Clean Beauty Revolution | Au Naturale’s CEO & Founder Ashley Prange
Green Beauty Expert Katey Denno’s Guest Editor Week
“Approach life with love and compassion. People need to be reminded sometimes.” That is how clean beauty revolutionary and founder of Au Naturale Cosmetics, Ashley Prange, ended our interview. The life advice resonated with me as I stared out my window, watching the city lights twinkle in the dark. She finished her thought. “If people can do that, they’ll feel good about themselves and probably a little more beautiful, too.”
Au Naturale Cosmetics is leading the clean and green beauty revolution, proving that quality makeup can be made fresh, without parabens, animal by-products, synthetics, or other harmful ingredients. They are not only a cosmetic company, but also lead the #CleanBeautyRevolution, and give back to the world we live in through social impact and charity work.
With great intelligence and drive, business acumen and solid-decision making that has grown her business by double digits each year, I’m in awe of Ashley’s humble nature, inspired thoughts, and views on life. Her innovative spirit and determination are the reasons she is so successful, no doubt, and why I am certain that the sky is the limit for Ashley and anything she takes on. She patiently answered my questions late into a Sunday night about the past, present, and the future. Here is that conversation.
You were working as a Nuclear Analyst when you started Au Naturale. Can you tell me about that?
In my previous life, I worked for the federal government as a Regulator for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, mostly on uranium mines. It was a great job and I had a great team. I started formulating the opportunity to give people access to healthy cosmetics, to make an impact, and have a more fulfilling career as an entrepreneur. The federal government is very safe, so a lot of people were shocked that I left because I had a tenured position. I’m happy that I left now, but it was a difficult couple of years getting acquainted with the beauty industry, running a business, and formulating a product that didn’t exist.
I love what I do. I’m always keeping my eye out for who we can help next. The motivating factor is impact. I plan on expanding the business to reach more people with the product so they can feel good about themselves and good about what they’re wearing.
How did you come up with the name Au Naturale Cosmetics?
When you don’t put so many fillers and things in makeup, it can feel so lightweight that it almost feels like you’re wearing nothing. I thought there should be a little intrigue with the name, too, and “au naturel” means naked, so I was going for something a little bit cheeky, too.
What was the first product you ever created?
I was never a formulator and I didn’t have experience in this business at all. I was trying to fix the issues I was having with my complexion. I wanted a really clean powder product to wear. Blushers, bronzers, or anything in the loose powder category is the easiest to make. I started out with a coffee grinder and making powders on my own to see if it would make a difference for my skin. I knew my skin care routine was good but my skin has never been good. It was a fabulous day when, after wearing these clean powder formulations, I saw that it was helpful. The makeup had been exacerbating my skin issues for all those years. I saw immediate results from what I was making, and I knew that if I was seeing immediate results, other people could, too. When people were engaging with the products, they wanted more. It was a no-brainer to see if it had legs as a business.
Au Naturale started in 2011. Can you tell me about your company’s evolution?
I was working full time for the government, making the makeup on the weekends, and then shipping it out after I came home from work. It was really crazy. I was also dating somebody who lived in another city, so I was going to Pittsburgh every other weekend. It was overwhelming and not sustainable.
I started the company in 2011. Left my job in June 2012, and I knew I needed to scale the makeup. It’s hard to have a relationship and also have a business. So, I moved out to Pittsburgh with the person I was seeing then. The business was growing, but you have to make sacrifices along the way. I admire the people who are able to start a family and have a business. It’s almost impossible for me to fathom. A start up is a baby that needs to be taken care of every five minutes.
For us, it’s such a unique example. There’s a fancy word we use in the investment world called “vertical integration” (the combination in one company of two or more stages of production normally operated by separate companies). Most makeup companies do not have their own facility, and I knew that in order to keep with our mission, we needed to build a lab. Most makeup companies do not have their own facility where they manufacture. They use a filler. So, I had to make that decision, consciously, if this was going to work, if we are going to be what we say we are, which is organic, clean, natural — there is no filler in the United States of America that could make our formulations.
