Tara Foley conceived the idea to create a clean beauty retailer more than 10 years ago when she realized the ingredients in her beauty products weren’t reflective of the healthy lifestyle she was living. Building her retail concept, Follain, which means ‘healthy and wholesome’ in Gaelic, Tara launched an eponymous skin care brand in March 2020. The brand blends natural actives with safe synthetics and was born from the thousands of one-on-one consultations she had with Follain customers. In keeping with Tara’s longstanding and ongoing advocacy to set the standard for clean, the retail brand has evolved their standard beyond clean ingredients only, to encompass overall impact. Despite the inauspicious timing of the launch (at the very start of the pandemic), the Follain skin care product line is growing rapidly, and is now sold at retailers including Ulta Beauty and Goop. Here, Tara talks to CEW Beauty News about how she founded her retail business straight out of business school, the blog that started it all, her mission to make clean beauty more accessible to all, and why she believes advances in green chemistry will pave the way for innovation in beauty.
Tara Foley will be speaking at CEW’s upcoming virtual Female Founders Awards event, which will honor eight trailblazing indie disruptors in the Clean Beauty space (Glow Recipe, ILIA, Adwoa Beauty, to name a few). The program will feature these founders in a panel discussion, imparting insights on how they’re meeting consumer demand, and in the process, transforming clean beauty from a niche market to a mainstream movement. Tara will be one of several experts speaking during the program, and will lead a conversation on Clean Beauty retail. This event, taking place October 13, is FREE to all CEW Members. Click here to attend.
Beauty News: How did you start Follain?
Tara Foley: I came up with the concept for Follain in 2009 when I was working at a law firm in New York. I was going through a tough time in my life personally, and started to focus on health and wellness. I felt really good about the choices I was making but also recognized that the beauty products I was using didn’t sync up with these choices. In 2009, no one was talking about it, so I started a blog called The Naturalchemyst which gave me a platform to meet the brands that existed in this space. I quickly realized that there was a need to bring all of these brands together in a single ecosystem. So, I put the emergency brake on everything I was doing and committed myself to building what is now Follain. It wasn’t called clean beauty back then. If fact, it wasn’t called anything at all. It was simply a collective of passionate entrepreneurial brands who wanted to make beauty products people could feel better about using, for their own health and the health of the planet.
I then went to live and work on a lavender farm in France to learn about growing methods, and the difference between organic, biodynamic, and conventional farming. I also worked for a skin care manufacturer group. At the last minute, I decided to apply for an MBA to learn about entrepreneurship and using business to make social impact. I was still working on the blog and the concept, and there was still no exclusively clean beauty retailer in the country. I graduated from business school in May 2013 and opened the Follain store in July 2013. Follain was the first retailer in the U.S. to have an exclusive clean portfolio and a public-facing Restricted Substances List.
BN: How did you come up with the Restricted Substances List?
TF: I worked with various environmental health and toxicology experts and activists. Many of these people are still on our Health Advisory Board today, including people at universities, like the head of environmental health at Harvard, and the first PhD in Green Chemistry. The restricted list was tablestakes for us, for opening, and has obviously evolved over the years. However, the most exciting part of our ingredient evolution came from spending time in our shops in the beginning of the business, and learning the positive side of this, such as the impact you can make on your skin with nourishing ingredients that are natural, or safe synthetics that we feel good about supporting. In the beginning, we had just 10 brands, and the business was totally bootstrapped. Now, we curate across all categories, from over 50 brands, and we have our own skin care line as well, which is a huge piece of the business. We do not carry full product lines, but curate the absolute best products that will support customers clean beauty journeys, without overwhelming them with too much choice. Our “stamp of approval” extends beyond ingredients, to include efficacy (each product must pass our five-step approval process), as well as overall impact.
BN: The EU has a list of thousands of ingredients that they don’t allow in their products. Did you use that as a base?
TF: That was definitely part of the process. That being said, it’s not perfect either. We obviously needed some iteration and an evolution as well.
BN: Who do you see as your mentor in this space?
TF: In the early bootstrapped days of Follain, my mentors were essentially my team. I had advisors from finance, real estate, product development, health, and science before I was able to hire in these areas. Today, my best mentors are mainly external advisors help me figure out what the next steps should be for the business – including other entrepreneurs who are further in their journeys of leadership, disruptive business models, and of course fundraising. My board of health advisors are also crucial mentors.
BN: How do you define clean, and how do you curate brands?
TF: Ingredients have always been at the core of what we do. We believe clean beauty must prioritize environmental health, featuring nutrient-dense ingredients as much as possible, as well as safe and researched synthetics where necessary for preservation or performance. We think about the impact of an ingredient on our skin and body, and what happens with the residual ingredient as it goes down the drain and into the water system. We also believe clean beauty must continuously evolve as new research and science becomes available.
BN: Do you sell products that have dimethicone or simethicone? Where do you draw the line?
TF: Those are just two examples of silicones. We don’t ban all silicones yet, but we’re hoping to get there with innovations in green chemistry. We ban cyclic silicones, anything that has siloxane at the end of it. We currently allow dimethicone which is still important for the performance of makeup. We hope it won’t be in the future, with advances in green chemistry. Dimethicone is safe for people, and it has not been proven to seriously harm the environment in ways that other ingredients do, but I hope there will be an alternative soon.
BN: Now that there are the Credos and the Detox Markets of the world, and Sephora and Ulta have their own clean beauty sections, how are you standing out from the crowd?
TF: Aside from being pioneers of this movement, since day one we have always considered ourselves as a Brand, just as much as we are a Retailer. Our rigorous curation process, our Owned Brand product line, and our focus on creating a warm, welcoming and inclusive environment for all people, have always set us apart. Historically, a lot of people have attempted looking for cleaner, high performing beauty options, and did not feel welcome – because they were priced out, because there were not options for their skin type, or because they did not fully understand the difference in experience clean products deliver. We believe that clean beauty is an environmental health issue, and is necessary for everyone. That was one of the big reasons why we created our own skincare line. Although we launched at the worst time in history, in March 2020, our products are doing extremely well because they were informed by all the consultations we had in our shops and they also make high-performing, award-winning, clean skincare more accessible than ever.
BN: How many stores do you have now?
TF: We only have one physical store right now because of the impact of the pandemic on our business. We had six profitable stores before the pandemic, but luckily (with hard work) shifted the majority of our business online. We’ve been doing virtual events on everything from Instagram to Zoom, and meeting people where they are in their clean beauty journeys. Our strong and growing community of influencers and affiliates have been extremely supportive of us, in growing online, and it is one of our top priorities to continue cultivating and supporting this group.
BN: What’s your 12-month plan?
TF: I hope to spend more time with people in real life, in whatever capacity I can. It doesn’t have to be in stores necessarily. We are considering how to continue to grow the clean beauty movement with our partner core brands, in addition to growing our own brand of products. We are seeing a lot of momentum with the line. It was originally created to be a private label line within Follain’s six stores, and then the world changed overnight. Now our line is carried at Ulta and Goop, and many other places. So it is getting legs of its own. Larger platforms allow us to reach customers who want to shop by values, including environmental impact of the ingredients in their products. I hear people say all the time that clean has become “tablestakes” but there are still so many communities in the United States, and areas of the world, where the human and environmental impact of beauty isn’t considered. Our work isn’t done until that has changed.