Tracy Dubb Breaks Down Beauty Industry Myths

The Isla Beauty co-founder talks nourishing skincare, her favorite microcurrent device, and the perils of eyelash extensions.

Tracy Dubb, a co-founder of Isla Beauty, sits at her desk wearing a striped button down shirt and je...
Photographed by Claire Smight.

Tracy Dubb has no patience for ineffective, over-marketed, trend-driven skincare products. Frustrated by the lack of transparency in the beauty industry, the former venture capitalist started the ingredient-first skincare line Isla Beauty last year—an ethos you might think would be a no-brainer, but often doesn’t reflect the reality of how things are actually made. She found an ideal partner in her co-founder, Charlie Denton, who comes from a family of contract manufacturers—the middle men whose facilities produce most of the cleansers, moisturizers, lipsticks, and treatments for big-name brands. Together, they’re working to educate customers about what they’re actually putting on their skin, with a limited edit of products that aim to nourish and protect the skin barrier. (We’re big fans of their glow-inducing Storm Serum in particular.) For our Beauty Notes column, Dubb opened up about her journey to healthy skin, the makeup she never leaves home without, and the self-care tricks that always make a difference.

What is the one beauty product you can’t live without?

The honest answer is our Tone Balance Elixir. That’s the one thing I use day in and day out, and it has totally changed my philosophy on skin. I had really problematic skin my whole life, but not in a straightforward way, where you just have acne or some eczema. It’s this ambiguous, always changing thing. And what took me a really long time to realize is that your skin needs to be nourished and not treated in a harsh way to deal with some of the underlying issues, like a weak skin barrier or other causes of inflammation. And the toner is a super unique product that’s hydrating but also clarifying, so it helps deal with things that are popping up, while also repairing and hydrating.

What were some of the things that you tried when you were confronting those skin issues that didn’t work?

I used to use a very harsh chemical exfoliant, which a lot of people use—it has a cult following. I used it twice a day. It helps at first, because it dries everything out. And then over time, my skin got really sensitive. And if I was having a breakout, I would put on anything with salicylic acid or glycolic acid in it. I would use a cleanser with an acid in it, and then I’d follow up with a toner and the breakouts would get worse and worse. Over the course of time, that stuff changes your skin chemistry. So I definitely think experimenting with that stuff is good, but you just need to do it slowly and patiently and not try and basically burn whatever’s happening on your skin. Over-exfoliation and an overuse of acids—and retinols, even—is something to be aware of.

What is something you’ve learned from working in the skincare industry that most people wouldn't know?

I always joke around with people, saying, “Beauty is an inside job.” I see myself as here to open up the doors to people who were floundering and spending all this money and time trying to figure out what was going on. The thing that has blown the lid off beauty for me is the fact that beauty products are often not made by the people who are selling them. That’s the biggest mystery of it all. What I found out when I started working with Charlie on Isla is that contract manufacturing is this layer that sits in the middle of beauty products and the people who sell them. Most brands are using one, if not two, if not three layers of contract manufacturers to put together their products—so you’re really never dealing one-on-one with the chemistry, never talking about the new technology. You’re not often debating, in real time, the use of different ingredients. Brands will go to a chemist and they say, “Here’s a brief,” or “Here’s an ingredient list—just make something happen.” I was like, “I want to make something with scientists who know what the best and latest and greatest is.” And that’s how we were formed.

Are there any ingredients you keep an eye out for when you’re shopping for skincare for yourself?

The important thing for people to look at and understand is ingredient complexes, which are actually oftentimes more effective and more proprietary than individual ingredients themselves. Often, you don’t even know how much of an ingredient is in a product, because most brands don’t release that. I recommend figuring out the ingredient or the ingredient complex, and looking into any clinical studies or data the brand has that says the ingredient works. The other thing I would say is don’t follow trendy ingredients. Hydration, for example, is a very well-studied, well-documented area. There are certain things, like glycerin, that are tried and true. A lot of buzz tries to be generated around trend ingredients because it creates the next season of products. It’s more about ingredient concentration and efficacy than it is about trying to find the next big thing.

Photographed by Claire Smight

What’s the first thing you do in the morning, beauty-wise?

I wash my face, and then I immediately do either a gua sha or one of the microcurrent machines, just for a minute. I wake up really puffy and it helps awaken my skin. I put on the Tone Balance Elixir, one serum, and a moisturizer and just let my skin set for a minute. Then I’ll go back and look at my skin to see if I need concealer (I use Nars Radiant Creamy Concealer in Medium 1.5 Macadamia) or a spot treatment.

Is there a preferred microcurrent device you use? Are you a NuFace gal?

The ZIIP, I asked for it for Christmas for my in-laws and I was embarrassed to do so, but I really wanted it and it’s really good. I’ve used NuFace before and I actually think I prefer the ZIIP. It makes a huge difference over time, and it does help with the rest of your skincare routine as well.

Do you have a favorite esthetician?

Sofia at Mia Wagner Salon in New York. If you’re going to spend the money on a facial, for me, I either like something with a lot of extractions or something with microcurrent. The rest is usually something that you can do to yourself. Even if you’re going for just the relaxation of it all, it’s amazing. It feels incredible. I think my dream spa day incorporates some relaxation and massage and then some good, old-fashioned science and technology

What is a piece of skincare or makeup advice you received that changed your perspective on beauty?

