For Soft Services Founders Annie Kreighbaum & Rebecca Zhou, Efficacy Is King

by Erika Veurink

The founders of Soft Services soft smiling at the camera
Courtesy of Soft Services

Good skincare for the body is hard to find. At least, that’s what Annie Kreighbaum and Rebecca Zhou bet on when they started the body care brand Soft Services, which offers a range of products specifically for the body—including the excellent Buffing Bar and Smoothing Solution, each having achieved near-instant cult status since their launch in 2021.

The pair, both of whom are Glossier alums, were just the right amount of jaded when they were inspired to start a skincare company that did things differently. (Additionally, Kreighbaum’s industry expertise meets beauty pop culture in the podcast, “Eyewitness Beauty,” which she hosts weekly alongside Nick Axelrod-Welk.) “The current body care space is dominated by fragrance-led products with little to no active ingredients, testing, or innovation for that matter,” Zhou tells me during a recent interview from her home in Upstate New York. “Body care has been trailing decades behind skincare. And consumers deserve better.”

Soft Services pushes back against the influx of brands in the space by doing two things extremely well: branding and formulations. (Well, maybe three things, since their packaging is worth applauding.) Loyal followers of the brand—myself included—have followed Soft Services’s quiet takeover of what was once skincare’s sleepiest category for years. The products deliver—which sounds simplistic, but in the endless cycle of new launches, that result has become more and more rare. I like that when Soft Services says it’ll smooth my razor burn-prone legs with the Buffing Bar, it does. Below, Kreighbaum and Zhou discuss their favorite accidental dewy makeup primer and the best review of their products they’ve ever read.

How would you encapsulate the Soft Services body care ethos?

Annie Kreighbaum: This is not your face’s skincare—our formulas are designed specifically for body skin, which is put through different stressors than the skin on our faces. We’re here for anyone who has ever worn tops with sleeves, has dislocated their shoulder trying to apply concealer over bacne, or avoided being naked in front of a partner. The best review I’ve read was from a 60-year-old man who had keratosis pilaris since he was a kid, bought Soft Services off an Instagram ad on a whim. ow, he has clear skin on his arms for the first time in his life. Being able to unlock that sense of relief in people is so powerful.

When did you personally begin to prioritize body care?

Rebecca Zhou: I’ve been trying to problem-solve my issue-prone body skin since I was a teen. From Selsun Blue for tinea versicolor to a slimy sulfur soap for body acne, I collected a hodgepodge of products and hacks that I’d keep in my “bottom shelf” like a first-aid kit, but I wouldn’t say using them ever felt like body “care.” Starting work on Soft Services is when I was able to channel all of my body skin frustrations into a real solution—and products that actually work.

This is the first time both of you created a brand of your own from the ground up. What have you learned since the launch of Soft Services?

Rebecca Zhou: It has been a crazy few years of unprecedented circumstances for us all—which, for our business, has meant an accelerated pace of learning on all fronts. Much of the infrastructure upon which our business is built has gone through extreme stress these past few years—supply chain, freight, advertising, labor, and capital market, just to name a few—throwing us curve balls left and right and calling for constant problem-solving. I’m trying to find a silver lining in the fact that everyone is dealing with these challenges. And start-ups (us!) can be much better equipped to deal with change.

Where does great design and great product intersect for you?

Annie Kreighbaum: The most important thing for Soft Services products is efficacy, so everything else, including design, should be in service of that. We try to optimize for sustainability as well, so some elements of the brand are more a result of avoiding material waste than pure aesthetic decisions, like the “clear” PCR components that we use, which actually range from cloudy gray to yellow. Having an eclectic approach to brand design means we’re not beholden to a single Pantone or way of presenting information—we can allow the design to work to tell the best product story.

How do you two connect during the day?

Rebecca Zhou: As we’ve gotten busier, what has worked well is to create more structure around our communication. We used to connect on literally every channel available—Slack, text, DMs on Instagram and Twitter, e-mail, and in person, but that became unmanageable. Now, we have a weekly standing meeting on Mondays with an agenda that serves as a forum for us to align so that during the week, we can work more asynchronously. We still use Slack...but a lot less, which is great.

Onto the Beauty Notes questions. What’s the first thing both of you do in the morning, skin/body care-wise?

Rebecca Zhou: I try to do the bare minimum in the morning, I’m not really a morning person. I quickly wash my face and put some moisturizer on, then usually jump into a morning “heads-down” work session. If I have to fully get ready and put makeup on during the week, I usually do it as a break between meetings.

Annie Kreighbaum: I prefer a nighttime shower, so I wake up pretty much ready to go. I’ll swipe on Speed Soak to my shoulders and legs if they’re exposed for some sheen and moisture, and I’ll pat any residue from my hands onto my face (the formula is accidentally a great dewy makeup primer). I always roll on Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew deodorant after getting dressed—it’s a classic for me.

How do you unwind in the evenings?

Rebecca Zhou: A fizzy drink over ice and an episode or two of TV. Most nights, I do a nonalcoholic spritzer—my recent go-to is coconut Lacroix, ginger bitters, citrus, a couple frozen blueberries (my husband stocks these for his morning smoothies), and ice. The alcoholic version in my current rotation is a non-red wine, bitters, kombucha (plain or berry), and citrus squeezed all over ice.

Annie Kreighbaum: I don’t! It’s something I need to work on. I have the Soft Services social media accounts on my phone, along with Shopify, so I’m always tapping around and plugged in. I used to take cold showers—really cold—two hours before bed, which was incredibly effective for my insomnia, but incredibly inconvenient. I’ll occasionally eat a Kiva Camino cannabis gummy.

Which products have been in your skincare rotation the longest?

Rebecca Zhou: I switch up what I use every couple months, but these have stayed in rotation for at least a year: Beauty of Joseon Cleansing Balm, Peach & Lily Glass Skin Serum, Peter Thomas Roth Sulfur Mask, Biologique Recherche Masque Vivant, Act+Acre Scalp Renew + Shampoo, and our whole Soft Services lineup.

Annie Kreighbaum: Definitely Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Skin Perfecting Toner. I’ve been singing its praises my entire career, [for] almost 10 years now. I’m partial to products I’ve worked on because I selfishly can make them to work best for me, so Glossier Milky Jelly Cleanser is a staple—it’s actually based on my favorite discontinued La Roche Posay face wash. I’ve been using Soft Services Carea Cream, Buffing Bar, Smoothing Solution, and Clearing Clay religiously for about two years, since we got the first submission from the lab—which is a long time for me on any single product.

What's the best beauty trick you've picked up after years in the industry?

Annie Kreighbaum: It’s not really a trick, but learning about urea was a huge breakthrough. It’s an ingredient that exfoliates, moisturizes, and softens skin, and has decades of research and practical use in dermatology [behind it]. You don’t see it used often because it’s not the sexiest ingredient—people associate it with urine, but urea is found naturally throughout our bodies, including our skin. You’ll see it in several current and future Soft Services products because it works—and for us, efficacy is king.