Lily Tse is an ideas person; not surprising when you consider her technical aptitude and her background working over a decade in advertising. When a loved one was diagnosed with cancer, Lily found herself evaluating toxins in the world, and specifically reading the small print on cosmetic products. Shocked by what companies were advertising to their consumers, she became passionate about healthier, safer skin care products. The Torontonian was always losing wallet-sized info cards on what ingredients to avoid, and thought it would be a lot easier if there was an app for this – and that’s how the idea for Think Dirty was born. The mobile app allows consumers to quickly access information that allows them to then make educated choices on what to purchase. There is much to be said about the transparency of the cosmetic industry – much of it negative – and Lily’s hope is that Think Dirty washes up some of the industry’s blemishes. Millennials are still trying to find their way, and whether it’s trendy to live an unconventional lifestyle or not – and what that even looks like – Lily says quieting down your inner critic and following what you’re passionate about is the best path for everyone.
I carry a notebook and pen with me wherever I go
My phone is my business, I always have it
I'm an avid listener of podcasts
A head massage at my desk gives me a chance to stop and relax
My dog gives me instant love
My mom; her strength for surviving breast cancer
Film is a passion of mine. TIFF is an event I have been attending for over 10 years and never skip
My necklace from Hawaii reminds me to keep traveling
Drawing and painting have been my favourite things since childhood
What is Think Dirty and how does it help consumers?
Think Dirty is a mobile app that has rated over 550,000 products and 50,000 ingredients. It’s the easiest way to quickly learn about the potentially toxic ingredients in your cosmetics and personal care products. We are ultimately encouraging consumers to vote with their money for the most socially and environmentally responsible manufacturers.
How does it work?
It’s an independent source that allows you to compare products as you shop – just open the app, scan the product barcode, and Think Dirty will give you easy-to-understand info on the product. It educates consumers about a product’s ingredients, including the potentially toxic ones, and empowers them to make the safest and healthiest choices by suggesting cleaner options. Any product the app rates 0-to-3 means there are no red flags in terms of ingredients.
How did you come up with the idea to use an app to help educate consumers on skin care products?
When I first started, which was over five years ago, the advocacy was done by non-profit groups like environmental organizations. The way they spread awareness of particularly harmful ingredients was with paper wallet cards, but whenever I got one of those cards, I would always lose it. At that time, I think the iPhone 3S or something similar was out, and since we had the technology, I wondered why this couldn’t be an app.
From wondering to founding a company: can you tell me more about what sparked your passion?
I am a firm believer in the philosophy of conscious capitalism. Think Dirty is a business built to care about 3Ps: People, Planet and Profile. My passion for consumer advocacy comes out of 13 years of working in advertising and marketing. I never realized the environmental impact cosmetics had on our health until my family was touched by cancer, and I watched Annie Leonard’s “Story of Cosmetics,” which examined the pervasive use of toxic chemicals in our everyday personal care products. It was a huge challenge for me to find safer alternatives to use personally; although many products are labeled “all-natural” or “organic,” there is little transparency in labeling cosmetics. There was also no real tool out there for consumers to find information easily. With my background in design and marketing, I wanted to develop and create something for others as well as myself.
With that personal connection helping drive your mission to educate the public, you must find some self-satisfaction in doing your part to create change. Is that accurate?
Absolutely. For me, it’s just nice to know I’m working for a cause I care about. It’s sad, but in general, women’s worth often correlates with beauty – you feel better when you look good. It obviously helps even more when you look good and you don’t have toxic chemicals in your body.
What did you do professionally prior to developing Think Dirty?
I was in advertising with an agency for an art director/interactive designer for 13 years. I began freelancing, and then opened my own freelance design consultancy right before I started the app.
How did you feel when you first switched paths to devote your time entirely to Think Dirty?
It was exciting, but obviously kind of scary because it was unchartered territory. Ultimately, it’d always been something in my notebook, on my ideas list, and finally having the courage to actually make it happen was definitely invigorating. Overall, the excitement kind of outweighed the scariness of it.
How did you face your fears?
I’m a self-help junkie; I like listening to motivational speakers, and I like Oprah. I basically just try to quiet down the worst critic: the one in my mind. Everyone has two voices in their head and depending on your upbringing, your inner critic is sometimes the louder one. It’s important to learn how to silence that one a little bit. For me, reading a lot of biographies on how some other entrepreneurs got started helped too. The move to freelancing was kind of scary to begin with, because I’d been working as an employee for a company for a long time. I had freelanced only a few times before I decided I didn’t want to work for anyone anymore. Leaving was scary but ultimately the freedom and the control felt right. From that point onward it was pretty liberating.
