Indie Lee on Starting Her Natural Skincare Line, the Squalane Oil Trend and More

After conquering a brain tumour, this eco-chic entrepreneur is on a mission to help you make healthier choices.
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Indie Lee

When I first stumbled upon Indie Lee's products a few years ago, I knew right away I HAD to own them.

First of all, the packaging is so pretty in that luxurious yet minimalistic way. Second, the ingredients are right up my alley: all-natural, non-toxic, and without fillers or synthetics. (Plus, everything is cruelty-free.)

Third, how perfect is the name "Indie Lee" for an indie skincare brand?! 

Then I found out that Indie Lee is actually a real person. And she has an incredible story. Spoiler alert: A brush with death became the impetus for creating a clean skincare line (and whipping up the first formulas in her own kitchen!).

Now, the brand can be found everywhere from Saks to Anthropologie, and most recently, Nordstrom. When Indie was in town for the launch, I got to sit down with her to chat about how she got started, and all things green beauty. I'll warn you now, her positivity is infectious!

Indie Lee natural skincare

A few of the products in the Indie Lee line. (Photo: @indie_lee)

First of all, it's so exciting to meet you!

Stop! I was like, "Oh my goodness. Yay! People want to meet me!" I'm just a regular Joe person. 

I'm obsessed with your line. But I will confess, I didn't know that you were actually a person when I bought your products. I thought it was just a cool name! 

That is the highest compliment, when a beauty editor says, "You know what? I can get anything I want. But I want to buy her stuff." 

It's true.

Thank you so much. The whole thing is surreal. It's a dream come true.

Can you take us back to how you got started?

Absolutely. I wasn't really into beauty. I mean, yes, I was into beauty, but I wasn't in the beauty business.

Weren't you an accountant?

Yes. I'm what Canadians call a chartered accountant. I'm a CPA. So I was doing that, working in finance, but I realized I didn't love accounting anymore. So I left. 

A friend of mine was growing school gardens. I love to garden, so I was like, "Let me help you build them." I got involved with that, and ended up building a 750-square-foot greenhouse in my backyard, complete with a chandelier. It's crazy! I grew everything from edible flowers to micro-greens. It was great.

But then, I wound up being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and I could no longer work in the greenhouse. I had all these flowers, so I started making products—DIY-ing.

That was June of 2008. In November of that year, I started losing my vision. I went to the doctor, had a scan, and got diagnosed with a brain tumour. My doctor said, "It does not look like cancer, but you need to go see some specialists."

I travelled all over, up and down the coast of the U.S., to see these specialists. They all said, "You know what? You could have as little as six months to live. You need to get your affairs in order and spend time with your children."

And it's so funny, because I can look back on it now and say it's one of the greatest things that's ever happened to me.

Indie Lee

Indie Lee founded her eponymous skincare line after a brain tumour diagnosis. 

How did it change you?

I was one of those people who was so driven. I had to have the kids, the boy and the girl. I was totally the planner. I had to check off all the boxes. But I had totally forgotten about living life. I forgot what it meant to live on purpose and with passion. To live fully out loud! 

I said, "Okay, something good is going to come from this. I don't know what it is, but this is happening for a reason."

At what point did you get the idea to start a skincare line?

Let me step back. After I went to the first doctor, I went to my neuroendocrinologist to ask, like, "Why is this happening? Nobody in my family has this."

He said, "We're seeing more and more of these autoimmune issues that are being tied to the environment." 

I said, "The environment? I've got a greenhouse that I'm eating out of. I'm clean. I'm in great shape."

And he looked at me, and said, "Well, what do you put on your skin?"

That was an "aha" moment. He said, "It's not just what you're eating and what you're breathing. Babies are born with a toxic load. We're seeing more and more of these things made with hormones. I don't know if it's one thing or another, but we can't rule out that it could be something you're putting on your skin."

So whether it was or it wasn't, for me it was that catalyst. I went home, and looked at my ingredients...

Once you start to look, it's scary what you can find.

Yes. By the way, I'm not one to say you can't ever wear [products that aren't natural]. You're not one or the other. It's not for me to judge how anybody should do their life. I believe you should be the healthiest version of you, whatever that looks like. 

I just wanted to provide some healthier options based on how badly things are made. Remember, this was 2008. There were not that many options out there.

So while I was trying to find another doctor that would give me a different diagnosis, and a prognosis, and spending time with my children, I was deep-diving into the industry. And learning that there weren't any regulations in the U.S.

