Twice a week, Ms Grace Lee blends lotions and potions by hand in a room in her extended family’s spare flat.
In her makeshift laboratory, she makes body moisturisers and some face products, bottling them all herself to retail under her conscious bodycare brand, Honest & Gentle.
One batch takes up to four hours to make, but it is worthwhile labour for the 27-year-old.
After working in retail and the fast-moving consumer goods industry for four years, she felt burnt out and sought more meaning in her work.
“My work then was very profit-driven. I didn’t see the impact it had on communities,” says the communications graduate from Nanyang Technological University.
In late 2019, she noticed a growing trend of entrepreneurs making their own skincare. It sparked the idea of starting a social enterprise that combined personal care, says Ms Lee, who grew up with body eczema.
She left her job early last year and spent a year researching ingredients and formulating products, testing them on friends and family with sensitive skin.
With her savings, she launched Honest & Gentle in February this year, with two moisturising body lotions ($26.90 and $48.90) and a deodorant ($8.90 to $15.90), adding face oils ($28.90 to $36.90) a few months later.
To create products with lighter textures that are safe for eczema-prone skin, Ms Lee uses only hypoallergenic ingredients which are more than 95 per cent of natural origin. She substituted any chemicals in recipes she found with natural alternatives.
Her brand was named for being not only gentle on the skin, but also for showing “gentleness towards others” in its ethical practices.
The shea butter she uses in her moisturising products is fair-trade, harvested by women in Ghana who are paid a fair wage (20 per cent above market rate) by the supplier.
She launched a flexi-charity initiative, where 3 per cent of the proceeds from every online purchase goes to a charity of the customer’s choice.
Ms Lee curated eight charities to partner – each helping a different cause in society, such as children in poverty or wildlife conservation – to “make donations easy and accessible for everyone, especially working adults”.
She also started a sampling initiative, working with local non-profit organisation Bizlink to employ persons with disabilities to pack skincare sachets. They can pack up to 200 sachets at a time and Ms Lee pays the beneficiaries for each sachet.
The samples are distributed at partnering fitness centres, including spin studio Sync Cycle and activewear store Outfyt.
It has been tough trying to gain brand awareness as a bootstrap business in the pandemic, as offline activities are very restricted, says Ms Lee. She e-mailed about 200 cafes, fitness centres and stores to pitch working together on a consignment basis.
(Read also “How The Pandemic Has Changed The World Of Beauty“)
She hopes to work more with people in underserved communities and other vulnerable groups, by providing them employment in packaging, labelling and administrative work.
“This whole thing is more of a passion project than a business,” she says. “It’s something I want to do in the long run, even though it may not make much money.”
This article was first published in The Straits Times.