Surface Deep: The Product Is the Passion

WHY YOU WANT TO LISTEN:

Dr. Alicia Zalka is one of those go-to dermatologists who gets quoted in Vogue and places like that, telling us how to take care of our skin.  She’s also human, so when she forgot to bring deodorant on a trip out West she tried using glycolic pads from her cosmetic kit to do the job.  And, boy, did they work.  That accidental discovery led to her new company, Surface Deep, which produces a line of products guaranteed to keep you smell free.  And it makes Alicia a member of the women’s army that works a day job while creating a new business at night.

 

LISTEN NOW:

 

Nancy:
Welcome, Alicia.
Alicia:
Thank you, Nancy. So nice to be here.
Nancy:
Oh, good. For how many years have you been a dermatologist?
Alicia:
I have been in private practice in dermatology for 25 years.
Nancy:
Yikes. Okay. So a dermatologist for 25 years, and almost every dermatologist starts a line of cleansers, toners, takes the wrinkles out magic cream, and you didn't do that. You've done something completely different. So can you tell us that eureka moment when you came up with the plan?
Alicia:
Oh yeah. Well, in my 25 years of practice, I've had my share of people say to me ... friends, family, patients ... "Gee, why don't you start a skincare line or a product for ..." And I just feel that so many esteemed colleagues of mine ... many who I know personally, some I wish I knew ... have already done that. There are some great products on the market, and I just never felt that there was something I could add to that, so it was never on my list. But the product that I've come to love and hope others will love as much as I do, Surface Deep ... Actually, the idea came to me and it was sort of a product that just ... It found me, I didn't find it. How it all started was we've all had these moments, scurrying around-
Nancy:
Okay.
Alicia:
We've all had these moments, but I'll share this moment that I had. I was getting ready to go catch a flight to get out of town for a weekend, and I realized as I was scurrying about my bathroom, getting ready, coming out of the shower, "Oh, gosh. I don't have my deodorant. I completely forgot to buy it and I'm going away and I'm going to be on a long flight." So here I was, and maybe there was a reason I hadn't purchased my new deodorant, because I was never very fond of it. Every time I would use this roll-on, I would think, "Gee, I used this yesterday. I'm using that same applicator again today."
Nancy:
Ew.
Alicia:
Yeah, I always did it thinking, "Well, I'm clean." But it always dawned on me that, "This thing's kind of sticky. I used it yesterday. I used it two days ago," so I never loved that concept, but we do what we do. So again, getting ready to catch a flight, no deodorant. So coming out of the shower ... And you have to understand, a dermatologist ... we all have this in our bathrooms, but I think maybe a dermatologist more so ... has a lot of products sitting around. And after the shower, I was sort of just thinking, "Well, I need to extra clean myself. I'm going to have to be on a flight. I'll get the deodorant when I land." So I took some products I have ... to be continued, I'll tell you what those ended up being. But I took some products next to my sink, used them on my underarms, and took my trip, got on my flight.
Alicia:
When I arrived at my destination, I got busy. I never ended up buying my deodorant, and lo and behold, the rest of the weekend, I was so busy having a nice time, I realized, "Wow, I never used deodorant and I stayed pretty clean and pretty fresh." So, when I-
Nancy:
You're past day one and you're still good?
Alicia:
Oh yes. I was past day one. So I know it sounds a little ... But I was great. And surely, I was traveling with my significant other and should I have needed it, I could have used his. Well, get back to my home spot and said, "There's something to this. I don't really think I want to buy deodorant again. I'm kind of liking not using it." Well, segue to trying some different formulas and find the secret sauce. There was a lot that went into it. This was five years ago, actually, soon to be six. I did just that, and it ends up being the Surface Deep Anti-Odorant Pad. I could tell you all the in betweens, but that's how it all started.
Nancy:
But it started with a current product that you used. I mean, it was something ... You took a product and you used it in a different way than it's intended for.
Alicia:
