In the beauty industry, transparency and sustainability not only increase standards but also allow consumers to make informed choices about the products they use. Which then ultimately leads to a healthier and more equitable future for all. In this episode, Deb Millard, the President of Stripes and Healthy Aging brands at Amyris, discusses how its commitment to innovation and sustainability is changing the beauty industry. Deb shares her journey and how her children influenced her decision-making at Amyris. She delves into the evolving standards of beauty products and cosmetics, with a particular focus on those for older women. She talks about the importance of having conversations about topics like menopause and reproductive health across generations and genders. Deb also touches on the impact of sustainability and transparency in the beauty industry and how it affects consumers’ purchasing decisions. Tune in and learn about science, celebrities, and navigating menopause in the modern world.
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Sustainable Beauty: How Amyris Raises The Standards For Menopause And Beyond With Deb Millard
Expanding On Clean Health And Beauty
Rachel, long ago are the days where all we cared about was sustainable packaging, recyclable bottles, or cans. We have taken this now to such a higher level when it comes to beauty products and cosmetics.
It’s interesting because our guest, Deb Millard, we’re talking about some of her brands that are focused on older women. This wasn’t a conversation that you had years ago for people 30-plus, 35-plus, and 40-plus. Now all those people are either in menopause or have gone through it, but it’s down to, what is the ingredient? Where does it come from? How is it sourced? Every piece of packaging, everything in the supply chain. I think it’s important because it raises the standards for everybody. It does have an impact on price. From a transparency perspective, the more information you have about what you’re buying, what you’re using, and where it came from, the better off you are to make an informed choice.
It’s refreshing and interesting to hear that her children who are adults living outside the home are so influential with their opinions about the planet and sustainability. This had such an impact on her in her decision-making with Amyris.
I love how there’s a back-and-forth. Her children are learning from her from a business perspective and she’s learning from them, in addition to all the other parent-child interactions. Creating a conversation, which we’ve talked about often is the most important. It’s having a dialogue. As she says, being able to say the word vagina. Knowing the difference, as you said, between vulva and vagina. We say 1,000 times a day on an average day. We’re a little bit immune to it, but it continues to be so important to be able to have these conversations across generations and genders.
Let’s talk to Deb and see what she has to say.
We are so happy to welcome our guest, Deb Millard, who’s the Brand President of Stripes and Healthy Aging brands at Amyris, which is a big title and there’s a lot of stuff going on under that headings. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
Thanks for having me. I look forward to having the conversation.
We always are interested in how people get from wherever they were to women’s health, to the heart of the storm, and the heart of what we talk about. Your previous role before this was at Amazon. What happened there? What did you experience there that made you say you wanted to make the jump over here that those skills would be particularly relevant to what you’re trying to do at Amyris?
Interestingly enough, I’ve been in retail my whole career doing strategic planning or buying. I’m always on the corporate side for companies like William Sonoma, Gap, or Sephora. At times, that journey’s tied with the time of life that I’m in. For example, when I owned my own business, it was a children’s furniture accessory store. I was having kids at that time so it aligned with where I was.
Amazon was incredible because it’s a very large scale. Everything is happening very quickly. You’re working with a lot of great minds driving some crazy innovation. Lots of great learnings. I went there and I was on the fashion side bringing new brands onto the Amazon platform. We were working on programs to further develop our point of view when it came to fashion. I found myself towards the end right before I took on this role working with Amazon Go, which is the technology of take it, grab it, and walk out the door.
I got to do a lot of fun things, but as I started to think about that next chapter, aligning back to that mission to where I am in my life made a lot of sense for me. When I started having conversations with Amyris, talking about menopause, and getting into that realm of things, it resonated. It is where I am in my life. My kids are gone, out of the house, in college, and doing their thing.
It freed me up to think about what I treasure most in my life. It’s my relationships with my kids, my husband, and my girlfriends. As I learned more about this and I was going through my own journey thinking about how underserved we are and that it takes a lot of education even to get in front of a doctor and have the right conversation so that it serves you.
When we’re talking about menopause and all of the different symptoms and all of the things that happened. The fact that it starts pretty early in your journey and you don’t even realize what’s happening, it felt like a real opportunity in a space where I could get involved. Bring my skills from my very long retail career and apply them to something that I’m passionate about.
Amyris is an interesting company. It’s a compilation of brands. Can you talk a little bit about that and where Healthy Aging and Stripes fit in?
