Shopify

How To Start A Skincare Line: 11 Lessons From A Serial Beauty Entrepreneur

how-to-start-a-skincare-line:-11-lessons-from-a-serial-beauty-entrepreneur

Megan Cox woke up one morning to discover she had made $10,000 in sales overnight. At the time, she was an MIT student with a newly launched skincare line, Amalie Beauty—her first foray into entrepreneurship.

Over the next few years, Megan grew Amalie into a six-figure business, catching fire in the media and selling out her lash serums and face oils as soon as they hit the website. But even as her brand was finding success, she felt like something was off. “I wasn’t enjoying the direct-to-consumer marketing side of owning a beauty brand anymore,” she says. So, in 2018 she had a decision to make: expand or sell. 

Megan grew Amalie into a six-figure business, catching fire in the media and selling out her lash serums and facial oils as soon as they hit the website.

Megan decided to sell Amalie, diverting the entirety of her attention to another skincare venture she had been growing on the side with her husband. That business is Genie Supply, a clean beauty lab that manufactures products for hundreds of other founders who started the same way Megan did—with an idea and a passion for skincare.

Now with experience in both DTC and manufacturing, Megan has no shortage of advice for those curious about how to start a skincare line. Here, she shares her hard learned lessons along the way and tips on everything from labelling to marketing to finding a manufacturer.

Meet our skincare expert

Portraits of Genie Supply Founder Megan Cox
Genie Supply/Megan Cox

Megan started her first business to solve a personal pain point: after she destroyed her natural eyelashes with extensions, she couldn’t find a restorative product that worked. The science-turned-business student went into research mode and found a gap in the market.

What she also found was an untapped audience for her product—those like her looking for a simple, natural solution to a common problem. From her dorm room, and with $1,800 in personal savings, she launched Amalie and its flagship product, Wink, an oil that promotes regrowth of eyelashes and brows.

Amalie’s success was tied to Megan’s personal brand and her natural ability to build trust with her audience through content and transparency.

Megan would eventually expand to manufacturing her products in China, living there for six months of the year to be closer to the process. She grew her business over the next few years from her family farm in Indiana, a small apartment in Shenzen, and on countless flights in between.

Amalie’s success was tied to Megan’s personal brand and her natural ability to build trust with her audience through content and transparency. As a self-proclaimed introvert, this aspect of the skincare business would end up being her breaking point. For Megan, the problem solving and the science excited her more, making Genie Supply a natural transition. 

With Megan jumping into Genie Supply full time, she and her husband decided to transition the company in 2018 from a consulting agency in China to a lab in the US. The growth of the indie beauty market saw a surge in 2020, translating to massive growth for the couple’s business. They now manufacture for more than 200 brands. 

“The orders from our clients are getting bigger and bigger,” says Megan. “We’ve really been able to prove that there is a need for niche indie beauty manufacturing here in the States.”

How to start a skincare line: 7 startup lessons from a beauty insider 

Skincare line founder stands in front of a retail beauty display
Burst

Founding a skincare brand is more involved than, say, starting a print-on-demand t-shirt business. You’ll need to invest time into research to understand things like basic chemistry, labelling laws, and working with a manufacturer. You may also require a significant upfront investment. 

But getting started on a meager budget is possible, as Megan found, if you’re passionate and resourceful. Here, we’ll take you through how to start a skincare line from scratch, with seven lessons Megan learned in her storied career in beauty.

1. There’s still room in the crowded skincare industry (so, just start)

The global skincare industry is expected to be valued at $183 billion by 2025. Much of the growth in the past few years can be attributed to independent brands. “The traditional brands—Estée Lauder, L’Oréal—are not growing,” says Megan. “Indie beauty and clean beauty are carrying the entire beauty industry’s growth.” And the legacy brands are reacting, snatching up smaller companies to keep their footing.

Tarte, a natural beauty line started in founder Maureen Kelly’s one-bedroom apartment in 1999, joined Sephora’s lineup in 2003, grossed $12 million in 2008, and sold the majority of its shares in 2014 to global beauty behemoth Kosé. Maureen started the business with $18,000.

There’s this really big shift in how people are spending their money as Gen Z comes of age. The beauty market is really crowded right now, but there’s still a lot of room for innovation.

Megan Cox

The constantly evolving skincare landscape, like the current trends toward hybrid beauty (products that are combination cosmetic and skincare), cannabis-based products, and clean beauty mean that there are still opportunities for newcomers to start skincare lines. “There’s this really big shift in how people are spending their money as Gen Z comes of age,” says Megan. “The beauty market is really crowded right now, but there’s still a lot of room for innovation.” 

