Erika Martins, founder and CEO of Oil + Water, always dreamed of owning her own business, but the path to starting her skincare line wasn’t always clear.

From a young age, she loved creating. She completed her master’s degree in the field of architecture and started her career with the dream of designing buildings. During this time, she first became passionate about sustainability and minimalism, interests which would later become the foundational principles of Oil + Water.

Martins’ love for creating eventually sparked her fascination with natural alternatives to conventional skincare. She began formulating skincare as a personal project. After much research and experimentation, the sustainable beauty brand known as Oil + Water was born. Martins loves formulating because, like architecture, she finds it to be the perfect blend of left-brain and right-brain thinking.

“Both allow me to be artistic and creative, but also methodical and precise,” she said.

Oil + Water specializes in micro-batch, handcrafted products made with high-quality natural ingredients. This is increasingly important in a world where the average woman uses 12 products a day, which amounts to about 168 unique chemicals, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Martins believes we should focus on putting less, but better, products on our skin.

Martins hand makes every Oil + Water product in small batches from her studio in Brooklyn, NY. She crafts each recipe herself with a small number of select ingredients. Her hope is to flip the beauty industry on its head. She wants to change how consumers think about skincare and help them feel comfortable and confident in their own skin.

Here’s what Martins had to say about sustainable skincare brand Oil + Water:

When you were a kid, did you imagine you’d be doing what you are doing today? What did you want to be growing up?

I can safely say that when I was young, I never would have imagined myself owning a beauty and skincare company. As a teenager and young adult, I rejected the idea of wearing makeup, of reading beauty magazines and following fashion trends. I didn’t think I fit into the world of conventional beauty, and it just didn’t interest me. I wanted to be seen as smart above anything else. I felt like I had to define beauty on my own terms.

I felt like I had to define beauty on my own terms.

I never imagined at the time that the industry would change—that it would begin to celebrate natural beauty, self-expression, differences and imperfections; that it would become a platform for individuals wanting to redefine beauty standards. I didn’t think it could embrace simplicity, thoughtfulness, social and environmental responsibility, all of the values I hold dear, but eventually it did. Once I noticed this change, I finally felt I had something to say and contribute, and the beauty world became exciting to me.

Now that I find myself here, a beauty entrepreneur in this unique moment in time, it makes perfect sense that my interests have led me down this particular path. I always imagined doing something creative and doing it on my own. Initially, my greatest passion was creative writing. From the age of 6, I dreamed of being a poet and novelist when I grew up, but I also loved art, music, math and science, particularly chemistry and biology. I was always making and building things. It’s no surprise that I chose careers in architecture and cosmetic formulation!

What inspired you to create a minimalist skincare line?

I like to say that oil cleansing was what started it all. After a couple of years of living in New York, I developed a condition called perioral dermatitis. The skin around my mouth and chin was red, itchy and covered in tiny bumps. I wasn’t certain what was causing this, but I had some strong suspicions.

Once I had landed a city job, I had felt personal pressure to look “put together” at the office, despite feeling run down and stressed from over-work. Because I was on a tight budget, my roommate recommended an inexpensive drugstore foundation. I had never used makeup before then, so this was a clear red flag.

I did some online research and found that a lot of people with my condition had seen improvement after not only eliminating conventional products, but also cleansing regularly with oils. The first thing I did was ditch the foundation. Next, I made my first DIY products: simple, two-ingredient oil blends with great cleansing properties. Over the next few months, I saw that my new strategy was making a noticeable difference, and I loved being in control of what I was putting on my skin, starting with pure, plant-based essentials.

I loved being in control of what I was putting on my skin, starting with pure, plant-based essentials.

As I delved deeper and deeper into botanical ingredients and DIY recipes, fueled by creative curiosity and my own personal success story, I became an avid skincare hobbyist and my formulations grew more sophisticated. My ideas about skincare slowly started to align with my long-time dream of owning my own business. After much subsequent self-study, experimentation and careful deliberation, I took a big leap of faith, and in 2015, I left my job at an architecture firm in the city and founded Oil + Water later that year.

Did you have an “aha” moment about the value of eco-friendly skincare products? 

I always knew that if I was going to start something, I wanted it to have as small a footprint as possible. I started with basic things like responsible ingredient sourcing, packaging and shipping. I applied the philosophy of less to every aspect of the business—not only less ingredients, but also less products and packaging, all with the aim of reducing waste. I knew the world was shifting toward greater environmental accountability. What I didn’t expect was the extent of my customers’ conscientiousness or the degree to which sustainability would come to define my brand.

What I didn’t expect was… the degree to which sustainability would come to define my brand.

If there were any “aha” moments, then they were the many times I received not only glowing, thoughtful messages thanking me for my efforts but also a number of requests for additional sustainable strategies, such as a container return program (which we’ve now implemented). I am forever grateful to my customers for challenging me and encouraging me to push the limits of what I can do as a small brand to make a difference. We still have a long way to go, and it isn’t easy with a limited budget. However, sustainability is always the priority.

Oil + Water is a one-woman show. How did you initially get the company off the ground?