Amyris is all about science. We’re doing amazing technology around molecules. We are able to take basically a molecule from creation to the shelf. There are not a lot of companies that can do that. Our big story is that we’re doing it sustainably. When people say organic or natural, that doesn’t mean that you’re not harming the Earth and doing the things that you’re doing. Harvesting from a tree is harmful to trees. Harvesting from a shark’s liver is harmful to a shark.
Amyris has been able to develop technologies where we can replicate molecules in a lab with a very small footprint. We do sugar cane fermentation because sugar cane grows super-fast and it takes a very small footprint. We’re able to continuously renew that and even use the old sugar cane, the fuel that we need in order to create the fermentation process.
When you put all of that together, we’re not doing harm, we’re not compromising our environment, and we’re creating efficacious molecules that help people live better lives. Squalene is something that’s been used in cosmetics. We’re now probably the largest provider of squalene for all kinds of brands. It is an amazing emollient that hydrates and protects the skin.
When we were looking to launch Stripes, the same type of thing, what is a molecule that we can use that is either too expensive, not scalable, etc., and use it in a way that will serve this population of women? That’s where we came up with acetylene. Now we combine acetylene and squalene. We’ve also done another molecule that is a sugar derivative. Amyris is constantly working on developing new molecules that serve people for the better without compromising our environment. It’s all about science. Everything we do is powered by science.
You had mentioned shark liver oil. I just want everyone to know that wasn’t random. Can you define what squalene is?
Squalene is derived from sharks’ livers. Also, it can be plant-derived. It can be derived from olive trees. No matter which way you look at it, you’re impacting. You’re either killing sharks to get it or you’re destroying all of the trees to get it. The fact that we’re able to do it through this fermentation process, it’s as efficacious, incredibly clean, and more scalable. We’re also able to reduce costing and we make it more accessible to everyone.Squalene is derived from sharks' livers. No matter which way you look at it, you're impacting. You're either killing sharks to get it or you're destroying all the trees to get it. Click To Tweet
I always laugh because patients often will tell me, “It’s got to be safe. It’s natural.” I always come back with the, “So is cyanide and arsenic. They’re naturals.” We have to be careful how we phrase things. I want to understand how we go from a molecule to clinical use. How are these ingredients or molecules studied in actual people? It sounds very new age, super interesting, and well-studied, but how is it translated to a human?
All of our molecules basically mimic the molecule that is naturally existing. From that perspective, there is no difference in the molecule makeup. Something has already been studied and safe. We look to mimic that exact same molecule in the way that it lives in nature. Aside from that, we also do clinical studies with people in everything that we do.
We run clinical studies for all of our formulas and for our molecules. Even when you take the molecule on its own, that might be safe, but then you put it together with a bunch of other cosmetic ingredients. We do clinical studies that involve human beings, testing over between 6 to 3 months time period to assess for efficacy, safety, or any reactions. Everything we do goes through that process.
That’s very reassuring. We talk a lot about clinical practice. I know you have naturally derived fragrances. What we worry about are phthalates. These are chemicals that are likely endocrine disruptors. They can potentially have some fairly significant endocrine effects for people who identify as women for sure. Maybe fertility, reproductive life, and possibly even some medical ailments. How are you getting around? Is this a replacement for a fragrance to try to mitigate those risks that come along with the usual fragrance ingredient?
Are you talking about the fragrance that we might put in our products?
Yeah. I looked at some of your products that have to do with fragrance. Do you have a natural fermentation process?
We do create some fragrance molecules, but for this, we worked with an outside fragrance expert who looks at all of this. We want all of our products to be EWG-compliant. All of our products have also been given to EWG for them to go through all of it to make sure that our ratings are coming in that three or under range. I’m happy to report that we’re basically there and all of it, just because we want to make sure for ourselves that sometimes these things can combine together and be precursors to other things. We need to know that. We make sure that all of our products are EWG-compliant.
Where do you draw the line between beauty or cosmetics and medical? Do you not cross into the medical side?
We try and stay away because we are an over-the-counter product. We’re not doing anything that is prescription. I think the craziest we get is SPF, which has some more stringent and other regulatory requirements. Right now, that is our space, but there are things, for example, the lubes in our line. The two products that we have are a vaginal moisturizer and then a vaginal lubricant. You can’t call them lubricants because lubrication is considered a device and it has to be cleared by the FDA. We are going through FDA clearance on that, too, because we want to be able to talk about things the way that they’re intended and make sure that we’re providing women with all of the safety and information that they deserve.