2. If you’re not a skincare expert, become one

Woman in a hair towel and beauty face mask makes a funny face
Burst

When Megan was developing her brand, she ordered every top-rated lash enhancer on Amazon. She also pored over the MIT research paper database and found that essential fatty acids showed promise in studies, but no other company was using them in lash products at the time.

Her formal science education did help her with product formulation, but she found the most useful information on the web. “I had some chemistry background, but really, all the research is out there,” she says. “There are a lot of smart people on the internet sharing information for free.”

Though a business major, Megan soon found that the skills learned in class did not actually prepare her for her own brand launch. “It did teach me how to push boundaries and to be humble,” she says. “MIT made me hungry in a way. That’s helpful for entrepreneurship.”

📖 Read more:

3. Zoom in on your skincare niche

Several bars of soap are arranged on soap dishes on a pink background
Burst

Where newbie skincare founders can win is in identifying audiences underserved by the current brands on the market. There’s no more clear example of this than in the cosmetics industry, where indie brands led the charge on inclusive cosmetics for a wide range of skin tones. 

Whereas legacy brands are casting a wide net, independent brands have the ability to get close to a niche audience or tackle a specific problem.

Following beauty publications and influencers will help you spot trends as they emerge, but beware of fleeting trends and ensure you have a sustainable plan. “Recently, I’ve seen people get too hooked on whatever ingredient is hot at that moment,” says Megan. While the product development cycle has sped up in recent years, it can’t always keep up with flash-in-the-pan trends. “You’re already four months behind,” Megan says she tells these clients. “By the time you actually hit the market, that trend might be over.” 

Innovation, versus a bandwagon approach, is how indie brands can avoid these pitfalls. Whereas legacy brands are casting a wide net, independent brands have the ability to get close to a niche audience or tackle a specific problem—and problems change less frequently than trends. 

If you do want to go wide or stick to basics in terms of formulation or product type, you can lean on a strong philosophy and brand story to connect with your audience. “If you’re going to formulate a certain way or exclude or include certain ingredients, you should really be thoughtful about that,” says Megan.

📖 Read more:

4. Embrace the unexpected

Before you even consider product, decide what you stand for. You can develop your brand and grow an audience well before you manufacture products or launch an online store. This period will let you get to know your audience, gather feedback, and build trust. Use this time to also hone your brand story and generate hype around your upcoming launch.

Investing in knowing your market may uncover other niches you didn’t consider. Since she originally developed Wink for herself, Megan assumed that her customer persona would look much like her: younger people with natural lashes damaged through lash extensions or trichotillomania (a disorder characterized by pulling out one’s own hair).

“We found that it really resonated with older women and people who had just gone through cancer treatment,” says Megan. “I didn’t really expect that at all.” Amalie embraced this unexpected market and actively supported cancer survivors by donating one product to a cancer survivor for every bottle sold during her #PinkWINK campaign.

📖 Read more: 

5. Use the resources you’ve got

“I didn’t have any money or experience,” says Megan of her decision to start a business. Her initial investment was exactly $1,812 (a 10th of Tarte’s original startup costs)—it was every penny she had. 

Not allowing her meagre investment to hold her back, she incorporated the business for $700, bought 500 bottles and a few thousand boxes, and paid for her first month’s subscription on Shopify. She had $6 left to her name.

With no money left for marketing, she needed to get creative. She first went to Reddit, which resulted in a few sales. It was a simple call to her hometown’s local paper, though, that was the catalyst for her big breakout. The paper interviewed her, bringing in yet a couple more sales, but the turning point was when the story was picked up by the state paper and The Associated Press. “I went to sleep, and when I woke up, we had $10,000 in sales and we had sold out,” she says.

📖 Read more: 13 Low-Investment Small Business Ideas

6. Get hands-on: skincare product formulation and manufacturing

A close up of a bottle of skincare oil with a dropper
Burst

There are a few methods for formulating products: making products by hand at home, renting a dedicated manufacturing space, working with a lab to create custom products, or taking a private label approach with a beauty manufacturer.

Simple formulations like facial oils can be made from home. However, to manufacture cosmetics in the US, you’ll need to follow FDA guidelines for ventilation, air control, and surfaces. While your manufacturing processes should adhere to FDA standards, there is quite a bit of flexibility for businesses that manufacture in spurts. Mobile clean rooms—essentially pop-up tents—are designed for this purpose and ideal for small businesses.

Experimenting with formulations yourself will help you understand the properties you’re looking for in a formulation—consistency, appearance, scent—positioning you for informed conversations with your manufacturer.

