Our “skinception” 🙂

My mother started VMV HYPOALLERGENICS®. VMV are her initials. She refused to put more of her name on the products and has never fronted for the brand (she preferred not to be its public face) — people find out she’s behind it but she won’t “sell” it. We still need to send med reps to her clinic to remind her that instead of writing the generic ingredients down, she could, oh, I don’t know, spell out the actual names of the products those ingredients turned into!

She’s a pretty rare creature on several levels. She finished high school at 14 and medical school at 21. By the time she came back to the Philippines from the USA (she is originally from Cebu and Leyte, where our organic coconut farm is) she was already an awarded and published researcher, with a paper that won a prestigious journal research award (she was a 2nd year resident at Cleveland Clinic at the time). She’s both a dermatologist and dermatopathologist with over 100 published studies to her name. Yeah, no pressure 🙂

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My mom has over a hundred published studies at this point. Over 75 are clinical trials on VMV products or (as with those on contact dermatitis or monolaurin) studies on ingredients, diseases and other science that goes into VMV products.

In her practice, she saw an increase in patients who were reacting — with rashes but also acne and skin darkening — to cosmetic products that they were using. At the time (the 1970s) cosmetics were largely dismissed in dermatology circles as fluff, there was relatively little research to go on, and the pickings were slim as far as alternatives she could recommend to her patients. Already immersed in patch testing at the Cleveland Clinic and other fellowships, and convinced of its importance, she let her research into contact reactions lead her to experimenting with formulations that she customized for her patients. Around this time, she met my father, a “serial entrepreneur” and business Ph.D. originally from Maryland and Maine, who had also lived in Hong Kong and was an expat in Manila at that time. He came to her as a patient and she cleared his skin — acne had plagued him most of his life, as had various allergies. He had the pockmarks and hyperreactivity to prove it. But even these scars and sensitivities — and photo damage from a lifetime of tanning — cleared over his life with her. It’s tempting to think she cleared his skin and he proposed to her but it didn’t quite happen that quickly! After they married, he convinced her to begin selling her concoctions, particularly Superskin, a patented formula that combined retinoic acid and clindamycin for the first time. She balked at the thought of schilling product but he assured her that she would never need to be the main public face of the brand, that the brand would never limit her research (it would always be patients, safety and clinical trials over market trends), and that she would always be “the cook in the kitchen.” He’d be the brand man.

As my mother continued her research, much got published in medical journals and much went into the creation of our products — the sales of which then funded more research, creating what we like to call a “VMVirtuous cycle.” This is why, while one published study is usually considered a huge deal, we have over 75 clinical studies in medical journals and presented in dermatology conventions.

Enter me, Laura, the eldest daughter. At around age 10, seemingly overnight, I developed a wild case of acne on the forehead…and mom told me I had to give up my beloved shampoo whose strawberry scent I thought was just the coolest thing. I was a happy guinea pig, trying any formulation she developed for acne…which had now spread to my shoulders, upper arms, chest and back. As it turns out, I had pityrosporum folliculitis (layman’s term: sweat acne). Whatever name it had, I hated it. To a pre-teen, what it was called wasn’t anywhere near as important as the humiliation of the acne itself, how widespread it was, and that my mom was a dermatologist. I regularly lied about who my mom was. I’d say she was a doctor; when pressed, a brain surgeon. In boarding school at 15, my mom explained that I had several types of acne. On the face, I had contact irritation acne (from my bangs) and run-of-the-mill hormonal/bacterial acne. The culprit of my adolescent scourge on the back and chest was a fungus (really, anything else to make me more popular, mom?). In addition to the medications for my face, I was to try…dandruff shampoo. As a “mask.” All over the affected areas. Please remember: I was in boarding school. Boarding school = dorm = privacy, not so much. I would wake up at 4 or 5am and sneak into the bathroom so I could sit, half naked, and blue, in private. I still remember the cold, clear fear of discovery. How to explain my being alone in the communal bathroom at that ungodly hour, half dressed and covered in caking blue slime? Some ancient ritual? Smurf fetish? Nothing sounded good. I should note that the shampoo left on like this was also really irritating and left me red, almost burned. You know how they warn you not to peak in high school? Not a problem for me. This experience led, many years later, to the development of our Id Monolaurin Gel for face and body acne, and yes, for pityrosporum folliculitis. It’s one of our best-sellers and comes in — the irony is killer — a blue bottle.