I love all the brands that you’ve worked with. I’ve been a customer of all those, so I can only imagine how many people called you and wanted to know when there was a big sample sale or anything else. I love the idea that you wanted to always be working with products that you could relate to given the stage of life that you were in. Obviously, you talked about being of menopausal age. How did you make the connection? There are lots of new celebrity brands, not just in menopause, but in skincare. What was the catalyst for the relationship with Naomi Watts and the co-founding of Stripes?
The first thing was Amyris. Getting with a company where their mission was aligned. My kids, that’s all they talk about is, “We’re killing the Earth. We’re killing our environment. We need to stop this.” That conversation sparked a lot of interest for me because it aligned with where I felt my kids wanted me to be going and where I want to be. I want to be a part of the solution, not continue to be a part of the problem. If I’m going to continue to sell products to people, I want to do it in a way that feels like I am doing the least harm possible.The planet is dying. Be a part of the solution, not continue to be a part of the problem. Click To Tweet
The second part was connecting with Naomi and having that conversation. Understanding that this wasn’t like a celebrity moment for her. This was true lived experience that she started to go through in her late 30s. Trying to get pregnant, getting pregnant, then from pregnancy right to menopause, and all of the symptoms that she felt, which were a lot. Anything from dry skin to thinning hair.
It felt very genuine to me and the mission that she wanted to go after. For me, I’m all in but let’s find the “so what.” I don’t want to just launch a line for the sake of launching. There are many skincare lines out there. For me, that “so what” was the acetylene. Acetylene is an incredible ingredient that basically takes hydration to where it needs to be. What acetylene does, I’ll get a little bit more scientific with it.
We all have perfectly beautiful rounded proteins when we’re young and things are working the way that they should. When we start to lose that estrogen, we start to lose our ability to retain water, oils, collagen, etc. Our proteins start to go from this nice round to a spaghetti-type shape, which now they’re not working to help you regenerate your skin and keep all of those layers healthy.
What acetylene does is it can get into that layer and go right to the proteins and draw water to where it’s needed. It takes the spaghetti-like proteins and turns them back into those nice, fluffy round proteins and keeps the water. It’s a great way to hydrate. When you put squalene on top of that, it’s almost like a boiling pot. When you take the lid off, the water boils out, and then your pot gets all crackled and dry. When you put the lid on it, everything that you’re doing with that boiling water is nicely bubbling and working the way that it shed. That’s what acetylene and squalene do together.
With hydration being such a major problem for women going through estrogen, we want to provide that good foundation. It’s not about anti-aging or anti-anything. It’s about, “Let’s give you the best foundation that you can.” Hydrated skin is a good foundation then if you want to use it. Our products also have results in our clinicals for wrinkles, plumping, and skin laxity. What we’re most concerned about is our ability to hydrate from the inside out.
How does this differ from hyaluronic acid, which is, of course, all the rage right now in so many cosmetics, lubricants, and moisturizers?
Hyaluronic acid is still a great moisturizer, but it behaves differently than acetylene in how it is able to retain water around the protein. I read it as it’s more efficacious. I think the number is five. I could be wrong. I don’t have the data right in front of me, but it is more. For example, some of our face creams also have hyaluronic acid. We’re going to give you everything we can to make you as hydrated as possible. The other thing that we’re finding is we’re doing clinicals around acetylene. We’re not calling it up, but we’re going to get there pretty quick. It is its ability to deal with inflammation as well.
Here’s our Hot Flash. A CBS news report in 2021 suggested that more than half of the cosmetics sold in the US and Canada likely contain high levels of toxic industrial compounds linked to health conditions.
Alyssa, you have people use the same expression that Deb did that your practice has evolved as you have evolved and gone through your life. When you were having babies, and even after you were delivering babies, now that you’re a little bit older, the majority of your patient population has aged with you. For those who haven’t had the chance to know you, you take a much more holistic comprehensive approach to care. I’m curious how often things around skin care, hair loss, and those kinds of issues come up in your office. I know you’re talking to women in menopause every day and they’re having all kinds of concerns.
It’s the 34 symptoms of menopause. I’m sure there’s way more than that depending on who you speak to. Patients come in and do complain about hair loss, which is something that they typically will present to their gynecologist for. Whether it’s losing clumps of hair, thinning hair, or just a changing texture of the hair, this is something that’s very concerning because it’s external and it’s outwardly visible. That’s why I think it’s something that’s top of mind for lots of my pen menopausal women.