My college roommate taught me everything about makeup. She taught me about highlighter and how to use it—she always carried a little jar of Benefit Moonbeam around in her purse. Before I met her, I thought makeup was one size fits all; she taught me about figuring out what you like about how you look, accentuating that, and using makeup to feel good about yourself. Prior to that, my whole relationship with makeup was about covering things up. You’re not going to change your skin or change your face and you shouldn’t want to. Figure out what you like and focus on that.

That philosophy feels so much more realistic than “This product will change your whole life.”

My way into beauty was definitely wanting to change my skin, wanting to look like the people on the ads. What I’ve learned is you’re never going to change your skin. You’re not going to shrink your pores, no matter what anyone says. But everyone has beautiful things about their skin. If you can just focus on making it healthy and accentuating that, then that is the point of skincare. And if any brand is telling you you’re going to be able to change all these things about yourself, that’s not true.

Was there ever a cringe-y beauty trend you participated in that you look back on and you’re like, “Oh my God, what was I thinking?”

I used to get eyelash extension regularly, which was beautiful in photos, but I looked insane in real life. I had eyelash extensions during New York Fashion Week couple of years ago, and I got a really bad stye and I needed to have surgery on the stye. I had to wear an eye patch to every show and party that I went to. That story always makes me laugh. I really succumbed to a beauty trend and it bit me in the ass. That, and just so much bronzer. So much bronzer.

What was your go-to bronzer in that era?

Nars, obviously. And I used to use a MAC bronzer as well. When I was younger, I used to think MAC was the only makeup brand. Now I use the Chanel one, but I don’t use it that much. When I figured out blush, it changed my whole relationship with makeup.

Do you have a go-to lipstick shade?

Nars Walkyrie—it’s a midpoint between a burnt red and a pink tone, to match my skin’s natural color—and Charlotte Tilbury Pillow Talk. Love.

What’s the biggest beauty splurge you’ve made, and was it worth it?

The biggest splurge I make currently is my highlights. I go to Lena Ott at Suite Caroline in New York City. It’s so important to have someone who knows what they’re doing with your hair, because I’ve had really bad blonde before. And it broke all my hair.

How do you take care of your color-treated hair?

I use the Christophe Robin hair mask and color-safe shampoo. The best way to take care of your hair, if you can, is to be super nourishing for those couple of weeks after you get it colored—try to avoid blow drying it or overusing heat. I use the Crown Affair hair oil as well, and their hair towel, which has changed my hair.

What is the reasoning behind using a specialized hair towel? It’s just more absorbent?

My understanding of it is that a lot of the damage that happens to hair is actually from water, even though people tend to blame heat styling. Hair towels wick the water from your hair faster, and create less friction on the wet hair follicles. When you’re using a hair towel, you don’t notice it at first, but slowly your hair texture just gets so much stronger and better. I started using it and three months later, my hair had grown a lot and it was drying so much better. Now I feel weird when I just put, like, a regular old towel on my head.

What is your go-to beauty look for a night out?

I try to do either eyes or lips. I’ll do a little bit of a winged liner, or just a lined, smudged eye and a lip. The biggest thing for me when I’m going out is I try to make my brows look nicer. My brows can get pretty crazy, so I’ll use gel and fill them in, I’ll use a little bit of powder and really line them. And it makes a huge difference. It sounds crazy, but brows are everything. Kim Kardashian was right when she said that all those years ago.

What’s your nighttime routine?

I do a balm cleanser at night. I use the Eve Lom one, but I don’t always use it with the little towel—every once in a while, I’ll remember to use the towel and it feels great, you can really make a spa moment out of it. Usually I’ll shower at night, so I’ll put my hair in braids to dry while I sleep. And then I like to slather on a lot of product and moisturizer, which I don’t really do in the morning. I’ll use our serum. I use our toner, always. Sometimes at night, if I’m having a breakout or something, I’ll use a little bit of a BHA in just my T-zone. And then I’ll put on a moisturizer. Right now, I’m using the Skinfix Barrier Cream, and I love anything with niacinamide in it as well.

What products do you have in your bag when you’re running around during the day?

EltaMD sunscreen and a lip balm—right now, I use the Weleda Skin Food one. I’m also really into the Laneige Sleeping Mask. I’m on a lifelong mission to solve chapped lips because I suffer from them dramatically, so I always have a lip thing. I used to have dry shampoo and a comb with me always, but I don’t go anywhere as much. I will typically have the Nars Radiant Concealer so I can refresh that. And then sometimes I’ll just have an eyeliner, in case I need to look different.

What’s your favorite form of self-care?

I like to stretch, and have started stretching in the mornings. My mom used to always tell me to stretch when I was little and I was like, “I’m not old like you!” But now, I find it great for my body and my day. I sometimes do it with a face mask on. I try not to be really dogmatic about this stuff because I feel like you watch a lot of videos or read a lot of interviews and it’s, “Do this thing! And do this thing!” And before you know it, it’s, like, 1:00 P.M.

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