Meeting Laura Verallo de Bertotto is like discovering a good cocktail: immediately your senses are delighted by her joie de vivre, quirky sense of humor and refreshed by her unique perspective on business and life. She speaks quickly and passionately, especially when she talks about the science behind beauty products. If anyone personifies a “beauty nerd” with a little sass and whole lot of heart (she writes a gratitude journal nightly), this beauty boss lady would be it.
Laura Verallo de Bertotto is the CEO of VMV Hypoallergenics, a brand I’ve known through their well-loved Armada sunscreen and have always respected for focusing on safety and efficacy. Founded by her dermapathologist-mother, the homegrown Filipino brand with an international reach formulates beauty products through careful research, backed by international peer-reviewed medical journals (yes!). It’s the first company to develop a rating system for “hypoallergenicity” or products that are formulated with the fewest possible allergens.
Unbeknownst to me, Laura says ingredients such as fragrance, nickel, preservatives and dyes in a majority of your beauty products can cause allergic reactions and eventually skin problems, i.e. chronic acne, contact dermatitis, rosacea, among many others. In the United States, as much as one in four people are allergic to common ingredients in skincare (source: ABS-CBN) – a statistic I would not be surprised rings true for us in the Philippines as well.
Wearing only a light trace of eye makeup that day, Laura shared her thoughts on beauty, happiness and building a uniquely Filipino brand.
Jenny Rockett: Define beauty.
Laura de Bertotto: Have you ever looked at a painting and wanted to cry? That for me is beauty. Okay, you know how when you meet someone you start falling in love with them? Not even as a lover, even platonically just a friend. And they become more and more beautiful to you? That's what I mean. It has to be something that kind of takes your soul away. Something that makes you gasp and want to cry. Beauty is a general concept that takes your breath away. Eyebrows or lips I don't know! If it's healthy, it looks good.
J: Define happiness.
L: That's easy. Happiness is a choice. It's something that won't just happen. A lot of it has to do with gratitude.
J: What is your daily skincare routine?
L: Nine products in the morning. I have a cleaner, two toners, two treatment creams, gel for acne, retinol acid for anti-ageing, coconut oil, sunscreen.
J: What advice would you give to someone who wants beautiful skin?
L: See a dermatologist. I think a lot of people go to one only when there is a problem. But if you see one early on, you can avoid problems later on. Don't dismiss dryness because its probably an irritation already. And prevention is always better. It's like eating right. It's better to eat right and avoid a triple bypass. Less is more, prevention is key.
The bright and zen spaces inside the store of VMV Hypoallergenics' BGC, Taguig.
The knowledgeable staff who will talk to you about your allergens and how to remedy them.
J: What have you learned about beauty from your mother who's a derma-pathologist?
L: Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen….sunscreen, sunscreen. Sunscreen, sunscreen. Oh my effing-God. I was a professional tanner when I was younger. I was one of those people that would hang out for 8 hours. I would get really, really dark. And I would LOOOVE it. One day she showed me a UV thing on my skin, and that was that. So, sunscreen. In fact, if you can't afford anything else, get a sunscreen.
J: Your mom must have beautiful skin?
L: Oh yeah, if you looked at her! She's 78. And she still walks around in 3-inch heels. She's hardcore.
L: Yeah. No joke. Super.
J: Where do you get your inspiration for your products?
L: Patients or journals -- it's really one or the other. Like we're seeing an increase in rosacea. A lot of the rosacea stuff is: use a lot of anti-oxidants. Now there showing its an inflammation. You want something called anti-cathelicidins. Apparently its very linked to the surge of the redness.
J: It's easier to put on product than avoid stress.
L: Yes. Fair enough! A lot of people don't think of stress as that that stresses your skin. So when you have psioriasis and they say: don't be stressed. They're talking about: don't put sh*t on your skin that might stress it. Again, allergens avoid it.
Laura's favorite beauty products from VMV Hypoallergenics.
J: What books are you reading right now?
L: Just posted about it - that's funny! bell hooks. She's an amazing writer on gender and race. I'm also reading Motherless Tongues by Vicente Rafael. I'm getting back to my roots as it were in race, gender and language….Nothing to do at all with fashion or beauty. It's all to do with race, power, justice and equality. That's where my heart is.