Skin? Yes, gynecologists will hear about complaints regarding dry skin or if the skin is looser, more lax, or not what it used to be. I feel like dermatology is the field that women go to for that, and that is their first stop. We’re just an afterthought, “By the way, thanks for doing my pap smear. Do you have any suggestions for my skin?” A little bit less of a common complaint in the gynecology office.
What about vaginal dryness?
That’s your bread and butter, I should guess.
I better turn on my recording because that’s a constant complaint. I credit podcasts, media, and whatnot for bringing this to the forefront of people’s minds. Even a couple of years ago, this wasn’t a comfortable topic for so many practitioners, patients, or really anybody to talk about. That has truly changed.
We’re talking as much as we possibly can about our vaginal products because you have to say the word vagina. If you don’t say it, then people can’t get comfortable with it. That’s been an area where we’re trying to spend a lot of time talking about to get women comfortable.
I will say I speak vagina. Obviously, I’m a gynecologist. I never had a problem with that, but people do look at me funny from time to time. There’s a real difference between the vagina and the vulva. I often find myself educating my patients and anybody who will listen as to the difference because they are different types of organs.
We can’t talk about building a women’s health business without talking about the realities of figuring out how to get your message out there and some of the limitations you face, trying to get your message on social channels. Have you experienced that? Have you figured out a workaround that some companies have?
Right now, we haven’t had too much of a problem. I think we’re small still, so nobody has picked up on us yet.
You come with the science piece first, so that helps.
Exactly. We will be going into places like Amazon, Sephora, and potentially other channel partners. We do need to continue to figure out how we get around some. I know Amazon immediately put you into sexual wellness and you’re hidden in a corner. We’re almost creating the same thing for sexual wellness as we did for plus size women where they always went in the back of the store and nobody could find you.
I haven’t heard that analogy. That’s amazing. I like that.
On the other hand, again, this is not a clinical issue, but even in department stores like Saks, Nordstrom, or whatnot, there is a sexual bonus department that’s pretty visible. I credit that I think we’re becoming more comfortable with this.
That is relatively new. Nordstrom launched that in January 2020. Bloomingdale’s came on, Saks, and Nordstrom. From my understanding, nobody has it in store right now. Some of them had it in store, and now everybody is doing it online and it’s a bit of a wait-and-see. Let’s see how it does. People are used to coming in here to buy mascara, shoes, pocketbooks, and outfits. Let’s see if we can get them in the store. I think that’s really important. I know we’re seeing it in mass retail, as you described. Certainly in the Targets, Walmarts, and even Sephoras of the world.
They’re even starting to not just have it be all over the place. They’re starting to make actual categories, which all of these are positive changes because it does require their own category. It shouldn’t just be like sitting with condoms.
The other thing that I noticed, especially, you have such an influential person who’s the face of some of the Stripes products. The standard menopausal woman from years back would look like a hunched-over older person, maybe with a kerchief on their head, a cane, and whatnot. Suggesting advanced osteoporosis more than what menopausal women look like at this time, which is vibrant, energetic, and beautiful. Maybe they need a little more skin cream or hair treatment, but I digress. Are you all direct-to-consumer? How are you getting the word out, especially with the limited verbiage that we’re allowed to use?
We were able to build a pretty large community on Instagram. I think we’re about over 110,000 and growing. We also have our Hot Spot, which is also growing nicely. We have about 3,000-ish, which we just launched. It’ll be more of a walled community where you have to sign in. It’s a little bit more protected to have deeper conversations and more engagement with the community.
We also have menopause guides on our website, as well as the digital magazine that we’ve launched called Adulted. It’s where we’re working with the medical community and menopause experts to bring forth articles and information based on what our community is telling us that they want to hear about. On some of it, we’re very light and trying to be fun. Other, we’re going deeper into some of the topics, but we’re co-authoring a lot with the medical community.
Do you have a medical advisory board?
We do. We have a medical doctor, an OB-GYN, her name’s Dr. Lizellen La Follette. We also have Dr. Zand who’s our dermatologist on board. We have lots of brand friends like Kelly Casperson, who’s a sexual wellness expert. We’ve got Mary Claire Haver who also built her own community. She’s been a great friend to the brand in terms of general questions. She’s also written a book which has been well received on nutrition. We try to align ourselves as much as we can with the experts because we are not the experts. What we’re trying to do is start a conversation and provide as much education and information based on real facts.
