Drunk Elephant Founder on the 6 Skincare Ingredients to Avoid

“Parabens are actually a good ingredient," says beauty boss Tiffany Masterson.
Reading time 16 minutes

Skincare can be tricky. Especially now, in the age of clean beauty, where there's so much to consider when deciding what we allow our skin to absorb. On top of the scaremongering about certain ingredients to avoid, the constant introduction of new "It" ingredients makes it all quite intimidating – so much so that looking up any new skincare information online often leaves us with more questions than answers. 

To clear some of our skincare doubts and misconceptions, we spoke to the ultimate skincare sleuth and founder of cult skincare brand Drunk Elephant, Tiffany Masterson. The mother of four started her label because of a personal need for better skincare and did so without any formal education or training in the field prior. Her philosophy is simple: Clean products that are compatible for all skin.

Masterson is particular about the ingredients that go into her products and avoids the use of six she dubs the "Suspicious 6": Essential Oils, Drying Alcohols, Silicones, Chemical Screens, Fragrance/Dyes and SLS. At the same time, she packages her products in bright coloured bottles that are fun, approachable and look incredibly Insta-worthy lined up on a vanity, which makes Drunk Elephant everything we could possibly want in a skincare line.

And, of course, the products actually work. 

We sat down with Masterson while she was here for the launch of Drunk Elephant in Sephora Singapore and chatted about her brand, skincare misconceptions and how to get skin as flawless as hers. 

Can you tell us more about your Clean-Compatible skincare philosophy?

When creating my line I wanted to avoid any bad ingredients that could be associated with disruption or diseases, and I called it "clean" at the time because in my mind, "clean" meant that your body could process and use all the ingredients without any kind of disruption. But I quickly figured out "clean" in the beauty world means it's safe if it gets in your bloodstream; safe to use. Whereas these six ingredients that I wanted to avoid are different than "clean" – I felt they were incompatible with the skin organ itself. So I added the word "compatible" recently because I realised there was a lot of confusion around my philosophy. 

The Suspicous 6 that I avoid are not scary ingredients; some of them are clean. Essential oils, silicones – those are clean ingredients. It’s just that I don’t believe that they allow your skin to function and thrive the way it should. The removal of them would allow your skin to do what it knows how to do. So we’re just supporting by nourishing the skin and feeding it what it can recognise, process and benefit from without these other ingredients that are there to, in my opinion, just market the product. 

Many a time, fragrances, essential oils, dyes and silicones are there to make the formulation more appealing. Look better, feel better, smell better. But that doesn’t help our skin. And in fact in many cases, and in my case, it hurt my skin.

My advice is if you have any skin issues at all, eliminate the Suspicious 6, see what your skin does and hopefully, it will resolve itself. That’s been my experience with my consumer and that’s what’s worked

Are there any clean skincare brands now that avoid the Suspicious 6?

I think a lot of brands are trying to be "clean" but that does not mean they’re avoiding the Suspicious 6. "Clean" in the industry today is just simply avoiding “toxic ingredients”. Parabens, formaldehyde – some of these ingredients that are proven to be unsafe.

Parabens, by the way, I think are fine. I think they’re demonised in the industry. There’s not a whole lot of evidence because you use it in such small amounts. They’re actually a good ingredient. But the industry has sort of decided that they’re toxic and so the consumer wants to avoid them. So I avoid ingredients like that just because the consumer doesn’t want them.

But then there are other ingredients that are proven toxic. There's a whole list of them that all the clean brands are avoiding. Even Sephora is on board now with the clean seal. Those are ingredients that if they get in your bloodstream, are believed to be linked to disease or disruption in your body.

The Suspicious 6 are different in that I’m looking at the skin organ itself and the way it responds. I don’t know of any other brand anywhere that avoids all six of those ingredients. Maybe they don’t think it’s necessary, but my personal experience is that my skin behaves completely differently when I’ve avoided these six ingredients. And so my advice to the consumer is if you have any skin issues at all – redness, oiliness, dryness, acne prone, combination – these types of behaviours, eliminate the six, see what your skin does and hopefully, it will resolve itself. That’s been my experience with my consumer and that’s what’s worked.

"People often mistake sensitised skin for sensitive. Sensitised skin is a behaviour induced by ingredients over time; skin doesn’t act that way on its own."

You've emphasised on the difference between skin types and skin behavious. Could you tell us more about that?

It's easily misunderstood, but there are different skin types that you're born with. It’s rare to be born with sensitive skin but it can happen. Skin that produces more oil, skin that tends to lean dry - those are real things you’re born with. But do they need to be treated different than each other? No, they don’t. It’s all about feeding the skin ingredients that it can recognise and process and use.

Skin behaviours are totally different. Skin behaviours are acne prone, sensitised – which many people think is sensitive – combination, oily, dry, these are skin behaviours that are induced by ingredients we’re using. It’s not the same thing.

But people often mistake their sensitised skin for sensitive. Sensitised skin is a behaviour; skin doesn’t act that way on its own. I have many people with actual sensitive skin that use my products without any issue at all. But those with senstised skin who have been using ingredients that are inducing those behaviours over time, they can’t use very much at all because their skin is reactive. 

I’m super careful not to use any essential oils or fragrance in my formulations because I feel those keep the skin in a more reactive state. For example you see people on YouTube who put something on their skin and it turns bright red. That’s sensitised skin; reactive skin.

It's an issue that can be resolved by looking at the ingredients you’re using and eliminating the ones that can be creating the issues. 

How should someone new to Drunk Elephant start trying the products?