Exactly. And again, there was formulating that went into it, but the key idea, and what I came to realize, was there was a reason why this worked, and it turned out that I used ... The product has evolved, and it required a chemist and product testing to make it what it is today. But yes, it all goes back to thinking ... After that whimsical trip and I didn't need my deodorant, I put science to it. Because here I am a dermatologist. I know the science of sweating, I know the science of even body odor, and I realized, "Well, okay, I get why this worked." I used something that had an acidity to it. The acidity was something that blocked bacteria. Block bacteria, block odor. But I wasn't putting on something that was coating my underarms. I was not putting on something that blocked sweat, which is a body function that is key to our thermoregulation and keeping our body temperature in check.
Alicia:
So I discovered this thing, yes, that was a product that was used for skin. It was used for the face, perhaps, but I discovered through permutations of formulas that it could prevent body odor in a completely different way. We're used to putting something that blocks us, blocks pores, blocks sweat ducts, and now it's the exact opposite. It's a cleansing method of preventing odor.
Nancy:
So you are in a ... It's not a perspirant. What do we call it? An antiperspirant? We call it deodorant. Isn't that what we all go by?
Alicia:
Exactly. So this is-
Nancy:
This isn't either of those. Is that right?
Alicia:
Right. Hence the name, if you look at the box, Anti-Odorant. I coined that term driving in my car one day. It came to me. I coined that term because if it's your ... Thank you for this key point that you're asking about, because it really is the difference about this product. Antiperspirants, by their very chemistry, are products that block sweat. I won't bore you with the chemistry, but they're typically containing aluminum. Aluminum salt is something that creates a blockage in the sweat duct, and it blocks sweat. That's very important for people. There are people that suffer terribly from a lot of sweating, the medical term being hyperhidrosis, and it can be a very severe problem that people face. That's not what this product is for. This is not a blocking agent. Well, it's also not a deodorant, because deodorant is typically something that is a masking scent. So it's something you're putting on to mask a scent or quiet down an odor and make it more palatable. It's neither of those things.
Alicia:
So it's not an antiperspirant, because it doesn't block pores or ducts, and it's not a deodorant because it's not a masking fragrance at all. So I came up with the term "Anti-Odorant" because it's blocking odor, it's preventing odor. So our tagline is, "Blocks odors, not pores," and that's really the simplicity of it.
Nancy:
Can you trademark a term like "Anti-Odorant?" Because basically, you're saying, "I'm not this, I'm not that. I'm something that never existed before."
Alicia:
Well, I'm in the process of doing that and I'm having some difficulty with that. It's ironic. It's an interesting legal conundrum because it's a word I made up, and right now, I'm having some legal back and forth with the powers that be that they're saying it's too generic, it's descriptive. I made the word up. How could you ... Anyway.
Nancy:
[crosstalk 00:08:23]
Alicia:
But I'm working on that. Thank you.
Nancy:
So you're trying to get it trademarked.
Alicia:
Exactly. The name Surface Deep, though, is trademarked. That name, the actual name of the brand, is Surface Deep, and that's trademarked. The name of the product, the specifics of the product, I am hoping that someday they'll see it my way and allow me to trademark the word "Anti-Odorant."
Nancy:
Can we go back in time? So you come back from this trip, you go, "Wow, that worked." Okay, most people would go, "Wow, that worked. I'll keep using it." But they don't think, "Oh, I'm going to create a product and sell it to everybody on the planet." How did you take that leap?
Alicia:
That I have to credit friends and family. I used this product and quietly was using my little formulation that I had in my bathroom, quietly using it, but then ... It's sort of like a great book you read or a great movie. You can't keep it to yourself. You need to tell people about it. So the first person I told about it was my wonderful significant other, who is taking this journey with me, Victor. I had him use it, and this is a different demographic. I'm a female and I'm small-ish, and he's not a huge person, but he's a big, strong guy and he runs around a lot, he's very busy, he has a different lifestyle. So it was a different demographic. So he started using it and he actually ... I can picture him coming out of the bathroom saying, "Honey, this stuff is amazing. I don't know what's going on, but this stuff really works."
Alicia:
