In December 2010, a new Vermont company called Ursa Major launched its first product: a shaving cream. And its founders, Emily Doyle and Oliver Sweatman, had a moment of terror. “We launched with this expensive shaving cream in a recession, in Vermont, where everyone was already growing a beard, and with a [company] name no one could pronounce!” Sweatman says. “It was like, oh, my God.”
Doyle and Sweatman, life partners and veterans of the skin-care industry, had met in New York City and decamped to Vermont in 2009. They planned to start a business together, but “at the time, we didn’t know what it was going to be,” Sweatman recalls. “We thought maybe we should try something else — snacks, beer, sausages, whatever.” The economy was tanking, though, so Doyle and Sweatman decided to stick with what they knew.
A year of research and development went into Ursa Major’s shaving cream, which didn’t fall victim to the whiskers trend after all. Two years after it hit the market, Esquire magazine declared it the best shaving cream of the year. Now the company offers four other products: face wash, tonic, balm and wipes. Sweatman and Doyle live in Morrisville; until last summer, they based their business in Stowe (their formulators work in labs outside Vermont). In the fall, they hired six employees and moved operations to a Burlington office on lower Maple Street.
For this week’s issue focused on health, Seven Days sat down with Doyle and Sweatman to learn about their products and what men should be doing for their body’s largest organ.
SEVEN DAYS: Where does the name Ursa Major come from?
OLIVER SWEATMAN: We tortured ourselves choosing a name, and we tortured our friends, too. At some point, we stumbled onto Ursa Major [Latin for “larger bear” and the Big Dipper constellation]. We were riffing on the whole bear thing, and I took Latin, so we were like, “That’s fun.” Em’s a big animal lover, and there’s also this cool mythology around the Big Dipper being a way of finding stars. We liked that idea of awareness and discovery, and we thought that was a cool thing to weave into our brand story. In some ways, it reflects what we’ve done moving to Vermont.
EMILY DOYLE: Our brand is about getting outdoors and connecting with nature, so we wanted to reflect this feeling of getting outside.
SD: We don’t typically think of men as consumers of skin-care products. How has it been marketing to them?
OS: I would say that there’s a growing pool of men increasingly interested in taking better care of themselves. They’re much more open to engaging with these products than my dad, for example, or my grandfather. As the awareness around potentially unhealthy chemicals in [skin-care] products is growing, there are more health-conscious guys who are looking for an effective, natural alternative. We’re trying to focus on that guy.
ED: That said, there’s also still that bar-soap guy out there, and he uses the bar soap head to toe. But when we introduce him to our stuff, often we see this response of “Oh, my God. This feels so good, and my skin feels so comfortable. I don’t feel itchy.”
OS: One analogy for this is beer. Maybe 20 years ago, most people drank Budweiser, Coors, Coors Light. Now, in craft-beer culture, there’s a whole language. When you talk to college kids now, they’re like, “I like an IPA, a lager, an ale,” and they know the difference. It’s not exactly the same, but there are some parallels in terms of guys getting more familiar with different kinds of products.
ED: And also being willing to pay up a little bit for something they love.
SD: So, I’m your young guy in Vermont growing a beard in the winter. What sort of regimen would you prescribe for me?
OS: First of all, I get skeptical of these companies that say, “Here is this regimen that you need to follow every step.” No one’s the same. But generally speaking, I think washing your face twice a day with a good, sulfate-free cleanser is a very good thing to do. If you shave, you shave. That’s great. But the next step would be a light hydration product, and, if you’re going to spend any time outdoors, I would put on a natural SPF.
Above and beyond that, a mild scrub or exfoliation-type product can be very helpful, because guys tend to build up a lot of dry skin. If you have shaving issues, I think a face tonic can be very helpful. A lot of guys have ingrown hairs or razor bumps.
SD: Beyond the immediate face-wash or shaving products, are there any products or life habits that you recommend for better skin?
OS: First of all, genetics has a lot to do with it. Putting that aside, your diet can make a huge difference: staying well hydrated, having a healthy, balanced diet. Stress is a big one. Sleep. People in Vermont tend to spend a large amount of time outdoors, but only about 30 percent of men use SPF, whereas 78 percent of women use SPF, so that’s a huge one for guys.
ED: We’re working on a natural SPF, because that’s the No. 1 thing you can use to really keep your skin looking younger.
SD: Are there any broad differences between men’s and women’s skin care?
OS: There are definite physiological differences. Men’s skin is thicker and oilier and has whiskers, so I think there’s definitely a case to be made that men need guy-specific products. Men also tend to like different textures, aromas and language, which is more of an emotional, psychological thing.
Having said that, we’re getting an increasing number of women saying they love these products. So we’re asking ourselves, “What the hell are we doing? Why are we saying no to the ladies?” On a daily basis now, we get an email from a lady saying, “Hey, I found your stuff, I’m looking at your label, and I see that it’s for men. Should I not be using it?”
ED: We’re like, “No, use it!”
SD: Should we be scared about toxins?
OS: If you do the research, this is a totally unregulated industry, so there are now over 3,100 synthetic chemicals that are used with very little regulatory oversight. Well over 90 percent of those chemicals have not been adequately tested for use on humans. I think Americans are especially lax on this front.
There’s a growing body of credible evidence that leave-on products [e.g., deodorants, lotions and colognes] penetrate the skin. In fact, most of these products have synthetic penetration enhancers to drive it deeper in your skin, or you ingest it through your nose. There are endocrine disruptors that mess with your hormones. There are carcinogens. There’s neurological stuff that’s happening.
ED: Why use all this stuff that’s untested and banned in Europe? You just don’t have to anymore. You can find awesome, clean products like ours, and there are other brands out there that we use as well that are beautiful, smell amazing and work.
SD: How do you make sure your products are natural?
OS: We formulate to a standard called Ecocert, which is used in Europe. Basically, we formulate as close to 100 percent natural as possible. But we’re actually going to be moving towards the Whole Foods standard. They’re the undisputed leader on setting a natural standard, with a list of 430-some ingredients that they don’t allow in their stores.
SD: When people are trying to go natural, what are some things on the labels they should look for?
OS: We personally look for a statement around percent natural — as close to 100 percent natural as possible. We also look for an overt statement around no toxins, which would be no parabens, phthalates, sulfites, PEGs or synthetic fragrances, colors or SPF. Some good men’s brands are Aveda, Burt’s Bees, John Masters [Organics], Naturopathica.
ED: Women have way more choices, and that can be off-putting for a guy, even if the ingredient is pure and beautiful, because the scents are often so different for women. For guys, it’s immediately like, “You’re going to try to get me to use face cream, and I’m going to smell like roses? Forget it. It’s over.” But there are some choices.
The original print version of this article was headlined "About Face"