We couldn’t be more proud of Matthew, and of everything he’s achieved in over 25 years in dermatology – from establishing the British Skin Foundation, the UK’s leading specialist skin charity raising funds for skin disease research, as well as going on to establish, with the Skin Health Alliance, the world’s foremost scientifically led accreditation for brands able to prove their products and ingredients are both skin safe and efficacious.
We asked Matthew to reflect back on his amazing journey and to share with us some of the key moments along the way.
So, Matthew, 25 years is an incredible commitment – can you take us right back to the start and tell us a bit about how it all began?
Twenty-five years sounds like such a long time doesn’t it? We started in the same year that the Spice Girls arrived, which feels like forever ago, but in many ways it’s flown by. Back then I had just successfully helped a small London based HIV charity set up a fundraising and marketing strategy. That was my first experience of using my marketing and PR ‘dark arts’ for a charitable cause that felt more socially meaningful and impactful.
So, when I was approached by the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD) back in 1996 to offer my thoughts on creating a specialist skin charity raising to raise funds for skin disease research, it was something that I was very keen to get involved with. And it was in November of that year that we launched the British Skin Foundation.
Can you tell us a bit more about those early years? What were the challenges and successes?
One of the biggest challenges at the outset was actually aligning some of the understandable concerns of expert dermatologists with what we needed to do as an organisation – which was, at its most basic, to raise money.
My vision was, rather than to simply generate revenue using the tried and tested – and at the time, increasingly oversubscribed and therefore punishingly competitive – charitable fundraising model, was to form strategic relationships with commercial skin brands. The concerns of research scientists to this approach centred on the question of independent integrity: would this approach jeopordise compromise that integrity?
So that became the first key principle to lock down and enshrine. Of course we couldn’t compromise that integrity. But, as it turned out, actually making it very clear that our science couldn’t be rigged became the very cornerstone of our value to brands and consumers: they all knew that our science could be trusted, couldn’t be bought or skewed. It meant we had something to offer that made sense to all concerned: a virtuous circle of the best research, funded by the industry that would most benefit from the science we were funding, to help deliver the best products and outcomes for the skin health of the whole world.
Looking at the relationships the BSF and SHA have with brands now, it seems hard to believe that there was ever a time where these things didn’t just join up…
Well, quite. But it was a very different world back then. At the time cosmetic dermatology, let alone cosmetics, wasn't even officially recognised as a subspecialty with dermatology. It was very much seen as a purely commercial, almost vanity pursuit.
Dermatology back then was almost considered an indulgence luxury – something exclusive to those with a disposable income. But for the public at large dermatology had nothing to do with everyday things like acne or eczema – these were seen as just another aggravating symptom of modern life. Allergy research was also in its infancy, although many manufacturers, especially of laundry products, were beginning to notice a trend in consumers seeking sensitive options – especially for their children.
So I think one of the things I’m most proud of is the way we’ve brought all of these facets of dermatology together under one umbrella – from more traditional dermatological science, to the work being done at the cosmetic, and yes, probably more commercial ends of the spectrum – to help fund more, better research. The other especially important part of our work was making that research easy to access and understand. Connecting all those dots is what’s enabled us to make very real changes to the skin health of so many people of the years.
So how did the Skin Health Alliance come to be?
Looking back from this vantage point, the huge convergences – both within the industry, and across society at large – that came to pass at the end of the 90s made the need for the Skin Health Alliance almost entirely inevitable. Not that we predicted it at the time.
One of the biggest changes within the skin care industry was the huge increase in the numbers of men taking an interest in their appearance. Male grooming became a real thing, and by extension the market for skin care products that worked, and science that could be understood, to all intents and purposes doubled.
And then on top of that, the arrival of social media and celebrity culture threw petrol on that fire – it meant that more and more consumers became emboldened to try new things at prices that didn't break the bank and, for the first time it was men as well as women reaching into their wallets to buy these products.
The disconnect between dermatology and the commercial skin care brands had dissipated, and all of a sudden we found ourselves taking calls from global brands looking to reassure an exploding worldwide audience of the safety and efficacy of their products. And they needed a voice that could be related to anywhere in the world
So the Skin Health Alliance was created, bringing together dermatology, industry and consumers to deliver a scientifically led accreditation to those brands able to prove their products and ingredients are both skin safe and efficacious.
Which brings us up to where we are today and you’re OBE. Are we safe to assume this doesn’t mean you get to put your feet up and rest on your laurels?
Goodness no! Of course I’m unspeakably proud of this honour, but yes, you’re right: the work goes on! We’ve learnt so much, and achieved so much, that we have a duty to continue driving this work forward.
All our research shows that consumers are increasingly looking for the science behind the products they buy. They want to know that what they buy is safe. And that it works. Increasingly as well they want to know about product sustainability, and their effect on the environment. And it feels like we’ve built a really sturdy model here for turbo-charging the ability for brands and products to deliver on that promise.
And that’s why we’ve now established Pure Choice Partnership to work alongside the Skin Health Alliance to provide a complementary set of validations that vouch for a product’s sustainability and environmental responsibility, and for products beyond skin care as well.
If I’ve learnt anything over these last 25 years, it’s that it is possible to bring scientists, brands, and consumers together to work collaboratively to develop products that are don’t harm people or the planet – and that it’s also possible to do it in a way that can generate significant funding for the kind of research that was never possible when you simply operated as a charity.
So no. No rest for me! If anything, this is just the beginning!