I am originally from Wisconsin, so I knew the work ethic there was superb. I had family to lean on, if I really needed them. I had the most horrible break up of my life around this time and moved to Wisconsin completely depressed and totally determined. We organically grew here. We have our own facility where we make makeup fresh, every day. We have an awesome team. We’re managing all of those pieces, which is why we can bring this level of transparency to the line that other brands can’t do, because 99 % of the other companies out there use a filler. To have access to where your ingredients come from is proprietary info — a filler won’t tell you. We wouldn’t be who we are if we didn’t have that piece of it. But it was ambitious trying to facilitate the growth of the lab, especially since I had no experience doing that.
It took three years to get that done right so we could scale to where we are now. There is a need for this. People are getting sick from their makeup and they don’t even know it.
How do you create a new product or line for Au Naturale?
For us, it’s a decision based on demand, trends, and also based on what we are capable of doing.
We have some new products coming to market now, and it’s based on need. These days consumers tell you what they’re looking for. We don’t have a mascara yet. We’re bringing that to market in a couple of months. We are not bringing anything to market that isn’t vegan and cruelty free. It’s hard to formulate these products to be all of those things because we don’t compromise on our mission for any product. Mascara has been a long time coming. But it’s been impossible to formulate without key ingredients that just became available to us.
We look at trends. Trends are important. Before, we wanted to offer people color in a full range. Now that we’ve done that and we have product down for the eyes, the face, cheeks, the lips, we want to offer variety. We’re working on a liquid foundation now. We already have a balm and a powder. We’re giving people what they usually can’t have in green beauty, which is a variety of color. Because we have our own lab, we can do anything. We grind our own colors and mineral pigments in a place we call the Powder Room.
We’re a start-up, so we’d love to do even more, but a lot of that is based off funding. We’ve been reinvesting the profits into the company and looking forward to bringing things like pressed powder to market too. Everyone has been working hard for the last couple of years to bring new products to market. We’re excited.
You started a makeup line, but you turned it into so much more. You are the leader of the #CleanBeautyRevolution, and your company strives to lead a positive global impact by pairing with various charities. I read about Au Naturale assisting with building schools in Zambia. Can you tell me more about the #CleanBeautyRevolution and why it’s important to have a positive global impact?
This could be the millennial in me talking, but what excites me about having a business is that we’re able to reach more people. That doesn’t mean reaching them with product or an opportunity to get their money. I’m not motivated by that. I am motivated by giving back. My background is not in business. I went to a Catholic college. I’m not even Catholic! I picked that because values are important to me. Ethos of charity and being present in this world — I feel the universe has me here to do good things. I see the business as a catalyst for moving the needle on issues.
What gets me excited is the environment and female empowerment in the developing world where there’s not a lot of people helping out. That’s also where I have my experience. Since I was 18 years old, I’ve been going to Africa. It fell into my lap but I think I was supposed to go. Education is the one thing you can give people in life that can never be taken away. It can be passed along to other people. Building schools in Africa is an investment in the future and as the world becomes more globalized…aren’t we all just one Skype call away from each other?
We care (me, my entire team, everyone on staff). We want to donate time and money to making the world a better place. We are a sustainable company, and as we have more means to become even more green and clean, we hope to be an example for other businesses to model how they forge the future in a sustainable and green way. We want to champion that and every year we make a lot of progress. We hope to keep doing that.
Part of your work centers around safer cosmetic regulations. What does that look like?
We are what we eat, but we are also what we put on our skin. We are also the air we breathe. We absorb 60%, depending on what it is, of what we put on our bodies. Women use an average of 22 personal care products a day, and men use an average of 12. It all ends up in our body, and that impacts our overall health.
Before we went to market in 2011, I was checking to see if we were in check to be legal. I was reviewing regulations for beauty, and there was nothing. My jaw dropped. I wondered how it was possible. I called all my friends who are lawyers. There are no rules in the book. The industry regulates itself. Which scared the hell out of me.
In Europe, there are 14,000 banned ingredients. In the United States, we have nine. How is this possible? The impact of personal care products on your health has never been measured. But, it’s real. When you’re in lobbying in Washington, D.C., with little kids who don’t have their hair anymore because they used one shampoo, what other illustration do you need that your personal care products can absolutely affect your health?
