Megan Cox woke up one morning to discover she had made $10,000 in sales overnight. At the time, she was an MIT student with a newly launched skin care line, Amalie Beauty—her first foray into entrepreneurship.
Over the next few years, Megan grew her brand into a six-figure business. But even as her lash serums and face oils kept selling out, she was losing interest in running a direct-to-consumer (DTC) skin care brand. She was at a crossroads: expand or sell.
Megan decided to sell, diverting her attention to another skin care venture she had been growing on the side. That business is Genie Supply, a clean beauty lab that manufactures products for hundreds of other founders who started the same way Megan did—with an idea and a passion for skin care.
Now with experience in both DTC and manufacturing, Megan has no shortage of advice for those curious about how to start a skin care line. Here, she shares the hard lessons she learned along the way and tips on everything from labeling to finding a skin care manufacturer.
How to start a skin care line in 11 steps
- Just get started (even if you don’t feel ready)
- Do your research
- Find your skin care niche
- Invest in your skin care brand
- Use the resources you’ve got
- Get hands-on with skin care product formulation and manufacturing
- Develop a relationship with your skin care manufacturer
- Put your skin care formulations through rigorous testing
- Understand safety and labeling laws in the skin care business
- Build trust with your customers through transparency and content
- Lean into what makes you unique
Founding a skin care brand means researching things like basic chemistry, production standards, and sourcing ingredients. You may also require a significant upfront investment.
But getting started on a meager budget is possible, as Megan found, if you’re passionate and resourceful. Here’s how to start a skin care line from scratch, with lessons Megan learned throughout her career in beauty.
1. Just get started (even if you don’t feel ready)
The global skin care industry is expected to be valued at $183 billion by 2025. Much of the growth in the past few years can be attributed to independent brands. “The traditional brands—Estée Lauder, L’Oréal—are not growing,” says Megan. “Indie beauty and clean beauty are carrying the entire beauty industry’s growth.” And the legacy brands are reacting, snatching up smaller companies to keep their footing.
Tarte, a natural beauty line started in founder Maureen Kelly’s one-bedroom apartment in 1999, joined Sephora’s lineup in 2003, grossed $12 million in 2008, and sold the majority of its shares in 2014 to global beauty behemoth Kosé. Maureen started the business with $18,000.
As you’re looking into how to start a skin care line, remember to factor in lead time. It takes no less than 12 weeks to develop a skin care product. However, most skin care lines require much more time for research, development, testing, and go-to-market. Skin care products also require comprehensive testing, which takes time.
With skin care trends evolving rapidly, it’s better to jump on a great idea now than wait until everything’s perfect.
2. Do your research
Market research is especially important in beauty—the industry is saturated and trends move fast. But the constantly evolving landscape means there are still opportunities for newcomers to start skin care lines. Pay attention to trends by following beauty publications and influencers, and using a tool like Google Trends to validate your ideas.
“There’s this really big shift in how people are spending their money as Gen Z comes of age,” says Megan. “There’s a lot of room for innovation.”
When Megan developed her skin care brand, she ordered every top-rated lash enhancer on Amazon. She also pored over the MIT research paper database and found that essential fatty acids showed promise in studies, but no other company was using them in lash products at the time.
I had some chemistry background, but really, all the research is out there. There are a lot of smart people on the internet sharing information for free.
Megan Cox, Founder, Genie Supply
Her formal science education did help her with product formulation, but she found the most useful information on the web. “I had some chemistry background, but really, all the research is out there,” she says. “There are a lot of smart people on the internet sharing information for free.”
Your research should include competitive analysis, market research, and keyword research to determine the viability of your idea. This is also the stage where you’ll want to crunch the numbers: How much will it cost to start a business and how will you fund it?
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3. Find your skin care niche
Where newbie skin care founders can win is in identifying audiences underserved by the current brands on the market. There’s no more clear example of this than in the cosmetics industry, where indie brands led the charge on inclusive cosmetics for a wide range of skin tones.
Spotting trends as they emerge is important, but beware of fleeting trends and ensure you have a sustainable plan. “Recently, I’ve seen people get too hooked on whatever ingredient is hot at that moment,” says Megan.
While the product development cycle has sped up in recent years, it can’t always keep up with flash-in-the-pan trends. “You’re already four months behind,” Megan says she tells these clients. “By the time you actually hit the market, that trend might be over.”
Innovation, versus a bandwagon approach, is how indie skin care brands can avoid these pitfalls. Whereas legacy brands are casting a wide net, independent brands have the ability to get close to a niche audience or tackle a specific problem—and problems change less frequently than trends.
If you do want to go wide or stick to basics in terms of formulation or product type, you can lean on a strong philosophy and brand story to connect with your audience. “If you’re going to formulate a certain way or exclude or include certain ingredients, you should really be thoughtful about that,” says Megan.
