Featured in the Dragons’ Den episode aired on April 15th 2021, the founder and owner of TRUE Skincare Emma Thornton shares her experience and her brand on the BBC show. It was clear that she made a lasting impression with her pitch after being proposed a number of offers by the dragons. TRUE Skincare has received raving reviews and been flying off retailers shelves. Emma’s passion for her brand shines when speaking about beauty inclusivity, TRUE’s waterless product formulation and being ethically sustainable.
TRUE Skincare Founder & Dragons’ Den Contestant: Emma Thornton Interview by Mads Newton
First of all, I love the sound of TRUE Skincare. I’ve seen that your background in premium skincare has really helped you shape the brand, and that beauty inclusivity is important to you. How and when did you initially come up with the idea of TRUE Skincare?
As you pointed out, my background is centred around the premium beauty industry, so I used to work for some very well-known, high-price point brands. It was this experience which kind of gave me an insight into how much it actually costs to make the products, how much water was going into them and how little legislation there is when it comes to making natural and organic beauty claims.
Within the beauty industry, you can have 0.5% organic ingredients and still claim it’s organic or you can have two ingredients in the ingredients list which are 100% natural, the rest can be synthetic chemicals and you can still say it contains 100% natural ingredients, just because those two ingredients are natural.
I was actually in New York – when we were allowed to travel – working for another beauty brand at a trade show and I went to this talk called ‘A Millionaires Panel’ and there was a lady there speaking. She was like, “I feel quite awkward about being here because everyone else is in the premium beauty space and my products are stocked in Whole Foods.” Obviously in the UK Whole Foods is quite a premium retailer, but in the US it is very much like Holland & Barrett. I went to go and speak to her about becoming a distributor myself and I looked at the packaging and I was like, do you know what, I just wouldn’t be necessarily proud to represent that. So, I thought why is everyone fighting for the same premium beauty space and charging an extortionate amount to consumers when it doesn’t need to cost that much? I then went off on my own journey of discovery with TRUE and that’s how it all came about.
TRUE Skincare is certified organic, natural, vegan, cruelty free and on the more affordable side. Were these origins always important to have set in place for your brand?
Yeah, absolutely! I’m a beauty consumer myself, so I came about from a bit of a different standpoint to a lot of people who start beauty brands. Rather than trying to fill a gap as such, I basically sat down with two pieces of paper and I wrote down all of the reasons why I would want to buy a product and all of the reasons why I wouldn’t. I basically wanted to address every single one of those barriers to entry. Being cruelty free, for example, was non-negotiable. We were certified organic before I even had a product, so I had the formulation and everything like that. It came from my desire to create something that’s genuinely sustainable and of course with regards to the affordability side, I think everyone should be able to afford beautiful organic skincare and experience the premium side of beauty without it costing the earth.
I completely agree. I love that TRUE Skincare’s products are all natural, vegan and cruelty free, I really respect that.
Thank you! With the vegan side, it’s very much if you are vegan, you can use it, if you aren’t vegan, you can use it. It’s really about not segmenting society in any way.
Absolutely! And I think people are becoming so much more aware of cruelty free products with the ‘Save Ralph’ campaign.
Really appreciate your ‘giving back’ element of TRUE Skincare. It is great to see a skincare brand passionate about protecting and conserving the planet. Do you think more beauty brands will start to make more of an effort to be environmentally conscious?
I really hope so. I’m seeing so many brands promoting the fact that they use recyclable packaging of a way to be more sustainable. And of course, absolutely, recyclable packaging is very important, but that should be a given. It shouldn’t be a USP of a brand in any way.
We are seeing the bigger brands and the bigger companies like L’Oréal and Unilever making pledges about water usage, plastic waste and all of these different things. Unilever is a great example actually – they commission or allow other businesses to use their innovation with regards to that and their solutions. So that’s a really great way of all working together to tackle one big issue. But with these big brands, they are a huge part of the marketplace and beauty. They are the ones that can make such a significant difference – but it’s so slow. Whereas indie brands can be way more versatile and implement these things at a very young stage to sustainably grow. And when I hear indie brands saying it’s, “Too expensive.” or “Too complicated to be sustainable.” – I’ve done this on my own so there is no excuse really.
We are a massive industry – very small from a personnel perspective – we all know one another. So, it would be really great for everyone to work together and come up with more sustainable solutions.
Yeah, I completely agree. Especially because it is so topical now…
It can be a real minefield because there are so many juxtapositions with regards to sustainability. For example, with plastic obviously there has been a lot of bad PR surrounding it, but with glass that produces emissions. So, we offset our emissions through tree planting, through organic farming – all of those different elements.
