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Victoria Tsai of Tatcha

The purveyor of geisha culture and traditions on creating her own skincare line inspired by these centuries-old rituals.

Victoria Tsai sold her engagement ring to finance Tatcha, the skincare brand she founded in 2009, after a serendipitous encounter with a modern-day geisha in Kyoto, Japan. Her first product? Blotting papers used by geisha — 10,000 packs to be exact — that are a by-product of the gold leaf making process from a workshop in the island-city.

As for naming her company, the Harvard Business School alum came up with it by combining two Japanese words. The first is tatehana, a form of ikebana (Japanese art of flower arrangement). The second word is chaban, a reference to one part of the Japanese tea ceremony. She found that the words resonated with her commitment to simple, thoughtful beauty.

Here, Après Avant delves into the philosophies, ingredients and secrets of Tatcha’s products and rituals in an exclusive interview with Vicky, one of our role models and wearer of many hats: globetrotting entrepreneur, mother, and Chief Treasure Hunter at the San Francisco-based company.

Tatcha Original Aburatorigami Japanese Beauty Papers

Tatcha’s handmade gold-flecked blotting papers
can be used on both sides

Tatcha Kyoka Parasol Watercolor Apres Avant

The Japanese have a name for the geisha’s skin.
They call it “mochi hada”, which is in reference
to baby soft and translucent skin

Let’s start from the beginning. Tatcha was created while you were pregnant with your daughter, Alea, as you were simultaneously suffering from acute dermatitis. Could you describe your thought process then in terms of why, and how you developed the brand’s initial products? How did you address your concerns about the types of ingredients to use while pregnant and later, while breastfeeding?

While I was thinking about having a child, I worked for a company called GoodGuide. They gave products ratings based on their health, environmental and ethical sustainability. While there, I learned that skincare is an unregulated industry in the US, and many commonly used products have questionable ingredients in them. I also learned that many of those ingredients have the ability to pass through the skin barrier and can affect you if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. I travelled to Kyoto searching for a more evolved approach to beauty — one that works in harmony with the body, instead of fighting against it.

By the time I was developing Tatcha’s skincare collection, I was pregnant with my daughter. I worked closely with our Tatcha Institute team to ensure that we never use ingredients that are of concern for pregnant and breastfeeding women, including retinoids and salicylic acid. In addition to avoiding these, we have a long list of no-no ingredients to keep your skin happy, regardless of whether or not you are pregnant; such as parabens, synthetic fragrances, and so forth.

What are some ingredients in beauty products that pregnant or breastfeeding women should look for, and what are some to avoid?

When you are pregnant, your hormones fluctuate dramatically and can affect your skin. At the same time, women are becoming more aware of the ingredients going into their bodies. Some ingredients to avoid include aggressive treatments like retinoids, synthetic fragrances and anything with high alcohol content.

What to look for instead: a botanical cleansing oil is the gentlest way to cleanse the skin. Make sure it emulsifies completely to rinse off the skin. Look for moisturisers high in antioxidants and soothing ingredients.

I always recommend our Indigo Soothing Triple Recovery Cream, which is moisturising and anti-ageing, and gentle enough for even those with eczema (it was awarded a seal from the National Eczema Association). Lastly, many women discover treatment oils during pregnancy. They essentially fill the gaps in the skin to prevent water loss. Look for lightweight, botanical oils that you feel comfortable applying on your skin.

Tatcha Indigo Cream

The Indigo Soothing Triple Recovery cream’s unique blue hue
does not impart on the skin upon application

“I learned that skincare is an unregulated industry in the US, and many commonly used products have questionable ingredients in them.”

Tatcha's Designer's Notepad

How Tatcha’s products are sketched, designed and brought to life

What are some ingredients you’d recommend for people with dermatitis, eczema and acne-prone skin?

For dermatitis and eczema, I would recommend colloidal oatmeal (beloved for its soothing properties) and natural Japanese Indigo, the foundation for our Indigo collection. Natural Japanese Indigo is a powerful anti-inflammatory ingredient that helps to calm and soothe irritated skin. For acne-prone skin, we love dokudami, a Japanese botanical that is used for its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.

You learnt beauty secrets from geisha, and the ancient Miyakofuzoku Kewaiden (‘Capital Beauty and Style Handbook’) manual you came across now informs and inspires Tatcha as a whole. What are some tips you can share that are applicable to Asian women’s daily makeup and skincare routines?

For makeup: pick a focal point. With geisha, we think of them as having a fully painted face. When you see them in person, though, you see that the lips are the true focal point. Focus on the lips, or the eyes, or the skin. Secondly, colour cosmetics are meant to be seen; complexion makeup is not. When you see a geisha in person, her white makeup is almost translucent, providing a beautiful backdrop for her iconic red lip.

For skincare: firstly, purifying and cleansing your skin are the most important steps of your ritual. Secondly, prevention is key. Asian skincare is like Eastern medicine — it’s all about preventing damage, rather than letting it happen and trying to correct it.