Vegan skin care products
Appealing to a specific diet or lifestyle choice is a popular way to find a niche in the food business. But the same is true in skin care. Cruelty free and vegan beauty and skin care products are slowly becoming the norm versus the exception. Ensuring your products meet this standard at the outset means you don’t have to adjust later when the market demands it.
Natural skin care products
The clean beauty trend is showing no signs of stopping. The wellness movement has spilled over into skin care, with many consumers paying attention to what goes on their body—and not just what goes in it. If you’re looking to start a skin care line within this niche, pay careful attention to your inventory and supply chain—products without synthetic preservatives will spoil more quickly.
Other trends and niches in skin care
Find a niche for your skin care business by researching current and emerging trends as well as underserved markets. Some ideas include:
- Skin care for specific skin conditions (e.g., oily skin, eczema, dry skin, or rosacea)
- Adaptive skin care (e.g., ingredients that respond to your skin’s needs)
- Multi-use products (e.g., all-over face and body balms)
- Skin care cosmetics products (e.g., cream blush with moisturizing properties)
- Innovative products (e.g., hydrocolloid patches, skin-centric vitamins, spa grade tools for home)
- Skin care marketed toward a specific niche audience (e.g., cancer survivors)
- Hot ingredients (e.g., retinol, probiotics, hyaluronic acid)
- Simple formulations that exclude common allergens or are offered at lower price points (e.g., organic ingredients, natural ingredients, clean cosmetics)
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4. Invest in your skin care brand
Before you even consider product development, decide what you stand for. You can develop your skin care brand and grow an audience well before you manufacture products or launch an online store. This period will let you get to know your audience, gather feedback, and build trust. Use this time to hone your brand story and generate hype around your upcoming launch.
Megan assumed that her customer persona would look much like her: younger people with natural lashes damaged through lash extensions or trichotillomania (a disorder characterized by pulling out one’s own hair).
Surprisingly, her product attracted another audience.
“We found that it really resonated with older women and people who had just gone through cancer treatment,” says Megan. “I didn’t really expect that at all.” She embraced this unexpected market and actively supported cancer survivors by donating one product to a cancer survivor for every bottle sold during the campaign.
This brand and marketing pivot was possible due to Amalie’s size, but it’s critical to establish a few key elements early on. Maintaining a consistent brand voice and presence can increase recognition in the market and build trust.
Visual brand identity is also extremely important in the skin care industry. Compelling packaging that speaks to your target audience’s aesthetic gives your brand a professional edge. Be sure to develop a clear set of brand guidelines to ensure that wherever your brand shows up, it’s adhering to a set of rules.
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5. Use the resources you’ve got
“I didn’t have any money or experience,” says Megan of her decision to start a business. Her initial investment was exactly $1,812 (a 10th of Tarte’s original startup costs)—it was every penny she had.
Megan incorporated the business for $700, bought 500 bottles and a few thousand boxes, and paid for her first month’s subscription on Shopify. She had $6 left to her name.
With no money left for marketing, Megan needed to get creative. She went on an online forum for cancer survivors, which resulted in a few sales. It was a simple call to her hometown’s local paper, though, that was the catalyst for her big breakout. The paper interviewed her, bringing in yet a couple more sales, but the turning point was when the story was picked up by the state paper and the Associated Press. “I went to sleep, and when I woke up, we had $10,000 in sales and we had sold out,” she says.
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6. Get hands-on with skin care product formulation and manufacturing
There are a few methods for formulating products: making them by hand at home, renting a dedicated manufacturing space, working with a lab to create custom products, or taking a private label or white label approach with a beauty manufacturer.
Creating a skin care line at home
Simple formulations like facial oils can be made from home. However, to manufacture cosmetics in the US, you’ll need to follow FDA guidelines for ventilation, air control, and surfaces. While your manufacturing processes should adhere to FDA standards, there is flexibility for businesses that manufacture in spurts. Mobile clean rooms—essentially pop-up tents—are designed for this purpose and ideal for small businesses.
“If you’re starting small, there is value in working with the ingredients hands-on and trying to figure that out,” says Megan. “But at some point you’re still going to need to work with a manufacturer.” Many successful beauty founders, like The Lip Bar’s Melissa Butler, started their lines from their own kitchens but moved to a manufacturing facility as they scaled.
Experimenting with formulations yourself will help you understand the properties you’re looking for in a formulation—consistency, appearance, scent—positioning you for informed conversations with your manufacturer.
7. Develop a relationship with your skin care manufacturer
While she owned her first business, Megan worked with manufacturers in both the US and China. There are pros and cons to both, depending on your production runs and how close you want to stay to the process. Megan spent much of her time in China, overseeing production. “I wanted to know where my ingredients were coming from. I wanted to have everything documented. I wanted to be there,” she says.
