There are extremely few instances in which I’ve excitedly uttered the words “topical ointment” prior to writing this story. Nor have I ever looked at a dermatologist-prescribed tube of odorless, pasty cream and felt the urge to tell all of my friends, or anyone, about how great it is. Simply put, topical ointments never gained VIP status in my day-to-day routine like the Sephora and Ulta Beauty luxuries that felt like family. Instead, they were reserved for emergency use only—when sh-t got so bad that I had no choice but to unearth the hydrocortisone cream hidden in the dusty depths of my parents’ bathroom drawer.
Unlike beauty retailer-bought products, it feels fair to say that topicals haven’t been included in the greater beauty conversation until recently, despite their undeniable relation to the pretty-packaged formulas we eagerly slather on our skin morning and night. This societal phenomenon didn’t go unnoticed by 24-year-old beauty entrepreneur Olamide Olowe, who grew up battling acne, ingrown hairs, and boils—and settling for products that didn’t really serve her skin. “I had all the skin conditions you didn’t typically hear about,” the UCLA grad tells me over the phone, laying the foundation before detailing her journey to developing one of the buzziest beauty brands to launch in August 2020: Topicals.
Growing up, Olowe couldn’t find the answers to her skincare concerns as easily as I, a white girl occasionally prone to itchy, dry skin, could. She turned to YouTube in the quest to understand her skin struggles when professionals didn’t give her the answers—or products—she needed. “As a darker-skinned Black woman, when you go to the dermatologist, they don’t always have the right kind of medical training or background to treat skin of color,” Olamide tells me over the phone. “So I was always looking for information on the internet, and I grew up wanting to become a dermatologist because I had never seen brands, products, or people who understood my skin.”
Olamide went to UCLA and studied pre-med, with the intent of ultimately becoming a dermatologist. While there, she landed a job with Shea Moisture, where she worked for two years and learned what goes into building a brand for underserved consumers. In November 2017—the Texas native’s senior year—beauty powerhouse Unilever bought Shea Moisture’s parent company, Sundial Brands. It was around that same time that Olamide realized, “Maybe medical school isn’t what I want to do right now.” Hungry to jump into the beauty business, she thought, “I want to go and build a brand for people who have skin conditions like myself—a brand that people really want to take part in the mission.”
But before Topicals’ products were born, the team needed to raise enough capital to build the brand—a process that took two years and endured a whole lot of “no’s” at first. “It was really hard to get people to believe that a category as sleepy and un-sexy as chronic skin conditions could be a big business and something people would want to showcase,” the founder explains. “A lot of people have thought of it as a taboo category, and so a lot of investors and retailers at the time just weren’t into it.” Nevertheless, Olamide persisted, with the unwavering mission of shifting the status quo surrounding chronic skincare conditions.
“There’s so much rejection you go through to be a pioneer. It’s so fulfilling in hindsight, but going through it is really tough.”
Now, Olamide is the youngest Black woman to raise over two million dollars in venture capital funding to unveil two hero products: Faded Brightening & Clearing Gel, which targets hyperpigmentation, and the Like Butter Hydrating Mask ideal for sensitive, eczema-prone skin. Among the brand’s supporters and investors are Netflix CMO Bozoma Saint John, entrepreneur Hannah Bronfman, and Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji, the Emmy-nominated stars of the hit show Insecure. That’s not to mention the thousands of celebrities and customers who’ve praised the brand on social media for its game-changing formulas and super cool, early-aughts-inspired packaging.
Consumers choose Topicals for the transparency the beauty industry so desperately needs to implement as a universal standard. Not only are the brand’s formulas synthetic fragrance-free, cruelty-free, and vegan, but they’re packed with ingredients and herbs backed by clinical studies. Most importantly of all, they’re safe for all skin tones, particularly darker-skinned women. The brand conducted its own community testing, because, as the CEO tells me, about 75 percent of people in clinical trials are white. “We made sure we went directly to the source and had people ranging from the lightest of skin tones to the darkest of skin tones trying the product.”
A trip to the reviews section of the Topicals website says everything that I can’t as someone without hyperpigmentation or eczema (though my dry skin could surely benefit from the soothing benefits of Like Butter). Customers call the hydrating and calming mask a “lifesaver” and others describe it as a “holy grail.” Likewise, Faded customers swear by its fast-acting results. “I have only been using it for two weeks and I have already seen a noticeable lightening of my old (and new) acne scars,” writes a reviewer. “It also lightened an area of pigmentation I’ve had on the bridge of my nose for YEARS.”
As of March 2021, Topicals launched at Sephora—and sold out within 48 hours. At the time of writing, both products have nearly perfect five-star ratings. It’s really exciting to bring the chronic ointment story to beauty and expand the definition of what beauty and skincare mean,” Olamide says. Even though she’s probably said this a million times, I can tell she means it wholeheartedly. “For a long time, people thought you could only use prescription ingredients to get results for these skin conditions,” Olamide tells me. “We’re really excited that we’re proving people wrong.”
All products featured on GRAZIA are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, Grazia may earn an affiliate commission.