The $56.2 billion beauty industry has gotten a makeover itself in recent years, as brands have begun to market to previously untapped communities of consumers — men, trans people, gender-fluid individuals and folks all across the non-binary spectrum. It's about time, since men and women have notoriously stolen products from one another's medicine cabinets since forever. And working not to restrict or alienate potential consumer bases also happens to be a smart, common-sense business move.
Panacea, a direct-to-consumer startup brand, is among the more recent gender-neutral skin-care brands to hit the scene. It seeks to target "gender-agnostic" skin concerns with a streamlined range of products inspired by the K-beauty philosophy. Korean-American co-founder and CEO, Terry Lee — who previously served as COO of MeUndies — launched Panacea after years of frustration battling cystic acne himself. The pared-down, three-step routine centers on cleansing, replenishing and protecting, offering a simplified take on traditional 10-plus-step K-beauty regimens.
Panacea means "cure-all," but Lee doesn't believe that there's an actual "cure-all" product to universally treat different skin complications on every type of skin out there. (Does anyone?) Instead, he and his team hope that the products they've developed will have consumers starting their days with intention, which can create a domino effect of small victories.
"The ethos of progress and getting a little better each and every day, and that mindset of intention, is the 'panacea' that we think about," Lee explains. We caught up with him to chat about what consumers can expect from the budding brand and how Panacea is different from other gender-neutral beauty companies out there already.
Can you tell us about your background and when and why you ended up starting your own skin-care line?
The genesis for Panacea goes back to when I was suffering from cystic acne in college. The lowest point was during my senior year, when my skin was so bad that I lost every ounce of self confidence. I remember washing my face and brushing my teeth in my bathroom with the light off because I was so ashamed of how I looked.
Through this experience, I learned about the impact your skin has on your self-confidence and I became an expert skin-care consumer. I was obsessed with finding a cure so I tried everything: I've been on Accutane five times, experimented with crazy diets and holistic medicines and used many different skincare products from multiple brands to clear my skin. I did the Paleo diet before it was even called the Paleo diet — I heard dairy was associated with producing acne, so I cut out dairy for three years. I even went to this Eastern medicine doctor, and I don't know if he was even certified. I just went and saw this guy who did a bunch of acupuncture, which was a great experience, but didn't help my acne. I was so obsessed with finding a solution and cure. These experiences and, more specifically, the learnings, provided the foundation to start Panacea.
Panacea is defined as "cure-all." How does the name Panacea reflect your brand?
Our hope is that Panacea introduces intention into your skin-care routine and encourages you to face your day. We don't believe there is a single cure-all for perfect skin or a perfect life. Rather, it's the mindset of starting your day with a small accomplishment and how that sense of accomplishment provides the momentum for greater wins throughout the rest of your day. We want you to feel inspired to take that first step, which leads to the next and then the next. Progress, not perfection, is the goal.
Can you tell us a bit more about the brand and how it's unique from other gender-neutral beauty brands on the market?
I remember going on websites and browsing different skin-care products and, as a guy, I realized it wasn't really made for me, but I had such a problem that I didn't care. We want to democratize beauty and create something accessible for everyone.
Masculinity and beauty are diametrically opposed in a lot of cultures, especially in the U.S. This stigma is further reinforced by the beauty industry, which is intimidating for the male consumer. If you look at other cultures, they've embraced masculinity and being beautiful, like Korean men wearing makeup and carrying handbags, and Spanish-speaking languages, where "beautiful" is used in the male and female forms as "bonito" or "bonita." We want to break down the stigma that beauty is confined to a specific group of people.
We took inspiration from a lot of beauty brands and skin-care brands, and even outside the beauty industry. I love fashion and grew up in the streetwear culture. That experience and passion has shown up in Panacea as a brand. You look at brands and they come up with a creative direction for a season and create a whole story around it; the pinnacle is the fashion show. A lot of beauty brands will launch products and say, 'Here's our new moisturizer or cleanser,' but there isn't storytelling around it…We wanted to do that starting with our launch product.
As we talked to consumers, the most compelling feedback we heard was that many gender-neutral brands lack soul. Consumers shared they don't feel a connection to these brands. We want to be the exception. Yes, we want to create something that is beautiful and that works. But more importantly, we want to connect with the consumer and build a relationship. We want Panacea to have soul.
Also, skin care, specifically, is such an intimate product experience. It's done in the bathroom, by yourself, usually not fully clothed, in the morning or just before bed… Given the level of intimacy involved in that moment, I think consumers are extra discerning when it comes to exploring a new brand. So, as a brand, you have to pay a lot of homage and respect to that moment.
How are your products unique from other gender-neutral options on the market?
