What Makeup Brands Get Wrong About Asian Skin, According to Orcé Cosmetics Founder Yu-Chen Shih
Welcome to Beauty Boss, a reoccurring series in which we spotlight the power players driving the beauty world forward. Consider this your chance to steal their get-ahead secrets, and grow from the real-life lessons they’ve learned on the job.
Orcé is derived from the word "force," says Yu-Chen Shih. "I want Asian women to be seen as a force to be reckoned with."
Shih, who was born in Taiwan and raised in Singapore, is a former media planner for a global beauty brand. But in 2019, she ventured off on her own and launched Orcé Cosmetics with a single product: foundation. She carefully created the six shade range in response to the lack of options out there that perfectly match Asian skin. Plus, she created a formula that addressed issues common to Asian skin, including sensitivity, excess oil production, and dryness.
Through her line, Shih also wants to disrupt the dated Asian standards of beauty, and the way these women are portrayed in the media. "Skin tone is something that is very sensitive to Asian culture and a lot of outside people don’t always understand our obsession with whitening," she explains. "Colorism doesn’t just exist in the west, but also in the east in countries like India, Thailand, and the Philippines. These are the world’s highest consumers of whitening products, which is really counterintuitive, because the people in these countries aren’t naturally very fair."
Growing up, Shih was often bullied for being too dark, and her mom started giving her whitening treatments when she was 10-years-old. "A lot of women who aren’t extremely fair have a complex about their skin color and the whole concept of whitening is unhealthy," she says.
With Orcé, Shih wants to start an open conversation about colorism, and takes care that her brand represents diversity within Asian communities by casting Asian models with both light and deep skin tones for marketing campaigns. "I would love to inspire women to embrace their natural skin tone no matter how light or dark they are because we’re all beautiful in our own different way," she says.
Here, Shih explains why Asian skin tends to be delicate, how her own experiences with makeup influenced how she makes products, what's next for Orcé, and more.
How did you land in the beauty industry?
My parents are extremely traditional Asian parents who were already were disappointed I didn’t become a doctor or a lawyer, but makeup was always my passion. When I was younger, I was bullied a lot for my appearance. I grew up in Asia where the standard of beauty is very strict. There’s only one face of beauty: You have to be extremely fair and skinny, and if you don’t fit that one version of beauty, you’re considered ugly. I started taking makeup lessons when I was 11 years old, and it was a way for me to help women — along with myself— feel more confident and beautiful.
When I was 14 years old, I sat my father down and told him I was going to save him money by not going to college and becoming a makeup artist instead. He was horrified and didn’t talk to me for three days. I ended up apologizing to him and going to Pepperdine University to study advertising and marketing after a failed attempt at finance. After school, I became a media planner at an ad agency in Los Angeles, and one of my clients was a big international beauty company. We handled their U.S. advertising strategy, and that’s where I got my feet wet in the beauty industry.
When did you come up with the idea for Orcé Cosmetics?
I started working as a media planner before I graduated college. This is when I was assigned to take over the big beauty company’s account. I was also in the process of doing my capstone project for my marketing degree, which was to create a product or service that’s unique to the market and build a marketing and business plan around it. During that time, I started thinking about how I always had to choose between beauty and what I’ve been trained to be good at doing. I realized starting a brand could be a way to unite both of my passions.
During my time at the ad agency, I noticed there was a big white space between mainstream beauty brands and J- and K-beauty brands. As a young Asian woman, the brands out there seemed too mature and dated. There weren’t any that really spoke to me in terms of branding. I was also really sick of how women were portrayed by brands. There’s product names that objectify women, and Asian women were often portrayed as very shy, soft-spoken, and super feminine. So, I got inspired to create a brand for global Asian women that really emphasizes Asian women as being a force to be reckoned with. I think Hollywood has painted a very unfair picture of Asian women, and growing up in Asia, I didn’t really understand the Hollywood stereotype until I moved to the states. Asian women need to be portrayed in a way that does them justice.
How did your personal experiences shape Orcé's foundation, the brand's first product?
Foundation was a pain point for me, not only as a makeup artist but as a consumer. It was so hard to find foundation that was right for my skin and the women around me. It’s one of the hardest products to make, but since it’s the basis of every makeup look, I wanted to start with it. Most of the shades on the market don’t match our skin tone, so there was a lot that needed to be fixed. Because I was trained in makeup, I was able to find my shade by mixing different foundations together. But if I was trying to teach someone else how to create their shade, I realized how difficult and counterintuitive mixing is for the average person. I assumed I could go to Korea and Japan, pick out the best-selling foundations there, bring them back to the U.S., and make my own improved versions. However, I found that the shade ranges are limited; they tend to be very fair and have pinkish or gray undertones.
On top of the wrong shades, foundation formulas don’t address the needs of Asian skin. Most formulas made me break out, along with other Asian women I spoke with. I realized most of these foundations are comedogenic, some of them contain mineral oils that clog your pores, and Asian skin is structurally different than other ethnicities. After a lot of research and talking with my dermatologist who’s also Asian, I found out that Asian skin has a really thin topmost layer (the stratum corneum) compared to other ethnicities. This means our skin has a thinner armor, and is more vulnerable to sensitivity, irritation, and allergic reactions to certain ingredients. We also have active sebum production and experience transepidermal water loss (dehydration caused by environmental factors). When you combine all of these factors, it’s a recipe for acne and breakouts.
Aside from acne, hyperpigmentation, sensitivity, and signs of aging caused by dehydration are other common issues for Asian skin. I wanted my formula to cater to all of these concerns.
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How did you test the shades to make sure they catered to a global Asian audience?
Right now we only have six shades and we're actively working to extend this range by the end of 2020. I don’t have the resources to create 50 shades right out of the gate, and my process for making them is different from other companies. Since none of the shades on the market really match Asian skin tones, I have to create mine from scratch. I choose them based on women I meet through my social circle and networking. Then, once I have the shade for that specific person, I test it on other people who have about the same lightness or deepness in their skin tone. I keep testing it until it works for all of the women in this group.
What product is coming out next?
We’re launching a talc-free setting powder later this spring. Instead of talc, we’re using corn starch, so it’s clean and safe for the skin. The formula is dermatologist tested to be non-comedogenic and hypoallergenic so anyone can use it. Although it has a slight pink tint to it, it goes on translucent. Just like the liquid foundation, we infused a trio of skincare ingredients into the formula. There’s Tahitian pearl extract, hyaluronic acid, and a Chinese herb called evodia fruit. The herb is clinically proven to help skin from being sensitized and reactive to environmental pollution.