The science behind the smile

  • Article by: SALLY MCGRAW
  • Updated: January 17, 2013 - 11:51 AM

A local chemist indulges in her love of chemistry and cosmetics by launching her own line of artisan lipsticks.

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Karoline Wells with her husband, Michael Wells, who lends a hand at the lab when needed. Her products are vegan and cruelty-free. “We do our own ingredient sourcing,” she said.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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When you think about lipstick, you might think glamour, sensuality, even romance.

Karoline Wells thinks science.

The 43-year-old Wells, who has a degree in biology, spent several years as an industrial microbiologist and chemist. But all the while, in her spare time, she was tinkering with simple face masks. Then tinctures. Then essential oils, lip balms and face creams.

In 2009, she left the industrial world for the world of beauty. From her tiny lab in northeast Minneapolis, she's building an artisan cosmetics line that she's dubbed the Elixery.

Although the company makes a shimmering highlight powder and plans to expand into other cosmetics, lipstick is its mainstay.

It currently offers more than 20 shades, including frosted, satin and sheer. The colors change frequently, but the top seller for the past few months has been "Dessa," a matte red lipstick named in honor of the local musician.

Wells said she comes up with new colors by following runway trends, collaborating with professional makeup artists and working closely with product testers to figure out which shades are the most flattering.

(The lipsticks, which cost $18, are available online at elixery.com and at a few local stores, including June and Bespoke.)

Surprisingly, Wells, who grew up studying herbalism and making soap with her grandmother, didn't intend to start out making lipstick.

"I've always been a fan of high-quality lipsticks," she said, "although I didn't really plan to launch the company with that product. I started tinkering with lipstick formulas from Day One, and figured it was something I could do in addition to everything else I was working on."

Wells handles virtually all aspects of the Elixery on her own, with a little help from her husband and the occasional intern. Some lipstick makers purchase prepared bases and pigments, but because Wells wanted all her cosmetics to be vegan and cruelty-free, she had to make her own. It wasn't easy.

"There were all of these weird variables, and while I could technically get it to work, it wouldn't turn out very good," she said.

That only made her more determined to succeed.

"There's something about a challenge like that [that] tends to draw a scientist into a bit of a research obsession," she said, "so I spent the first year formulating a lipstick that was not only vegan, but also high quality."

Everything in what Wells calls her "old-school cosmetic house" is kept in-house, from mixing and pouring compounds into lipstick molds to marketing, promotions, and sales. And sourcing ingredients, which Wells, of course, insists on doing herself.

"We do our own ingredient sourcing, so we know the origin of everything we use," Wells said. "Since the term 'cruelty-free' is totally unregulated, we have to do a lot of extra steps to ensure that our ingredients aren't tested on animals."

Four years in, Wells continues to expand her vision for her company.

The Elixery will open a shared studio this month at the Northrup King Building in Minneapolis with artists Larissa Loden, DC Ice and Josie Lewis. The collective will offer classes and events as well as products.

Wells also hopes to develop some of the "rather extensive library of formulas that I've developed over the last couple of years."

She acknowledges that "bringing a cosmetic to market is a slow process" but that doesn't dissuade her. She'll stick with her belief that good science makes good lipstick.

Sally McGraw is the Minneapolis-based author of Already Pretty (www.alreadypretty.com), a daily blog about the intersection of style and body image.

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