Meet Joanne and Abel, the founders of home-grown skincare brand Kansoskin. Inspired by Abel’s own personal struggles with eczema and topical steroid withdrawal, we find out how Kansoskin goes beyond skincare to inspire self-love and acceptance through their #skinclusivity movement.
We’ve met a few husband and wife teams who have started beauty brands together but you are the first sibling founders we’ve met. How did that all come together?
Joanne: I first became interested in skincare and learning about skincare ingredients during my teenage years. Back then, I had severe cystic acne, and would hang out in beauty stores, exploring all the different products and familiarising myself with the different skincare ingredients. But obviously, that wasn’t enough for me to want to start a skincare brand.
The main catalyst for starting Kansoskin was actually my brother, Abel. He has had chronic eczema since young and due to the long-term (about a decade) and improper use of steroid creams, he suffers from a side effect known as Topical Steroid Withdrawal (TSW).
This debilitating condition is very painful and affects him from head to toe. Some of the symptoms include red, burning, flaking and oozing skin. People would tease him, calling him “skin disease boy”, and once, he was even chased out of the swimming pool by a lifeguard despite his skin condition not being contagious.
Because of this, I started learning about skin physiology, enrolled myself in a cosmetic science school and eventually, we started Kansoskin to provide gentle and effective skincare solutions that can help people reduce their dependence on topical steroids in order to prevent side effects like TSW from happening to them in the first place.
Are there any unique challenges working together with your sibling? What happens when there’s a disagreement?
Abel: Nope, we have always been very close since young and I think it’s because generally we are on the same wavelength and work well together. We do sometimes have disagreements but thankfully they never last long and we always get back on the same page rather quickly.
Joanne: We generally work well together, but I guess the biggest challenge is with myself. I tend to have problems asking for help and as a result, pile on a lot of unnecessary stress on myself. The one thing that we learned about doing business with your family members is that business is business, and we have to learn to compartmentalise it, and not let it affect our personal relationships.
Abel, we understand that Kansoskin was largely inspired by your own personal struggles with eczema and topical steroid withdrawals. What was that like?
Abel: It was hell. I have had chronic eczema (atopic dermatitis) since I was young and it’s always the same diagnosis. I remember my first flare-up happened after eating durians. Whenever we go to the doctor, they would always prescribe steroid treatment. It’s always the same conclusion, so back then, I sort of resigned to the fate that I would have to rely on steroids my whole life.
Over about a decade, I have used the lowest to the highest-potency steroid creams. Every time a cream stopped working to control my flare-ups, the doctors would prescribe stronger and stronger steroid creams until one day they all just stopped working.
When Joanne casually stated that the steroids could have been causing the worsening of my skin, we started going down the rabbit hole of research and I discovered all the horrors about TSW and II decided to stop using the topical steroids after reading about all their side effects.
Not long after, I started feeling a burning sensation in my skin and the full effects of TSW very quickly set in. My skin was constantly shedding every single day and showering felt like hell because of the red, raw, burning and oozing skin. The moment water hits my skin, it would feel like thousands of needles and pins piercing into me.
Night times are even worse, because of TSW, I started suffering from insomnia. At night I would scratch because of the unbearable itch till I started bleeding and would only get a few hours of sleep. Naturally, it started affecting my mood. I was constantly frustrated and would lose my temper easily. It affected all aspects of my life from my health and mental wellness to personal relationships.
That sounds awful! How did the discomfort affect your life or lifestyle, did you face some stigma or were people generally understanding?
Abel: During my darkest moments, I actually contemplated suicide. Back then, I didn’t know anyone with TSW and felt very alone. Some schoolmates would call me “skin disease boy” and others would either shun away from me or give me weird stares. TSW is so traumatising I would not wish it on anybody. I’m very lucky and grateful to have a supportive family and a few close friends who always stood by me.
My sister understood my suffering and she went and did a lot of research, also joining various eczema and TSW support groups online to find out more about the condition and how to fix it. She realised that there are many people who suffer from the same condition as me and some of them who are going through TSW are just babies. That was when we thought we needed to do something.
What is your condition currently like now? Is it better?
Abel: I have had TSW for about 9 years now and thankfully, with each flareup, it is getting much more manageable. I’ve tried many things from western to eastern interventions (TCM, light therapy, etc) but honestly, the best healer for TSW is time. I think what worked best though is having an anti-inflammatory diet (which I’m not the best at following), supplementing my diet with vitamin D and probiotics and keeping my skin protected.
Currently my condition is way better than it was before though I still have some small patches of eczema, it is way more manageable and I am happier as a result.
Studies have shown that 1 in 10 Singaporeans suffer from conditions like eczema, yet in the over-saturated world of beauty, there doesn’t seem to be many brands that cater to this group. Why do you think so?
Joanne: Many brands tend to promote certain beauty standards of perfect, porcelain and ageless skin, and the truth is aspirational marketing sells very well, and hence these brands choose to focus on beautifying products to cater to these ideals.
Moreover, not everyone can relate to the suffering and agony that people with compromised skin conditions go through, so it may not come naturally for most brands to focus on solutions for this group of people. People with eczema have unique skincare needs and may need to avoid certain ingredients like fragrance and essential oils. For a skincare brand that is trying to capture as large a market as possible, it might be counterintuitive to focus on the eczema market solely. Yes, 1 in 10 may be suffering from eczema. However, it also means 9 in 10 aren’t, and I guess that’s where the larger market lies.
