Common Clouds: It’s about time to remove the stigma around acne
Swedish long-time beauty journalist, now beauty entrepreneur, Maria Ahlgren on lessons learned when taken by surprise by a TikTok skinfluencer, the next Asian beauty trend to hit Europe, and why "kind skincare" is the future.
23 Aug 2023

The former beauty editor and author of two books on skin nutrition describes herself as ’obsessed with skin’, which is also her area of expertise. Living in Tokyo for many years while working as a beauty journalist and editorial editor for Shu Uemura/L’Oréal Japan opened her eyes to the fact that skin is so much more than what meets the eye. 

— It reflects what goes on inside the body and how we nourish ourselves — or not! — and is this amazing communication board, she says. Having dealt with atopic eczema and adult acne myself, I’m hyper-aware of the close link between skin, self-image, mental well-being, and even dysmorphia and social isolation.

The concept Common Clouds started during the pandemic with this increased focus on the effects of stress on skin.

— This really sparked something in me and my best friend, who’s also an Art Director, started toying with the idea of creating a brand that changes the image and narrative around acne. And also, in the long run, removes stigma around this super-common yet widely misunderstood skin condition. We started visualising a cloud-obsessed world where everything is friendly and the message is that everything hard will pass, just like clouds. The cloud here is both a functional skincare product in the form of hydrocolloid pimple patches, and a metaphor for the fleeting nature of real-life dark clouds just made sense.

— We are on two missions — to break skin-related stigma and normalise real skin, and to make highly functional, barrier-friendly products rooted in science. Acne is the most common skin condition in the world, affecting over 85% of all people to some extent at some point. Yet, it’s also the skin condition with the most negative impact on self-image and mental health. Acne is through several studies linked to higher rates of anxiety, social isolation, and depression, and it can be very limiting. Today we live in a very visual, filtered world, and it’s hard to feel that you don’t live up to the very narrow beauty standards on social media. 

How do you want to change this?

— In our visual communication, we never use before and afters, where ’Before’ is sad and ’After’ is happy. Instead, we want to acknowledge that skin fluctuates but your self-worth is constant. We never use judging words like imperfections, flaws, or impurities, and try to be neutral around skin. Healthy skin that you are comfortable in is the goal, not perfection or the constructed concept of being flawless, says Ahlgren. She adds:

— Sometimes we say that we exist to ’give acne a glow-up’. If you have acne-prone skin, you shall still be able to open the bathroom cabinet and see ’glossy’ products. When I had acne myself, I found my skincare routine so depressing, and it just added to the feeling that I was an outsider.

Tell us about the first product, Cloud Patch.

— It’s a cloud-shaped hydrocolloid pimple patch. Since the early 2010s, small hydrocolloid bandaids have been used in Korea to treat blemishes, which are essentially a wound. A few years ago, pimple patches found their way to the West — and with good reason — and we teamed up with a team of biotech engineers specialised in wound care in Korea. Because our brand concept is built on the concept of fleeting clouds and our comparison between pimples and clouds that passes through your skin, doing cloud-shaped pimple patches just made sense. Our goal was to make the most invisible and most effective pimple patches that you can wear even daytime.

— As for our product philosophy, it’s very much coloured by the fact of my background as a critical, nosy, and science-led beauty journalist. First, the products need to respect the integrity of skin and support important skin functions, be barrier-friendly, and not mess anything up. Building and safeguarding a healthy, strong skin barrier is key. Then, we work with actives in clinically tested doses. For example, in our oil-controlling day cream, we use 4% niacinamide, which is the optimal concentration for acne-prone, redness-prone and oily skin. We’re also obsessed with centella asiatica, and add it in almost everything, including our pimple patches.

— Recently we launched a gentle everyday gel cleanser. It sounds really cliché, but we actually worked on it for almost two years. A cleanser sounds so basic, but it’s quite tricky to get everything right. The products must remove makeup and grime effectively, but not strip or dry out skin. We chose a micellar technology that removes both oil-based makeup, excess oil, and pollution particles and added niacinamide, centella, ceramides, and tons of glycerine — which is a really underrated ingredient.

Cloud Patch.

What can you share on the latest when it comes to cleansing?

— The trend is going towards double cleansing in one product. I’ve been a double cleanser since living in Japan, and double cleansing has been the norm in Asia. When I visited Tokyo this spring, I noticed that many products communicated a full cleanse in one product. When developing Cloud Wash, this was in our brief from scratch. Partly because our young target audience typically doesn’t want to spend money or time on double cleansing — these are people that might use a wipe to remove makeup! — but also because it makes sense to minimise the amount of products daily used. So, I think micellar technology in cleansers will be more common.

— Retinol is also trending, but people are looking for gentle options that give all the effects but without irritation. I’m also dying to work more with mushrooms and algae. Of course, microbiotic skincare that feeds a healthy microbiome will also continue to grow.

”It shows not only the power of TikTok but the importance of creating products that actually solve a real-life problem for your target audience”

You also went viral on TikTok recently. What happened?

—  Our BHA toner Cloud Water went viral after a video posted by Swedish skin TikToker Hudfixaren, Almost 900 000 people have seen the video organically, which is the greater part of the TikTok generation in a small country like Sweden. In 2 hours, it sold out at our retail partners, and not long after in our own DTC e-com. We had to re-order a new batch, so at the moment, we’re a bit stressed about being out of stock, but we simply couldn’t imagine selling out this fast. and have a waitlist that is growing every day. It shows not only the power of TikTok but the importance of creating products that actually solve a real-life problem for your target audience — in this case pimples and ’bacne’, acne on your back.

— Having a product going viral is of course every brand’s dream, but it’s also something one can never orchestrate and as a small indie brand, our budgets are of course tiny compared to big, established companies. So, going organically viral was a dream.

2024 is approaching fast. What’s next in beauty?

— I think that kind skincare is the future! Both in terms of treating skin with nourishing, kind ingredients that boost skin’s own positive functions, but also the way the industry addresses skin concerns. Anti-claims such as anti-age and anti-imperfections belong in the past. Beauty is getting more and more positive and inclusive — categorising products after gender or age is not relevant anymore. Healthy skin is the goal, no matter your age, gender, or skin type, says Ahlgren. She adds:

— Tried and tested ingredients like niacinamide, retinol, and azelaic acid will continue to reign but I think they will be joined by algae, mushrooms, and medicinal herbs, like new centella extracts. 

— I also hope that the industry as a whole will slow down. Everyone’s talking about sustainability and a lot of focus is on sustainable packaging, which is great. But at the end of the day, not launching a ton of new products is the only way to be sustainable.

Founders Maria Ahlgren, Cajsa Horn, and Helena Radelius.

And for Common Clouds, what are you up to?

— We have two upcoming launches. One of them is a hybrid between an ultra-hydrating, repairing barrier cream and a retinol cream. We formulated with a new retinoid molecule that has shown outstanding results in clinical tests. It does all the good stuff that retinol does, like smoothing out skin, preventing breakouts and boosting elasticity, but is also soothing and fades redness and irritation, and is of course tested on sensitive skin as well. We then went overboard with centella and ceramides, and other ingredients that calm and strengthen skin. It’s like a night-time healing smoothie for skin.

— In a few weeks, our full range will be available at most H&M Beauty stores — until now it has only been our pimple patches — and we’re also expanding into new markets, including Germany. We will also launch a new campaign to encourage people to break up with toxic beauty standards — making people feel good in their skin both physically and psychologically is our everyday mission! Ahlgren concludes.

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