Selah Rui Li: Personalised beauty products are no longer a utopian dream

What’s the future of beauty? One of Scandinavia’s most interesting new industry names explains why we can expect it to be personalised — and shares the details about the brand-new automated refill station concept.

6 Sep 2023

Growing up in China, the now Stockholm-based entrepreneur was surrounded by innovation and progress and became fascinated by the intersection of science, technology, and sustainability. She also saw the impact of our consumer-driven culture on the environment.

What’s the story behind your company?

— It wasn’t until I was studying design in Shanghai that I learned about concepts like planned obsolescence, the idea that products are intentionally designed to become obsolete or unusable over time, she says. This concept really stuck with me over the years. I realised that there is a limit to our physical resources, but there is no limit to human desire. By adding digital layers to physical goods, we can constantly increase and deliver value without having to plan the death of any objects — or, in other words, make it more circular. That’s why I decided to dive deep and study the relationship between digital and physical, between humans and technology. To learn this, I came to study in Europe, in the Netherlands and Sweden, and this led me to the idea of Ellure. We’re using circularity principles to make a sustainable change in the cosmetic industry — and hopefully beyond.

How? What do you do?

— We offer the world’s first manufacturing-as-a-service for beauty brands, enabling brands to produce on-demand and personalised products. Personalising products has always been something that intrigues consumers. In general, we see three different levels of commitment from brands, all the way to the popular ’pick your own package or engrave your name’, via ’assemble your own product’, to customising product formulas. We help brands to reach the deepest level of customisation, to create these personalised formulas, which help to establish a long-lasting relationship with their consumers. We have already customised lipstick and perfume on the market, and we are working on developing custom nail polish and foundation. We have seen more and more customisation coming forward, and we also that consumers are very intrigued by this.

What’s the reason for this rise in personalised beauty?

— Let me illustrate with an example of myself. As an Asian girl living in Scandinavia, I’ve always struggled with dry skin. I’ve tried many different moisturisers, but none seem to work for me. This is because they are all designed for a general audience, not for my specific needs.

— If we delve deeper into why this is the case, we can refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This theory suggests that human needs are arranged in a hierarchy, with basic physiological needs like food and shelter at the bottom and self-actualisation at the top. While a moisturiser should primarily hydrate, it can also address ethical needs such as personal values and lifestyle choices, for instance, veganism, cruelty-free, and socially responsible. Personalised products can meet the individualised needs of each person, from basic functions to aligning with their lifestyle goals. And this is not just a utopian dream only in developed countries. In fact, it’s even more prevalent in less well-off or developing economies, where companies can bypass mass production and go straight to mass customisation to meet individual consumer needs more efficiently.

— So, to answer your question, personalised products are the future because people’s needs are evolving. As our society and economy continue to progress, our demand for personalised products will only increase, and companies that can meet these needs will have a competitive advantage in the market. In the end, personalised beauty is not just a trend but a way to fulfil our unique and evolving needs as individuals.

And what feedback do you get from potential clients when you reach out to them?

— We work with brands, manufacturers, and retailers, and it’s actually quite interesting to see the reception. Since our technology is new and different, it can be difficult to even give it a name sometimes. Some brands initially don’t understand what we’re doing and require explanations and demonstrations to grasp the concept. On the other hand, there are more innovative brands who immediately understand the value of what we’re offering and consider our technology to be like magic, says Li. She adds:

— The future is customised — leading players have already proven the market potential and reached $100m in sales. We believe that once a few avant-garde brands have demonstrated the tech, the mass market will understand the value and then a huge wave will come. And we are preparing ourselves to be ready for it!

Last week, Ellure unveiled the latest pilot; an automated refill station concept developed together with skincare brand Moonsun Organic of Sweden and retailer Green Little Heart. She describes it as an impact platform for a sustainable ecosystem, showing that it is possible to provide economically viable, refillable packaging with the help of new technology.

— In the industry, we’re talking about 120 billion units every year and they’re all single-use. And, in Sweden, less than 10% is actually recycled, she explains. Based on the waste hierarchy, the best way is not recycling, but reusing. Now, we can refill any beauty product and any cosmetics and we build this platform to make beauty products on demand. One of the super good use cases is to refill products. 

— When you think about a refilling machine, you can think about ’zero waste store’ but the challenge of it is to scale. Also, for beauty products, you have to give a batch number, and there are a lot of regulations to make sure that it’s safe to use. If you just let the consumer fill themselves, you cannot control the hygiene, nor the quality. And if you have more than 10 products, like Moonsun, it’s difficult to handle.

The refill concept on display at the brand-new event Slow Fashion Week in Stockholm.

According to Li, and as mentioned, it’s possible to rethink the entire system with beauty packaging. 

— Together with Green Little Heart, we are imagining a future where you can fill the product in a store and you could also be able to refill it in a retail logistics centre. If we have this station built up, we can really calculate the best option for packaging and how the consumer can be integrated into the whole process. Can it be like in the past, for milk, with the refilling bottles?

— If you buy a beauty product here, with us, you can use it many, many times, says Therese Lundquist, founder, Green Little Heart. You just come with your container to the refill station and get it refilled. We have many potential brands that could use machines like this — you can create an ecosystem around change.

The greatest value of working together on this, Li explains, is to be able to meet other brands that actually care about refills.

— If I talk about refill with Brand A, they’re maybe saying that yes, the consumer wants this, but this, for us, is on the agenda in 2035. While for Moonsun, it’s more like ’yes, we want to do this — let’s try things right now and see if it works’. So, what we are doing here, with them, is to create an order for the machine. Then, we have software and the dashboard interface talks to the machine. In less than 30 seconds, the consumer has a sample of Moonsun’s Face Oil to ’try before they actually buy’, says Li. She adds:

— We can now help brands to customise or, in this case, refill the product. We can also produce products on demand, to get rid of packaging waste, surplus in production, and other issues related to waste in the cosmetic industry. There’s a lot of it!