The Clean Queen: Sasha Plavsic

Founder of Ilia
The Clean Queen: Sasha Plavsic
We’ve all experienced days where lighting life on fire and starting fresh seems like the best option. Ilia founder Sasha Plavsic, however, actually sparked a match and followed through. Shortly after turning 30 and exiting a decade-long relationship, the Vancouver native decided to abandon a branding job in Southern California and return to her roots. “I had traveled the world and lived in London and New York,” she says. “I moved home to think and brought with me a bunch of makeup.” Naturally, her mother—a health and wellness pioneer who championed homeopathic remedies and organic food—had plenty of opinions. “My mom said, ‘Hey, you should really start paying attention to what you’re putting on your skin.” Plavsic’s response: “Please leave me alone. I'm an adult and I can make my own decisions.”

While she refused to admit that mother knows best, Plavsic secretly started looking up the ingredients in her beauty stash by night. “I was really blown away by some of the products that I thought were green and natural,” she says. “I was surprised to see that the marketing stories didn’t line up with the ingredient lists.” The nasties in Plavsic’s favorite cherry-tinted lip balm really sent her reeling, so she made it her mission to create something safe that worked even better. Two years later, the self-made clean beauty guru walked into a Vancouver boutique in May of 2011 with the brand’s first product: Ilia’s cult-favorite Tinted Lip Conditioner.

The clean beauty market has since exploded, but the definition of the category is still somewhat hazy for many customers who want to make more informed choices. “What I learned along the way is that some products work with more natural ingredients and others do not,” says Plavsic of her journey in the lab. “More often than not, clean is a hybrid of natural and synthetic [ingredients]. The performance can be there with some [natural] ingredients, but I found it really challenging to be there with all.” Ilia’s strategy is to “strip away as much as possible” without sacrificing performance—a plan that appears to be working based upon glowing reviews by beauty addicts and pro makeup artists alike.

What I learned along the way is that some products work with more natural ingredients and others do not

Ilia Color Block Lipstick

The brand does have an ingredient blacklist (which includes things like polyethylene glycols and Black 2), but not all the usual suspects are on it. “From a clean standpoint, I don't believe that all silicones are bad,” explains Plavsic. “We just posted about dimethicone on Instagram. To many people’s surprise, it isn't bio-accumulative. It's not a great ingredient as much as it is an inert material that you can’t do without when it comes to certain products like gel eyeliner.” Phenoxyethanol is another “iffy ingredient” that’s received a lot of bad press, but Plavsic says this preservative is “effective and completely safe” so long as it’s used under 1%. “What's important to remember in this category is that it's about the percentage of the ingredient being used [in the formula] and what it’s being used with,” she adds. When it comes to complexion products, however, Plavsic has deemed fragrance—be it natural or synthetic—off limits. “That's something that I encourage people to watch for if they have skin issues,” she says. The same can be said for coconut oil, which Plavsic tries to avoid if possible.

Where the clean beauty connoisseur thinks the industry can improve as a whole is sustainability, which is a particularly challenging prospect for color cosmetic brands. “If you think about a mascara, there is a cap out of one material, a wand out of another, and a brush out of a third,” says Plavsic. “You need all of those different materials in order for the formula to be stable, but that's where it gets really hard because a consumer can't necessarily recycle it.” Starting with recyclable packaging seems like the obvious answer, but many eco-friendly materials pose another problem in that some “leach certain plastics or chemicals into a perfectly healthy formula,” she says.

I believe it’s up to consumers and retailers to call for it so that brands and the government respond.

Ilia Multi-Sticks

Plavsic’s belief is that the end of a product’s life is where the change needs to happen. In addition to removing the metallic finish on all packaging to simplify the manufacturing process, Ilia is partnering with TerraCycle to keep empties out of landfills. Customers can mail in five empty products (regardless of the brand) a month. Plavsic is also rethinking how Ilia’s products are displayed in store, opting for biodegradable materials that won’t create waste. “I think there's so much more that can be done,” she adds. “I believe it’s up to consumers and retailers to call for it so that brands and the government respond.”

Here, Plavsic reveals her three-minute makeup secrets and explains why an airplane ride is her favorite way to go off the grid.

Her best advice for entrepreneurs:

“Know that [running a new business] will come with a lot of highs and lows, but don’t give up. I believe that a lot of people out there have great ideas and the one thing that stops them is fear. It will come up again and again, but the key is to figure out how to overcome fear and keep pushing through because there are problems every day. The problems that I had when I started this brand differ greatly from the problems that we have today, but it’s about choosing the lens you look through. If I let [fear] stop us, we wouldn't be doing what we're doing.”

Her daily beauty ritual:

“My morning routine is super simplified with our new Super Serum Skin Tint SPF 40. It’s makeup plus skincare plus SPF all in one. From there, I apply our Multi-Stick in Dreamer on lips and cheeks, followed by two coats our Limitless Lash Mascara. I call it the three-minute look because anything longer doesn’t work with my one-year-old baby!” 

Her ride-or-die beauty product:

“Our new Super Serum Skin Tint SPF 40, which is packed with hydrating hyaluronic acid, moisturizing squalane, and smoothing niacinamide. It’s got everything and actually boosts all those ingredients, or any other skincare you choose to use underneath, by 200%...It almost killed the whole team to get there and we had so many crazy challenges because zinc is such a volatile ingredient, but nobody’s been able to achieve an SPF like this in 18 shades.”

Her biggest beauty indulgence:

A micro current facial. The best one I’ve had in terms of immediate results was the Red Carpet Facial from Tracie Martyn in New York City.”

Her best drugstore discovery:

“I love micellar water. It works really well and is so easy to use. My favorite is Absolution’s L’Eau Soir et Matin.”

Her go-to beauty pros:

Jenna Anton and Katey Denno. Both are amazing makeup artists who are beautiful people inside and out.” 

Her biggest beauty mistake:

“I went to high school in the ’90s and still have a thin eyebrow hangover from the Kate Moss era.”

Her beauty icon:

“My mom. She is classic, chic, and always looks beautiful—usually without makeup.”

Her dream vanity raid:

“I like the classics and anything French: Audrey Hepburn, Jackie O, and Edith Piaf.”

Her favorite escape:

“This is going to sound strange, but my favorite place to escape is a plane without Wi-Fi. Uninterrupted thoughts for a few hours does wonders! I also can’t live without Balmy Days, our clear lip conditioner. It works best as a night treatment and if I don’t have it when I go to bed during my travels, I get anxiety.”

Written by Amber Kallor

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