So it was his enthusiasm that got me sort of started the fire burning. And then just giving my prototype to friends and family, "Hey, try this," and that's how it started. I just got such good feedback. And again, I was not born to launch a product. I was born to be a dermatologist and take care of people and take care of patients, and I'm so dedicated to that. But this is something that I feel is so different that I had to just run with it. And again, it's five years now, almost six, and we'll see where it goes. But I'm passionate about it.
Nancy:
Well, there's another part to it, I think. Okay, so your friends and family are going, "This is working. Go for it, Alicia." But still, there's got to be something inside of you that said ... Or maybe you already had it on a bucket list that, "One day, I'm going to change the world somehow," or, "I'm going to become rich and famous," or there's got to be some kind of bucket list passion that moves you all along from a good idea to the path you're now taking. It's got to be more than just the product, I believe. It's got to be something in you.
Alicia:
Gosh, I guess I haven't thought ... Honestly, I haven't thought of it that way. It was not a bucket list. No, and rich and famous, no. It really was I did some research and I saw that there was nothing like it, and quite surprised that there was nothing like it. And I just said to myself, "If this is making me so much happier not to have this stuff that I'm coating on my skin and I know the science behind it and it works and it's cleansing," I just felt like, "I want to share this." And that sounds a little like I'm not being truthful, but it really is the case that I wanted to just share this. It's as simple as that. Like I said, the product found me and I felt like I have put it out there.
Alicia:
And I guess part of it is the enthusiasm that I felt from people that did use it. Even my prototype product, I felt the enthusiasm of friends and family that sort of lifted me. So it's really as simple as that. I can't say it any other way, yeah.
Nancy:
Okay. The product was the passion.
Alicia:
It really ... yeah.
Nancy:
So now you've got the makings of a product ... And I think back to our first episode on The Confab where we talked about Madam Walker, who was the first self-made woman millionaire. And her ticket was to take a formula that was already out there for growing hair, but to make it hers, she had to create a formula, do a few twists to it so that she could patent it for herself, which is a similar thing to what, I think, you had to do. How did you follow that route to go into the lab? Did you find somebody to help you at that point? How did you go do that part of it?
Alicia:
Well, first of all-
Nancy:
In short, there are things that we know when we start out, but there's things that we may not know that it might just stop us there and we don't know it, or we think, "Hey, maybe I can find somebody who can help me with the pieces that I don't know."
Alicia:
Precisely. And thank you. The Madam Walker, by the way, that was a fantastic podcast and it led me to watch the-
Nancy:
The miniseries.
Alicia:
The miniseries. I was trying to remember if it was a miniseries or a movie, forgive me. I enjoyed it so much, so thank you for introducing me to that. I found it so fascinating, and I'm honored, too, that you mention this in that breath. So, to use the term, it takes a village. The first order of business was I went to speak to a lawyer. A friend of mine hooked me up with a lawyer, and this was so early in the stage of, "I found this thing and it sort of already exists, but I would like to repurpose it and use it for something else." And he gave me some advice. He said, "You have to deconstruct it and figure out the chemistry," and that was very daunting. I mean, it just ... So I know the medical aspects, I know the biology, I know it worked for me, but it definitely derailed me a little bit. I felt a little intimidated.
Alicia:
But I have you to thank, because you were so instrumental and helpful, because I came to you and I was feeling, again, very insecure about it, like, "Do I need to get this out of my head, or is it something I should pursue?" And thank you, Nancy, for being so supportive. You introduced me to a woman in industry who then introduced me to the person I work with now, Carlos [Timreos 00:16:08], who heard my idea. And again, it's about the enthusiasm. I get it when people go out on stage and they get applause. It sort of puts the wind under your wings when somebody gets enthusiastic about your little baby idea. So both you and Carlos were so enthusiastic about it that it helped ignite my passion even further.
Alicia:
