Dr. Dennis Gross is a name familiar to anyone who’s serious about having good skin. A veteran skin cancer researcher from New York, Gross was already a practicing dermatologist when he met his wife Carrie. A California native, she moved to New York to work in fashion and was floored when her beau gave all her expensive beauty products bad reviews. “Back then, in the early ‘90s, you’d go to the beauty counter and you could get a moisturizer,” she says. “That was it. He would say, ‘This is going to give you moisture, but it’s nothing special.’”
Anxious that there was nothing on the market to help her fight premature aging, Carrie panicked. “Then we got married, and he created the Alpha Beta Peel. It was a doctor-only procedure and it was game changing for me. I said, ‘Why is this only available to people who live in New York City and can come to your office? We need to make a home version.’” Her husband agreed, and Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare was born.
That was in 2002, when consumers had to settle for a lot less than they do today. “The old school way was, ‘Go to the beauty counter, buy a moisturizer once a year, then go for plastic surgery when you’re 60,’” says Carrie, who is now CEO of the brand bearing her husband’s name. “We live in a different time now.”
At the forefront of today’s industry are the ‘white coat’ clinical brands like Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare. This is not a brand for women who want a fragrant night cream in a pretty jar. It’s a brand for women—and, increasingly, men—who prize efficacy over marketing hype.
Currently, IPL lasers are one of the more buzzed-about approaches to skincare. Chains like Skin Laundry are popping up in major cities, encouraging women to have several IPL facials per month. Dr. Gross’ take: Don’t waste your time or money.
“I don’t see the point,” he admits. “IPL does one very specific thing: It helps uneven skin colorations. So if you think you can do IPL all the time to help your skin look younger, that’s just not so.”
It’s that kind of no-nonsense, research-backed take on skincare that’s become core to the brand. The Alpha Beta Peel was an instant hit, but introducing daily chemical exfoliation was controversial back in 2002. “The industry used to believe that, in order to have results, you had to have a peel so strong that it required downtime,” says Dr. Gross. “I proved that false. They also didn’t believe you should use a blend of acids rather than just one. I proved that false, too. Multiple acids at lower concentrations are gentle and more effective.” Consumers and beauty editors agree, helping the Alpha Beta Peel maintain its must-have status for nearly 15 years.
“Dennis and I don’t agree on everything,” says Carrie. “But we agree that we never want to have a ‘me too’ product. It has to be breakthrough, it has to be different, it has to solve a problem, and it has to over-deliver on its promise. The Alpha Beta Peel set the bar so high for us. Every product we create has to measure up to the consumer expectation we created with that. If they’ve used the Alpha Beta Peel, they expect all our other products to be just as great.”
Through the Alpha Beta Peel and the variants the brand introduced after it, exfoliation has become a cornerstone of the brand identity. “I do a lot of educational events and I tell people who sell skincare, ‘You’re doing a disservice to your client when they’re buying a moisturizer and they’re not using an acid beforehand. Because the product sits on top of the skin and it’s not absorbed.'”
Willingness to upend the conventional wisdom is part of what makes the brand so innovative, and this has ensured its success in an increasingly flooded market. “With all these niche brands, there’s nothing much that’s really new,” says Carrie. “But we stay true to our DNA, while still evolving. Yes, we’re a clinical brand. But we’re not conventional. We’re innovative but we don’t experiment on our clients’ skin.”
However, Gross does experiment on his own skin, even when it means sporting a rash from something he’s testing. “I should wear a big badge that says, ‘I’m testing products, don’t judge me,’” he says. “I can’t imagine what the patients think when they see me like that.” That self-experimentation helps him produce new innovative products. “Topical vitamin D was a huge miss for the industry,” Dr. Gross says. “I hit on that one summer in the Hamptons. I created something for my wife and me. We tested it, and it worked.”
Every product that the brand introduces is created from scratch by Gross, and it’s an obsession driven by more than just a desire to come up with another industry-defying success story. “I met a woman once who became a night nurse because she did not want to go out into the light of day,” says Carrie. “That’s how bad her skin was. But she started using the Alpha Beta Peel. Then she came and saw us and said, ‘You changed my life. I was nocturnal because I didn’t want people to see me.’ So having a great relationship with your skin can really help you achieve other goals in life.”
Read on for Dr. Dennis Gross’ expert take on hot button skin-care topics:
What is the worst thing women do to their skin? Going to bed with your makeup on is insane. It’s nuts. You have to wash your face before you go to bed for so many reasons. That is critical. You need to get this iron-based product off your face. People don’t realize the sediment really does keep going in deeper and deeper. It creates larger pores. You can’t have beautiful, radiant-looking skin if you don’t get that off. Washing is a simple form of exfoliation, and exfoliation is fundamental.
What’s the one thing you want to teach the world? You really can predict your future face. The way we age is predictable. Look at your mother. That kind of thing is real science. There is a genetic reason and a genetic method by which we age. But there’s absolutely great technology that can stop it dead in its tracks.
On sun exposure It drives me crazy when people say, ‘I get red, I get my burn, and then I tan over.’ This is what you hear all the time. Burning the skin causes DNA mutations that cause cancer—it’s that simple. And chronic tanning is aging your skin. It’s breaking down collagen, thinning the skin and causing more lines and wrinkles. So never burn, don’t get pink, and tan at your own risk.
On mineral oil I don’t like petroleum-derived products. You can do a lot better. Essential oils are fantastic. I like sweet almond oil, evening primrose, jojoba oil and a slew of others. Mineral oil is pretty bad.
On foaming cleansers If you look closely, you can see I have a rash. That’s because I was testing a new ingredient. I happen to have very sensitive skin. I tried a surfactant for a foaming cleanser, and my skin was squeaky clean—and I was a mess. If your skin is dry from your cleanser, you can’t use the ingredients that are going to have an anti-aging effect. You must maintain balance all the time. If your cleanser throws you off-balance, it’s a huge disservice to your skin.
How to avoid cosmetic procedure overkill There’s a huge movement now against looking overly done. New Yorkers want to look like a younger version of themselves, not a brand new version of someone else. That means you have to proceed systematically. If you do everything at once, you don’t know what one or two things really made the difference. To be ethical about this, you have to teach patients and introduce things one at a time so they see the difference and know what it’s attributable to.
On getting results One of my mantras is: we must always give immediate results—and that’s possible to do. For example, you can give radiance immediately. Major results on fine lines and wrinkles are not so immediate. I have to manage expectations for some things, and I can over-deliver results on other things. As long as people see immediate results on major things, they are happy.
Jackie Danicki created one of the first and most popular beauty blogs in 2004, and has consulted some of the world’s most iconic brands on digital content strategy and innovation. Jackie blogs at http://burnedoutbeauty.com, and you can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat as @burnedoutbeauty.