Short for Aotearoa, a northern island in New Zealand, Ao Skincare draws inspiration from the land’s natural volcanoes, glacial formations and breath-taking fjords (seriously, take a look). The founder, Dr. Mark Gray, a dermatologist who specializes in skin pathology, set out to combine his clinical understanding of skin health with the benefits of natural, locally-sourced bioactive botanicals. “We began by examining the very ideology of skin care and what its function should be,” he says. “We then developed six products with carefully-chosen ingredients that together function like a well conducted orchestra.” Keep scrolling to read more of our conversation with Dr. Gray, who considers skin care a constant balancing act. Sounds about right to me.
You are a dermatologist by trade. Please tell me a little about your background and how it led you to become the director of research and development for Ao Skincare.
“Yes, I am a dermatologist in clinical practice at the Skin Institute clinics in New Zealand. After finishing medical school, I moved to the United States where I completed specialist training in Pathology. At that time — in the mid-1980s — there was a lot interest in skin pathology, or dermatopathology. The field evolved at such a rate that it became a medical specialty in its own right. I was attracted to this exciting new specialty and went on to complete my dermatopathology boards at Cornell. This opened up the whole field of clinical dermatology to me and so I made a decision to continue with my training to become a specialist dermatologist.
The 1990s would see the rapid rise of cosmetic medicine in dermatology. This was an exciting time with the evolution of new technologies, especially lasers and biologically active products. The practice of dermatology changed and actually began to overlap with plastic surgery and beauty therapy. We all got interested in anti-aging skin care. It required a whole shift in clinical philosophy.
When I came back to New Zealand in 1994 and opened my private practice clinic, I wanted to bring all this exciting new technology home. I brought the first IPL device into the country and went from there. Creating a skin care line had been an ambition of mine for a very long time, but I looked at the industry and was terrified. It really is a large cluttered market where it’s extremely difficult to differentiate yourself. However, I made a decision to experiment in the age of innovation. I was ready compete at the upper level using on trend science, methods and ingredients that I had learned from my practice.”
Why do you feel skin health is so important?
“Skin health is vital to one’s health in general. It is part of our first line of defense from the hostilities of the environment that we live in. Without optimum skin health that defense system can falter, leading to skin disorders like accelerated skin aging, systemic illness and even death. Skin cancer is an obvious example of what can occur if optimum skin health is not maintained. I see skin cancers every day in my clinical practice and the consequences are often devastating.
In addition, the appearance of one’s skin plays a huge psycho-social role in human society and ultimately on how people feel about themselves. Your skin tells a lot about who you are as a person and so taking care of it is of great importance. It is very difficult to restore youthfulness once it has gone. But you can slow the process of aging down by using a good regimen and looking after your skin from a relatively young age. You will realize the benefits in later years.”
What was your original mission for Ao Skincare?
“Even as a small indie brand, we are driven to create the world’s best skin care range by examining and challenging every step of delivering a product to market. When Dyson invented his new vacuum cleaner, he didn't think about what the market was missing and what he could offer to fulfill that need. He simply went out to make a better vacuum cleaner than anyone else had. He succeeded because he did things differently and was prepared to challenge industry norms. That was my objective.
The skin care business is a fast-moving train and is constantly changing. There are a lot of good products out there and new ones coming down the track all the time. I wanted to be in the engine room at the front of the train, leading the way by continual innovation. Our philosophy is a twist on the old adage ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ If it’s not broke, we still fix it. We will constantly strive for the very best.”
So what sets Ao Skincare apart from other dermatologist-engineered brands?
“I won’t say we disrupted the industry. In fact, we simplified things — in an innovative way. We began by examining the very ideology of skin care and what its function should be. For me, the role of skin care pivots around the concept of homeodynamics. This is the property of living systems that enables them to counteract stress, adapt, survive and maintain health. It’s a constant balancing act in response to change. I’ve always been very interested in this whole change — the response to seasonality, environment, culture, etc. What became clear early is that there is no ‘magic bullet’ capable of managing these changes in isolation. What is required is a multitude of active ingredients.
What makes us unique is that we develop products that reinvent themselves to provide the optimum health for this skin balancing act. It means making formulas that are multifunctional with ingredients targeting many processes and mechanisms, which together act synergistically in order to respond to changes impacting the skin from both within and extrinsically. We choose our ingredients carefully and keep refining our products. We don’t sit on our formulas, even if it means completely redeveloping our best formulation rather than sticking to old or recycled technologies as is sadly the case with large established skin care companies.”