It is really challenging getting ingredients. Some brands promote they get all their ingredients from Europe – well actually, if you get them from further afield, they come by sea. If you get them from Europe, they come by plane. So, when you actually track your carbon footprint back to the source, it is actually more environmentally friendly to get them from further afield than it is to get them from Europe. It is a real complex thing, brands really need to focus on what their agenda is, what they can achieve and really focus towards those particular goals rather than trying to do everything and anything.
Is TRUE Skincare suitable for students? And if so, which specific products would you recommend for the student consumer?
Yeah, absolutely! They are 100% suitable for students. Fortunately, you guys all have youth on your side. So, the one you might not want to use is our Youth Renewal range which is in the purple packaging – because you probably don’t need to! But everything else is suitable for students.
When I developed the products, it was very much target specific skin concerns rather than an age group or anything like that. The age of your skin isn’t necessarily down to your numerical age, it’s down to your lifestyle. And the same with any other skin type – our bodies are all completely different. We all have a different skin composition which is why I wanted to have products which tackled different concerns.
With regards to the price point, it was really important for me to be able to allow people – you know, because I was a student once – to be able to afford to make a better decision.
I think it is so good that you are offering to such a broad range because with a lot of skincare brands, they are sort of one or the other. So, it’s quality products but still at an affordable price…
Yeah, and in terms of accessibility as well, we are in the likes of Holland & Barrett and Boots and we’ve got more coming! All of these different retailers are accessible for students, for Mums and for any kind of situation you might be in. We just wanted to make it as accessible as possible with regards both availability and price.
What is your favourite TRUE Skincare product?
I’m not supposed to have favourites, but I definitely do!
With our facial oils, my favourite is the Rejuvenating Cacay & Frankincense, which is within the Youth Renewal range. Even when it is going into manufacturing, the smell of the carrier oils is amazing!
The Radiance Renewal 10% Stabilised Vitamin C Serum, that’s been straight away a hero product of ours. It has clinically proven ingredients in it – Ascorbyl Glucoside, which is a stabilised version of vitamin C.
Our toner as well, Hydrating Blossom & Pine Toner, that is a really beautiful product. A lot of toners contain alcohol which can be really stripping, whereas this is really hydrating.
And then the final product – I feel like I’ve listed them all now – is our cleansing oil: Clarifying Safflower & Geranium Cleansing Oil. This is the one product that if I ever went away somewhere, I couldn’t live without it. I wear makeup every day and it removes all of that without stripping the skin – it’s a necessity in life for me!
I really love the use of colour in TRUE Skincare’s branding. Often, skincare brands steer towards a more white-based aesthetic – would you say this is one of your USP’s to stand out from other competitors?
Absolutely. From my perspective life is full of colour and you should really embrace that. It was one of the things that when I was developing the brand and packaging, I was adamant I wanted colour. You walk down the aisles of Holland & Barrett and everything is very vegan, hessian, potato sack, brown bottle vibes which is something I wanted to steer away from. You walk down the aisles of Tesco and it’s all white plastic. And then you go into the likes of Selfridges and as you pointed out, everything merges into one basically. I wanted to draw upon my premium beauty experience from a branding perspective and apply it to affordable beauty so that people could be proud to have it on their bathroom shelf.
When you are starting a brand and you are going into these big retailers, a lot of people think, “That’s job done”, you don’t have to do anything else – but that is when the real work starts. You are expecting someone to walk in there, pick up a product out of a sea of other brands that they have probably already heard of, buy it, try it, love it, come back, repurchase and recommend it to friends. Packaging is the first form of interaction with a consumer, so it was really important that they resonated with it and also with the whole ‘Instagramable’ lifestyle and society, it was important that it stood out. There is thought behind everything. Our geometric symbol which makes up part of our logo has been made up of the different elements – earth, air and water all combine together to create that symbol. Everything has been thought through, it’s not like, “Oh, I like that font.”
I know you mentioned about the waterless element of TRUE Skincare’s products, would you say that this too is another USP?
Absolutely! I think people thought I was a bit crazy at the start when I was like, “No, they are going to be waterless!”
I think a lot of brands perhaps are now advertising it for the wrong reasons. Right from the beginning, we were a waterless beauty brand. We use powders and oils and things like that. Now we are creating serums and moisturisers which are more traditional textures. But we are seeing a lot of beauty brands who were originally oil based because they are the easiest to formulate, are now advertising themselves as being waterless skincare brands. When actually, that was never their objective in the first place.
Water typically makes up about 80% of your moisturiser and can be more for things like serums. Not only does it contribute to that texture, but it is also a very cheap ingredient which is technically free. People use it as a bulking agent, and I wanted to remove that so that people were getting products which were filled to the brim with amazing, efficacious ingredients.
