A moment with Eddie Zhao, co-founder of YÜLI Skincare
We’re delighted to bring this conversation with Eddie Zhao, the co-founder of the cult, luxury green beauty brand YÜLI. I first became familiar with his brand while working with my clients in San Francisco, where YÜLI is considered by tech CEOs and entrepreneurs as a well-kept insider secret where their ultraviolet glass bottles can often be found adorning the marble bathroom countertops of many homes. When it came time to develop MIJA’s Celestial Potion, I knew I wanted an expert skincare formulator, and our collaboration was born. I’m excited to share our conversation on Eddie’s background, and more about our collaboration on Celestial Potion with you.
Eddie! It’s so great that we could sit and do this. I suppose we should start with how we met.
Right, you first came on my radar as the busy nutritionist going from one client visit to the next at Four Seasons Residences for your house calls in San Francisco. I would sip tea in their café at the lobby after my workouts at the Equinox downstairs, and be like “who is that busy girl?!” And then we connected because we were working with the same Silicon Valley crowds, and they knew that we both sort of wanted to do the same thing, and were looking for the other person basically — I wanted a dietitian/nutritionist to do something in wellness, and you’re a dietitian/nutritionist looking for someone with experience in product/business. We met, rest is history!
Do you personally take MIJA products?
Every day. Remember how you literally sent me a huge box of Superstars when I was working overseas? We actually carried Superstar on our YÜLI holiday shop, and described it as the “ingestible we’d make” and it’s true! I take Superstar daily. I’m not really a coffee drinker, so Galaxy Cloud Creamer is less utilized, but there are certain ingestibles that work better with fats, like protein, so I mix the creamer in with my post-workout shake.
Can you share more about this?
Sure. Protein in general is good, and a protein-dominant diet is what most athletes and fitness experts follow. Protein also helps the body maintain functionality which decreases as we age, so it’s imperative for quality of life. However, a high protein diet also increases levels of IGF-1, a metabolism hormone that is associated with shorter life spans. As an example, larger breed dogs have higher levels of IGF-1 than smaller breed dogs, and generally have shorter life spans. So how do we get the functionality protein provides while keeping IGF-1 levels low? Fats. The science shows that taking protein with healthy fats provides a good buffer, with MCT fats helping to facilitate absorption while keeping hormone levels down. And Galaxy Cloud Creamer’s fats happen to be from coconut milk, which, besides antioxidants and minerals, is primarily MCT fats. Also, and I know I’m going a little long here — fats are good for joint health, and Galaxy Cloud Creamer helps with inflammation as well, which is good for recovery after workouts.
Do you take any other supplements?
I do, but only as needed. It’s important to let the body try to balance itself, as it’s designed to do. I like Superstar because, end of the day, it’s superfoods which fuel and support this ability rather than replace this ability, which I feel a lot of supplements try to do, and it’s not good long-term.
Coming from skincare, how are you informed on nutrition?
I was a double major in college, so I have a BS in nutritional science. It’s always been an interest of mine, especially as it’s such a struggle for modern society to get right.
How did skincare come about?
Well, I had really, really bad skin. Both of my parents had terrible acne, so I did not win the genetic lottery there. I investigated everything, relied on the literature and used all the actives I was being told would help: salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, you name it. When those didn’t work, I went on dermatologist prescribed antibiotics, which then led to Accutane, long considered a final treatment type of hammer on this issue. And even then, I had to go on Accutane multiple times. What people don’t tell you is that Accutane might reduce the breakouts, but it does absolutely nothing to improve the quality of the skin.
So afterward, I was still breaking out now and then, my skin was punctuated by scars and craters. And a well meaning mentor advised that I really needed to get my skin under control if I wanted to advance in my career as an investment banker if I didn’t want to be ‘back of house.’ Long story short, it got me to dig my heels in and really research why skincare products on the market were not working for me, and instead of coming from a place that there was something wrong with me, which I feel as customers we're trained to do, I started to understand that the way active ingredients and products are marketed, and the cycle in which that further informs formulations creates products that are counterproductive, such as cleansers that are overly harsh and strip the skin leading to more imbalance. I was determined to crack the code, and discovered that the same was true for all skin conditions, the formulas were largely counter-productive to the end goal from a long term perspective whether we're dealing with acne, dry skin, skin aging, sensitivity issues, dullness, etc.
So how did you solve that at YÜLI?
