We caught up with beauty industry pioneer, entrepreneur, MIT graduate, Florida State HS #5 Seeded Champion Tennis Player, now Mother Dirt President Jasmina Aganovic about beauty, bacteria, sweat and Mother Dirt.
Our bodies are host to trillions of microorganisms and the skin is comprised of an elaborate and complex ecosystem. Just like our gut relies on good bacteria and probiotics, our skin relies on good bacteria to help us be healthy as well. This elaborate ecosystem is called the skin biome.
Mother Dirt is a skincare line helping restore the good bacteria and recalibrate our skin's ecosystem.
What is Mother Dirt?
Mother Dirt creates biome-friendly products for the skin. The line features the AO+ Mist, a first-of-its-kind product containing live Ammonia-Oxidizing Bacteria (AOB), as well as a cleanser for the face/body, shampoo, and moisturizer, all designed to be compatible with the microbiome of the skin.
What is Ammonia-Oxidizing Bacteria?
AOB is the peacekeeper bacteria for the skin, which over the years, thanks to widespread use of soaps, deodorants, and other personal care products, have been wiped out. By applying them back to your skin, you're restoring your skin to its native, healthy state. AOB is a microorganism found everywhere there is life: lakes, rivers, soil, and formerly our skin.
AOB convert irritating components of our sweat (ammonia & urea) and turn them into byproducts that bring benefits to the skin (Nitrite and Nitric Oxide). Nitrite helps keep bad bacteria in check and Nitric Oxide is an antioxidant that helps calm and soothe the skin. This action can help restore balance to the skin's ecosystem and in turn reduce dependence on conventional products like soaps, moisturizers, and deodorants.
For fitness class enthusiasts and athletes training daily, is the AO+ Mist an essential product they should carry with them and use in lieu of or in addition to showering?
J: Absolutely, we have people that do both. Some people feel that they can take shorter showers and then we have other people who feel they don’t have to take showers when they do a midday workout. It really comes down to personal preference depending on how much you sweat.
M: Can you spray it under your arms and use it as a deodorant?
J: Absolutely. 60% of our users are able to significantly cut down and in some cases completely cut out their deodorant. This is due to the rebalancing of the skin microbiome and the AOB doing what it does best; consuming ammonia and urea.
M: How did you take the science of AOB and turn it into a skincare product people can understand and connect with?
J: One of the biggest missions in that process is figuring out how people can emotionally connect with something; it’s not just making it understandable, it’s making sure it resonates with people. At Mother Dirt, we were very inspired by that time in childhood when it was okay to play and it was okay to get a little bit dirty. We all look at that and we smile and yet we lose that throughout our life. That’s a wonderful homage to science, right? That was actually good for us and that is how we built our immune system when we were children. There is this lovely parallel that is purely emotional and the other one that is scientific and we want to be able to talk between the two.
M. How did Mother Dirt begin?
The way we (Mother Dirt) connected the dots largely has to do with David Whitlock, our scientific founder. He was the one that connected this bacterium to human skin. He was the one that said, “Hey, this bacteria once existed on our skin and I think it’s really important and we should figure out why.” This was really the principle around which the company was formed. So the first question that we had after understanding how the bacteria worked was, can we reintroduce it to the skin? Because maybe our skin microbiome evolved so far away from what it once was, would it actually be possible for the skin to welcome the bacteria back? And two, if we could bring it back what would we notice? Those were the two big questions that we set to answer and around which we’ve built the company.
We have Mother Dirt, which is focusing on the cosmetic benefits of reintroducing the bacteria. Our time horizon is really long. We believe that changing our relationship with the microbial world is really going to shift public health, this is why we are investing in clinical research, and at the same time looking at inflammatory skin disorders. In the first year of our business, there was a wonderful synergistic way where the two businesses worked very close together. And a lot of the anecdotal evidence from our users was the data we used to help guide where we would invest more money into the research and development that we were doing, so that we knew what clinical indications to pursue.
How have probiotics and gut microbiome paved the way for skincare?
J. People have been talking about fermented foods and the importance of good bacteria but mostly in what is stereotyped as the hippie community. As people started looking into this a little more, there has been very compelling research that has come out on it. So we have seen gut probiotics and supplements and more of the focus on yogurt and fermented food and Kimchi and sauerkraut that I think are critical to opening the doors for something like the skin microbiome. I don’t think we would be having this conversation today had the conversation about the gut microbiome not happened. If we had tried to launch Mother Dirt, maybe even just 5 years ago, it would not have resonated the way that it does today.
Can both men and women use the product?
J: 50 % of our users are men, which people are very surprised to find out because that’s not typical in the skincare and beauty world. This specifically shows that people aren’t doing this as conventional skincare. They are not viewing this as a pampering part of their routine. It has a very utilitarian effect and purpose in their day-to-day and they view it as wellness.