We were surprised to uncover that many of frustrations that consumers shared are systemic and consistent across many beauty brands. For example, we learned that both men and women want a moisturizer that's lightweight, non-oily, non-greasy and absorbs easily. While the reasons are different — most men want a lightweight moisturizer because they don't like anything that feels sticky or greasy, and most women want a moisturizer that absorbs easily so it provides a nice base or primer for makeup — we took into account these diverse perspectives to inform our product development process.
We can't solve for every concern or point of feedback in one product… And, in knowing that we wanted to create a lightweight moisturizer, it's honestly probably not going to be the most hydrating or most moisturizing one on the market. I'm probably giving away a huge clue here, but one of the next products we're working on is something to address those concerns.
The gender-neutral mindset also informed our packaging. We used an airless pump for our moisturizer and SPF products because most men are reluctant about using a jar. Many consumers are also frustrated that many beauty brands don't create travel-size products. As a result, all of our products are in travel-friendly sizes. Ultimately, we tried to be intentional across every facet of the brand and make Panacea inclusive of everyone, regardless of gender or background.
Walk us through the Panacea three-step routine: cleansing, replenishing and protecting.
The Aegis Daily Facial Cleanser is a sulfate-free, foaming cleanser that contains a gentle cleansing agent (derived from coconut oil) to draw out impurities and dissolve makeup without stripping skin. Our Moisture Shield Complex (which includes hyaluronic acid) ensures your skin stays hydrated and preps the skin for the Daily Facial Moisturizer.
The moisturizer is a unique, lightweight, concentrated formula to replenish the water balance in your skin. It's quickly absorbed, leaving skin soft and smooth, while also priming it for the Daily Facial SPF.
The Aegis Daily Facial SPF is a lightweight sunscreen that contains SPF 25 and broad spectrum UVA/UVB protection, and it shields against harmful environmental factors. It's virtually scentless, can be used under makeup and leaves your skin with a non-greasy finish.
Why do you think Panacea will resonate with consumers?
We're so intentional with every aspect of the brand. We didn't take any shortcuts in the buildup to our launch. We took more than 18 months to develop our products and underwent 10 to 14 product formula changes (most brands typically go through four to six) to ensure the ingredients, textures and packaging met our standards. This ethos was applied to every aspect of the brand.
We've been humbled by the positive feedback we've received from consumers, press and influencers. We hope that people who haven't heard about us will give us a shot based on what they're hearing from the community.
Panacea targets "gender agnostic" concerns. What exactly does that mean and what was the thinking behind that?
We're focused on one concern and that is making skin beautiful. This is a fundamental concern that both women and men are looking for, especially when seeking out a beauty brand. For a long time, most beauty brands approached this as a female-only concern. However, looking your best is a concern that transcends all boundaries — gender, ethnic, social class and so on.
How have you witnessed the beauty industry start to diversify with regards to gender recently?
In the past few years, several brands have started to embrace the blurring of gender lines. In particular, I'm inspired by brands like Milk Makeup and Le Labo, who embrace gender inclusivity without trying too hard.
The blurring of gender lines is not a trend. It's here to stay. And as a consumer, it's easy to discern which brands are embracing gender as a marketing tactic versus a fundamental belief. We didn't identify this trend and say, 'Oh, we want to ride that wave.' The belief and value around inclusivity and agnostic gender, ethnicity or whatever it is — those are life values I have, personally, and I'm speaking for my co-founders and team, as well. That's kind of an afterthought because it's the norm to us.
Our goal is to understand this shift and how it impacts culture on an intimate level. It's a balance between understanding and embracing where culture is headed while maintaining brand integrity and being consistent in the values we stand for.
A lot of brands still target a solely female-focused consumer base, while others use strategic branding to reach men, trans persons, gender-fluid folks and people across the board. What is Panacea's approach to reaching consumers across the non-binary spectrum?
We like to start from first principles, and what we've embraced is the balance between understanding what makes us similar versus what makes us different. What unites us versus what makes us unique. While men and women have different skin types, gender is only one of many factors that contributes to the uniqueness of your skin. We never thought about creating products specifically for men or for women, even when we've seen other brands grow successfully using this approach.
We create products that specifically cater to a unique skin type, regardless of gender, and then present it in a way that is approachable and accessible for everyone, regardless of their background. As a Korean-American growing up in the U.S., I've always been fascinated with the juxtaposition between what unites us and what makes us unique. It's a balance we'd like to achieve, so we embrace the commonality and individuality in everyone.
What can we expect from Panacea in the future?
We're already six months into developing our next phase of products. The [existing] Aegis Line is specifically for those with normal/combination skin. Future products will cater to other skin types, and we're excited to share the next phase of products this summer.
We're also in conversation with some iconic retail partners about distribution expansion. Nothing concrete yet, but we've always envisioned Panacea as an omnichannel brand and will look for the right opportunity to pursue in the near future.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Homepage/main photo: Courtesy of Panacea
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