Shani Darden On Retinol Reform


This year’s Top 25 was full of bangers—the decade’s biggest hits in beauty across every category. But you don’t just end up on such a list by luck. It takes thoughtful formulation, lots of testing, and a good helping of foresight to land on a product that’s going to do its thing better than any of its competitors. We sat down with the brand founders behind some of our favorite products to get the full story—and next up is aesthetician Shani Darden. Here's the story of Retinol Reform, in Shani's words.

“At first, I actually thought I would be a massage therapist. I went to massage therapy school, but figured out quickly that massage therapy isn’t something you can just learn in school. I really believe it has to be a gift, and I did not have it. But then I switched to esthetics, and as soon as I started, I just knew that skincare was the thing I was supposed to be doing. After I got out of school, someone I knew helped me get a job working for a dermatologist. I learned so many things I wouldn’t have learned working in a spa—stuff about skin rashes and conditions, and acne. That’s where I learned about retinol, too, and I fell in love with it. I got to see all of its benefits, but also how irritating and drying it could be.

If they were breaking out, people would come to me to fix them.

After that, I got a job at a pretty well-known spa and started building my clients. Then Jessica Alba mentioned me in Allure magazine and everything changed. Makeup artists started reaching out to me about their clients—if they were breaking out, people would come to me to fix them. I knew I needed an over-the-counter retinol for my clients, but I hadn’t found one that I really loved. At the time, PCA made a retinol, and Skinceuticals was getting big—they had two. I don’t remember how many different retinols I tried. I wanted it to have the same effect as the prescription retinol I had seen with the dermatologist, but without all the irritation. I decided I’d save up some money, and then take my idea to a lab to make my own.

I reached out to a bunch of different labs that were all in California—I didn’t have anyone to ask about this stuff, so I just did my research. Then I basically told them there were two ingredients I needed this thing to have. The first is retinol, and the second is lactic acid, which gives you an immediate glow. I don’t think that combination had existed in one product. And then I wanted it to be mixed with things to minimize the irritation I knew retinols could cause. The formula we landed on has an oil-free aloe base, but there was a lot of testing.

Testing is a big deal to me, as an aesthetician. I want a product to really work, because I want to use it. And just because it works on me doesn’t mean it’ll work on other skin types, so I tested everything on my clients. I’ve had all the same clients for so long that, at this point, they trust whatever I’m giving them and can also give me good feedback. I’d get sample after sample, and I’d give the ones I liked to people to take home and try. On some people they would be great, and then other people would say, ‘No, I think it could be stronger.’ I probably gave it to 20 people—maybe more—and that took around a year. I think I must drive people crazy because I take so much time testing things, but it’s really important for me to go through that process with my clients.

Just because it works on me doesn’t mean it’ll work on other skin types, so I tested everything on my clients.

I had really unattractive packaging at first, and put the bottles in boxes myself. It was basically just me. I started selling Retinol Reform in my spa, and pretty quickly after that I started shipping online. It blew up a year later. Obviously, you never know that things are going to be that successful. But I knew people were going to like it—I had tested it for so long, I knew it was a really good product.

Do I still think retinol is the gold standard ingredient? Oh, absolutely. But people get really scared about jumping into retinol. If you do it slowly you’ll be able to see if you start to get dry, or red, and then adjust how you’re using it. If it’s your first time using it, start one to two times a week and go really slowly—I actually think that’s what you should do with prescription tretinoin as well, even though a lot of dermatologists won’t say that. Tretinoin can be pretty drying. And if you already have a prescription tretinoin that you use a few times a week, you can alternate it with Retinol Reform. That way you’re using a retinol every night, which is the best. You’ll stay young forever.”

—as told to ITG

Wondering what other products made our 2019 Top 25? Check out the full list here.

Photo via ITG