Can you help us understand where the business is? Obviously, Amyris is a collection of brands. For the ones that you’re talking about, where are they in terms of their market development and commercialization?
Stripes just launched in October 2022. Lots of plans obviously for channel partners, Amazon, and continued growth on direct-to-consumer. As I said, with Adulted and Hot Spot, we want to be reaching out to the community, so becoming much more involved in different communities with different events. We also have MenoLabs, which is a brand that was acquired by Amyris, which that’s more in the supplement space.
We are working also more on the naturopathic side of the wall because not everybody is going to take HRT. People need different ways to solve different problems, but I think what unifies everything that we do at Amyris is we want to be careful that what we’re putting out there is going to be safe for the women that are interacting with it. Lots of testing. Lots of trials. Even with MenoLabs which is a company we acquired, we’ve basically put all of their products through a huge audit process to make sure that everything in there is what it’s supposed to be. It’s safe and there are no allergens. If there are, we call them out.
That’s so important.
With the Stripes supplements, because we do have some supplements there, we’re basically trying to take the approach of farm to supplement. Everything that is in there is traceable, the most efficacious, and the best quality.
What’s interesting is having worked in this space for a long time, if you were talking about menopause years ago, you didn’t even think about sustainability. You didn’t even think about the impact on the environment because that wasn’t a criterion historically that menopausal women cared about. A lot of things have happened. As you said, you’re influenced by the attitudes your kids have about what our generation has done to their planet. People of all ages use lubricants and skincare. The idea is it does add an important layer of responsibility to the world. Again, you didn’t have to think about that years ago.
Yeah, it’s true. How do you continue this conversation? If our women are getting more comfortable and our channel partners, meaning stores are getting more comfortable, we need to now bring the men on. They need to be a huge part of this conversation as well to round everything out. Basically, everyone around it. Every woman is going to go through menopause. If you are a woman and at one point or another, whether it’d be chemically induced because you’ve had cancer, or because you’re of the right age, or whatever, you’re going to go through menopause. It impacts us women, but it impacts everybody around us as well. If we’re not feeling well, people around us know it.Menopause impacts women, but it impacts everybody around them as well. If they’re not feeling well, people around them know it. Click To Tweet
I was at a conference where there are a bunch of founders, entrepreneurs, and investors. We were talking about building businesses in this space. A physician on the panel said, “Here’s how you get men to care about in continent. You tell him how, if they have a female partner, it interferes with their ability to conduct their life or to go to a movie with their partner.” The four of us on the panel were pretty much laughing out loud saying, “I’m sorry you can’t go to a movie because she had a baby or she’s in menopause and she’s leaking and hasn’t figured out a solution.” It is critical to make sure that men are in the conversation.
I read something that said, “We need to teach boys about menstruation because uninformed boys about menstruation become uninformed men about menstruation. They could have daughters and partners. They should have a better understanding.” Certainly, with menopause, which seems to have exploded at least in the conversations in the workplace, you can’t avoid getting more educated. We won’t stand for it anymore that people don’t know anything about what women are going through.
The girls, too. My daughters have been listening to all of this. They’re like, “We’ve learned so much. Now, if I start having symptoms when I’m in my 30s, I’m going to know that it could be perimenopause.”
Young women are coming in now and asking all about fertility at age 28. They’re certainly a much more informed bunch. What I’m so interested in is the elimination of some of these chemicals that we’re finding over time are probably impacting our health. Some of them are ubiquitous. There are ways to try to mitigate that risk. It’s very appreciated what your company is doing.
Before we let you go, you’ve had such a big and successful career across different categories in retail and direct-to-consumer. I’m sure you couldn’t fit it into one idea, but given what you’ve learned and all the experiences you have. For people who are just starting out as entrepreneurs or people who are looking for companies to invest in this space, what is a piece of advice you can give them so that they can, many years from now, be the person with all the wisdom building the next greatest brand?
It’s about answering the “so what.” If you’re doing something that doesn’t have a clear “so what,” then there’s no point in doing it. Also, the consumer. You have to be tied to the consumer. You can always be behind your closed door assuming what everybody wants, but if you don’t have that connection to the consumer, you don’t know what you’re talking about. To me, it’s those. You’re providing a “so what” and you understand what the consumer wants.
Thank you so much. It’s exciting. We can’t wait to see what happens with Stripes and all the things that Amyris brings out. We appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.
Thanks so much, Rachel. It’s so nice to meet you, Alyssa.
You as well. Thanks again.