Have you noticed how your skin legit glows when you’re happy or acts out when you feel stressed? It’s not a coincidence.
According to health.harvard.edu/blog/stress-may-be-getting-to-your-skin-but-its-not-a-one-way-street-2021041422334″>Harvard Health, the brain-skin axis is an interconnected, bidirectional pathway. Think of it as a two-way street.
So, for example, stress and anxiety can trigger or worsen skin conditions like acne, eczema, psoriasis and rosacea.
On the flip side, chronic skin disease can potentially impact one’s psychological well-being, increasing the risk of depressive symptoms, social isolation and loneliness.
This intersection of skin health and mental well-being is the focal point of psychodermatology.
Psychodermatology is an offshoot of dermatology that taps into the interplay between the mind and skin to address skin needs more holistically.
Beyond Skin Deep
“People who engage with their mental health are three times more likely to see themselves as beautiful,” says Stephanie Lee, founder and CEO of Selfmade, a psychodermatological skincare line.
Selfmade entered the skincare scene in 2020 with its now-bestselling Secure Attachment Comfort Serum+ as its debut product.
“Attachment styles were one of the first psychological concepts I came to understand while in therapy,” says Lee.
“When we have insecure relationships, we tend to be fearful, avoidant, dismissive or preoccupied. This creates anxiety and increases cortisol, which affects our skin’s ability to function healthily,” she explains.
“Because of how important a secure attachment style is, I wanted to launch Selfmade with this pillar first,” adds the beauty entrepreneur.
Each product in the behavioral science-powered skincare line is designed to embody a psychological concept—such as attachment and resilience—to foster self-awareness and improve overall well-being by merging mental health principles into skincare.
A Catalyst for Change
For Lee, the brand’s mission hits close to home.
After working in the White House for nearly six years, Lee’s mental health took a dive.
“I never knew that people who looked like me and grew up the way I did could ever work at the White House,” says Lee, a first-generation Chinese-Vietnamese American. Her parents, both refugees from war, were boat people who escaped Vietnam during the 1970s after the fall of Saigon.
“I learned and did so much, things I never dreamed I could be a part of. At the same time, I worked a lot. All the time,” says Lee, who worked for the Chief of Staff before moving into the administration in the former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Office at the White House.
“As an overperformer, working at that level meant that I was hypervigilant, triple-checking everything and on call for anything that went wrong. I had a high level of anxiety and perfectionism that started to haunt me,” she shares.
“I didn’t have the tools [and] resources to care for my emotional well-being, especially as a woman of color,” says the beauty founder.
At 27, Lee left the White House and transitioned into the prestige beauty industry, where she learned the ropes of product development at MAC Cosmetics.
Pushing past her mental health struggles all this time without pausing to address them led to burnout, which also manifested physically.
“My hair was falling out, my skin was breaking out and my body was tense and always in pain. I went to the dermatologist and physical therapist and bought tons of beauty products with no relief,” says Lee.
“It wasn’t until I learned how to regulate my emotions through therapy that my mind calmed down and my body after that. My skin cleared up and my hair returned to homeostasis—something no product was able to help with,” she adds.
Lee eventually left the corporate world to travel on her own for a year—exploring not just the outside world but also the conversations around mental health in the process. This experience became the catalyst for creating Selfmade.
Lee fronted the first $30,000 herself, which covered product development, legal fees, trademarking and domain registration.
“I networked and asked to be connected with those who had experience and relationships where I lacked—like mental health, finance, start-ups, social media, graphic design, local formulators and manufacturers,” says Lee.
“It was a terrifying prospect to talk about my idea with people because it felt so personal and I was afraid of judgment,” she shares.
Once the advisory board was set up, Lee began building the team and products with a small round of friends and family fundraising, which helped her get over the starting line.
“I did a pre-seed in tranches because no one really understood mental health in our early days and certainly not the concept of pairing mental health with beauty in our approach,” she says.
Launched in Q4 of 2020 with a single product, the de-stressing Comfort Serum+, that amassed a 4,000 waitlist, Selfmade has now expanded its range to four multi-use essentials and secured retail partnerships with Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters and Thirteen Lune.
Additionally, the brand’s revenue reportedly tripled year over year, witnessing a +200% jump from 2021 to 2022 alone.
“None of this has been easy,” says Lee.
A Table For All
“I’ve encountered a lot of challenges in fundraising as both a person of color and a female founder. I still encounter those obstacles, particularly in an anti-Asian climate that has unfolded over the last couple of years,” she adds.
“This past year, I learned one of our investors used a racially derogatory term for Asians to refer to his nanny more than a couple of times. It’s 2023, not 1950. When I heard this, I immediately broke out in tears. The last time someone called me that, I was on the school bus in middle school being bullied,” she shares.
“With funding already so difficult to acquire, as a CEO, it didn’t feel great to write to him to return his investment. But as an Asian person who has done so much work to unleash their voice, it was personally necessary,” Lee says.
“It feels like never-ending sludge to process racist events personally and professionally and do the work to separate those feelings of sadness and anger from bleeding into the business,” says Lee.
To counter these systemic barriers as a brand, Selfmade has woven social justice into its brand operations, going beyond diverse skin tones, faces and shapes to provide a platform that lifts diverse voices, stories and opinions.
“I don’t want just to change the landscape of well-being, but how businesses operate in order to be a lot more human,” says Lee.
“We are not pulling up extra seats at a table not built for us. We are building a whole new table together,” she adds.