What would you do if you were five months pregnant, had sold your engagement ring to purchase a set of Aburatorigami oil-absorbing sheets and sought healing within the pages of a 200-year-old book about the highly secretive beauty rituals of ancient geishas?
Meet Vicky Tsai. Who bundled up all this and more under her belt to launch a beauty brand that brings these heritage recipes to the contemporary world – and did it so effectively that the products have become a staple on every cult beauty list.
Vicky never intended to start a beauty company – least of all one inspired by thousands of years of Japanese heritage. Vicky herself is Taiwanese and raised in the US – not Japanese, as is commonly believed.
However, she has distinct memories of her own mother mixing up skincare recipes using traditional Chinese herbs. Recipes that had been handed down by that most beautiful and exotic of Asian personalities – the Geisha.
Recipes that Vicky thought smelt too medicinal and resisted using for years.
Till an internship at a beauty behemoth, where part of her work was to slather a gazillion products on her skin for competitive benchmarking, gave her acute dermatitis. Anyone who has ever had sensitive skin would relate with the pain of bleeding, blistering, scaling, cracking skin. Including on the lips and eyelids. Even steroids and antibiotics didn’t help. And the numerous doctors she visited concluded that her skin would never return to normal.
Relief finally came in the way of a layover in Japan, where a series of chance encounters led Vicky to meeting her first geisha and exploring a cleaner, more evolved and holistic approach to beauty that healed not just her skin but also her soul.
She left Japan with a deep understanding of the importance of holistic skincare ingredients, and loaded with an arsenal of camellia oils, rice bran and waxes. Eight weeks later, her skin had cleared up.
And thus began Tatcha, which draws upon the secret recipes that are handwritten and illustrated with woodblock prints on washi paper in the extremely rare Edo-period book called Miyakofuzoku kewaiden.
‘Tatcha’ comes from a combination of tatehana, which the Japanese art of flower designing and chabana, which are the most exquisite arrangements created for use as part of the Japanese tea ceremony.
But Tsai did not stop at blind tradition – after a three-year hunt for the book, she spent further years working with laboratories and skin experts in Tokyo and the US to validate the science behind these centuries-old inscriptions. All while working multiple jobs to pay the bills, including one as a building supervisor, maxing out her credit cards and teetering on a financial crisis.
And then came the formulations – ancient, homemade recipes translated into portable, packaged yet potent potions.
For example, among the ingredients she read about were camellia flowers, whose petals would be steamed overnight with a piece of kimono draped over the kettle; in the morning, the freshly saturated silk would be gently placed on the skin as a mask. Today, Tatcha’s Pure One Step Camellia Cleansing Oil is loaded with the reparative benefits of camellia blooms harvested by women from the Oishima Island, who are renowned for their glowing skin and ankle-length hair.
Similarly, the anti-ageing, moisture rich Silk Cream is anchored around red algae from Okinawa, whose native population has the longest life-span in the world.
Rice for the water-activated Rice Polish Foaming Enzyme Powder is sourced from volcanic soil and cured by sake brewers to ensure potent exfoliation sans harsh abrasives.
Tatcha, according to me, has some of the most beautiful formulations in the beauty market. Impeccable quality, with the best ingredients, has been their hallmark and Vicky is unrelenting on this front. She also takes her time to research and develop a product. The Essence, for example, took SEVEN years to formulate.
To me, however, the pièce de résistance remains Vicky Tsai herself.
Vicky has been one of my favorite people since I first came across her almost a decade back. There is an empathy, an elegance, a positivity, an authenticity that she radiates. Her humbleness and genuine love for people – whether it’s employees or customers – and the need to give back make her beautiful inside and out.
Just one of the “small” things she does is funding Room to Read, a nonprofit that puts underprivileged children through school. Each full-sized skincare purchase funds a day of school for a girl in Asia and Africa. As of June 2019, Tatcha had funded 3 million days of school for girls.
And that’s been Tatcha for me – a company with a beautiful soul.
So, when I got the chance to pick Vicky’s brain on clean beauty, I wasn’t going to pass up on the chance. Right?
Does beauty start on the inside, or the outside?
If I have learned anything during my time at Tatcha, it’s that beauty begins in the heart and the mind. If you treat people with kindness and care, they remember you as beautiful. Caring for your skin is important because it is part of caring for your health and body, but beauty is about how you treat others.
What’s your definition of ‘clean’ beauty?
Your skin is a brilliant organ, and it knows how to care for itself. Rather than separating ingredients into “natural” or “chemical”, I think of “clean” beauty as what makes the skin happy. If something is burning or itching, regardless of whether it is a natural ingredient, the skin does not like it. If it’s an oil that sits atop the skin and refuses to absorb, the skin does not like it. If your skin drinks it in and feels nourished or hydrated, the formula is more likely to be “clean”.
What’s the biggest myth about clean beauty?
See above! I think the biggest myth is that natural ingredients are inherently good for you. There are plenty of things in nature (bee stings, poison ivy) that are bad for you and bad for your skin.
Have you seen anyone’s skin change when they switch to clean beauty products?
When people spend years using aggressive, alcohol-based cleansers, grainy exfoliants and strong acids and retinols, the skin becomes delicate and reacts to almost anything. Because of this, many people think they have sensitive skin when in reality they have normal skin (or dry or oily) that has become sensitized. The biggest change that I see when people start using our formulas is that the skin will calm down, rebalance and get that beautiful, natural glow back over time.
If someone wants to ‘go clean’ with their beauty regime, where should they start?
Cleansing. One of the most important things we can do is to unburden and purify our skin, and yet so many of us skip this step altogether, or go straight for the cheapest option available, which often is more aggressive and harsh than our skin needs. To start, look for an oil-based makeup remover, which will get off all your makeup and SPF, but avoid mineral oils. Then look for a gentle daily exfoliant, without any scrubby grains or beads, which will help to lift away dead skin cells without tearing or drying the skin. Finally, avoid alcohol based toners.
What’s the worst thing people think is good for them?
Feeling the burn. In the Western world, we’ve been trained that efficacious skincare should burn or prickle when we put it on the skin. We think, wow I can feel it so it must be working! It’s quite the opposite. When it burns, your skin is trying to tell you to that it does not like what you’re doing.
What are the three cosmetic ingredients you would never use?
Retinoids: Our clients are often times thinking about having children soon, pregnant or still breastfeeding and cannot use retinoids as they may cause birth defects if used during this time. There are plenty of other wonderful active ingredients for smooth, clear skin that don’t have these worrisome side effects for expecting moms. I don’t know why this isn’t showing up on Clean lists in the industry.
Nano-scale ingredients: We don’t have enough data yet to be able to assess the safety of these ingredients yet. I also don’t see this on most Clean lists in the industry, but it should be.
Parabens: There are alternate preservative systems now that work beautifully. Almost all clean brands avoid parabens.
Is there any favorite beauty DIY that you can share with us?
I love to give myself a little facial massage. I usually use our Akari Gold Massager, but if I’m in a pinch I’ll use my hands. Simply rub your hands together to warm them up, add some moisturizer to give it slip, and gently massage the face moving in upward and outward directions. A facial massage helps to promote lymphatic drainage, remove toxins and stimulate microcirculation – all wonderful things for the skin.