So enter you, then enter Carlos, who's been so helpful. Carlos is in the beauty space, so he has an incredible resume of working in the beauty industry, too long to mention. So my sort of medical know how, his cosmetic and beauty know how, even that was just the beginning. Then we hired a chemist, we hired package design, and all the rest. But yes, so getting that formula right. And kind of my reputation's on the line, too, because if I put out a product ... Now, we're talking about something that's glycolic and acidic. Well, what if that product is irritating? I don't want to give the world a rash. So there was also product testing that needed to be done. It wasn't just good enough that I tried it, and my friends and family tried it, and my extended friends and family tried it. I have a reputation to uphold, so there was testing that was done, making the formula just right.
Alicia:
So there's definitely that secret sauce. There's a proprietary formula that we came up with, so it really was a group effort. I thank you and the connections, and sort of just the ... I think of it as a big friend network, and I feel like I've been so, again, lifted up by these people that have helped me [crosstalk 00:17:54]
Nancy:
Well, when you said a big friend network, I just want to point out this takeaway, which is to talk about it. When you have this idea, sometimes you feel like, "Oh, I'm too shy to tell other people."
Alicia:
Exactly.
Nancy:
Or, "I'm too paranoid to tell other people." Whatever the reason is, get over it and talk to people, because had you not talked to me, then I wouldn't have talked to ... As you say, it's that network of talking to your friends, and they talk to someone else, and then they find the person who can help you.
Alicia:
Exactly so. And just as I didn't launch a skincare product line, I don't have that sort of, I don't know ... I'm a little on the shy side, so it did take a lot to put this idea past my bathroom and get it out there.
Nancy:
Right. No, I understand that. I'm underlining that because I think that's true of a lot of people out there, that you're shy about it you're scared about it, so I wanted to just underline that.
Alicia:
Thank you.
Nancy:
Okay. Going through all these steps, you're self-financing this? I mean, this takes a little bit of money, because you got to have Carlos, you got to go test, you got to do packaging.
Alicia:
Yes.
Nancy:
What's the plan on that part?
Alicia:
Oh boy. Okay. Self-funding, for a couple of reasons ... which we can get to a little bit later. We can talk more. But it's self-funded, and I have, again, Victor, who's been so supportive, my significant other who has supported me emotionally, is also supporting financially. But I didn't have children to put through college, so this is sort of maybe the college ... I'm putting my product through college. That's how I think of it.
Alicia:
So yeah, it's not easy, and my reason for that is ... I'm going to talk about a book that inspired me so much. It's sort of like I want to be counting dollars, I want to be a little hungry, because I feel like that fuels the fire. So I'm on a budget, and the budget keeps things very lean and mean. It gives you some pause, of course, but I feel it keeps me lean and mean and keeps me in control. I've also had people say, "Oh, why don't you go on Shark Tank?" And you know what? Who wouldn't love that? That would be incredible. But it goes back to giving up some power, which I'm not ready to do yet because I want to keep it my own homegrown brand. So that may come down the road, so I may regret what I'm saying now when I look back. But that's-
Nancy:
Or you could revise it later.
Alicia:
Exactly.
Nancy:
But you're saying it made you feel more comfortable.
Alicia:
Yes, more comfortable and it's really, it's mine ... it's ours, I should say ... and yeah, keep it ... But yeah, I get bills and I cringe a little bit, but I keep it going as best I can. Yeah.
Nancy:
Okay. Talking about cringing, what are some of the things that you do cringe about? I mean, you're on a journey that ... You certainly run your dermatology business, but running a startup is a different ballgame. The P&L is a different animal. Do you like that part? Do you get scared about that part? Numbers, the math, the pricing, the money stop a lot of women from taking all the steps you've taken.
Alicia:
Yeah. Well, I think about when I bought my first home. I was then engaged and when we bought our first home, I remember, after putting down a deposit, I had $37. No lie, $37 in my bank account. My savings, that was it. I was starting my practice and I wasn't really scared. I mean, it's like, move forward. And I did okay. I had a practice that did well and I was able to keep myself afloat. But I just kind of put blinders on and I go forward, and God forbid, if something terrible happened, I would just have to close up shop, I would. But for now, I'm just going to keep going. And it is a little bit scary, but nothing that's worthwhile, nothing that's fun and nothing that your passionate about doesn't involve some amount of fear. It's just the fact. So I think that the fear is a driver.