For some people it can be challenging to put their ideas into action; how do you become a doer?
I think when you have a full time job it’s harder because it’s your main source of income and your idea is like a Plan B side thing, right? I think a lot of people come up with an idea and say ‘I’m going to do it on the weekend when I have time,’ but to me that’s showing how much you care about the idea. Some ideas may not be viable and you may not make money; some ideas aren’t world-changing. This is not my only idea – you know, I have two pages of ideas. I chose the one that resonated with me the most long-term; I ultimately chose this one over another fun kind of quirky short term one. I think when you have an idea, you need to evaluate it, and ask yourself some big questions. How much am I willing to lose sleep over this? Am I doing this to make money? Is this my life calling? Once you have those answers and you decide that it’s important to you and you want to do it before you die, then you just make it happen. Critically thinking about whether your idea fits as a hobby, a side project, non-profit thing, or business venture is important before you decide on an action plan to implement it.
Would you describe your path as unconventional and if so, why?
I don’t know anymore; I mean, it seems like everyone is an entrepreneur now, so I don’t know if my path is unconventional. What I can say is just don’t even worry if you are conventional or unconventional. When you craft your path, just go towards what you generally want to do and worry less about what other people think you should be doing. Ultimately when you look back, you’re responsible for your own life. I actually think millennials are challenged to try to be unconventional, and it’s trendy to be different, even when maybe deep inside you just want to have a stable job. I think being true to yourself and living your life the way you want to is the most important.
From your perspective, how are companies getting away with creating skin care products that have toxic ingredients?
Companies get away with this because the cosmetics industry is not regulated like the food and drug sectors. Cosmetic companies weren’t even required to list ingredients until 2006! Many of the same chemicals are being regulated in occupational usage, but when the same or similar chemicals are being used in the context of body care, the regulations are missing. Labelling requirements are also not clear, so sometimes the font size is so small it’s illegible, especially on smaller items. Those are just a few of the shocking things that I’ve learned since working on Think Dirty.
Do you think consumers are more educated these days when it comes to what they’re buying?
Yes. With the advancement of technology, being more educated on health and wellness is more accessible. Consumers are definitely far more conscious of what they are eating and putting on their bodies compared to even a few years ago. Most prefer organic, vegan, cruelty-free and natural products made out of simple ingredients that are easy to read.
What do consumers generally want out of skin care nowadays, and what do you think drives this?
Now more than ever, consumers are more health conscious about the things that come in contact with their bodies. Growing trends include healthier options in fast food chains, flavoured water with 0 calories, GMO labelling and local food movements – and those are just a few examples. With the shift towards healthier food options, consumers now expect skin care products to be parallel in terms of organic quality, sustainability, and safety.
How did you go about testing the marketability of your company?
In 2012, during the conception phase of the project, I took my app idea to a hackathon in New York, hosted by GOOD Magazine. The idea didn’t win any recognition at first, but it still stuck in my head. A few months later, I came across another startup competition in Toronto and I made a promise to myself: if I won, I’d take it as a signal that other people are interested in this and I’d pursue it full-time. Think Dirty ended up winning the grand prize, I kept my promise, and it’s continued to grow since then. Today we have a team of over seven and have close to 1M users.
There are so many different ways of developing an app; could you walk me through your process?
I brought in a lead technical founding member and a contract developer early on. I’m trained as a designer, so I am responsible for most UI/UX design and I have my technical team develop the feature of the app.
And how did you go on to market your company?
We partnered with credible non-profits early on, such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics; we leveraged their network to spread the word. Once we created some ripples, our marketing mainly relied on earned media via grassroot movement and good old fashioned word of mouth.
You are now in the US market, how did you go about doing this?
Again, the US non-profits played a key role, and with app store distribution to the US, it’s easier than most traditional sales of goods.
Where do you see Think Dirty is going in the future?
Our long term vision for Think Dirty is to be the beauty equivalent of trusted apps like Tripadvisor. Ideally, the app would allow you to chart your own diary on products used, chemicals exposed and skin allergies. We’d also like it to connect you with other beauty lovers and allow users to share non-toxic products reviews, learn about ingredients, and shop from cleaner brands.