So I'm like, "Okay. That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to start creating products." I wanted to create something that looked really chic and that was incredibly effective. 

In the meantime, I was able to find a doctor who was willing to do surgery.

Indie Lee

Indie Lee had life-saving brain tumour surgery on Earth Day.

You did get operated on?

Yes. Before the surgery, I was told there was less than a 50 percent chance I'd make it. When I found out, I had two bad days. That was it. I wouldn't allow myself a bad day because that wasn't going to change my situation. I was going to live fully out loud and I was going to enjoy every moment that I had left. I'm not saying that's what everybody should do; that's just how I got through it.

My doctor said, "We're going do surgery on April 22nd." April 22, 2009. Which is Earth Day. 

I'm like, "That's a sign. The universe is telling me something." I couldn't make this up or script it better for my marketing team! Here I am, an indie brand, named Indie Lee. This is her re-birth on Earth Day.

That really is incredible.

Totally. So I went to surgery and when I woke up, I was able to see out of my eye. The doctor comes in, takes my hand, and says, "You're done." I said, "Stick a fork in me, done?" He goes, "No, we were able to get the entire thing. Welcome to the rest of your life."

And it's been non-stop ever since. It's hard to believe it's going be nine years in April.

But when you're living with purpose it doesn't feel like work, right?

Yes. Of course, we have tough days. We're a business, a growing business, and there are all those things that go with trying to get to scale. 

The difference is now, even when I have a bad day, I'm appreciative of it. Because, number one, you have to have a bad day to know what a good day is, so it gives you incredible perspective. But I got to live to have the bad day. So how can I be upset about it?

That's a great way to look at it.

That's kind of how it's been. This brand is about so much more than just the products. It's really about wellness and a healthy lifestyle. Inspiring people to make healthier choices, so they don't have to experience the same health issues that I have. You don't necessarily know what your choices are going to lead to, but enjoy the life that you've been given, and be inspired. 

How did you go from not having any experience with formulating to coming up with an entire range?

I must've been nuts. Because I hadn't started in beauty, I think that's probably why I was like, "Yes, I can do this. Sell my jewelry, find some ingredients from Mountain Rose Herbs and let's figure this out."

Did you also use ingredients from your greenhouse?

Yes. I had all this calendula. More than I could ever eat. Every salad was calendula!

I didn't know you could eat it.

Oh yes, it's an edible flower, it's really good. It's nature's first aid oil. I made this calendula oil. You just steep the buds, and I then made a salve out of it. That evolved into our Calendula Eye Balm.

Then I had lavender. I created a Body Oil using the lavender buds steeped in jojoba. 

My skin was so dry and scaly—because of the drug I was taking for my rheumatoid arthritis—and I wanted soft, sexy legs. All the body scrubs I would look at would be oil on top of sugar, salt or seeds. In the shower, those oils would spill all over the place. 

I thought, "Coconut oil is solid at room temperature. I can make this into a whip and make a Scrub that's really softening." It all went from there.

I also knew back then that I didn't want to use talc. I started talking about it years ago—I remember writing about it for The Huffington Post in 2012—and I got blasted.

Really? Now all the dangers are coming out.

I just said, "I'm choosing not to use it." I used lavender buds and arrowroot powder instead, to emulate a body dusting powder. [Editor's note: She doesn't currently sell a body powder, but her Blemish Lotion is also talc-free.]

What other ingredients do you think are important to avoid?

Anything on the Dirty Dozen list. Parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde. That's a great place to start. I also have a list [of ingredients to avoid] on my website.

Were you making all the products yourself at first?

I did. But then, I realized I couldn't make everything out of my house. I wound up connecting with my chemist. He's been incredible. I'd tell him, "This is what I need, this is what I love." And he'd do it. 

Everything's made in a lab now, not in my kitchen or anything like that. Everything's tested for safety and stability, and all that stuff. 

If you want to quote me on anything, I have the best team in the world. God, I'm so freakin' lucky. Holy mackerel, I really am. What they are doing, and the amount of work, love and compassion to create something because they believe in me—it brings tears to my eyes. Everybody should be able to work with a team like this. That's part of my success, the people I work with.

One of your most popular products is your Squalane Facial Oil (which my skin can't live without!). I think you were the first brand to have a squalane oil, right?

Thank you! It's the Holy Grail of moisturizers. It has completely changed my skin. I was doing a lot of research on the skin's sebum, and I saw that squalene was was part of it. We have it in abundance until our mid-20s and then it drops off. 