Nancy:
Feeling the fear and doing it anyway, which was actually the title of a book by a woman I taught in a writing class a million years ago. She wanted to write, but she was too scared to do it.
Alicia:
There you go.
Nancy:
Her name's Susan Jeffers, and I had her and everyone in my class. I said, "Okay, I'm bringing in a mirror and we're all going to stand in front of the mirror and you're going to say, 'I am a writer.'"
Alicia:
Aww, I love that.
Nancy:
And at first, everyone was laughing and going, "I am a writer," or, "Ha ha ha." But then they kept saying it until they believed it, and she went off and wrote this book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, which became this huge bestseller. She'd never written a book in her life, but she took what was the subject of all of the women in the room. It wasn't a matter of if you had talent. It was a matter of, did you believe enough to do it?
Alicia:
Absolutely.
Nancy:
So now do you have a daily ritual that keeps you believing in what you're doing, keep you inspired, something that you do every day that keeps you centered?
Alicia:
Yeah. Well, I have a full-time dermatology practice, and that's outstanding because it's the day job. It helps fund the passion, even though dermatology's my passion, too. But it also helps me not over-focus or perseverate on my product, because it's in its infancy, so it's not like ... It's still in its infancy, so I think it helps me have focus to do what I've done for 25 years that feels comfortable. So I have the comfort, and then I have the thing that's like I'm jumping off the diving board. So it's a nice balance. But the thing I do every day ... and I hope it doesn't sound maybe a little corny, but it's true and passionate ... is I think of my mom.
Nancy:
I love it.
Alicia:
I don't know. Not that my mom ever ... who I lost a few years ago. But it's not that my mom ever sat me down and said, "Honey, you should put out a product." No. Just there's something about thinking of my mom and how she inspired me in everything I did my whole life. Just I think of her, and there's just something about ... I feel like she sees this and is so proud and is pushing me along. I know that sounds a little strange, but-
Nancy:
Oh, no, no. No. I talk to my mother every day, who's also gone.
Alicia:
Yeah. [crosstalk 00:25:57]
Nancy:
[crosstalk 00:25:57] Yeah.
Alicia:
There's just something. I just feel like she's watching me and giving me a little nudge. So yeah, it's quite nice. So between my work keeping me focused and keeping me on a path of science and what I do every day, and then there's this business thing, it's a nice balance. So I'm not too focused, but I'm also not unfocused. I've got a nice balance, and that's what feels right.
Nancy:
That's interesting. I mean, that you're doing a day job and you're doing this. Although, we need to add, you've worked with your schedule now to give you a little more time off during your work week.
Alicia:
Exactly. I finessed my schedule so that I could-
Nancy:
Because you are a superwoman, but you [crosstalk 00:26:40]
Alicia:
Oh God. Oh God.
Nancy:
Okay. Right now in your business, what's the biggest business challenge you're currently facing?
Alicia:
When I put out this product and my team put out this product, this was ... If you look at the product, it doesn't have a plastic container. Those who know me know that I'm very passionate about recycling. I repurpose the plastic that my dry cleaning comes to me in. I reuse that. I'm pretty passionate about that, and that goes back to my childhood and my brother. Anyway, that's a story for another day, but I've been inspired and I've always been-
Nancy:
But you're environmentally ...
Alicia:
To a-
Nancy:
You're off the Richter scale.
Alicia:
Well-
Nancy:
I mean, as a friend of Alicia, if we're driving in a car, she stops on the road ... let's say a squirrel's been killed, and then another animal is going to come out and eat that squirrel and then they're both going to be dead and there will be a car accident. So Alicia stops the car and gets the dead animal off the road. Okay. Go ahead.