My sister, CC, was born 11 years after me and, sans exaggeration, my mother looked at her at about age 3 and said, “She’s got her father’s pores.” CC also has her father’s legacy of sniffling (honking), puffy, hivey, itchy, scratchy allergies. She couldn’t have been born into a better family, skin wise. As mom began seriously exploring the benefits of prophylactic care for hereditary conditions, CC benefited from early acne therapy with the SuperSkin Care regimen (cleanser, toner and moisturizer) at age 9. Take one look at her pockmark-free skin now and you’ll see how important that early care was. She’s still extremely sensitive — she needs our laundry soap on her pillow or she’ll wake like a startled puffer fish — but even that’s beautifully controlled with mostly just prevention.

CC and I were always “with” the company. The dinner table was the “birthplace” of many product ideas and the battleground for many product debates. Exciting stuff like micro-exfoliants in unbuffered form and with pH-adjusted regimens; a hospitalized case that got better with some really inventive mixture or protocol; a lifelong skin allergy finally accurately identified to be triggered by the strangest thing…were cool (or at least they were to us). But many of our top products almost never made it past the dinner table, much less into a beaker. In 1984 (I remember because CC was still a toddler) there were loud discussions about a scentless hair and body shampoo that mom wanted to make — this, after the runaway success of “Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific.” It was a hard sell for poor mom. She stood her ground, though, and created Superwash, which became (and still is) one of our most successful, iconic products. I also remember being as bothered by dad at the thought of an SPF 30 sunscreen. In the late 1980s, SPF 15 was considered “crazy” high. And I liked being tan and would work at it (expertly…for hours…shudder). She insisted and got her way. Then she pushed even harder…for ever-wilder ideas like the sunscreen being able to protect against UVA…then against indoor light (insert major eye-rolling here from me) for melasma. Boom: Armada sunscreens, arguably our top-selling product line ever (insert major mic-drop moment here for mom).

1988? The first VH-Rating System based on independently published allergen lists. “Too hard to keep up, mom.” “No one will get it!” “Customers will be intimidated!” “No one knows what an allergen is!” The VH-Rating system was the first method of its kind to measure hypoallergenicity by allergen omission. It has shown less than 0.1% reported reactions in over thirty years of use in VMV products. And it remains the only hypoallergenic rating system of its kind. It’s published, too, in one of the top journals of contact dermatitis. In case you haven’t noticed, mom’s hasn’t wanted for mic-drop moments.

The list goes on. A flavor- and fluoride-free toothpaste in 1997. Raised eyebrows and “blech” faces notwithstanding, Essence Skin-Saving Toothpaste came into being. Again, one of our best-selling products. Virgin coconut oil? Gooey! Monolaurin as a sweat acne treatment and antimicrobial? Impossible to sell! Weirdness! Proven wrong, again and again. Contentedly, I should say. We’ve since learned to furrow our brows at her “wild” ideas, double down to understand her science, and then surrender to her brilliance (we just hand her the mic for dropping, in other words). Haven’t been let down once.

Some ideas have come from us, from our needs as individuals and as a family with skin issues. Our Grandma Minnie Mom & Baby line happened because I was pregnant with our first child and while happily walking (waddling) around looking for nursery supplies, I realized: hold the phone, there’s nothing that isn’t fragranced! With our family history, there’s a good chance our baby is going to have sensitive skin…what now? MOM!!! That’s not stylistic license. In that baby store, in that instant, I called her in a hormone-induced panic: “MOM! There’s NOTHING not fragranced! NOTHING!!! What do I do?!” The stars aligned. Mom happened to be smack in the middle of her explosion of clinical studies on coconut oil and monolaurin, two awesome ingredients that would eventually make it into almost every VMV formulation. Suitability for baby care? Coconut oil is added to some infant formulas for premature babies and monolaurin is found in breastmilk. And, dad and his sister had just shared a trunkful of old photos with us. We were oohing and aahing over our great grandmother Minnie’s honeymoon photos and our aunt casually shares, “Oh, she used to mix cold cream for her friends in her kitchen in the 1900s.” It felt perfect. Our great grandmother mixing up soothing creams for loved ones, and with a name like Minnie? How could Grandma Minnie’s Mom & Baby Care not happen?