The one law in the books is about a page and a half. It’s from 1938, the same year “The Wizard of Oz” became a movie. We’ve spent 80 years with almost no regulation on beauty — everything from lipstick, to deodorant, to shampoo, to perfume. We need to have basic parameters to make sure the consumer is safe. Because we have so many examples showing how it is not safe at the moment.
In Washington, D.C. — we are working with the Environmental Working Group and Senator Feinstein and Collins, for almost five years now actively. We are in our third year of working on something called the Personal Care Product Safety Act. In the Senate, it is S.1113, and it is offering a very bipartisan and basic consumer safety law that I hope would be built on in years to come. I’ve worked in D.C. long enough to know that you can’t go up against big corporations. This is a very compromised bill that we worked on with companies like Johnson and Johnson, Proctor and Gamble, and Unilever. The Corporations, Au Naturale, the Honest Company hopped on a year or two ago — small (like us), medium sized, and larger corporations have all agreed on this bill.
But it is held up in committee right now. The Republicans are asking that every single state consider laws grandfathered in before the federal laws and that’s a conversation ender for anybody who actually wants to see this come to fruition. So, we might have to go to D.C. and lobby again. The good news is that a committee took it. This is the farthest any legislation in this space has gone in 80 years. It never has gotten to committee.
The committee it needs to get past is the Health, Education Labor & Pensions Committee. Lamar Alexander is the Senator in charge of it and is the one holding it up with not compromising on the language for the states. I have a phone call with Senator Feinstein’s office every week to make sure we are doing what we can do to keep it moving. If it doesn’t happen with this Congress, we’ll continue doing what we’ve been doing every year since we started — start again. We will not stop fighting for this. It is insane that we don’t have something protecting people. We are hoping it will happen for the United States of America because other countries are well beyond where we are.
How can people reading this help?
Call your Senators and ask them to support the efforts. If they live in Tennessee, ask your Senator Lamar Alexander to negotiate and move this past the Health Committee by being bipartisan. If you are in Tennessee, that’s a big one. Any Senator can weigh in. Now is the time to do it.
The committee takes what you proposed and they change it. The Senate votes on that changed bill. Whatever they come out with is what we have to live with. I’m hoping it is not too different from the original language. If they want to engage, people can call their Senators and ask that they support the Feinstein Collins Personal Care Product Safety Act, which is PCPSA (S.1113), and that they want to see the original language intact.
They can leave their opinion with the Health Committee where the bill lives right now. Ask the Health, Education Labor & Pensions Committee to uphold S.1113. This bill gives the FDA authority to pull products or recall them, and to have an independent committee reviewing at least five ingredients a year. It’s important that they support this bill and hold the original content of the bill up. It’s critical that the consumer is protected by an independent body evaluating these ingredients and giving the FDA the budget and people to regulate. Right now, they don’t have the authority or budget to do anything. Nothing is happening right now.
People forget that each Senator is there because they were voted in. It is their job to listen to you, and they do listen. Those phone calls matter. If you are persistent and you watch this and hold them accountable, that moves the needle, whether you believe it or not. It is measured on Committee who is calling in, asking, and paying attention. The worst thing you can do is nothing, because when no one is calling or weighing in, people think they don’t care and can get away with murder. Be active and engage with your representatives. Especially the Senate in this case. That is huge.
You have a large range of celebrities that wear your products and professional makeup artists that use your products. I saw a clip of actor Gillian Jacobs wearing your cosmetics on Jimmy Kimmel. What’s it like seeing your creations on television or celebrities? Did you ever think this would happen?
No. Of course, you want those things to happen, but it’s gratifying that people buy Au Naturale and love it, and tell their friends to buy it, and it improves their self-esteem because they feel better. That’s huge. But when celebrities wear it, it’s surreal. It’s cool to see everything manifest — that people actually know who we are. I am still getting used to the fact that people know who we are. I’ve been working hard, and I’ve been in such a rabbit hole getting the business to thrive that I’m still taken aback when people recognize us. Celebrities can impact so many people. When they choose to wear our makeup, they are making a statement that they want clean and green and they are standing for something.
What about your cosmetics can help people fall in love with themselves again?