Tatcha Photo Illustration Hybrid Green Book Apres Avant

The Miyakofuzoku Kewaiden
(‘Capital Beauty and Style Handbook’) manual

How has creating Tatcha changed the way that you view skincare and more generally, how you perceive beauty?

In the US, it often seems that “beauty” is synonymous with changing the way you look — lightening spots, erasing wrinkles, tanning or lightening the skin. Working with the geisha taught me that beauty begins in the heart and the mind. If you have a kind heart and a genuine smile, it makes you a beautiful person.

Kyoka, Tatcha's muse

Kyoka, Tatcha’s muse

As an entrepreneur and mother, what are three things you do to ground and centre you when you feel stressed or overwhelmed?

Once a week or so, I get “Mommy and Alea” time, where my daughter and I spend an evening just the two of us. Whether we are making dinner together or exploring the lake near my house, spending time with her always calms and centres me. She also has a surprising amount of wisdom for a kindergartener.

Early on in starting Tatcha, a mentor recommended meditation to me. I even worked with a meditation coach. Any time work gets stressful, I take a quiet moment to meditate.

Lastly, I try to keep things in perspective. I have a photo on my desk of an incredible girl I met in Cambodia. I visited the country as part of our one-for-one partnership with Room to Read. I look at that photo every day to remind me that each item purchased funds a day of school for girls like her.

“When we do use an ingredient that is not of natural origin, it is because it’s the safest, most effective option available. We use natural actives because they are simply more efficacious on the skin.”

Tatcha’s Radiant Deep Brightening Serum is described as made to “visibly improve hyper-pigmentation, dark spots and uneven skin tone without whitening skin” — unlike most whitening products on the market that claim to lighten skin. In your opinion, what are three of the serum’s key ingredients that best target hyperpigmentation?

The active ingredient we use in our Radiant Deep Brightening Serum is licorice root, one of the oldest remedies in history. It is rich in glycyrrhizate, an effective tyrosinase inhibitor to help prevent hyperpigmentation. It also includes jujuba fruit extract, which helps to promote cell turnover and improve the appearance of existing hyperpigmentation. Lastly, Scutellaria root extract inhibits Endotheline-1 to prevent excess melanin production.

Tatcha Deep Brightening Serum

Tatcha’s Radiant Deep Brightening Serum doesn’t whiten skin.
Instead, it targets dark spots and hyperpigmentation,
and improves uneven skin tones

Tatcha places a lot of emphasis on using natural ingredients. But the brand isn’t considered a ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ brand because of its use of chemicals in its formulas. How do you explain the reasoning and logic behind blending science and technology with natural ingredients to make effective products? In other words, how does science and technology bring out the best in natural ingredients?

On average, our formulas are over 95 per cent natural. When we do use an ingredient that is not of natural origin, it’s because it is the safest, most effective option available. We use natural actives because they are simply more efficacious on the skin. However, there are plenty of synthetic ingredients that are harmless to you.

While we know our formulas to be amongst the most natural in the world, we think that’s actually the wrong thing to focus on. What matters is whether the formulas are clean and healthy for the body and skin, which is why we formulate everything in-house.

We also invest extensively in research and development, using science to harness the full potential of natural ingredients. Lastly, everything is independently tested to be dermatologist-tested, non-irritating and non-sensitising.

Tatcha 24-Karat Gold Sheets
The Tatcha Lab

Gold can help reduce inflammation, which can cause acne and hyperpigmentation

Having had dermatitis, and given that you wanted Tatcha products to be suitable for all skin types, why did you decide to use alcohol, fragrances and chemical binders in Tatcha’s product formulations?

You may refer to my previous answer for the explanation. The alcohol we use are in extremely low percentages, and our fragrances are all-natural. Binders are to provide a stable formula.

The beauty industry is becoming eco-friendlier and there is a growing demand for organic, natural products. What are your thoughts on this?

While I would like to believe that consumers will always choose a 100 per cent natural formula, there are many harmless synthetic ingredients that provide stable formulas. These ingredients ensure that products are not sticky or smelly, and create a more enjoyable experience for the people who are using them.

“While I would like to believe that consumers will always choose a 100 percent natural formula, there are many harmless synthetic ingredients that provide stable formulas.”

If you could only choose one Tatcha product that all women should own, which would it be and why?

That’s like asking me which of my children I love the best! If I truly had to select just one, I would recommend the Polished Rice Enzyme Powder. It comes in four different strengths for different skin types — sensitive, dry, combination and oily. It is a non-abrasive exfoliant that is gentle enough for everyday use, clearing away debris and leaving the skin polished like a jewel and ready for whatever treatments to follow.

Tatcha Polished Classic Rice Enzyme Powder

Tatcha’s Polished Classic Rice Enyzme Powder
is a fan favourite

Finally, what’s next for Tatcha’s brand and product developments?

Our skincare collection is based on a book written in 1813 to capture the rituals of the geisha. The book covers seven chapters across three volumes, and skincare is chapter one. We are excited to continue exploring its wisdom.

Tatcha's Victoria Tsai with a Geisha

Vicky with her friend and geisha, Kyoka-san

Images courtesy of Tatcha