And this is where Kansoskin comes in?
Joanne: For us with Kansoskin, we do not promote unrealistic beauty ideas of flawless, poreless, perfect skin as we do not believe in tapping into people’s insecurities to market our products. Our core belief is in creating elegant skincare solutions that focus on skin health. Our products may not smell like a fresh garden when applied on the skin, but they are designed to feel good while respecting your skin barrier health. Our job is to help you feel more comfortable in your own skin, literally and figuratively.
SBB is not a therapeutic product. It’s not going to cure any skin conditions. The skin is our largest organ and it is a very smart organ. It is designed to protect our body by keeping irritants and allergens out and keeping water in. However, due to environmental factors or genetic factor when our skin barrier is compromised, it can do with some support.
SBB helps to strengthen the skin barrier to allow it to perform at its best. We deliberately omit common irritants and allergens so that it can be enjoyed by every skin. By strengthening the skin barrier, the skin is better able to keep out irritants and allergens that can cause inflammation in the skin. This way, anyone with a compromised skin barrier does not have to rely on topical steroids in the first place to relieve irritations and sensitivity.
We have designed it so that it is mild enough even for babies, yet effective enough for people with eczema and dry skin.
So, Kansoskin is really for everyone? Who would benefit the most from using your products?
Joanne: When we created Kansoskin, we specially formulated it for people with eczema, dry and sensitive skin but depending on how you incorporate them into your routine, SBB is a great complement to everyone’s routine. For instance, some people with oilier skin prefer using SBB in their night routine, especially when sleeping in an air-conditioned room.
We have many customers who are on tretinoin, a prescription medication used to treat acne and sun-damaged skin, who use SBB to help cope with the retinization process, the adjustment period in which skin adapts to retinoid treatments. People with acne also love using SBB to help relieve some of the side effects (e.g. dryness, itching, redness, etc) that come from using Accutane or other drying acne medication.
The fact is that it is a versatile product that can be used on the face, hands and body. Some people love to carry SBB in their pouch to moisturise their hands on the go, especially during this pandemic period where hand hygiene is important. The frequent use of hand sanitisers and antibacterial cleansers can really take a toll on the hands, as seen in the rise of irritant contact dermatitis and dyshidrotic eczema. SBB is great to prevent that.
Of course, those who suffer from eczema, dry and sensitive skin will benefit the most from SBB, but it can be used by those with normal skin, as well as with infants.
Kansoskin is a huge advocate for #skinclusivity. What is skinclusivity and why is it important?
Abel: There is a huge stigma surrounding skin conditions, not just for eczema but also other conditions like psoriasis, TSW and even acne. People assume that it is contagious or think that you have poor hygiene. I was bullied and teased because of TSW. People are scared because there is a lack of awareness and most of them don’t know that most skin conditions are not contagious. I don’t need sympathy, I just hope that people can treat us normally. I was denied many ideal job opportunities all because of my skin condition.
Joanne: ‘Skinclusivity’ simply means skin-inclusivity. We want to stand up for the underrepresented. If my teenage acne (and the scars they left behind) was bad enough to affect my overall self-esteem, I simply cannot imagine how my brother feels living with a visible and painful skin condition that covers him from head to toe.
We feel that everyone should have access to equal opportunities in life, regardless of the appearance or the state of their skin. There are many people with eczema or TSW who lost their jobs because of the severity of their skin conditions and we want to be able to provide employment opportunities for these people in the future.
That’s fascinating. So you see a strong connection between skincare, self-love and mental health?
Joanne: Yes there is definitely a connection. We always believe skincare is more than what you put on your skin. When it comes to skin health, most people forget about the mind-and-skin connection. We don’t believe in making people feel less to try and sell them more even though we know that sells.
When we formulate a product, we think about what is actually and genuinely good for skin health. We are here to inspire everyone to love and accept themselves, regardless of the state or appearance of their skin. We truly believe all skin is good skin and emphasize a lot of taking care of both your physical and mental health in order to achieve healthy, balanced and happy skin.
It really was lovely to meet a sibling team working together like you guys! Before we sign off, very quickly, what is one thing that you love about each other?
Joanne: Oh, there are so many things I love about him! He is actually a really smart and knowledgeable person. He even taught himself all about investments and stock markets. I try not to tell him this too often because he can get really cocky and start calling himself the ‘all-knowing one’.
But really, what I love most about Abel is his childish sense of humour and positive outlook on life. Nearly everyone mistakenly thinks he’s my younger brother. Haha. I’ve always wished I could be more like him because I’m naturally a worrywart.
Abel: Joanne is a strong woman who never gives up and since young, she has always encouraged me to be better. She is also constantly looking out for ways for me to improve my skin and is a very caring person with a big heart to help others.
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About the writer
The beautiful half of the successful travel influencer @TodayWeExplore, Cheryl also heads the marketing at Asian Beauty X. When she isn’t trolling the internet for beauty trends, or dreaming up travel vacays, you can find Cheryl sipping ’Gram-worthy cocktails at some trendy bar.