If you’ve been active on social media in recent years, then you’ve certainly encountered your share of “beauty experts.” One minute you’re discovering a new skincare hack, and the next you’re learning that your once-favorite product has been officially canceled (by the Internet, that is). Esther Olu doesn’t want you to believe the hype. Through her platform, The Melanin Chemist, she is on a mission to combat disinformation one post at a time.
Now hear us out, there’s nothing wrong with sharing tips with friends, but chances are, Olu is a lot more qualified to give you skincare advice than your TikTok FYP. With bachelor's degrees in both chemistry and media studies, a master’s degree in cosmetic science, and most recently, a certification in esthetics, she is the real deal. Keep reading to see beauty through Olu’s lens and learn how this Nigerian-American became one of our favorite formulators.
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Olu was born to Nigerian parents and raised in Orange County, California, so there weren’t many people in her community to represent beauty standards that would inspire her. “Growing up, my beauty lens was really limited,” says Olu. “There wasn’t a lot of diversity around me, and my family didn’t emphasize beauty, so it wasn’t until college that I started to pay attention.” Olu recalls a part-time job at a skincare store that finally got her interested in the world of beauty. “Before this job, I didn’t have a solid skincare routine, and I didn’t even use sunscreen. I held on to the false idea that Black don’t crack and didn’t understand the importance of skincare.” As Olu became more familiar with the products at her job, she also became more curious about the way they could be used to treat the skin. From there, her passion for beauty began.
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Like many first-generation students in the United States, Olu was encouraged to study science, so that she could be a doctor. She started studying biology, but she knew that the medical field wasn’t her calling. Soon after, she switched to chemistry to combine her interests of math and science. After college, she finally landed a job as a lab technician and got her first experience stabilizing beauty products. The rest is history.
When we think about diversity in the beauty industry, our minds immediately go to the models on our screens or the executives in the boardroom. The product developers in the lab are often overlooked.
“Starting as a lab technician, I didn’t have a lot of say in what the brands were doing,” says Olu. “I have experienced microaggressions in the past. One time, I was working to formulate a foundation and there were literally only five shades. This was super embarrassing because this was after Fenty’s 40 shades. It’s like, did you guys even try? Unfortunately, it wasn’t surprising for me. Today, I have a great work environment, but I’m still the only Black person.”
“I hope to encourage more Black people to get involved in the cosmetic chemistry field,” says Olu. “The industry is already very small, and I just want more people of color behind the scenes. If we are involved in product development, we’ll see more shade ranges that match darker skin and less casket-ready ashiness. I want to break the stigma that Black people can’t do STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Even in college, people were so surprised that I was studying chemistry, and I could see on their faces that they were shocked a Black woman was pursuing such a hard degree. That mindset needs to change because we are capable of doing so much in this field.”
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If you haven’t gathered it by her multiple degrees, Olu is not one to back away from a challenge: “I’m proud of all of the work that I’ve done. It can be frustrating when I’m formulating a product, and it’s not coming out right (like a shaving cream that probably took me twenty-five tries). When I finally figure it out and then see those products on shelves in stores, there’s a huge sense of accomplishment.”
Olu’s biggest piece of advice: “When pursuing your dreams, there are going to be times when you fail. People are scared of failure, but it’s the best lesson because it teaches you how to approach issues in the future, especially when it comes to STEM. If you commit, it will pay off. It can be so intersectional across all industries–take beauty and science as an example. If you don’t bail, you’ll learn from it all.”
When Olu first started her Instagram account, The Melanated Chemist, it was simply an outlet to share her love for cosmetic chemistry. “I started to notice how much misinformation was out there,” she recalls. “There are also a lot of really smart people that have a hard time breaking down their cosmetic knowledge into something that people can easily understand. I want my content to feel like Beauty for Dummies (no shade, of course!). I want people to see my videos and feel like they leave with real knowledge.”
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It’s for this very reason that Olu became a certified esthetician. “It’s one thing to formulate the products, but it’s another to get to see how it affects people differently up close,” she says. “It also goes full circle, because this information will be helpful for me to take back to the lab as I’m formulating products.”
Olu is most known for her viral videos that put false information to test, so we asked the melanated chemist herself about the biggest skincare myths. Here’s what she had to say:
“The average person is still very misinformed about sunscreen use. Just because it’s cloudy, that doesn’t mean that UV rays aren’t still shining through. Sunscreen is important regardless of the weather.”
“The word clean is vague, and there’s no industry regulation for it, so a lot of brands are just using it as a marketing tool. Of course, some chemicals are not good for us, but all of that varies based on exposure level. Instead of thinking of the word clean, look for other things that might be important to you, like nontoxic, vegan, or cruelty-free.
According to Olu, don’t toss a product out simply because you can’t read the ingredients. “You could look at the chemical composition of a fruit and still not understand all of the ingredients. Long words don’t have any correlation to safety and some preservatives are necessary to make products shelf-stable.”
“Many consumers confuse products as natural when they are actually lab-made. Even naturally-derived ingredients will need to go through a chemical process to extract the active ingredients or to remove common allergens and irritants. After that process, they aren’t technically natural anymore. Also, if you have all-natural products, they are going to be different from batch to batch. When products are made in a controlled setting, they can be regulated and have consistency.”
“Many people like to use certain soaps because they give you that squeaky clean feeling, but it’s not good for your skin to feel that way. What you’re experiencing is skin that’s been stripped of all of its lipids, and that can lead to other issues.”
“Price isn’t always an indicator of how good a product is. Some brands cost less simply because they’re larger and have gotten their cost analysis down, while an indie brand can’t compete with those prices. A more premium product might use an intricate process to source ingredients, which could also drive the price. At the end of the day, ingredients and concentration matter, not price.”
“When it comes to acne, which leads to hyperpigmentation in darker skin, people often look for quick fixes. It’s important to educate yourself on building a regimen that protects your skin barrier before reaching for harsh treatments that could cause damage over time.”
Interested in learning from more inspiring women? Check out more Beauty Through The Black Lens and read how Hannah Harris is redefining inclusion online. Ready to take your beauty game to the next level? Take our Beauty Quiz now to get in on the IPSY Glam Bag fun! Already an Ipster? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and Twitter @IPSY.
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