Tyler Gaul is not your average skincare brand founder. A quirky philosophy major in a family of doctors, he worked in advertising for brands including Apple, Disney and Pepsi before a marketing role at a skincare company led to him discovering some worrying truths about the sector that he became determined to change. Now, as the co-founder of Protocol, he’s attacking the industry from a dymanic angle of research, science and technology. And the results are notable, with his brand using radical techniques to create products that blur the line between beauty and science. Here he explains more about his brand, its philosophy, how they make their products and why they work.
What was your journey to launching Protocol? You were previously in advertising, and you’ve got some doctors in your family. How did that come together to create the brand?
I was working for a skincare company as the head of marketing and was trying to figure out what made their products different from others on the market. I thought, “It must be the ingredients and the science behind it…” So started digging into the ingredients and realized that not only was this company not using the proper forms and formulations of ingredients, but essentially no one in the industry was.
I called my little brother who is a clinical doctor of pharmacy, and said, “Am I crazy? Could it really be the case that the entire industry was neglecting the best ingredients that were all discovered decades ago.” He confirmed that was the case, because the skincare industry is not regulated by the FDA, there’s no real pressure on companies to formulate products according to the clinical specifications. Most of them know exactly how products are supposed to be formulated to maximize effectiveness, but they choose not to because it’s more expensive. He also said he didn’t see how I could change any of that though. Which, of course, he knew would be the ultimate motivation for me, telling me I’m not capable of something.
So that’s when I started experimenting, mostly in my father’s basement, with how I could pull it off. I consulted an engineering firm that builds containment technology for the aerospace industry, and through that I slowly figured out a method for formulating and bottling skincare products in an entirely oxygen-free and light-free environment to capture these illusive, super-effective ingredients – like ascorbic acid and retinal, the enzyme-active form of retinol – that the skincare industry hasn’t been able to. The technology I developed was eventually granted a patent by the US Patent Office. And then we were off to the races!
Tell us a bit more about the philosophy of the brand?
Early on, I brought in my long-time bestie, Molly Crana, to help figure out how we wanted to approach the brand and our aesthetic. Molly was pretty sick of the patronizing pastel cuteness of the typical skincare industry — gendered skincare is a marketing construct, by the way. We also didn’t like the totally sterile clinical approach that the current ‘science-based’ brands were using. So we settled on sort of a unisex look that took notes from streetwear design. We wanted to have attitude and substance. In general, our philosophy is to demystify how skincare works to help people have their best skin, without losing the personality. We’ll never release a new product solely for a marketing purpose. We’re focused on only making products that have proven utility according to evidence-based research.
What are the products and what do they do? And tell us more about the science behind them.
We tried to get all of the best, most proven skincare ingredients in one simple line. If you ask any dermatologist, your staples should be retinol, a good moisturizer and cleanser. Our cleanser contains two alpha hydroxy acids, which are super-precise exfoliants that — unlike physical scrubs — can actually increase moisture retention in your skin while amplifying the renewing effects of retinol. Our Enzyme-Active Retinol uses 0.1% retinal, which is clinically proven to be the gentlest and most effective form of retinol, and which modulates dozens of skin processes to fill in wrinkles, fade sun spots, increase water retention and regulate oil production to control breakouts. Our Vitamin C Superserum is nature’s best antioxidant, captured successfully for the first time. A lot of derms don’t recommend using Vitamin C because they know none of the products available today are properly made, but we’ve won a lot of derms over once we show them how we make our products. Our moisturizer has 2% hyaluronic acid to draw water into your skin and 5% niacinamide which is another skincare super-regulator and makes skin behave the way it did in your youth. We recommend supplementing our line with a simple drugstore BHA for clients who struggle with breakouts, and to defer to their doctors and dermatologists for guidance of course.
We are the only properly bottled (in a completely oxygen-free and light-free environment) and formulated Vitamin C and Retinal Serum on the market. I won’t fault you if you’ve got a couple other moisturizers or cleansers you love. But the serums are head and shoulders above anything else available.
The brand feels like it appeals to guys. It looks science-based and functional, without being over the top or scary. Was it the plan to target men?
Yes, that was part of the plan. Again, we didn’t want to pander to anyone but also wanted to create an aesthetic that had broad appeal. To appeal to anyone who appreciates meticulously crafted, science-based products, I suppose. But if you read our reviews, we have skin transformations occurring across age ranges, genders, race/ethnicity and specific skincare concerns.
We do have a strong male customer base. I think I had the same aversion to the caveman-dude skin products that were being marketed to me that Molly had to a lot of the hyper-feminine products. So I think we just didn’t want to pigeonhole people with gender-focused marketing. We wanted to unify people around being thoughtful about their skin and learning the proven basics of how to care for it.
Do you see the line between beauty and science becoming more blurred?
Great question… and I hope so! But you can see how divided the world is becoming right now in regards to science and expertise believers vs science and expertise skeptics. The divide between beauty and science happened in 1938 when the FDA decided to let the skincare industry regulate itself and not be bound by evidence, claims accuracy, manufacturing standards etc. That said, I think that consumers are demanding more and more scientific rigor from their products these days and are rejecting brands that don’t lead with transparency into their manufacturing practices.
We’re told you’re the oldest person alive with a specific rare medical condition… Tell us more about that, and how it contributed to this path you took in life.
It’s a rare genetic heart condition, where some of my blood vessels from my heart didn’t develop properly – which then caused a cascade of health complications. It took a series of 30 or so serious surgeries, from when I was just born to when I was about 23, to stabilize. And it was touch-and-go for a long time. This absolutely had an influence on how I look at the world around me. And how I research and synthesize information, which is sort of the foundation of Protocol. I’ve been comfortable reading clinical research papers since I was really young, because essentially only obscure academic studies had any information on my condition and how to navigate it. My mom used to go to the hospital library and request copies of research papers from England to get info on my prognosis. My case is also a published case study now. So fast forward to when I sat down to understand the lesser-known and nuanced details of cutting-edge clinical skincare science — I was in a prime position to understand and take on the challenges I discovered.
The doctors in your family must be proud of what you’ve achieved…
That’s a nice thing to say! I’ve got a very supportive family, not all in the medical field, and they’ve told me as much. I’m very lucky. My father was actually a sort of supernaturally gifted salesman and rose gardener. And just a beam of self-confidence. He passed away a few months ago – and a few days after I found an old voicemail I hadn’t seen, where he was calling just to say how proud he was of me. Was the greatest gift I could have gotten. And one of my favorite possessions. Makes you realize how meaningless material possessions can be compared to kind words from your loved ones and quality time you spend together.