In the skin-care community, vitamin C and retinol are widely considered to be the two most legitimately effective ingredients available. (At least after sunscreen — and lot of dermatologists will also tell you as much.) This has led many of us who crave more youthful, even-toned skin to stock our medicine cabinets with serums and creams containing them, and thus, many brands to launch products in which they feature prominently.
For that reason, announcements of a brand's new launch containing one of these perennially buzzy ingredients don't exactly have us jumping out of our seats with excitement these days; there are already plenty of well-loved options on the market. However, when we heard about a new independent brand working with vitamin C and retinol in what appeared to be a genuinely different way, we were intrigued.
The idea for Protocol came from Los Angeles-based Tyler Gaul, who is not your typical beauty founder. A self-professed "closeted science nerd" working in marketing, Gaul was baffled by the realization that beauty brands, sometimes knowingly, put out products that don't really work. At the time, he was working for a skin-care brand and was wondering what made it different from all the other skin-care brands. "[I thought,] it's gotta be their ingredients. It's gotta be the chemistry behind it," he explains. "I went down this huge rabbit hole because reading academic research is fun for me." His conclusion: "This is crazy, not only is this company using deactivated derivatives — they're chemically inert forms of good ingredients — but everyone's using these."
He saw an opportunity to do better, but not without some help. He called up Molly Crana, a commercial fashion and beauty photographer he'd worked with a handful of times. "'What do you think of this situation? Isn't this insane?'" he recalls asking her.
"I was like, 'Yeah obviously, we all know that nothing works. As women, we apply these products and look in the mirror and realize we're still hideous; it's just the skin care industry, who cares? It is what it is,'" she recalls. "Tyler was like, 'No, it doesn't have to be that way.'"
So Gaul set out to use science to formulate vitamin C and retinol products using the best versions of these ingredients in the most effective delivery methods, and he quickly realized why those other companies weren't doing that: It's extremely difficult.
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Let's start with the retinol: He identified oxidated retinol as the form he wanted to use. The retinoid is said to be 20 times more effective than the regular retinol most over-the-counter products contain, or almost as effective and bioavailable as a prescription-level retinoid. However, it doesn't cause any of the irritation or dryness that prescription retinoids do. The issue? It's so fragile and unstable that it's rendered useless once exposed to light and air; thus, it's impossible to bottle, explaining why other brands don't use it.
"When you're in the bulk manufacturing stage, it's easy to remove exposure to oxygen and UV light; the hard part is getting it from the big vat into a bottle without exposing it to oxygen and air," Gaul explains. "That was the big engineering hurdle we had."
For vitamin C, he opted for ascorbic acid, the same form used by brands like SkinCeuticals and Drunk Elephant in their popular serums; and while they include complementary ingredients intended to stabilize the notoriously unstable ingredient, even they are rendered less and less effective every time you use them due to oxidization.
Gaul spent nearly two years engineering a bottling process and a bottle itself that could permanently keep oxygen and light out of the product, which included working with a firm in Washington state that typically only serves the nuclear industry. Likewise, the proprietary FDA-approved bottle is UV-proof and airless and stays that way even when you open it to pump out the product.
I've used the vitamin C serum myself and while I haven't had it long enough to say it's made a huge difference in my skin, I can say that the feeling of putting it on is unique in a couple of ways: One, unlike another very popular and expensive vitamin C serum I've used, it's pretty much colorless and doesn't smell bad. Two, unlike almost every product I use, except for my prescription retinoid, I don't have that momentary thought of, "Is this even doing anything?" Instead of blind faith, I have confidence that I'm putting on an effective version of an effective ingredient.
That said, I also had a 45-minute meeting with the founders that included a deck detailing the science behind the products and why they're unique before I used them. The average consumer isn't experiencing that, so another challenge for Gaul and Crana, who's been responsible for the visuals for the brand, has been education.
"The skin-care industry in general is incentivized to keep all that knowledge locked up because it enables them to provide substandard ingredients that knowingly don't work, so there's a huge education hurdle there," says Gaul. The brand is still new, but it's finding that many consumers appreciate being given the real facts. "For the most part, we get really, really positive reactions and people straight-up thanking us for finally explaining how retinoids work and the difference between the molecules."
Yes, the science is important, but let's be real, so is cute packaging, which is where Crana saw a real opportunity to target what you might call a post-Glossier consumer. "I photograph a lot of skin-care brands, beauty brands, and I had become fatigued by looking at all this packaging that just felt the same and it felt like it was pandering to a lowest common denominator of women who just wanted something pretty for their shelves," she says. She also wanted it to appeal to all genders and feel "utilitarian."
On the brand's Instagram feed, you'll find not one photo of product, but instead a series of orange-dominant images one might describe as vibe-y. "Orange to us felt like uncharted territory," says Crana. "I think orange can appeal to the streetwear crowd or the Upper East side crowd, like Hermés."
Protocol's Vitamin C Superserum ($72) and Oxidated Retinol Serum ($88) are rounded out by an AHA cleanser ($48) and a moisturizer ($54) that contains occlusives, emollients and humectants including niacinamide and hyaluronic acid. For people looking to simplify their routines, it's a strong lineup. There are no immediate plans to expand, as Gaul feels all the "all-star ingredients" are covered, and the line is only sold direct-to-consumer online, at least for now, allowing them to control the important educational aspect.
In a time when consumers are more interested in skin care than ever, but also easily swayed by an influencer singing a product's praises, that's especially important. And a little eye-catching packaging never hurts, either.