Silicon Valley entrepreneur Barbara Paldus was returning to the US from a business trip when she came across Irish skincare brand, Bia Beauty, at Cork Airport.
She approached owner Tracey Ryan — and Codex Beauty was created.
Marjorie Brennan visits the Cork HQ of the global natural skincare line.
When Tracey Ryan was concocting potions for a final-year college project at her kitchen table in Dripsey, Co Cork, as her baby son slept upstairs, little could she have foreseen that just a decade later, she would be a managing director of a global beauty brand.
In 2010, the Tipperary native was studying herbal science at CIT, when she was inspired by her lifelong interest in plants and herbs, and her new family.
“We had to come up with a marketing plan, and we were encouraged to actually make a product and get our friends to try it.
"So I decided to make skincare products — I was already making loads of stuff at home anyway, my first son Feidhlim had just been born so I was making baby products for him, and my husband Gav has very sensitive skin so I had been making little things like shampoo or laundry liquid over the years.”
Ryan’s project later became reality when she launched her natural skincare company Bia Beauty in 2012, with the motto “If you can’t eat something, then you shouldn’t put it on your skin” as the guiding principle.
The business gradually expanded until a huge opportunity arose a few years ago, when Ryan’s path crossed with that of Barbara Paldus, a US-based scientist, engineer and entrepreneur, who at the time was looking at setting up a collective of natural skincare brands from around the world.
Paldus was on business in Cork when she spotted the Bia Beauty range of products at the airport.
“She picked up some products and tried them on her son Joseph, who has really reactive skin,” says Ryan.
Paldus was impressed enough to make contact with Ryan, who was initially sceptical after previous investment overtures had led to a dead end.
At that time, Bia Beauty was based in a manufacturing facility in the Marina in Cork.
“To be honest, I just thought, ‘here we go again’, because we had been approached over the years about investment but things never seemed right.
"A Skype call was arranged for myself and Barb and then she flew over to Ireland to meet me in person.
"I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is really serious’. I did an online search and watched her give a lecture at a conference on supporting women in the tech industry and feminism in tech, and I thought ‘this is perfect’.”
The meeting of minds led to Bia becoming part of the Codex natural skincare collective, with Ryan being made managing director of Codex Beauty Europe, which is based at a state-of-the-art premises on the Model Farm Road in Cork.
Ryan couldn’t be happier with the new partnership, and her pride and enthusiasm is palpable as she shows me around HQ, introducing me to Carrigaline artisan soapmaker, Hajni Kele, who has also been brought on board, and Ryan’s husband, Gav Nagle, who works on the dispatch end of operations.
The Bia products are now sold under the umbrella of the Codex brand; they are formulated in Cork, and then produced by the Offaly-based skincare company Europharma Concepts.
The fact that the products are formulated and made in Ireland, with the highest quality natural ingredients, was a huge selling point for Paldus, says Ryan.
“What blew her away here was the kind of plants that we have available — we have a small population, lots of rain, it’s very green, and we have a giant bog in the middle of the country growing the most incredible herbs.
"Bord na Móna has thousands of hectares of land classified as organic, and they’re going to become a big producer and exporter of organic herbs.
"And then you have our seaweed on the west coast of Ireland, the most potent, strongest seaweed.
"We don’t have the sunlight bleaching it and it’s washed up in abundance,” says Ryan.
Her passion for plants and herbs goes back to her childhood, growing up outside Thurles.
“I remember taking the heads off my Granny’s roses or flowers, making perfume, or mushing things up from the garden,” she laughs.
She also spent lots of time on her great-grandmother’s farm in Milford, north Cork, where there was a bounty of plants, flowers and herbs.
She went on to do organic horticulture at The Organic College in Dromcollogher, Co Limerick, which proved to be a revelation.
“It included studying things like plant science, soil science and plant education. The students also had a small market garden, so we got to grips with the actual physical side of how to grow things.
Ryan’s eyes shine when she talks about the history of herbal medicine in Ireland.
“We have such an amazing tradition of herbal medicine in Ireland that we can literally trace all the way back to the chieftains.
"It is an oral history because that is how it was passed down when the penal laws made it illegal to practise and to be educated as a herbalist.
"It’s this really rich history that we should be so proud of.”
Along with the provenance of what she produces, Ryan is also passionate about the ethics of natural skincare.
“People make the craziest claims in natural skincare, about what the products can do. There’s a lot of noise.
"But Barbara and I are not the typical people who find themselves in beauty: she has a science background, while mine is in plants.
“For us, it’s all about our ingredients, how effective the products are and the science behind them.
"When you make cosmetic products, you have to do a certain amount of testing, by law, but we’ve gone further and we’ve done efficacy testing that you normally only do with medical products or devices.
"We send all of our products away for 12-week trials with up to 80 people using the product and then the results are measured by dermatologists.
"Then it is all presented on our website, which is something that a lot of brands don’t do.”
As for the future, even with Covid-19, the sky is now the limit for Ryan and Codex.
“We have great hopes and huge ambitions for the brand. We’re getting listed with Lloyds Pharmacy, the Kilkenny Shop, and we’re launching in Dublin Airport.
"The UK team have gotten into John Lewis, and the US team into Anthropologie and Saks. We are making waves because what we’re doing is so different to what’s out there, in terms of the transparency that we’re bringing to the industry.”
Codex is also at the cutting edge of science in terms of producing a plant-based preservative that will ensure longer shelf life for natural skincare products.
“We have created our own plantbased preservative, which we’re going to license and sell to the industry.
"For years, natural skincare brands have been putting in synthetic preservatives.… While those preservatives are tolerated by a majority of the population, some people have sensitivities to them.
“Other skincare brands are using gentle plant-based preservatives, but the products are growing mould inside the store within six months.
“So we were trying to decide what to do and Barbara said ‘we will create our own one’.
"So before we launched the Bia line for Codex, we did nine months of lab work and produced our own blend of five different products that makes a totally effective preservative.
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“One of the ingredients is a lactobacillus product that’s used in making kimchi that’s fermented, so it’s a really interesting mix.
"The buzz word now is probiotics — and the skin microbiome is is the big trend about to hit skincare.
"It’s all about the bacteria that you have living on your skin and having the right balance, and feeding that bacteria or adding probiotics to skincare.”
Closer to home, last summer Ryan, her husband and two sons moved into a new house in Tower, Co Cork, and she is looking forward to tackling the garden.
“We were renting for years and we finally bought our own place. The garden was the big draw but I’m still getting to grips with it.
"We’ve inherited some lovely apple trees and blackcurrant bushes and I am going to plant a herb garden.”
Does she have a favourite herb, I wonder. She laughs and points to a beautifully-detailed tattoo of wild flowers on her right forearm.
“This one — heartsease, or the wild pansy, I love it. These are all ingredients of the skin cream I put together at college.
"We have patented it now as the Bia complex, so I have to keep it close to me.”
Ryan may be a high-flying businesswoman now but it’s clear there’s no fear of her ever forgetting her roots.