J: What is the best advice one has ever given you?
L: To get good at anything is practice. No one is born with it…You could be good at anything, it's just how much practice you put into it. If you want to be a good runner, then you just keep trying. If you suck longer than more people, then that's fine you just need more practice. I think there's something damaging about thinking you're born as the smart one, the funny one, the athletic one. No, no, no. To get good at anything is practice.
J: Your beauty tips.
L: Again, eat right, exercise, sleep 8 hours. Serious, ha. And sunscreen. The rest is icing on a cake. But you got to get the cake right, you know? Have your different frostings. Do you hazelnuts, do your crème fraiche, do whatever. Fine. But you gotta get the basic structure down first. You gotta eat right. You gotta take out the white stuff: white processed rice, white pasta, white bread. Have the whole-wheat, whatever. Eat right, sleep well, sunscreen. Excersise.
The brand's bestselling product, the Big Brave, Boo Boo Balm.
It relieves everything from dry skin, rashes, itchiness, chapped lips, you name it.
Laura's effortless, relaxed style. Look at those boots!
J: What is "skintelligent"?
L: …Someone who really pays attention. Someone who's not skintelligent will read copy LIKE, "It will change your DNA; this was extracted from a rare Guatamalan frog urine...and will be like OMG, and will spend $50,000 on a jar. That's not skintelligent. Skintelligent is: sorry the urine of what? So what is that, it's the uric acid? Why? 'Cause uric acid is hydrophobic? That's skintelligent. Someone who asks questions and understands these questions. Someone who will ask: how many allergens is that?
J: How does one become more "skintelligent"?
L: Reading. Reading from the right sources. Look at the Academy of American Dermatology website. Look at the American Cancer Association. Look at the Philippine Dermatological Society website. Trust sources that are legit. Honestly, brands it's a business right? But dig a little deeper: what does that really mean, how does it work, how is it proven, are there studies I can look at, are they self-published, are they peer-reviewed.
Just because you're in the beauty business does not mean you have to buy into the hype just because. You can ask the intelligent questions. This is a science after all. Be curious, but use trusted sources.
J: What was your journey like growing a uniquely Filipino brand into a global brand?
L: Blood, sweat and tears. It's so expensive to try to break out of the Philippines, right? Because the majority of your income is still in pesos and you're selling abroad. And spending in dollars and euros. There's a moment where you're like, huuuuuh, you have to bite the bullet and decide how much you're willing not to breathe. Extremely expensive, we've got burned so many times. Second, is distributors: sometimes you get great partners, sometimes you get partners that will cheat you -- not pay you or are great people but their markets collapse. Then you're stuck with so much money that's owed to you. It's really, really tough.
The other thing "Made in the Philippines" was a big hurdle for a very long time. Especially for a brand that was premium, because we're not cheap, we're closer to luxury. 'Cause the damn tests are not cheap, the ingredients are not cheap. It's expensive to begin with. So for a brand with a premium proposition, that had such a high science claim to it, being made in the Philippines was not an automatic equivalence. If we said "Made in Switzerland", sure right? But it was a very hard hurdle.
We'd have people in cosmetic shows that would be like, "OMG I love this brand. You guys are so great, where's it from?". Philippines. And the nice one's would say, "It might be hard to sell". The not so nice one's would say "Ugh. Eww". Awful…..For awhile, it was really hard being a Filipino brand. And the best advice I got there was: Don't focus on the origin. What is the relevance of your origin of a brand anyway? Get your cred elsewhere. So we'd say, "Look, we're published in a peer-reviewed journal internationally" If they think we're legit, then maybe you get over your Philippine hang-up. Vogue featured us. We're in Oprah. It's been effective.
J: So focusing on the science makes a good product.
L: Exactly. Make the best thing, prove that it's the best thing, then say it's Filipino. Now you're really building the Filipino brand. Constantly waving the flag around means nothing. Make it mean something. And then put the flag out there.
The little reminder perched in the store at BGC, Taguig.
To view products and more information on VMV Hypoallergenics, see here.