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How this bacteria-crawling skincare line became a fast-growing wellness brand

Mother Dirt is adding to its stable of microbiome-friendly products. Can the brand help consumers rethink their hygiene habits?

How this bacteria-crawling skincare line became a fast-growing wellness brand
[Photo: courtesy of Mother Dirt]

When Mother Dirt first launched in 2015, the skincare line’s bold take on personal hygiene challenged long-accepted public health concepts. The young brand infused live-cultured bacterium into its face sprays and lotions, claiming our society was far, far too clean. We need more yucky stuff, it argued.

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This was pre-natural beauty boom and before Unilever acquired gut-aiding gummy brands. Mother Dirt debuted at the precipice of ubiquitous Activia yogurt commercials, a time before probiotics–now a $73-billion market–entered the public sphere.

Jasmina Aganovic [Photo: courtesy of Mother Dirt]
Now, Mother Dirt holds prime position at the intersection of health and beauty. And on Tuesday, the line introduces a new body oil and wash uniquely formulated to protect even more of your skin’s microbiome. It’s the company’s first new product in over two years.

“We have been raised to believe that killing 99.9% of bacteria is the definition of cleanliness, and the whole reason we want to be clean is because that will make us healthy,” says Jasmina Aganovic, founder and president of Mother Dirt. “And yet, when you look at much of the data out there, we actually aren’t getting healthier despite the fact that we are probably cleaner than ever.”

Today’s wellness-obsessed consumers are more willing to reevaluate what it means to be clean and healthy–and embrace alternative beauty practices. Health tops shoppers concerns, with a strong majority increasingly opting for “functional” products that serve their greater well-being.

Mother Dirt products are filled with ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB), which the company refers to as “peacekeepers for the microbial community.” The bacteria is generally found in lakes, rivers, soil, and, back in the day, on our skin. Today, it’s been mostly eradicated by our indoor lifestyle and soap-obsessed habits. Without it, Mother Dirt science claims, humans are more susceptible to skin sensitivity, irritation, or conditions like acne or eczema, as well as general skin complaints: blotchiness, roughness, and oiliness. It also reportedly causes issues like excessive sweating or gnarly body odor.

[Photo: courtesy of Mother Dirt]
“What we’re learning now is that we actually need bacteria for our skin to be able to look and feel and function properly,” says Aganovic.

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Essentially, the brand is on a mission to dispel the notion that bacteria is bad and that sterile is always good. The collection includes a live probiotic spray, cleanser, shampoo, and moisturizer in compact pump formats. Prices range from $15 to $49, depending on size. The entire line is described as a “biome-friendly product development platform.”

The premise is that a palpable, easy-to-use product can affect cultural bias. “We could talk about [the issues] until we’re blue in the face, and some people might nod their heads and say, yes that makes sense,” says Aganovic. “But having a positive experience with a product that contains something  they might have previously been afraid of or grossed out by, that really starts to fundamentally shift people’s perception of the topic.”

Building a bacteria brand

Mother Dirt aimed to justify its purpose without alienating the consumer with scientific, technical concepts. “It had to be friendly but not too friendly such that it sacrificed credibility,” explains Aganovic. The challenge lay in convincing shoppers the collection wasn’t just snake oil, without being intimidating. There had to be an aspect of fun.

And so the brand centers around three core values that play up more accessible themes. This includes challenging what it means to be “clean”; reconnecting with nature; and embracing one’s inner child. It conveys the idea that we can effectively and naturally inoculate ourselves with friendly bacteria by tapping our playful side to enjoy the outdoors–dirt and grime and all.

“Our goal was to make sure that they were universally human, that literally every single person on this planet could connect with these values,” explains Aganovic.

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Mother Dirt, which says it has experienced double-digit sales growth year over year, is available online at motherdirt.com, as well as Amazon, Thrive Market, and a few brick-and-mortar retailers, such as Credo Beauty. In 2017, the brand expanded into European markets.