I did more and more research, and found that squalane [its stabilized form] has so many benefits. It's great for hyperpigmentation. It absorbs fast. It's good for dry skin, sensitive skin, rough patches, wrinkles. On oily skin, it sends a signal to stop overproducing oil. 

I'm like, "Okay, why is nobody else using this?" We're cruelty-free, and you can get it from sustainably farmed olives. I found the highest grade you could get.

You definitely started a trend there. Is that your bestseller?

Right now, it's the Toner. The CoQ-10 Toner has superseded the Squalane. It used to be the Squalane. Squalane has not slowed growth—at all. But the Toner was just like, whoosh!

What's unique about your toner?

It's got hyaluronic acid in it, and it's got CoQ10 [Coenzyme Q10], so it's balancing as well as hydrating. It's got papaya, chamomile. It's gorgeous. 

It's not acidic.

No, it's gentle. But it really does a good job of pulling out anything you didn't get when you cleansed. I love using it after my Mask, so my Serum seeps in better. It just plumps. I also bring it with me on the plane, as I dry up so fast.

We tell people to put it in their gym bags. People who are active and going to the gym and yoga—they don't necessarily shower right after. They get their coffee, they go run their errands. Sweating is the body's natural way of detoxifying, but we've got to remove it, otherwise it's going to clog.

I think that's resonated with a lot of the wellness community. I get these purchase orders [from retailers who sell the product] and it's like, "Is that the right number? You want that many?" We cannot believe its trajectory.

For someone new to the brand, which products do you think they should try?

I always say the Squalane Oil. I do think our Toner is brilliant. And our Mask. We have a Clearing Mask. I love it. 

Every Sunday is my spa day, so I do a mask, I clean all my makeup brushes, I take some "me" time. I don't wear that much makeup but I go through the ritual of it.

Your skin is so good, do you even wear foundation?

Oh my God, I'm 45! Thank you. I used to have cystic acne, so it's the products. One hundred percent. 

What I really like is how edited your line is. Rather than basing it on "skin types," anyone can use any product, depending on their concerns.

We've got to look at skin as an ecosystem. I wouldn't say there is only one skin type, but in general, I think that [the industry] has made it a little bit too complex. The body is always trying to find balance. 

I also think part of it is internal. It's what you're eating, medications, stressors, the environment, pollutants, gut health. 

There's still the idea out there of, "I have acne-prone skin. I can't put oil on my face."

No, you just can't use a comedogenic oil like mineral oil. It has large molecules that don't absorb; they sit on the surface of the skin. Squalane oil doesn't clog pores. It has the closest molecular structure to human squalene, so it's easily absorbed into the skin.

Indie Lee natural skincare

Indie Lee's non-comedogenic Squalane Oil. (Photo: @indie_lee)

Or they'll be like, "I didn't break out when I was younger." Yes, but you might've been using certain products and developed an allergy or sensitivity to them. 

It seems like sensitive skin is also on the rise.

Okay, were you born with sensitive skin? No. Then you have skin sensitivity.

Something else in your routine might be causing the sensitivity.

Exactly. It's like how they do the elimination diet. You kind of have to go through that with your skincare. 

It can be really hard to figure out what was the problem ingredient, especially with fragrance because you don't know what's in it. 

Tell us what the issue is with fragrance on ingredient labels.

There are thousands of chemicals that can be labelled as "perfume." Most of them contain phthalates, which are hormone disruptors. They can also irritate your skin and airways.

Let's say you're new to natural skincare. What's the best way to start changing your routine?

I always say, if you're going to go clean, go one product at a time. If you go and get all of them, and then you break out, you'll say "Natural doesn't work." But you don't know which product was the problem. Do it slowly, test it out. That's a big one for me. 

Also, if something's natural that doesn't mean it's always safe. Poison ivy and arsenic are natural!

Very true. You shouldn't go and rub tea tree oil all over your face.

Oh my God. And then there's the question of what's natural. Some people will say that unless you're mashing up a banana on your face, it's not natural. We're also seeing the safe synthetics. 

Like Beautycounter.

Stuff like that, yes. I'm not judging if that's the right or wrong choice. I just say to look at the ingredients.

Are there any other natural brands that you use or admire?

I love products that aren't mine. I love Herbivore. I think they're amazing. Vapour. I love, love, love Vapour. I love ILIA. I love their lipstick. I just started trying Rituel de Fille. It's really pigmented. I love the RMS Beauty concealer.

