Our “skinception” 🙂
My mother started VMV HYPOALLERGENICS®. Being of the grand old guard of hard-core dermatological researchers and serious clinicians, it was unethical for her to promote any products. She therefore refused to put her name on the products (she allowed no more than “VMV,” her initials) and has never fronted for the brand (she preferred not to be its public face). People do find out that her research and clinical care are behind it but she won’t “sell” it.
She’s a pretty rare creature on a few 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.
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.
She also wears an impressive three hats: as a clinician and pathologist handling complex (often, hospitalized) cases; a researcher; and a chemist/formulator. It’s rare to find one person who is all three, and at such a level.
VMV Hypoallergenics was born out of her practice, when she saw an increase in patients who were reacting — with rashes but also acne and hyperpigmentations — to cosmetic products that they were using.
In the 1970s, cosmetics were often dismissed in dermatology circles as unimportant, 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 businessman and entrepreneur originally from the USA who was an expat in Manila. He came to her as a patient and she cleared his skin. Acne had plagued him most of his life, as had various allergies, and his skin showed damage from a lifetime of tanning. He had the pockmarks and hyperreactivity to prove it. Over time, these scars, sensitivities, and photodamage significantly improved. It’s tempting to think she cleared his skin and he proposed to her but it didn’t 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. She balked at the thought of selling products 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. My mom told me I had to give up my beloved shampoo whose strawberry scent I thought was just the coolest thing. But after my acne had spread to my shoulders, upper arms, chest and back, I became a happy guinea pig, trying any formulation she developed. As it turns out, I had pityrosporum folliculitis (sweat acne).
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 the fact 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 high 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.
In addition to the medications for my face, I was to try…dandruff shampoo. As a “mask.” All over the affected areas. When she’d discovered this, I was in school abroad = 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? I should note that the shampoo left on like this was also highly irritating and left me red, sometimes burned. 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 — a blue bottle.
My background isn’t in business. It’s in critical theory, with a focus on race, gender, postcolonial studies, and consumer society. I came home to help in the family business after my father got diagnosed with multiple myeloma (more on this below) and set out to work on our culture: to make sure our messaging, representation, and how we treated each other was in keeping with our science and empathy and goodness.
My sister CC was born 11 years after me. At about age 3, my mother looked at her and said (total truth), “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. We were raised on 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.
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, when “Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific” was still a top selling shampoo brand. 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 my father 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. Mom 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. This led to Armada sunscreens, our top-selling product line ever (major mic-drop moment here for mom).
1988 saw her publish 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 notwithstanding, Essence Skin-Saving Toothpaste came into being. Again, one of our best-selling products. Virgin coconut oil? Too tropical! Monolaurin as a sweat acne treatment and antimicrobial? Weird! Proven wrong, again and again…contentedly. 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 ahead of time and go with her flow).
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 my first child and while happily walking (waddling) around looking for nursery supplies, I realized: there’s nothing that isn’t fragranced! With our family history, there’s a good chance my 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 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. Coconut oil is added to some infant formulas for premature babies and monolaurin is found in breastmilk…they couldn’t have been a better fit for mom and baby products.
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 face 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. My 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.
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.
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 family, friends, and 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 (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 belonged to my lolo (Tagalog for grandfather; my mom’s father). 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.
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 our shops are designed to be both cozy-caring and highly scientific.
The architect’s eyebrows shot up, too: “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 and love and family 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.
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.