“If you’re starting small, there is value in working with the ingredients hands-on and trying to figure that out,” says Megan. “But at some point you’re still going to need to work with a manufacturer.” Many successful beauty founders, like The Lip Bar’s Melissa Butler, started their lines from their own kitchens but moved to a manufacturing facility as they scaled.

Experimenting with formulations yourself will help you understand the properties you’re looking for in a formulation—consistency, appearance, scent—positioning you for informed conversations with your manufacturer.

📖 Read more: How to Find Private Label Products and Start Selling

7. Develop a relationship with your skincare manufacturer

While she owned Amalie, Megan worked with manufacturers in both the US and China. There are pros and cons to both, depending on your production runs and how close you want to stay to the process. Megan spent much of her time in China, overseeing production. “I wanted to know where my ingredients were coming from. I wanted to have everything documented. I wanted to be there,” she says.

Since those days, and now walking in the shoes of those manufacturers, Megan has softened her stance. “I do think that it’s important to negotiate all of your quality control points and to be really upfront about what you expect,” she says. But at some point, you do need to trust the manufacturer to do their job. “You can’t argue about every little point or nickel-and-dime them.” 

Beauty manufacturing, in general, is kind of a black box.

Megan Cox

While there are benefits to working with manufacturers in China, such as price and available options, Megan and her partner moved Genie Supply to the US to help bring manufacturing closer to its customers and improve the overall experience. 

“Beauty manufacturing, in general, is kind of a black box,” says Megan, who had to learn the ropes on her own. That’s why her new company invests resources in educating its clients and providing transparent information right on the website. If you’re new to skincare, find a manufacturer like Genie Supply that can help walk you through the process.

📖 Read more: How to Find a Manufacturer or Supplier for Your Product Idea

8. Test, test, and test again

White label skincare products sit on a wooden surface
Burst

Megan learned the hard way that testing at every stage of the process is important. While the formulation for Wink and the packaging were tested, when the two interacted, the product turned out to be incompatible with the glue—and the brushes fell apart. “Packaging was a really big issue for me,” says Megan. “I lost a lot of my customers because it was unreliable.” 

Experienced labs are an asset to industry newbies. Manufacturing in North America can be more expensive, but the upside is the access to the factories and the ability to be hands-on with the testing process. 

📖 Read more: Product Development: Learn The 7-Step Framework Helping Businesses Get to Market Faster

9. Follow the rules: navigating safety and labelling laws in skincare

Like starting a food business, launching in the skincare industry carries risk—you are making products that could potentially harm people. It’s important to educate yourself on preservatives, shelf life, allergens, and proper storage and handling of skincare products. And to research labs carefully so you know you’re working with a partner that is knowledgeable in these areas.

Product shelf life

Customers often expect products labeled “natural” or “organic” will be free of chemical preservatives. However, omitting preservatives can greatly impact stability. When Megan launched Amalie, her products had a 12-month shelf life. 

When her distributors couldn’t move product fast enough, Megan was on the hook to replace expired units because it would impact her brand if she didn’t. “I bit a huge cost there, but I’m not going to let someone have a bad product with my name on it,” she says.

Labelling laws

Labelling requirements can be daunting for those starting a skincare line from scratch—and each country or region will have their own rules. Megan, who had the experience of navigating these laws on her own, developed a visual guide on Genie Supply’s website to help her clients. “I would’ve killed for a guide like this five years ago,” she says. “That’s why I made it.”

A reputable lab can help you ensure that your packaging meets standards, but ultimately the responsibility is yours. “No one’s checking for you,” says Megan. “You should do your due diligence and make sure that you’re following the FDA labeling laws.” Or, talk to a lawyer.

Skincare product stability and safety

While it’s possible to dabble in skincare from your own home, there are limitations. “If your products contain water,” says Megan, “you are potentially putting your customers in a lot of danger.” 

Genie Supply and other reputable labs will put ingredients and formulations through rigorous testing to ensure that they’re free from yeast, mold, bacteria, and fungus during a product’s shelf life and use. “We also run microbial and viral pathogen testing,” says Megan. “If you are doing anything with water, don’t be silly—work with a lab.”

📖 Read more:

10. Build trust with your customers through transparency and content

A person inspects the label of a skincare product on a shelf
Burst

The beauty customer, faced with conflicting information and overwhelming choices, tends to be discerning and naturally skeptical. Building trust with your audience is the key to forming long-term relationships and securing repeat business.

Under the Fair Packaging and Labelling Act, the FDA requires manufacturers to list every ingredient in its products. That’s a fact, Megan says, that many skincare brands try to manipulate.

