Think Dirty

A Canadian entrepreneur is shaking up the beauty biz with her revolutionary app.

Lily Tse
Lily Tse learned about beauty from her mother. “She’s a very frugal person, but she’d completely splurge on skincare,” Tse says, noting that her mother has used the same brand religiously for the last 20 years. “It was ingrained in me early: take care of your skin and prevent aging.” Tse heeded the advice and, when she was old enough, started using the cosmetics, too.

The cult-favorite Japanese brand was heavily scented, and Tse began experiencing allergic reactions to it. It wasn’t until she stumbled across Annie Leonard’s, “Story of Cosmetics,” which examined the wide-spread use of toxic chemicals in the beauty industry, that Tse discovered the cause—phthalates, common in synthetic fragrances, were likely triggering her allergic reactions and making them worse the longer she used products from the line. Appalled by the thought of using serious chemicals on her skin, Tse began doing her own research.

Her findings confirmed Leonard’s report: that the beauty industry is very loosely regulated. Despite claims that products are “all natural” or “organic,” the lack of standardization in cosmetic labeling meant that many potentially toxic chemicals were still finding their way into so-called “natural” products. “Your skin is a very absorbent part of your body. Long-term, low-dosage exposure of dangerous chemicals has unknown health impact. Take deodorant, for example. It’s used under your arm, close to your breast—do you really want to take the chance?” Tse asks. “I wanted to make it easy for people to know if they should use a certain product. It doesn’t matter how much Vitamin-C or how many anti-aging properties are in your cream—they don’t counter-balance the bad stuff. If there’s a chemical you can avoid, you should look for other options.” A Canadian entrepreneur is shaking up the beauty biz with her revolutionary app. As an art director in advertising, Tse developed an app that quickly scans a product’s ingredients and determines whether or not it is, in fact, relatively safe to use. Scan a barcode or type in a product by hand, and you can not only see a quick rating, you also get a list of what's in it. Select an ingredient and you can scroll through its usage, health impacts, alternative names and warnings from regulatory agencies—then decide for yourself if it’s important to you to avoid it.

I thought it would be awesome to have something on your mobile phone that you could take with you shopping, so you weren’t reliant on the beauty advisor at the store.

Tse’s revolutionary app launched in 2013 with more than 68,000 products in its database. Today, there are more than 285,000 products available to search and the app has received more than a million unique scans. We sat with the unassuming beauty influencer to find out how she did it—and what she learned along the way.

1. See if it sticks

I took my app idea to a hackathon in New York, hosted by GOOD Magazine. I didn’t win anything, but the idea stuck in my head. A few months later, I came across another hackathon in Toronto and I made a bet with myself: If I win, it’s a signal that other people are interested in this and I’ll pursue it full-time. I won and I started doing it full-time.

2. Prepare for the long-haul

Coming up with the idea is always the most exciting part. Designing it is fun, but there’s a lot of hard work behind the scenes. Building the database and leading a development team is similar to running a marathon. As much as you want to do sprints, you need to pace yourself and aim to win the race with resilience and hard work. A Canadian entrepreneur is shaking up the beauty biz with her revolutionary app.

3. Find what motivates your team

The tech industry is mostly male dominated, and to convince men to care about beauty safety was a challenge. I needed to connect with them through other angles. Did these guys want to be involved with a cool tech startup? Did they want to be part of building an app?

4. If not you, then who?

I had to keep tying the project back to the mission. I had to constantly remind myself why I wanted to do this. I couldn’t wait for a geeky tech guy to do it. The guys I knew would jump in to build the next Tinder in an instant, but I really needed a woman to champion this. I realized that if I decided not to do it, and to wait for someone else to do it, it probably wouldn’t happen.

5. Take your own advice

These days, I don’t wear much makeup. Partly, because I’m so busy and partly because I know how hard it is to find products without preservatives. I wash my face with whatever clean-rated samples I have on hand—right now, Aiona Alive, Marie Veronique, Elate Cosmetics and Province Apothecary—I don’t use a toner (they’re usually alcohol-based) and my moisturizer is a simple lotion from a local Toronto Spa, Pure + Simple. They make everything themselves using all-natural ingredients.

6. Expect unexpected challenges

The app is just one aspect of this. More and more, I feel like I’m running a business—building and leading a team, running meetings, calling the shots. It’s empowering at times, but also exhausting. Leading others while keeping myself motivated is the most interesting challenge. I’ve learned that I need to budget room for my own personal development and carve out time to find inspiration for myself. Think Dirty App

7. Focus on improvement—and don’t stop

We aim to add a few-hundred new products each week. We do it by one of two ways. There’s user submission—we tackle the 20-30 most-requested products first. We also allow companies to submit their ingredient lists to us directly and these submissions become our priorities. If the company doesn’t like their rating, they can opt not to be listed, however, if down the line, users submit them and they’re a most-popular request, we’ll post it.

8. Thanks. Gracias. Merci

Our audience is surprisingly international. There’s someone who independently translates everything we post into Spanish. I’ve heard from a user in France who’s offered to do the same in French. I get so many emails. I’ve heard from people with unusual autoimmune diseases, hormone-related diseases, people with multiple-chemical sensitivities. All of them say thank you so much for doing this.

While Think Dirty plows full-speed ahead, Tse’s team is ramping up other projects on the side. They’re working toward the Android app (with hopes to launch it this summer) and they’ve started an international beauty subscription service, partnering with clean-rated companies.