Alicia:
With gloves.
Nancy:
With gloves. With gloves.
Alicia:
And I drive around and I see garbage on the side of the road. I'll stop, if I can, and pick it up. I'm a little weird that way. So when we developed this product, I said to Carlos, "This thing has to be biodegradable. I don't want a plastic container." So that's how it ended up being in a box with soy ink, and it's a paper ... Okay, well, the challenge is that what I ended up with is something that comes in a packet, and I've gotten feedback and I so, so appreciate feedback I get from customers and friends and our followers, if you will. They're saying, too, "We love the product, but it seems a little wasteful that I'm opening this packet every day." And I get that. And I thought to myself, "Well, a packet opening every day and a biodegradable pad, to me, is better than maybe a plastic container that now recycling is overwhelmed and maybe it ends up in a landfill."
Alicia:
Well, so here's the challenge. I would love ... and if anyone out there can help me with this, please. I would love ... and I think back to the podcast that you had about the stationary-
Nancy:
Botanical PaperWorks.
Alicia:
Botanical paper. I think about that. I would love to have some kind of container. Let's say it's made out of potato skins and I have a potato skin jar that will ... And that may even exist, although I'm not aware of it, but it's got to have a product ... My pads have to be moist, and the key to it is most things that are like that are new and they tend to be expensive. So I want to be able to afford a product that is made out of ... it's compostable, let's say. Those packaging systems tend to be quite costly. So I'm sort of juxtaposing between wanting to have a product that is not wasteful, but also a product that is not relying on maybe ... Not everybody recycles, and even when you do recycle, that system has been overwhelmed. That's been show maybe things aren't being recycled that we think are being recycled. So-
Nancy:
So you're still researching? Do you think it's out there and you just haven't found it yet?
Alicia:
I-
Nancy:
Or is it still in the future?
Alicia:
A little bit of both. Let's put it this way. Carlos and I have not found it, and boy, have we tried. So what's happening right now is the next rollout of Surface Deep Anti-Odorant Pads is going to be in a jar so it can sit on your ... And when this was launched pre-COVID, people were traveling a lot more, so this made sense if you were traveling.
Nancy:
Also going to the gym.
Alicia:
Going to the gym, exactly. Put it in your bag. But it begs to want to sit on your sink where it all started, on my sink where it could sit and you just open up a ... Well, the next rollout will be a jar that is recyclable, and it will still be these pads that are biodegradable, but it's going ... So with all due respect to the plastic industry, I would love to have something that wasn't plastic. But that's in flux right now.
Nancy:
Well-
Alicia:
So that's my biggest little friction point right now, is that.
Nancy:
Well, you'll have to come back when you find it, because it's so significant to the consumer out there that they have good stuff.

Alicia:
Absolutely.

Nancy:
Thank you, Alicia.

Alicia:
Thank you.

ABOUT OUR GUESTS:

Dr. Alicia Zalka
Website: www.surface-deep.com
Instagram: @surfacedeep

Dr. Zalka is on staff at Danbury Hospital and New Milford Hospital, and is a Clinical Attending at the Yale University Department of Dermatology. In private practice since 1995, Dr. Zalka is President and Managing Partner of Dermatology Associates of Western Connecticut. She is an active member of the American Academy of Dermatology, the American Medical Association, and the Connecticut State Medical Society. She was the president of the Connecticut State Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery Society from 2003 to 2006. Dr. Zalka founded Surface Deep in 2012, when she saw a rapidly growing need for a bias-free voice of experience in educating and guiding consumers about caring for their skin.