I started with my own capital. I had been quite disciplined about saving money throughout my years of working at a 9 to 5 job. I kept the business lean, avoiding any unnecessary expenses, and I launched with only three facial care products and two lip products.

I also love learning new skills. I’ve done almost everything myself so far to maximize my initial capital. I used the design and software skills I learned in my architecture career to design my own logo, branding and labels. I built my own website on Squarespace. I managed the SEO and social media work, and I convinced my talented boyfriend (now-husband) to help me with product photography.

What does the day-to-day look like of running a business?

No day is the same, which I absolutely love. We do everything in-house, which means I wear many hats depending on what the business needs from me at any given moment. During busy times, I spend most of the day making product batches, filling and shipping out orders, keeping track of inventory and ordering raw materials or supplies as needed.

I wear many hats depending on what the business needs from me at any given moment.

When I’m not busy filling orders, I typically focus on marketing, which is a much bigger aspect of running a business than I had ever anticipated. With a small brand and an equally small advertising budget, I have to work really hard to compete with larger companies. It’s about so much more than having a great product and a great website. Our marketing work typically involves a lot of time at the computer emailing back and forth with our collaborators, reaching out to new potential collaborators, writing blog posts and creating social media posts and email campaigns.

Every few months, I’ll set aside time to create new content with my husband. (He does the photography, and I do the styling.) Whenever I feel inspired or have time, I’ll work on new formulations that I then tweak and adjust over many months.

What has been the most rewarding part of creating Oil + Water?

I love the genuine connections that I’ve made, especially with other women trying to do social and environmental good. Because we’re passionate about the same things, I’ve even met a couple of my closest friends through Oil + Water. One of them was actually a bridesmaid at my wedding last October!

I love the hands-on creativity that the business allows me. I can conceive a product and come up with a first iteration almost immediately. Also, I truly appreciate the therapeutic connection with plants and nature it provides.

What makes Oil + Water unique from other ethical and eco-friendly skincare brands?

The freshness of our products is unparalleled. We make them in micro-batches, which means that often, a customer will receive an item made just a few days before it was shipped. We also work exclusively with small local retailers to avoid products sitting on store shelves for an extended period of time.

The quality of our ingredients can’t be beat. Our products are made from organic, fair trade, wild harvested, and/or food grade ingredients whenever possible. We order our materials in smaller quantities, so our ingredients are always at their peak quality.

The quality of our ingredients can’t be beat.

We also pride ourselves on transparency. We’re huge proponents of consumer education, and we always encourage customers to understand ingredient labels and ask questions. Finally, being small means we can provide exceptional, personalized customer service. It’s not often that if you have a question about your skincare product, you can speak directly with the person who created it.

If you had to pick, what is your favorite Oil + Water product?

It’s incredibly hard to choose, but if I had to pick, I would say the combination of our Face Mist and Face + Hair Oil. They work perfectly in tandem with each other. The mist delivers water-soluble nutrients and humectants to the skin, and the oil then delivers oil-soluble nutrients and emollients that lock in moisture. The products absorb beautifully together, leaving behind no heaviness or residue, just soft, supple, natural-feeling skin. Both products also have calming, light scents that lift my spirits.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to your younger yourself?

I would tell myself that it takes a long time to manifest your dreams. Don’t expect it to happen overnight. Many days will feel overwhelming and discouraging. Sustained effort is the most important thing. Sometimes, you won’t feel like there’s been progress, but look back at where you were one year ago, and I guarantee you will see so much change and growth.

It takes a long time to manifest your dreams. Don’t expect it to happen overnight.

Also, connect with people who will help you get through the journey. Don’t be afraid to reach out and suggest a meeting in-person. Nothing beats a real connection, especially in the age of technology!

Do you have a question for Erika? Write your question in the comments. We will select one comment to win a Face Mist and Face + Hair Oil set from Oil + Water.

Image via Daniel Grehl

29 comments

  1. I’m very new to skincare and was wondering what products you would recommend for someone just starting out? There’s a lot of marketing and it can be confusing figuring out what’s actually good for my skin vs hype.

    1. Hi Amélie! Skincare options can be overwhelming for sure! The products you need depend highly on your skin type as well as the season. I would recommend starting with 3 products: a good cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen. Stick with this simple routine for about a month (roughly one cycle of skin cell turnover), and then you can evaluate whether there are any lingering issues (dryness, acne, etc.) that could benefit from additional, more targeted products. Starting with less and introducing products slowly gives your skin time to adjust so you can see what’s truly working for you. Hope this helps and feel free to reach out with any other skincare questions!

    1. Thanks Charmaine! I’m so glad you liked the article so much. It’s always a pleasure sharing my brand and story, and it’s been a real joy working with Darling. 🙂 I’m excited to check out your architecture blog!

  2. A great read! So inspiring to read about a woman who is seeking & achieving sustainable beauty! I had no idea I put so many chemicals on my face every day! Scary! I need to try these products!

    1. Hi Avery! I’m glad you enjoyed the read and thank you for your kind words! Education about skincare ingredients is so important. When you understand what’s in your products, you can make fully informed decisions about what you’re putting on your skin. It does take a little bit of homework, but it’s well worth the effort! If I can help answer any questions, please feel free to reach out.