Our 1635 Gentle Men’s Therapeutic Shaving line was in the works for a while. It has its origins further back than most people know. My husband is Argentine and his whole family is pretty rugged (one of my BFFs has a term for them: R&T. Rough & Tumble). Farms, sports, camping, sailing, skiing, futbol, polo…all in the same day if the the daylight holds. When we were dating, facial cleansing was about as foreign an idea to him as waxing his brows — letting the shampoo drip down his front sufficed. When we created our Id Clarifying line it included a facial cleanser/shaving cream to at least get half of his face clean. Fast forward to 2013 with our desire to have a more comprehensive shaving-skincare line. Our dad was no longer with us (he passed away of multiple myeloma…13 years after a prognosis of 6 months, largely due to my mother’s stubborn research leading her to the awesome doctors at the University of Arkansas Myeloma Institute.) He was so meticulous about his shaving ritual — he sincerely enjoyed it as a simple, quiet pleasure — we had to name the line after him. 1635 is when his forebears first landed in the Americas. And we wanted his legacy in this elegant, functional line.

Red Better happened because, after years of watching my husband light up like a flakey siren, I finally went, hmmm, funny that we don’t have a line for rosacea.

MOM! 🙂

And then there’s Bessie, the unassumingly chipper heifer who watches over all our boutiques. She’s there because she was a gift: a brilliant artist friend of mine, Valeria Cavestany, gave us the original — a lantern sculpture in papier mâché — for us to welcome the new Argentine branch of our family. My father-in-law was coming to visit and we had the teensiest guest room. She thought the happy cow would be a lovely, warm touch. And it was. When building our first store, I saw an empty corner and thought: that looks so sad. On a lark, I brought Bessie to make the space more welcoming…just as she’d so nicely done at home. She felt so right, she “moo-ved” right into that space. So many things in our stores remind us of family and friends, and Bessie’s become our daily madeleine for the family farms in Argentina, a thoughtful friend, and more happy memories. For some bovine reason we’ve never been able to explain, Bessie seems to make lots of people who visit us happy, too. Replicas are hand-made for each boutique and Bessie’s become a popular, central “cowponent” of our stores. She is (and I swear this is the last of the cow puns) our “moo-scot.”

Bessie’s just one of the highly personal touches in VMV. Almost every model in our visuals is a real VMV fan, a family member, a coworker, a really good friend. I couldn’t be more grateful to them for believing in us and for graciously letting us photograph them. In this way, VMV’s been an ongoing, shared documentation of loved ones and family.

What’s nice is that we’re giving back to more families. We grow our own virgin coconut oil in our certified organic farm in Leyte, in the Philippines. It’s a collective farm that provides free education for farmers and schools in the area, and shares food and techniques with neighbors. On this farm, nothing goes to waste. Coconut by-products are used to feed fish in fresh flowing rivers on the land (gravity-fed fishponds) which has evolved naturally into a bird sanctuary for wild ducks, white herons, and hawks. Hit badly by typhoon Haiyan (one of the strongest tropical cyclones in recorded history, affecting about 11 million people, 4 million of them children), the farm took in 40 families; its one remaining structure with an intact roof (300 sqm or around 3,200 sq ft) served as a refuge for almost 300 men, women and children, providing shelter as well as food and water from donations and a site for medical missions. This farm was our mom’s father’s and, being a beloved member of the community as a lawyer and agricultural engineer, I’m sure he would be proud knowing how much good we’re doing with the land and the community.

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Family touches are in pretty much everything VMV. We wanted our boutiques to be highly personal because, well, VMV is so personal to us: we grew up in it, it’s in our bones. This is why (and I’ll warrant this may not have been the best decision-making process for design) I wanted our shops to hark back to my dad’s roots in Kennebunkport (the cornices and beach-weathered planks), my mom’s busy clinics (steel surfaces, lab accoutrements, the white of her coat), and my husband’s Argentinean heritage (checkerboard tiles, Bessie the bovine).

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I know, I know; the architect’s eyebrows shot up, too, “all that?! but where’s the cohesion? what’s the overriding theme?!” Call us corny but it’s “care.” Our science is formidable but what we do (and the formidable science is the reason we can do it well) is care. For so many people and so many different kinds of skin problems. All these things — homes, family, even the hospital where my sister and I spent hours after school, performing for the nurses while waiting for mom to finish her rounds — are what we associated with care growing up. Entering a store for us is like walking into a scrapbook, making us feel simultaneously cozy, grateful and safe. It’s why we  call our stores “skin havens”. They’re sanctums for skin, but they’re also, in a very real way, an extension of our home and family.


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Laura is the CEO of VMV Hypoallergenics and eldest daughter of our founding dermatologist-dermatopathologist. She has two children, Madison and Gavin, and works at VMV with her sister and husband (Madison and Gavin frequently volunteer their “usage testing” services). In addition to saving the world’s skin, Laura is passionate about learning, literature, art, health, science, inclusion, cultural theory, human rights, happiness and goodness.

The safest, most effective care on the planet