Customers range in age from 15 to 55, with half managing a skin concern or irritation. The other half, many of them men, are those interested in taking a proactive role in their health: they’re weaning themselves off of traditional antiperspirants, drinking kombucha, and exercising routinely. Four out five customers purchase the $49 AO+Mist, a spray that promises to restore skin balance in four weeks. (“They stick these products in their gym bags,” notes Aganovic). The biggest market is New York, followed by San Francisco.

[Photo: courtesy of Mother Dirt]
Most buyers view Mother Dirt more as a health and wellness purchase than a beauty product. They use the products for a very specific function, not part of some elaborate beauty or self-care routine or because the bottle looks pretty on their bathroom shelf.

“It’s kind of separate in our users’ minds,” says Aganovic. “It’s perceived to be more of like a hygiene and a personal care product.”

Online reviews are mostly from shoppers looking to remedy body odor or skin irritation issues like eczema. Some use it for other issues, like to cut down on showers, or for wound care. (“I personally love spraying this on cuts. It really seems to make them heal faster,” wrote one recent Amazon shopper.)

Mother Dirt isn’t alone in positioning its product as a better-for-you skincare alternative. Plenty of new and established brands like La Mer added microbiomes to formulations to better market their products to health enthusiasts. In fact, the global probiotic cosmetic products market is expected to hit $37.8 million by 2025, growing at 7.6%.

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The vast majority of competitors in this niche market do not contain live microorganisms, as they are often bound by preservatives and spoilage concerns. (That doesn’t stop many of them from slapping “probiotic” on their label, as there is no standardized definition.)

Mother Dirt stands out in the market with its live bacteria, which it ensures by mailing with ice packs and recommending products be refrigerated and used within six months. This undoubtedly hikes up the price point, since customers must refresh their inventory several times a year. At the same time, refrigeration instills consumers with confidence that the products are of utmost quality. If it requires a fridge, one might say, it must be legit.

A hospitable environment

Moving forward, Mother Dirt will explore subcategories such as the treatment of rosacea and other skin disorders. The company would also like a conditioner to pair with their shampoo, but that’s proven especially difficult. Conditioners rely on a specific chemical for their silky, slippery feeling, and Mother Dirt has yet to re-create it in a microbiome-friendly format.

“We want to create products that are like the products that we are used to using, so that we’re not forcing people to change their routines,” stresses Aganovic. “When it comes to creature comforts, those are really difficult to reverse.”

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We're back #BTS on #SciFri ???? This is a sneak peek of new formula that's in the very early stages of development. (More on that at another time – but check out our stories for more #BTS fun.) Here we're making an oil in water emulsion: oil phase added to water phase = emulsion phase! Lots of products you use go through this process…lotion and conditioner to name a few! #themoreyouknow ????⠀ •⠀ •⠀ "⠀ #sciencefriday #health #wellness #nature #goodbacteria #bacteriaisthenewblack #probiotic #naturalskincare #cleanliving #livewell #naturalbeauty #gethealthy #livehealthy #wellness #microbiome #biomefriendly #liveclean #cleanbeauty #greenbeauty #skincare #skin #skinhealth #productformulation #greenchemistry

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The ubiquitous presence of probiotics in the general public means there’s no better time for Mother Dirt to gather market share. Consumers have jumped on the probiotic bandwagon–even if the science isn’t there. Many struggle to understand how and in which way bacteria best serves their health or skincare needs.

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“The category has been moving much faster than I had expected,” she said. “From a day-to-day standpoint, our hygiene routines do not need to be all about sterility. So there’s more work that needs to be done there.”

Aganovic is optimistic. At the current adoption rate, she foresees “clean” being rethought across the country and not just among health consumers. She recounts a recent visit to a doctor’s office in which the physician prescribed antibiotics. As she was about the leave, however, the doctor suggested she pair it with a probiotic.

“That wasn’t happening even five or seven years ago,” she says. “So that progress, I think, is tremendous.”

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