vitamin C and it's very stable. I use Luna as I'm also a big believer in retinoids and I think it's critical to use them every day if you can. So if I had to recommend something to everyone, I'll have to say you have to use an acid, a retinoid and a vitamin C.

And then I'll alternate my moisturiser depending on my mood or hydration levels or where I'm travelling. So if I want something a little lighter weight, I'll put on Tidal and if I was feeling a little bit more nurturing, I'll put on the C.E.O Moisturiser. Maybe I'll switch things up with Luna, and I'll use Juno instead. What I like about Juno is that it's incredibly nurturing and nourishing to your skin but I always put the excess on my nails or I run it through my hair. And then I'll wash my hair later on and my hair is so much softer that I actually don't even use conditioner anymore. My nails are much stronger, so Juno is one of my key, multi-purpose oils.


So is Juno great for travelling in that sense? Because you can use it for several things...
It is. And it's one of our only products that doesn't have active ingredients but it is cold pressed and is made in really small batches so the phyto-nutrients are still present. It's like juicing: Uou can make a beautiful juice, but if you just leave it out, it oxidises and the nutrients disappear. But Juno has got like a lot of nutrients and so I'll even keep it in my purse. In the office if my skin feels dry because there's a lot of air-conditioning, I'll kind of  pat Juno in because it's very soothing throughout the day. You don't always want to put on super active stuff.

You mentioned about being particular about where you source for the active ingredients. Why is ths so?
I am careful with suppliers. I make sure that their factories are great, and that what they are making is the highest quality and that they are monitoring each production batch of their ingredients. I make sure they are audited and that they are really the best. It usually comes down to our relationship with the supplier and ensuring that there is transparency —  quality and auditing is a big deal for us.

Have you seen any changes in the way the American woman's approach to skincare and a multi-step regimen?
A little bit. One of the big differences is that ten years ago, people would say "I need a moisturiser. I need an eyecream. I need a cleanser". So it was more about the category. And now, a lot of people are asking for ingredients. They're educated in the science of ingredients and say, "I need salicylic acid for acne." They know exactly the ingredient they want. They will ask for a retinoid or for a hyaluronic acid moisturiser. 

Sunday Riley is available now at Sephora stores