With our whole population growing at such a rapid rate, it’s thought by 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population will face water shortages. We are already seeing that with our ecosystems. Wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests, but they actually store twice as much carbon than forests do. Everyone is very much focused on preserving our rainforests which we absolutely should do, but there is very little PR and awareness around the wetlands. So, we wanted to avoid all of that but also avoid using excessive amounts of water whilst you are using the product.
A lot of waterless brands use powders and then you add water to turn the product into a cream. I just saw that as completely defeating the point of being a waterless skincare brand. It is all very well saying you aren’t going to include any water in our products, but you have to add 80% at the consumers end. With ours, you just remove anything that is not a leave on product with a warm damp cloth rather than it turning into a milk and wash it off. Even our exfoliator, we recommend that you mix it with one of our facial oils so that you can make it bespoke to your skin type.
It is something that is really important to us and it is really great that we are seeing more PR around it and brands taking the water crisis on board. I think the automatic response, perhaps slightly naively, is that there is always going to be the same amount of water in the world – so why does it matter? If our population is growing, there is going to be more demand. We are never going to be able to produce more water. There is going to more demand on our existing supply, and is it really necessary in our skincare products?
I had no idea some moisturisers have up to 80% water in their ingredients – that’s new to me!
There is a huge amount of greenwashing – or whatever you want to call it – in the beauty industry. It’s because there has been so little legislation around it. We have been always taught to sell a lifestyle, an aspiration and things like that – I’m pleased to see that consumers are digging into it a lot deeper.
Absolutely, I think brands are having to be a lot more transparent nowadays because more people are wanting to know where their products are being sourced from and what goes on behind the scenes.
Well done for receiving your offer off Deborah Meaden! What was your experience like on Dragons’ Den?
I absolutely loved it! I mean, I was really nervous. I was in there for an hour and 45 minutes, so they edit it down to 15 minutes. So, when I watched it back, I was like, that’s not how it happened! But you kind of take it on the chin a little bit – it was an incredible experience. The crew were even putting it all on their faces as they were setting up my table, I was like, “Stop that’s for my display haha!” Deborah came out and saw me straight afterwards – they come across as very scary on TV, but the reality is that they are actually really lovely people, very kind to me.
The response we have had since airing on the 15th has just been overwhelming. We sold out on basically all of our retailers within 24 hours and we’ve had over 2000 orders! It’s just been great to see all the amazing comments and the lovely emails we are getting through and people receiving their TRUE Skincare pots.
That must be so great for you! To receive all that positive feedback and get something really nice out of the experience…
It definitely gives you purpose – it can be very lonely running a business on your own. And although I have an amazing network of friends and family who are all helping out, you kind of feel that they are saying well done because they are your friends and family. But when you have people who are actually paying customers coming back and saying that type of stuff to you, is really re-affirming that what you are doing is right.
How has business been since working with Deborah?
So, we didn’t actually go through with the investment. The filming was done in September and after that, we got the contracts for Look Fantastic and Feel Unique, and we are launching with an airline later this year and another two big retailers. We have also had a lot of interest from the US. We thought it would be better to do a bigger funding round this summer in order to achieve all of those different objectives rather than dilute the business. And then having to dilute it again by doing a bigger funding round. But Deborah has been absolutely amazing, she has been an incredible support! She is not directly involved in the business, but she emailed me to say good luck.
We have got some great collaborations coming up with some of the other contestants on Dragons’ Den that she has invested in. So, she has been a genuinely lovely person. I feel very fortunate to have been able to connect with her! It has been a really great experience.
What does the future hold for TRUE Skincare?
We’ve got some really cool products coming. So many different formulations and product ideas ready to go, but we have been thinking of the right time to do it. We are looking at setting up a commercial premises later this year which is part of our bigger investment round, so that we can scale whilst keeping our quality side, oversee and go into the US. We have had 2 really big retailers interested in the brand in the US, but it is a tough market and they require a lot of stock. So, just trying to get all of our ducks in a row.
We have got a moisturiser launching later on this year – hopefully if everything goes on track – a vegan lip balm which is much harder to formulate than you would think, and a retinol alternative. Some really cool products coming, all waterless, organic, natural, vegan friendly and cruelty free, and of course, affordable.
That sounds so exciting!
Thank you so much for talking with me today, Emma. Again, an excellent brand which I can share your passion to be ethically aware and more sustainable. Wishing you all the best for TRUE Skincare – I definitely want to give some of the products a go!
Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. It has been lovely chatting to you!
Dragons’ Den Series 18 Episode 3
Emma’s pitch for TRUE Skincare: 00:15 – 12:30
Find TRUE Skincare here: https://www.trueskincare.co.uk
Other campaigns mentioned: Save Ralph