We focused on ingredients that work, and formulas that offered more long-term solutions with comprehensive, big picture considerations. Our formulas worked to improve the skin, working with the skin as a system, rather than against the skin, which is the way a lot of formulators approach it “is your skin dry? This will get rid of that!” And they coat the skin with barrier occlusives that leave the skin unable to function, and the skin might feel okay, even relieved when it’s on, but can’t work correctly when it’s off, and long term, its functionality decreases in an accelerated manner. Instead, our approach was “if your skin is dry, let’s go big picture and solve the underlying reasons at play.” So we'll look at: how do our formulas help the skin produce more sebum naturally? How do we increase natural moisture factors in the skin? How can we supplement the moisture barrier so your skin gets stronger over time? Do we see more resilience, and a stronger lipid barrier over time?
YÜLI is a clean skincare brand, does that have anything to do with the efficacy?
Yes and no. Yes in the sense that we do look at what the point of all ingredients are, and will not use anything that doesn’t directly benefit the skin, which tends to be a lot of the synthetic fillers in most brands on the market designed to give a certain texture, or feel for those first-impression marks that are important to mass retail, yet do nothing positive for the skin. No, in the sense that just being clean is relatively meaningless. You can have a clean product, where the formula is still trash.
How did this inform the way you approached Celestial Potion?
I focused on three things with Celestial Potion:
1. We have to keep it aligned with the MIJA identity: superfood/nutrition oriented, no filler, but with a bit of sensorial tolerability meaning, it still has to feel nice.
2. I used Superstar as a reference point to draw synergy between the inner and outer beauty connection. For every three ingredients in Celestial Potion, two are also used in Superstar. As a nutritionist founded brand, even a topical needs to focus on being able to deliver the nutritional component, and Celestial Potion does that more than other oils on the market.
3. Oils are not exactly groundbreaking, so creating one now, I wanted something signature and unique. There is that clinical complex, which is a 20% concentration of the ACE vitamins, Bakuchiol Vitamin A, Vitamin C from liposomal encapsulated Vitamin C, and full spectrum Vitamin E tocopherols, added with antioxidant CoQ10 to help with skin cellular energy. And then the difficult part, which is to make a formula that at once is multiuse for the face, body, and hair, yet so good at each that it can feel specialized, so I was selecting hyper functional ingredients that could still work together in a highly specialized way.
Let’s talk about the new production of Celestial Potion, because we changed a few things around. Can you tell us more?
Yes, so we wanted to get Celestial Potion out to meet a more accessible price point of $110 for 2 ounces, which honestly, was very difficult to achieve for the superior level of ingredients we have. I remember seeing market comps of formulas that have around only 60%-70% of the ingredients we do, go for two to four times more per ounce. But since we sold through the entire first production run, there was a bigger budget to make more, and this increased volume, and reduced costs. And this meant I was able to go for the more potent rosemary extract which offers around 5 times higher ORAC values than anything else out there. I also added Green Tea flowers into the infusion and extract, which gives the potion a nice lighter floral fragrance that’s really unique compared to the typical flower profiles out there, and unlike any green tea extract in existence. Finally, the infusion process was more intensive, and longer, and we played more with fermenting some plants which dramatically improved absorption and skin feel. It feels so much lighter, yet nourishes deeply, quicker.
I used a bottle of the new stuff, and I have to say, it is soooooo good. Is the performance changed at all?
Yes. With the more powerful rosemary, I did some clinical testing, and it’s producing better results compared to minoxidyll for prolonging hair growth phase on the scalp. The Bakuchiol is also more potent, as is the Vitamin C, and that’s simply because we’re perfecting the extraction process within the formula. There's Bakuchiol out there that is only 8% active, and ours is 100% active component. So our sample group of 12 people noted brighter, firmer skin more quickly and in more pronounced results than those who tried the first production run.
This sounds amazing, and how did we keep the price the same?
We’re selling more, so thankfully, the math is working out. So if people want to keep this up, they need to keep ordering so we can keep making Celestial Potion!
Okay finally, I see that YÜLI has closed? What’s next for you, and for your customers? I want to know where I will get my Halcyon Cleanser!
Yes. My partner and I have been doing it for over 12 years, and are at a different life stage now from when we started. We lovingly call it an end to a chapter, because that’s what it is. It felt like time to grow into the next thing. For her, it’s motherhood and pursuing other passions. For me, YÜLI was an amazing experience, and in addition to my work in product and creative at Tamburins, and Eve Lom, helped seed what’s coming next. I’ll be taking these experiences into our next chapter at Gentlerist (@gentlerist), where you’ll be able to see your favorites, including Halcyon.