A lot of people have skin issues. Falling in love with themselves again is realizing that you’re already gorgeous. If makeup can be an extension of their wellness routine and they can feel good about that experience, that’s beautiful. A lot of people are starting to have connection with that relationship in wellness. They’re eating well. They are taking care of themselves. Makeup is turning into a rewarding experience in playing with color instead of something they conceal or use because they have to. It’s a joy to shop for makeup when you use it as a creativity tool for yourself.
When I come across people starting to transition to a wellness lifestyle, they get better. Their skin becomes better. Makeup becomes a fun thing. It’s cool to see people evolve. I hope that wellness is here to stay forever and is a new beauty standard. Who doesn’t want to be healthy? Wellness is a lifestyle and makeup is a small facet of that, but a part of the experience. Falling in love with themselves is really just digging deep and living a clean, healthy happy life. Au Naturale is one tool to do that.
What is your favorite Au Naturale cosmetic?
I really love our foundation for so many reasons. It’s nourishing for your skin. It acts like a sunblock. It’s smooth and blends right in. It’s a moisturizer. A little bit of that makes me feel totally fresh. I don’t have to have makeup on to feel good — but a little bit of that in the morning — that’s all I did today. I’m protecting my skin. I’m nourishing my skin. I probably also look better than I did when I woke up. Ha!
What is next for Au Naturale?
Now that I’m comfortable in this space and formulating, I want to get acquainted with active ingredients that are sustainable — things from the rainforest that will help your skin and incorporate that in a makeup routine. I also want to bring a higher end component to the line. We can do spa a huge service by bringing green to that world. I would like to add products that are multitasking and promoting healthy skin. In the long run, I see Au Naturale being skincare. Maybe a few key products that would help with cleansing and hydrating. I love the idea of doing perfumes. There are so many things I would love to do if I had the time. As our team grows, we can tackle this. Anything sustainable, helping people — I want to be there. The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. I would love to get into stable garments, to get into that space and disrupt it a little bit, because that world can be more than what it is now.
What’s the best way for someone to try your products?
Our website is the easiest place to go. We’ll have an enhanced experience on Amazon. Au Naturale will be in over 200 Whole Foods by October 2018. We also have a lot of partners that we list on our website around the country. We’re always offering little gifts with purchases on our website or fun little promos, so signing up for our email list is good. We offer sample kits and samples so people can try what they want before they buy the product. If there is something tailored that they want, they can call our team. The easiest way is going to us directly. We are on Organic Bunny’s e-Commerce store. She’s a really cool blogger that we adore.
What advice do you have for someone that wants to create something they are passionate about?
Keep playing. Don’t stop. Don’t play by the rules. Rules are dumb. They’re meant to be broken. If someone tells you ‘no’, find another way. That’s what I’ve learned. When someone says, ‘that won’t work’ or ‘that’s crazy’, no it’s not. Go to someone else who will tell you what you want to hear. Challenge yourself to find a way. When there is a will, there is a way. Yes, you can. A lot of people get scared because they feel like they are going to be rejected or they are rejected. Just like I’ve been rejected. If it was easy to start a business everyone would do it. Everyone can. But it’s not easy. You learn so much about yourself going through that experience. Never give up. Keep going. If you’re passionate and you feel like you have something special, please don’t stop walking down that path to bring that product / idea / concept to market.
When you’re not saving the world or creating new products, what do you do for fun?
I like to be with my people — my family and friends. Work has gotten busy, but it is rewarding so I don’t mind. Finding quiet time for family and friends, just to be grounded and peaceful even if it is just one day of the weekend, is everything to me. Being in nature, being with my people, and being home. The last fifteen years of my life, I loved being anywhere but home. But I’ve changed my tune.
What is the best way to keep up with your adventures and Au Naturale?
There are many ways. Join our email list for Au Naturale. Watch our Instagram. And of course CleanBeautyRevolution.com. Stay tuned for more things on CleanBeautyrevolution.com. That’s an extension of our mission and our values, which is the backbone of the company. I am trying to be better by telling our story on social media. More videos are coming — wellness from our perspective. We want to educate people so they can make the best decisions.