Megan has since softened her stance. “I do think that it’s important to negotiate all of your quality control points and to be really upfront about what you expect,” she says. But at some point, you need to trust the manufacturer to do their job. “You can’t argue about every little point or nickel-and-dime them.”
Beauty manufacturing, in general, is kind of a black box.
While there are benefits to working with manufacturers in China, such as price and available options, Megan and her partner moved Genie Supply to the US to help bring manufacturing closer to its customers and improve the overall experience.
“Beauty manufacturing, in general, is kind of a black box,” says Megan, who had to learn the ropes on her own. That’s why her new company invests resources in educating its clients and providing transparent information right on the website. If you’re new to skin care, find a manufacturer like Genie Supply that can help walk you through the process.
White label or private label skin care lines
White labeling involves applying your own branding and limited customizations to an existing product. This is a beneficial method for those looking to monetize a personal brand (but have less interest in product development). Popular creators and influencers often use this method to monetize their large audiences.
Private label skin care lines work in a similar way but are more customized to brand and product specifications. They are generally developed in partnership with a private label lab like Genie Supply. With these models, you can still start your own skin care line with zero experience.
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8. Put your skin care formulations through rigorous testing
Megan learned the hard way that testing at every stage of the process is important. While the formulation for Amalie’s products and its packaging were tested, when the two interacted, it was disastrous. The product turned out to be incompatible with the glue—and the brushes fell apart. “Packaging was a really big issue for me,” says Megan. “I lost a lot of my customers because it was unreliable.”
Experienced labs are an asset to industry newbies. Manufacturing in North America can be more expensive, but the upside is the access to the factories and the ability to be hands-on with the testing process.
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9. Understand safety and labeling laws in the skin care business
Like starting a food business, launching in the skin care industry carries risk—you are making products that could potentially harm people. It’s important to educate yourself on preservatives, shelf life, allergens, and proper storage and handling of skin care products. And to research labs carefully so you know you’re working with a partner knowledgeable in these areas.
Product shelf life
Customers often expect products labeled “natural” or “organic” will be free of chemical preservatives. However, omitting preservatives can greatly impact stability. When Megan launched Amalie, her products had a 12-month shelf life.
When her distributors couldn’t move product fast enough, Megan was on the hook to replace expired units because it would impact her beauty brand if she didn’t. “I bit a huge cost there, but I’m not going to let someone have a bad product with my name on it,” she says.
No one’s checking for you. You should do your due diligence and make sure that you’re following the FDA labeling laws.
Legal requirements can be daunting for those starting a skin care line from scratch—and each country or region will have their own rules. Megan, who had the experience of navigating these laws on her own, developed a visual guide on Genie Supply’s website to help her clients. “I would’ve killed for a guide like this five years ago,” she says. “That’s why I made it.”
A reputable lab can help ensure your packaging meets standards and that products are properly labeled, but ultimately the responsibility is yours. “No one’s checking for you,” says Megan. “You should do your due diligence and make sure that you’re following the FDA labeling laws.” Or, talk to a lawyer.
Skin care product stability and safety
While it’s possible to dabble in skin care from your own home, there are limitations. “If your products contain water,” says Megan, “you are potentially putting your customers in a lot of danger.”
Genie Supply and other reputable labs will put ingredients and formulations through rigorous tests to ensure they’re free from yeast, mold, bacteria, and fungus during a product’s shelf life and use. “We also run microbial and viral pathogen testing,” says Megan. “If you are doing anything with water, don’t be silly—work with a lab.”
Business licenses for skin care brands
You don’t need a federally recognized license to sell homemade cosmetics and skin care in the US. However, the FDA carefully regulates this industry and requires you to have approval for certain ingredients. The laws differ depending on the country where you are manufacturing and selling your products. Be sure to do your homework or seek the advice of a lawyer.
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10. Build trust with your customers through transparency and content
The beauty customer, faced with conflicting information and overwhelming choices, tends to be discerning and naturally skeptical. Building trust with your audience is key to forming long-term relationships and securing repeat business.
Under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act in the US, the FDA requires manufacturers to list every ingredient in its products. That’s a fact, Megan says, many skin care brands try to manipulate.
“Why are you putting honey and metals and all of this garbage inside your product? It doesn’t even work,” says Megan. “They’re just trying to confuse consumers on purpose.” She built trust for her first brand on the transparency of the ingredients and uses the same approach with her B2B clients.
Content marketing and customer education
Content marketing is not only a strategy that can help potential customers find you (more on that later), it also builds authority for your brand. Megan has used this tactic to grow her business and personal brand, tapping into the popularity of beauty reviews and unboxings at the time.