There are a couple different ways. One really good way is to take one of the cleansers and the Virgin Marula Luxury Facial Oil because it’s so versatile. And it gets you over this fear of oil because people have a fear of oil.

And cut every single thing out. Think of it like the Whole30 diet for your face. I don’t care what it is, just stop using it. Use the bar and the oil – just a couple drops you don’t need very much – let your skin get used to that routine, see what happens. No makeup, no powder.

No makeup – that’s difficult.

It’s difficult for people to go without, but when they do and they get over that hump, they’re super glad that it becomes a choice and not a must. It’s nice to be able to wear makeup if you want but not have to wear it everyday.

Another way to try the products is to do The Littles. It’s a kit of 8 products and it’s called a clean break. Start slow, like if your skin’s not used to acids, slowly ramp it up to where your skin can adjust. Use it exclusively for 4 weeks and see how your skin responds.

I think it’s just trial and error from that point on and you can figure out what works for you. If you want to use something that contains the Suspicious 6 later and ease it back into your routine, it’s a pretty good way to figure out if it’s something that causes issues for you. It’s like with food. Like easing gluten or caffeine back in. It’s about getting in touch with your skin and letting it do what it’s supposed to do; what it already knows how to do.


Why do you recommend cleansing the face only at night?

Because you wake up with your acid mantle intact and you want to keep it there. Skin should not be dirty in the morning if you’ve cleaned it well at night and used products that are absorbable. You'll wake up with balanced skin, and can go straight into the C-Firma Day Serum, the B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Gel, the Umbra Sheer Physical Daily Defense sunscreen, and go about your day. And at night you cleanse well, and use the T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum, the Virgin Marula Luxury Facial Oil, the B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Gel and go to bed.

"Acids have grown in popularity because they work and they’re great, but it’s so important to make sure they’re formulated well and at the right pH level so that your skin can respond to them and not become irritated and sensitised"

Acids have really grown in popularity recently. Do you have any tips on how to use them?

Acids are so important because they help get rid of dead skin cell build up which causes skin to be dull and causes breakouts, clogging, and is just yucky.

A well formulated acid at the right pH level – not too low, not below 3, and not too high – is not only really effective in dissolving the glue that holds the dead skin cells to the surface of your skin but also is not irritating, not sensitising. A pH that's too low might appear to work – really fast – but it’s going to be irritating and sensitising. Anything too high is just going to be ineffective. So really pay attention to the pH level of the acid and to what other ingredients are in that formulation that will support the acid, make it better and if there are any irritants or synthesisers.


What are some basic acids you think everybody should have in their skincare regime?

There’s lots of acids but one is L-ascorbic acid, which is Vitamin C. It’s the purest form and only form that’s already present in our skin naturally. It’s the form that is active immediately when it hits your skin. It is basically like an invisible condom for your skin – a shield that you put on every day before you go. 

Hyaluronic acid is important for hydration. I use a salt form of hyaluronic called sodium hyaluronic cross polymer that is able to absorb in your skin, because I’m big about ingredients that are smaller molecule, that can get in. 

Glycolic acid is the only AHA that actually penetrates your skin. And it’s the most effective and it can actually promote collagen production. Lactic acid is derived of milk and it dissolves the surface, it sits on top of the skin, It’s hydrating not as effective as glycolic because it doesn’t penetrate your skin. 

Salicylic acid is great and it's is in T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum. It eats away at the pore lining so it helps with blackheads and breakouts. A nightly use of Framboos in conjunction with retinol, used in alternation, is an incredible combination. Because the retinol goes in your skin, and works from the bottom up, pushing towards the surface. And the glycolic will clear the way for the retinol to really get in and penetrate. They work very well together. People are scared to use them together, people are scared of retinol in general. But together, in alternation, I think it’s the best thing you can do for your skin.

What’s your personal skincare regime like?

It’s super simple. I’m really very connected with my skin. It just kind of does what it does and I don’t have any issue with it anymore. I used to have rosacea. I used to have combo, large pores, red skin. So I wake up, I don’t cleanse my face in the morning, ever. I just leave the acid mantle that’s on the surface intact and then I do C-Firma, B-Hydra, a little D-Bronzi Anti-Pollution Sunshine Drops, and then maybe a drop of Marula oil. And put that on, and my Umbra sunscreen and that’s it.

At night I cleanse it with one of my cleansers, and I put on a mixture of T.L.C Framboos, a little bit of retinol, a little bit of oil, a little bit of B-Hydra, and some either Protini Polypeptide Cream or Lala Retro Whipped Cream. Whichever one I’m in the mood to use. One thing about my products is they can all be mixed because none of them have silicones. I always mix and never layer; they’re all going the same place.

What’s next for Drunk Elephant?

I think we have a really exciting 2019. I’m launching the retinol which I’m really excited about. I love that product. It’s easy to use, not intimidating, it’s gentle, effective and just gorgeous. You can literally use it like a moisturiser. You don't need a lot because it’s a 1.0% retinol.

And one of the reasons it’s so exciting is it doesn’t contain any silicones so someone who’s new to using it can use just a tiny bit, mix it with oil, B-Hydra, mix it with whatever, and get a little hit of retinol without doing the full 1.0.

Ramp up, allow your skin to adjust and then pretty soon you can use it nightly or every other night in conjunction with the T.L.C Framboos. It’s a perfect fit into the line and it’s made with these gorgeous ingredients like apricot, jojoba, marula – all bioidentical oils – ceramides, peptides and I just threw a bunch of stuff in there. It’s a good formulation.

Drunk Elephant is available now at Sephora stores and sephora.sg

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