What do you think of Glossier? They're not a natural brand, but they have such a cult-like following.

I think Glossier does a great job. I watched their new Body Hero ad, and I'm thinking, "Damn, that was good!" [Emily Weiss] is a brilliant woman. It's completely inspiring to see how she understands the market and has disrupted it. 

But I will tell you, we have a lot of people who love Glossier and us. I'm very inclusive, so that's really cool.

Culturally, I think they've also helped shift the focus to skin and skincare, after so many years of "Instagram makeup" being the trend.

You know what? I used to say people should only be natural. I don't know why I'd say that. There shouldn't be so much judgment. 

I look at makeup as artistry and self-expression. If that's what makes you happy, then awesome. You should never feel shamed. But if you're doing it to cover up who you are? My only concern is that I want you to love yourself. Are you doing it because you're hiding and you don't want people to see you?

I mean, I get it. I did have that struggle with cystic acne and it really did erode my self-confidence. I wouldn't go out without makeup. So I understand that, and if putting on foundation makes you more confident, go for it.

But if I can help you so you don't feel you HAVE to wear makeup, whatever your complexion issues are, and more importantly, so you feel comfortable in your own skin, I'd love that.

So the makeup is a choice, not a necessity.

Right, exactly. One hundred percent. 

I choose not to wear a lot of makeup. When I go out, sure, I want to have some glamour on. But most days, I have my hair up in a topknot, and I'm wearing jeans. I choose not to wear foundation; I tend to break out. But that's just a choice. 

I also don't really know how to do makeup so well. Like, if I knew how to do it like some of these incredible men and women, oh my gosh, I'd love to try it.

Has The Ordinary affected your business at all? It seems like they've been even more disruptive than Glossier in the skincare world.

I think it's awesome. To me, if more people are focusing on ingredients and understanding them, then thank you, I'm happy about it. 

I don't look at it as competition. I'm a positive person. If we put negativity out there, we're going to get it back. Instead, I think, "Thank you for coming out with another Squalane, so that more people realize this is a great ingredient."

The only competition I have is for ourselves to continue to be better. That's it!

That's great. Consumers are so educated now, and most brands underestimate them.

Oh my gosh, the public has got it down. I love it. They do their research. That's why we have to be authentic and transparent. When they ask me a question, I'm the first one who'll say, "I don't know, I'll find out for you." I'm not a doctor. I'm not a chemist.

But people are buying into your point of view.

Exactly. This is who I am; this is where I'm taking this brand. If you want to come with me on the journey, that's great. If you don't, that's great, too. If you want to go partial with me, and say, "Okay, we're only gonna date on cleansers," that works, too. Or, "I don't really want to buy her stuff but I like her so I'm going to follow her and talk to her." I'm cool with that. My job is just to provide an option.

How do you handle negative feedback?

When someone says, "I tried this and it didn't work for me," I always write back. "What could we do better? Thank you so much for that feedback. I really appreciate that you gave it a try." And they're like, "Wow, you took it positively." Why not? Not everything is going to be right for everyone. I really appreciate honesty. 

What's next for your company?

It's so hard to focus on where you're going to be in five years. If somebody had told me five years ago that I would be here, launching in Nordstrom, I'd say, "Are you kidding me?"

Obviously that launch is huge for us. This past year has been all about distribution, and making sure we're set for growth. We're in Nordstrom, BluemercuryAnthropologie... we've had so much growth. We're continuing to expand internationally. 

Next year [2018] is going to be all about new product innovation.

Can you share what you're working on?

Our next step will be to look at what's missing [in our line], and go a little bit wider, maybe a little bit deeper in some categories. To fill in the gaps. I don't believe in coming out with 40 cleansers or anything like that. But just to make sure we're addressing different needs.

I'm so excited. I don't know how anybody on the team is going to sleep, but it's going to be great! 

Indie Lee

Indie Lee hopes to educate others to make healthier choices—inside and out.

Where do you see natural beauty heading in the future?

I think there are some great brands out there, coming onto the market, because consumers are demanding it. Even if the government and the regulation hasn't caught up yet, people's buying power has. That's going to create the change in the industry that we need. That's what I'm excited about.

I think you're going to see the wellness category take off. For me, this is a platform for change. It's my mission to empower others to live healthier lifestyles by making educated choices. What you put on your body is just as important as what you put in it!

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