How I landed it: Sunday Riley talks skin care, career and the power of change

The brains behind the brand

March 31 2022

Sunday Riley (the brand) needs no introduction. 

Set foot into any MECCA store and you’ll undoubtedly be pointed in the direction of the luxe-looking, results-delivering skin care line. 

But despite the eye-catching dropper bottles being a permanent fixture on any beauty lover's vanity, the global success of the company didn't happen overnight. 

In our interview with Sunday Riley (the person), we learned how chasing her dream to "bring about real change in skin" landed her as a best-selling brand founder, product formulator and household name.

As a member of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists (SCC), Riley knew early on that her set of skills could make a positive impact not only to the physical but also the mental state of her future consumers: “Seeing someone’s happiness grow because they have more confidence in their skin is what inspires me daily, just as it did when I started the brand 11 years ago.”


While the products themselves mean business (promising to and delivering on acne-fighting and anti-ageing claims)  Riley was one of the pioneers in turning skin care from what it once was full of chemistry jargon, boring and slightly embarrassing to what it is now: luxurious, fun and one of the fastest growing markets in the world. 

The ingredient lists may still read like a lengthy and complex catalogue of actives and percentages, but the front labels keep it digestible and quirky, bottling up aspirational concepts (C.E.O), money-can’t-buy results (Good Genes) and other formulations that are simply out of this world (U.F.O).

While bright and clever marketing for skin care has gained in popularity in recent years, Sunday Riley was where it all began. 

Here, the Texas-born formulator shares an insider's look into what it takes to operate a global beauty company, her own A+ skin care routine (which, by the way, will shake up everything you thought you knew about layering actives), and what ‘clean beauty’ really means.

Take us back to the beginning — what inspired you to create Sunday Riley?

I’ve always had a passion for skin care; I’ve loved skin care since childhood. This combined with the fact that I like putting products together — I like creating things and I’m very into solving problems. I started a skin care company and began formulating products because I believe that I have an ability to listen to what people want and craft formulas that can actually make a change in the way people look and feel. 

Ultimately, what really inspires me is that I truly love being a part of other people’s journey towards self-love and self-care – that’s really what gets me up in the morning. 

And once you are up, what does the rest of your day look like? 

Every day is different! Not only am I the CEO and founder, but I’m also the product formulator, so I’m always working on product innovation and formulations. 

On top of that, I’m a mum to four kids (and an animal mum to two dogs and a parrot!) so needless to say, every day comes with its own beautiful craziness!

Sounds involved! But before we delve deeper into  how you run your business, we’ve got to know...What does your current night time skin care routine look like? 

I definitely switch it up depending on what we’re making, but my core routine is pretty consistent. 

At night I’ll use Ceramic Slip ($50, MECCA) to cleanse, then A+ High Dose Retinoid Serum ($174, MECCA); sometimes double retinol with LUNA Sleeping Night Oil ($150, MECCA). If I’m tired, I mix them, but if I’m not tired, I’ll layer them. 

I might apply some Good Genes ($174, MECCA) too (if I haven’t used it in the morning), and do something else like maybe listen to an audio book for a minute. 

Then I add my C.E.O 15% Brightening Serum ($174, MECCA); I use that twice a day morning and night, followed by moisturiser. And I always wake up at least once in the middle of the night – which is when I’ll apply another layer of CEO 15% Brightening Serum and our ICE Ceramide Moisturising Cream ($93, MECCA).  

For those of us that are new to retinol and even a little hesitant,  what advice would you give for introducing it into your routine? 

Take it slow and listen to your skin! Sunday Riley LUNA Sleeping Night Oil is a perfect introduction to retinol for beginners. Luna is a retinol ester; the benefit of that versus traditional retinol is that it’s just as strong as 100 per cent retinol, but 90 per cent less irritating. 

You get the benefits of retinol without the irritating side effects because retinol can cause your skin to flake and peel. You’re not going to get that with Luna. If you are using a retinoid, I also recommend that you use Good Genes Lactic Acid Treatment with it. 

Retinol increases cellular turnover so you get healthier skin cells and younger, more beautiful skin. When it does that, that’s what the flaking and peeling does— the old skin is on top. Good Genes exfoliates that, so you have this beautiful, smooth canvas. I call it the ‘power couple’.

Interesting! We’ve always been told not to mix AHAs with retinol... While we’re on the topic of debunking claims, there’s a lot of brands claiming to be ‘clean’ at the moment. What does the definition mean to you and how is that represented in your product?

Clean to me is ensuring our ingredients are of the highest possible quality as well as the highest possible ethical standards — I always make sure we are using the absolute best suppliers. 

‘Clean’ for Sunday Riley comes through in our pledge to our customers that we only want the absolute best available to people, that’s our mission. This includes ensuring we’re the best we can be in all aspects of the business, from product performance right through to giving back to the community and sustainability. 

You can feel good about the products you are putting on your skin because you trust that they are made to the highest quality and with the highest ethical standards in mind. 

We use advanced, clinically proven ingredients blended with balancing botanicals, for non-irritating, fast-acting formulas. We make a commitment to produce clean formulas and constantly look for ways to make our products greener.

For those who are unfamiliar with botanicals, could you explain them and why they are a key part of your formulations?

When we launched in 2009 there was a real hole in what I call “green technology,” which is balancing science-based active ingredients with botanicals.

In addition to using active ingredients which transform the skin, it’s also about nurturing and nourishing your skin — making sure that you’re naturally taking care of inflammation and irritation too, which is where botanicals come in.

The actives ensure we have clinically-proven, fast-acting formulas, and the botanicals ensure these formulas are soothing, non-irritating and well-balanced for optimum skin health and transformation.

The brand recently became B Corp Certified (this measures a company's social and environmental performance) — congratulations! Why was it so important for the brand to receive this certification?

I’ve always been inspired by the power of positive change and being the change we want to see in the world – it was important to me that we continually evolve and make conscious efforts to use business as a force of good, influencing positive change wherever we have a corporate presence. B Corp is a leader in corporate responsibility, sustainability, and brand ethics. Partnering with B Corp to make sure that our practices aligned with our values was a natural fit. 

What stands out to you as a ‘pinch me’ moment since starting Sunday Riley?

Every day is a ‘pinch me’ moment really, but I never have this feeling of ‘we’ve made it’. I’m always in entrepreneurial mode and looking ahead. I received a customer email a few weeks ago and they compared us to a huge brand of 50 years. This was definitely a ‘pinch me’ moment because not only was it beyond flattering, but it served as a reminder that our customers have high expectations and we need to be consistently levelling up. We have a responsibility to our customers so it’s important we’re always innovating and never becoming complacent.   

On that note, what’s next for Sunday Riley?

Skin care is always at the core of what we do, we currently do have a couple of body care and scalp care products... 

Maskne is an obvious one, skin clarity has been a huge focus for us and will continue to be into 2022. 

We’re also paying more attention than ever to the eye area and top half of people’s faces and we’ve been wanting to innovate the eye category for years — now feels like the right time. 

Main image credit: Supplied.

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