“Why are you putting honey and metals and all of this garbage inside your product? It doesn’t even work,” says Megan. “They’re just trying to confuse consumers on purpose.” She built trust for her brand on the transparency of the ingredients. Amalie’s About page clearly, and in layman’s terms, explains the science behind the ingredients and how each was necessary to the formulation.

The number of options on the market, unpronounceable ingredients, and smoke-and-mirrors marketing copy drive skincare consumers to online reviews before buying.

Megan’s also used content marketing to grow her business and personal brand, tapping into the popularity of beauty reviews and unboxings at the time. The number of options on the market, unpronounceable ingredients, and smoke-and-mirrors marketing copy drive skincare consumers to online reviews before buying.

The strategy established her as a trusted expert, and she dedicated much of her blog to reviewing products other than her own in a researched and practical format. At her peak, she was blogging four times a week, sending her organic traffic soaring. She also used content to grow her newsletter, offering downloadable content in the form of beauty guides, such as The Amalie Brow Bible.

📖 Read more:

11. You’re only human—leverage it 

A smiling woman uses an eye mask skincare product
Burst

Marketing is one of the biggest challenges for many new founders. And because it’s competitive and constantly evolving, skincare is an industry that requires consistent attention to this aspect of the business. 

It’s not enough to have a great product—to succeed in the skincare industry, beauty entrepreneurs need to invest much of their attention in defining their audience and understanding its unique needs.

As the traditional model of selling cosmetics wanes—“slapping a celebrity on the brand and hoping it sells,” according to Megan—the time is now for niche brands to shine. Consumers are looking to connect and to identify with a brand. It’s not enough to have a great product—to succeed with marketing, beauty entrepreneurs need to invest much of their attention in defining their audience and understanding its unique needs.

Whether or not you decide to tie your personal brand to your business, you should still use your homegrown status to make your brand human. Engage in comments and conversations, feature real people like your customers or emerging influencers in your content, and stay open to feedback.

📖 Read more:

The best way to get started is to just start, found Megan. Sure, you won’t have the experience or the budget of the big-box businesses, but you aren’t carrying their baggage either. Focus down and find fresh solutions for customers that can’t get what they need from major brands. And engage with those communities directly by being helpful and personal.

You don’t have to appeal to everyone in the beginning—that’s the beauty of starting up.

How to start a skincare line FAQ

How do I make skincare products to sell?

If you’re just getting started, you can experiment with basic skincare formulations on your own to get a feel for the color, consistency, and scent. Some skincare can be made from home, but more complicated formulations containing water or emulsions require a manufacturing partner to address safety concerns. Depending on your business idea, you can develop a custom formulation with a manufacturing partner, or try white labelling.

How much does it cost to start a skincare line?

Most businesses spend $40,000 in their first year to run their business. This amount includes startup and maintenance costs. Even if you plan to start a skincare business from home, you will need a small investment for materials, packaging, and other business expenses. Expect to budget more if you want to work with a manufacturer, as many require minimum order quantities, and product development can be costly. For a low-budget option, dropshipping is a great solution, as you can sell products manufactured by other companies without carrying inventory.

How do I start a private label skincare line?

Private label and white label are a great ways to enter the skincare industry if you’re new to the game. With white labelling, manufacturers sell identical products to multiple brands that customize with their own logo and branding. Private labelling involves a little more customization, allowing you to work with a manufacturer to create a signature product within the limitations of their offerings.

Where do I find skincare manufacturers?

Several skincare manufacturer directories exist that you can access through a simple Google search. It’s important to vet manufacturers carefully, however. Look for reviews and testimonials, request references, and ask for samples.

Do you need a license to sell homemade cosmetics?

ou don’t need a federally recognized license to sell homemade cosmetics and skincare in the US. However, the FDA carefully regulates this industry and requires you to have approval for certain ingredients. The laws differ depending on the country where you are manufacturing and selling your products. Be sure to do your homework or seek the advice of a lawyer.

How do you price skincare products?

Add up your costs: how much does it cost to produce the product plus any associated overhead costs plus your margin (profit). Look at what your competitors are charging and be sure you are pricing your products within a reasonable market range. You can test pricing on your website to find out which range is best for profitability and sales volume.

How long does it take to make a skincare line?

It takes no less than 12 weeks to develop a skincare product. However, most skincare lines require much longer for research, development, testing, and go-to-market. Skincare products require comprehensive testing, which takes time.

Feature illustration by Islenia Mil

This originally appeared on Shopify and is made available here to cast a wider net of discovery.