The strategy established Megan as a trusted expert, and she dedicated much of her blog to reviewing products other than her own. At her peak, she was blogging four times a week, sending her organic traffic soaring. She also used content to grow her newsletter, offering downloadable content in the form of beauty guides.
Other brands are succeeding at this approach as well, creating blog posts that offer value to the audience and product pages rich with information that increase purchase confidence.
Positive reviews are another signal to potential customers that your product delivers what it promises. The number of options on the market, unpronounceable ingredients, and smoke-and-mirrors marketing copy drive skin care consumers to online reviews before buying.
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11. Lean into what makes you unique
Marketing is one of the biggest challenges for many new founders. And because it’s competitive and constantly evolving, skin care is an industry that requires consistent attention to this aspect of the business.
It’s not enough to have a great product—to succeed in the skin care industry, beauty entrepreneurs need to invest much of their attention in defining their audience and understanding its unique needs.
As the traditional model of selling cosmetics wanes—“slapping a celebrity on the brand and hoping it sells,” according to Megan—the time is now for niche brands to shine. Consumers are looking to connect and to identify with a brand. It’s not enough to have a great product—to succeed with marketing, beauty entrepreneurs need to invest much of their attention in defining their audience and understanding its unique needs.
Whether or not you decide to tie your personal brand to your business, you should still use brand storytelling to make your brand human. Engage in comments and conversations, feature real people like your customers or relevant influencers in your content, and stay open to feedback.
Charlotte Cho, founder of Then I Met You, infuses her family history and elements from her Korean heritage into her product formulations and brand. She has even published a book to share the philosophy behind the brand. Charlotte’s customers not only buy her products for their skin benefits but also because of her story.
Uniqueness can be achieved through product differentiation, brand story, branding design, or marketing.
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Learn more about our skin care expert
Megan started her first business to solve a personal pain point: after she destroyed her natural eyelashes with extensions, she couldn’t find a restorative product that worked. The science-turned-business student went into research mode and found a gap in the market, developing her own line of lash serums.
Megan would eventually expand to manufacturing her skin care products in China, living there for six months out of the year to be closer to the process. She grew her business over the next few years from her family farm in Indiana, a small apartment in Shenzen, and on countless flights in between.
The problem solving and science of skin care excited her the most, and it drew her away from the DTC marketing that was essential to Amalie’s growth. She sold the brand and jumped into her growing manufacturing business full time.
We’ve really been able to prove that there is a need for niche indie beauty manufacturing here in the States.
With Megan focusing solely on Genie Supply, she and her co-founder husband decided to transition the company from a consulting agency in China to a lab in the US. The growth of the indie beauty market saw a surge in 2020, translating to massive growth for the couple’s business.
Genie Supply now manufactures for more than 200 brands. “The orders from our clients are getting bigger and bigger,” says Megan. “We’ve really been able to prove that there is a need for niche indie beauty manufacturing here in the States.”
The beauty of starting up
Beauty is a fast-moving industry with lots to learn. While you won’t have the experience or the budget of global businesses, you aren’t carrying their baggage either. Find solutions for customers who can’t get what they need from major skin care brands. And engage with those communities directly by being helpful and personal. Launching your own skin care line is as simple as finding a fresh idea and running with it.
Feature illustration by Islenia Mil
How to start a skin care line FAQ
How do I make skin care products to sell?
If you’re getting started, you can experiment with basic skin care formulations on your own to get a feel for the color, consistency, and scent. Some skin care can be made from home, but more complicated formulations containing water or emulsions require a manufacturing partner to address safety concerns.
How much does it cost to start a skin care line?
The cost to start a skin care line varies depending on your production method. Even if you plan to start a skin care business from home, you will need a small investment for materials, packaging, and other business expenses. Expect to budget more if you want to work with a manufacturer, as many require minimum order quantities, and product development can be costly.
How do I start a private label skin care line?
Private labeling and white labeling are great ways to enter the skin care industry if you’re new to it. With white labeling, manufacturers sell identical products to multiple brands that customize them with their own logo and branding. Private labeling involves a little more customization, allowing you to work with a manufacturer to create a signature product within the limitations of their offerings. With these newbie-friendly methods, you don’t need to know much about how to start a skin care line before you get started.
Where do I find skin care manufacturers?
Several skin care manufacturer directories exist that you can access through a simple Google search. In the skin care world, it’s important to vet manufacturers carefully, however. Look for reviews and testimonials, request references, and ask for skin care samples.
How do you price skin care products?
Add up your costs: how much does it cost to produce the product plus any associated overhead costs plus your profit margin. Look at what your competitors are charging and be sure you are pricing your products within a reasonable market range. You can test pricing on your website to find out which range is best for profitability and sales volume.