Is Mother Dirt good for all skin types?
J: People find that their skin feels and looks better, even if they don’t have any issues. We do have a subset of users that are definitely interested in reducing their own chemical exposure. They don’t want to use deodorant, they don’t want to use moisturizer, they just want to use as little as possible so that they aren’t exposing their bodies and the environment to harsh ingredients or chemicals.
M: What was your trajectory from MIT to skincare?
J: I went to MIT where I studied chemical and biological engineering. The reason I studied that was not because I wanted to have a career in beauty at the time, it was actually because I wanted to study engineering which I enjoyed but a field that I felt was universal that could be applied to a variety of different things. I felt that chemical engineering was pretty diverse. I had an internship the summer after my junior year at an investment company and they wanted someone to look at a technology that would come from a lab of a beauty company. I was the only woman there, so there were like, “oh, beauty...you’ll do this.”
Actually that ended up being such a great thing because I realized that it was right up my alley in terms of what I was learning about and it was an industry that I was passionate about. This is really where the sparks started to fly in terms of interest level and what I wanted to do after school. When I graduated I started looking for opportunities in the industry. The first company I worked at was a company called Fresh. They were really fascinating pioneers that started to integrate more natural ingredients and build out product lines based on classic ingredients that really hadn’t been talked about for their restorative nature. They are very well-known for their fragrances for their scent because they create such lovely experiences. I worked with the team there on the R&D side and also integrating with the marketing team.
Shortly after that, I worked with the team at Living Proof on their R&D side. They were all from MIT as well, and we all worked in Bob Langer’s lab (co-founder of the company).
I always generally enjoyed taking typically complex ideas and concepts and figuring how to connect with users around the product, distilling the message and figuring out how you can connect or relate with it. At Mother Dirt, we took this thing called, Ammonia-Oxidizing Bacteria, but we packaged it in this bottle that is friendlier and more approachable and hopefully much easier to engage with.
M: Did you have personal experience and skincare issues growing up that helped play a role in you pursuing a career in beauty and skincare?
J: I started struggling with acne as a kid. I tried the more conventional things and had terrible experiences with dermatologists. It was hard psychologically and emotionally. I went through all of that, like so many other people, which makes you want to take things into your own hands and you start doing your own research. That is when I really got into learning about products...what are the ingredients, how to they formulate this, how do you use it. That was what was really got me interested in the industry naturally, from this personal experience that I was having. It was just the basis of the interest. I was really glad to be in the industry. It is pretty poetic that this is the area that AOBiome is focusing its research on. Maybe one day we will be able to have a better solution for people and that means a lot to us because we do talk about it. The types of stories that we hear from customers and clinical studies participants are really moving, what their life experience has been like with acne and other inflammatory issues.
What would be the one thing in your skincare routine that you would never leave home without?
J: The AO+ Mist is one of those products where if I run out on the weekend I’m totally going back to the office to get more. It’s one of those things where you don’t want to go a couple days without it because you think it is that integral into your routine. I absolutely never leave home without it.
What is in your toiletry bag?
Before Mother Dirt, I was like most people where, I think the amount of toiletries you have take up a lot of space. Granted, I’m not a heavy makeup person and part of that I contribute to Mother Dirt as well but I would never necessarily carry around that much makeup but I definitely would carry more stuff that I travel with and it is fantastic for me to be able to carry everything in the tiny bag and super simple. I also wear an SPF every single day, super important.
M. What is the one item from Mother Dirt that you would encourage people to add to their existing skincare routines if they aren’t ready to take the full and give up traditional skincare products?
J: The AO+ Mist, definitely. We have lots of people that are using conventional products and they integrate the mist either on its own at night or just as a final step in their routine and they still see great results. Then you can start tinkering around, once you start seeing great results, you want to change out some of those things in your routine and you can start to play around with them. You know, swap out your cleanser for our cleanser, or our moisturizer for the moisturizer that you’re using and you can start to tinker slowly it doesn’t have to happen all at once.
The studies that we’ve done, you will see a benefit if you’re just using the cleanser and not the mist, but you will see much more of a benefit if you incorporate the mist. The mist is that unique product that is the one formulated with the live bacteria that you are restoring back to your skin. So if you’re looking for results and you don’t necessarily know where to start in the line or you want to know what the best bang for your buck is, totally the mist.
However, there are some people that just don’t want to try the mist because it’s live bacteria and so they are like “oh I’m a little but unsure of this live bacteria thing but I could get behind something that is biome-friendly” and those are the small amount of people that start off with our shampoo, our cleanser, or our moisturizer and then have a really great experience with those and then that leads to more of an interest in the mist.
That being said, people have this perception (and it’s a misperception) that they need to abandon all their conventional products in order to start using even just the mist and that’s not true. I use the mist every single day, I spray it on top of my other products and makeup as the very last step, and that’s fine.