    1. Hi Katie! We work with a number of online suppliers, but one that we especially love (they sell in both small and large quantities, so they’re a great source for retail customers too) is Mountain Rose Herbs. They have a lovely selection and great environmental practices, including zero waste certification. A long-term dream of mine is to locally grow/produce some of our own raw materials, such as calendula flowers and various hydrosols.

  3. I enjoyed reading about your process and products. How would you say they work for someone with rosacea?

    1. Thanks Renee! Most of our products are quite gentle and therefore great for sensitive skin, including our Emulsifying Balm, Face Mist, and Face + Hair Oil. We’ve had a few customers with rosacea report great results. The only product in our line that I wouldn’t recommend for you is our Herbal Clay Mask – it’s made with strong clays that are great for oily/acne-prone skin but may be too harsh and drying for someone with rosacea. Hope this helps!

  4. Which of your products would you recommend for mature skin to help with fine lines? I love that the products are natural!

    1. My skin improved so much by switching to minimalist products. I haven’t tried this yet, but am looking forward to seeing more from this product line and would like to give it a try. I love to hear the why behind products and this was no exception.

    2. Hi Tammie! I’d recommend our Face + Hair Oil. It contains a large percentage of argan oil, which is rich in antioxidants, omega-6 fatty acids, and vitamin e. Argan is wonderfully moisturizing and helps boost skin elasticity, which is great for minimizing the appearance of fine lines. An especially luxurious treat would be to gently massage the oil into your skin with a gua sha tool, focusing on any areas exhibiting fine lines and wrinkles.

  5. I love the whole concept of this brand! Do you have any plans someday to sell in any stores such as Target or Walmart?

    1. Thanks Kaitlin! That’s a tough question, because much of our philosophy is intrinsically tied to the concept of being and staying small, but I do love the idea of making clean, natural skincare more mainstream and accessible. While I can’t rule out a future partnership with a larger retailer, I will say that we would only pursue this type of opportunity if we could do so in a manner that supports our core values.

  6. This is great advice about not expecting your dreams to happen overnight! I firmly believe good things take time, and I love stories like this that show how a company , brand, or even someone’s career evolved and lead to what it is now. This skin care line sounds exciting!!

    1. Thanks for the comment and support Hannah. Good things really do take time and persistent effort, and the evolution of the idea is undoubtedly one of the most exciting parts. I always want to feel like I’m striving for something even better, because what’s the fun in reaching the end of your growth?

  7. It was really fascinating to read about your process. I love how wide of spectrum your creativity covers. It’s inspiring. Before this article, I had never heard of Oil + Water and I’m excited to explore this brand more.

    1. Hi Gina! I’m so glad you enjoyed learning about Oil + Water. Thanks for reading and for sharing your kind words. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions – I’m always happy to chat about anything skincare-related!

  8. I loved reading this story! Being a business owner that wears many different hats, what techniques or advice do you have about managing your time?

    1. Hi Anieta. Great question! Make sure to set clear priorities. For example, my number one is our customers, so if there are orders to fill or questions to answer, I always handle those things first, and then I tackle everything else in similar order of importance. In your day-to-day as a business owner, I think it’s perfectly okay to be somewhat flexible with your schedule, responding to both the needs of the business and the natural ebbs and flows of inspiration and energy. If I feel “in the zone,” I might capitalize on that, or if I feel zapped, I might take a break to spend time with a friend. This less structured approach may not work for everyone, but I’ve found it works really well for me. Because I love what I do, I think my biggest challenge is setting aside time to not work, so I make sure to remind myself to do that as much as I can. The to-do list is truly never-ending, so it’s critical to get comfortable with that and recognize when to put the work down.

  9. What were the first few months like when you transitioned to Oil + Water full time? Thank you for sharing your experience!

    1. Hi Mel. They were some of the most exciting months and, of course, some of the most uncertain. The frenzy of rapid learning and the full creative freedom I had been craving for so long were thrilling to me, and they kept me going despite any doubts. I had a lot of stubborn faith that it would all work out, which I think you need in order to start a business. If you want people to believe in what you’re doing, you have to believe in it 2000%!

    1. Yes Carrine, quite a few! I’m currently experimenting with lotion- and cream-based products as well as serums. I’d love to eventually offer a few cosmetic essentials too. Natural deodorant is a thing I’m always trying to crack – I haven’t found one on the market that checks all the boxes for me, so I’m constantly playing with different formulas, trying to come up with one that I love enough to share. If there’s a type of product you’d like to see us offer, we’d love to hear about it!

  10. Loved reading this article! What has been your favorite success story so far? I will definitely be trying some of your products soon.

    1. Hi Bailey, I’m so glad you enjoyed the article! I’d say my greatest successes have been the relationships I’ve cultivated with my most loyal customers. There’s nothing more rewarding and affirming than establishing a real connection with someone who truly values what you do.

  11. Do you have a favorite business management book that you recommend for someone considering a start-up?

    1. Hi Virginia! Unfortunately, I don’t have a favorite book on this subject, but I have accumulated quite a few resources. Feel free to shoot me an email. I’d be happy to chat!

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