Dr Leah Totton stepped into the spotlight a decade ago when she won UK TV show The Apprentice – a competition for prospective entrepreneurs – and then went on to open a chain of cosmetic clinics in 2014 in partnership with the show’s protagonist, businessman Baron Alan Sugar.
After opening the clinics in London and Essex, the Northern Irish dermatologist and cosmetic doctor also wanted to develop a skin care range, which ended up taking seven years in the making.
“My argument was if we're not going to do something better than what was already out there, then why spend the money to do it at all,” said Totton.
“I wanted to take some of the qualities I liked in each of the different products that I was using and try and pull them together into one product," she explained. "But it was a lot more difficult than I thought it was going to be.”
Totton set about developing the range with a focus on ‘wear-ability’. She shared that her own Celtic skin type could be easily reactive to seasons and substances such as fragrance.
“I think as an industry we should be moving away from fragrance in our products, as we know that are harmful and dehydrates and on the skin barrier,” she said.
A curated, dose-dependent range
According to Totton, the non-comedogenic range can be used on any skin type and is dose dependant, to give an element of personalisation based on the user’s skin’s specific needs.
Customers need to fill in an online questionnaire about a multitude of factors, including the season, skin type or skin conditions, and products or treatments they are already using – such as steroid creams or retinol creams – and are given a dose based on that.
Totton stressed the importance for her of making sure the product is the right fit for that person at that moment.
“Even if you've got acne-prone skin and you’re prone to breakouts you will need more moisturiser in winter than you're going to need in spring summer,” she said.
So, it will tell you with how much water you need to dilute the cleanser how long you need the cleanser on the skin.”
When creating the range, she also considered the current inflationary economy. “Right now, most people don't have the budget to purchase two cleansers, a moisturiser and night cream,” she said.
“We have to be realistic about the things that people are prioritising and I think just having a core regime that can be used throughout the year, both morning and evening, is sensible for a lot of people.”
Potent natural actives
While many doctor formulations include high-tech, cutting-edge ingredients that 'justify' a high price tag, Totton has chosen to instead work with time-tested natural ingredients, such as shea butter, avocado oil and mango seed butter to hydrate and nourish skin. In the cleanser, for example, she has used jasmine and aloe vera as an anti-inflammatory ingredient.
“They're combined in a way and with a potency that allows for rehydration pretty immediately to the skin barrier,” she explained.
“Natural ingredients are underused in the in the medical skincare space,” she continued. “They tend to go for more potent actives, but you have to be mindful of side effects of these sorts of things. We have the natural extracts that are aimed to get that deep cleanse, then it also has the nurturing soothing anti-inflammatory ingredients.”
For pregnant and post-procedure skin
Totton also wanted to make sure the products were suitable for use during pregnancy and breastfeeding and also used them throughout her own pregnancy and breastfeeding experience.
“Obviously we don't do trials on pregnant women, but these are established ingredients that have long been used in pregnancy and breastfeeding,” she said.
“Of course, you can never say with 100% certainty because the skin changes a lot in pregnancy. So, you may be sensitive to things like aloe vera that that ordinarily you're not sensitive to when you're not undergoing hormonal changes.”
She highlighted that there is a knowledge gap for pregnant and breastfeeding women to know what to use during their pregnancy and when nursing – ironically a time when hormonal and lifestyle changes mean that women need good skin care products more than ever.
She also noted that vegan product manufacturers seemed more confident than non-vegan ones in saying that their products were fine for pregnancy and breastfeeding.
“I completely understand the ethical issues with testing in pregnancy and breastfeeding, but it does mean that there is a gap and evidence for that group,” she said.
“I had my first child a year ago and I couldn't believe the number of beauty products that I couldn't use anymore. I contacted the manufacturers and they're very reluctant to give any real advice.”
The other consumer group the products cater to is post-procedure skin; those who have had skin resurfacing and micro-needling.
“A lot of skin care products can be problematic post-procedure,” shared Totton. “My clients are coming into our clinic and having skin treatments and I wanted to be able to say confidently you can use this afterwards.”
Totton said she sees hundreds of women’s skin every week and has been trialling these products on them with their consent for many years to get the feedback to make the changes
“Sometimes what I think is important isn't as important to say 30 clients that I see that week," she said.
Much of the long R&D process was down to Totton A/B testing different formulations.
“The moisturiser was more difficult than the cleanser and I was very strict on no fragrance,” she shared. “All the chemists that I worked with really wanted to get some fragrance in to improve the user experience, but I just couldn't get on board with any fragrance.”
However, when Totton trialled products out on other women she found that most of them preferred to use the fragranced product too. Despite this, she still didn’t want to use scent in the skin care range.
“There does come a point though, where you have to think about the science of what it's doing to the skin and because I’m a medical brand that had to take precedence over the user experience. I just couldn't get on board with fragrance,” she said.
In the end, the cleanser has the tiniest amount of fragrance possible to take away about any strong smells from the more natural ingredients, as there was a big pushback on that from the testers.
However, there were other times when she did wholeheartedly go with the consumer research. “I really had a problem with skin creams ‘balling’ under my makeup and I really cannot tolerate that. But I think I got a little bit carried away and made the formulation too silky," she said.
"I thought it felt great but most people didn’t. So we had to get a balance. So sometimes you do have to listen but where it doesn't impact on the clinical efficacy of the product.”
"When it came to the moisturiser too, we got feedback that it was that it was blocking pores, so we had to do complete reformulation to make sure it was noncomedogenic,” she shared.
Totton’s business partner Baron Alan Sugar also had a more business-focused approached to developing the range. “He would tell you that I unnecessarily delayed this launch by six and a half years because he wanted to launch it within six months, but he is also respectful and mindful of the fact that we are a medical brand I think in terms of longevity of our of the entire Dr Leah brand quality,” she said.
“It’s an ongoing joke with our board how long it took me to do though.”
What’s coming next?
The curated line currently consists of just a cleanser and moisturiser and while Totton wants to keep it simple, she is now working on an eye cream, which she says is also taking a long time “because you only get one chance to get these things right.”
In the future she said she would also like to also create an SPF that pregnant and breastfeeding women can feel totally safe using.
“When I was pregnant an contacted the company that made my SPF they said they weren’t able to say this was safe in pregnancy because it's a chemical barrier rather than a zinc oxide,” she said.
“You've actually got enough to think about when you're pregnant without having to worry about these things too.”