You take great pride in the ingredients you select. Tell me a little more about the actives in Ao Skincare.
“Ao skincare is serious about efficacy. We believe our products deliver because the ingredients selected have known scientific validation. Each of our products contains several active ingredients. These active ingredients work to aid the skin’s natural homeodynamic mechanisms to ensure optimum skin health. To give you an idea of the lengths that we are prepared to go, we even looked into the best type of water to use in Ao products. Water is the largest by-volume component in all skin care, so it made sense to us rather than accept that we should use distilled water because that is what other companies use. The water used in Ao products is sourced from a deep aquifer in New Zealand. Water is vital to skin health and not all water is the same. We chose a natural, unadulterated source because it contains the perfect balance of minerals and trace elements that nature provides.
We have two hero ingredients: Astaxanthin and Bakuchiol. From a sports medicine point of view, I was always interested in the antioxidant capabilities and recovery properties of astaxanthin. The more I read about it, the more it became obvious that it was powerful and highly underrepresented in skin care. It is quite different to other antioxidants and is the most powerful antioxidant known. The type we use is over 6000 times more powerful than Vitamin C.
Astaxanthin belongs to a class of chemicals called carotenoids. Its natural source is from a particular marine algae. When these algae are put under environmental stress, such as extreme drying out or heat, they produce large quantities of astaxanthin in order to survive. Astaxanthin is a pinkish red in color. Shrimp feed on these algae and this is why shrimp turn pink when cooked. It is also the reason salmon and flamingos are pink as they feed on the shrimp. Astaxanthin helps salmon survive the arduous upstream swim to spawn. You’ll find it in our Protect SPF 30 and in our Restore Serum, as it aids in slowing visible signs of aging and reduces the risk of skin cancer.
Bakuchiol is an antioxidant found in the seeds and leaves of the Babchi plant, and it really is a fascinating ingredient. Chinese and Indian medical practitioners have utilized Bakuchiol for centuries to help heal cuts, soothe rashes and calm redness. We have included it in our range as it has two key properties. First, it has a bioactive profile almost identical to the retinoids like the retinaldehyde in our night serum. That means, it promotes the synthesis of collagen in the skin, reducing the visible signs of aging. However, it lacks the common side effects of retinoids like sensitivity or dermatitis. Secondly, it boosts the effectiveness of retinoids when used in combination so that the combined effect on the skin is much greater than expected. When you put them together, you get this super effect. It's in Rewind Retinal and Repair Night Cream.
Finally, wherever possible, we will continue to source active botanicals from home, like manuka honey, as we are passionate about our country. It’s one of the purest environments in the world.”
What was the first product you created and why?
“We developed our Prepare Cleanser first. From a derm point of view, I always thoughts that cleansing, toning, moisturizing was vicious cycle propagated by companies to sell products. So, I wanted to create a good cleanser that wouldn’t strip the skin and would provide a good base for the rest of your regimen. We wanted the first step of one’s regimen to be different to what we’ve come to expect. Prepare has a unique gel, oil and water composition that doesn’t wash out the skin’s natural oils while effectively removing makeup, dirt and pollutants. It really prepares you for everything else. I should also note that it also has a wow-factor in that it changes to a nice milk-like lotion when activated by water. When you use it, there is a sensorial effect right away.”
If you could only recommend one product from the line, what would it be?
“In an ideal world, people would buy all six — the whole regimen. Each product has characteristics that interact with the others for more power. My absolute favorite, though, is the Repair Night Cream. But because I am a dermatologist, I would have to recommend our Protect SPF 30 if I could only choose one. Sun protection is the most important step in a skin care regimen and our sunscreen contains other important active ingredients that you would not find in many traditional sunscreens, including ferulic acid and niacinamide.”
What else do you recommend for optimal skin health?
“People’s idea of good behavior in skin health is always evolving. Avoid smoking and environmental pollutions as much as you can. Try not to stress. Get plenty of sleep, because that’s when your body repairs itself. Try monitoring your skin over time to see how it is affected from different seasons or stages of your life, not just the products you are using. It’s called lifestyle monitoring. This will allow you to better identify what improves or harms your skin.”
What’s next for the Ao Skincare?
“Growth. I’m interested in a lot that is happening — from growth factors to probiotics. There is so so much more we need to learn and improve on in these areas. I also like the idea of slightly more personalized skin care. The concept that the changes in your skin — even over the course of a year — require changes in the products you are using. Stay tuned.”