Lita Cunningham can recall the exact moment she felt brave enough to launch her own skin care line.

“Magic happens when you have a few too many martinis with your girlfriends,” she said. “They said to me, ‘you are manic about your skin. You should create your own brand.’”

It took a few years and plenty of research, but in late 2023 Cunningham unveiled Lalais – a four-product, luxury, clean beauty offering created for those with problem skin, something she has struggled with her whole life.

“I’ve always had temperamental skin,” said Cunningham during a recent event launching her products in Los Angeles. “Breakouts, oiliness, hyperpigmentation, dark spots. I’ve had chemical burns, laser burns, Accutane, steroids. I’ve been a consumer forever. I wish I had a penny for all the products I’ve tried.”

Lita Cunningham

Cunningham, who is based in New York, was Senior Vice President, Global Human Resources for Elizabeth Arden from 2008 to 2017. Prior to that, she had held similar positions at New Line Cinema and Time, Inc. As someone who constantly interacted with women, she became attuned to how self-conscious they feel when their skin acts up.

“Whether you’re dealing with an internist or a board member, having bad skin dings your confidence no matter how accomplished you are.”

After leaving Elizabeth Arden, Cunningham took a year off to travel. She then met with a former colleague for whom she wrote a white paper about her skin care struggles and how what was on the market didn’t serve her.

“He said, ‘I think you might have found a little corner of the beauty industry that’s a white space. Go do it.’”

Between that and the afore-mentioned cocktails with friends, in 2019 Cunningham began working with formulators on Lalais, envisioning it as a “one-and-done” series of products that could seamlessly integrate with existing skin care routines. She wanted the line to be ultra-clean, so it’s formulated without oil, fragrance, silicones, sulfates, parabens, and other synthetics – particularly in the wake of her mother being diagnosed with breast cancer.

“That triggered a lot of genetic testing for me and heightened my awareness around ingredients. I didn’t want to use any ingredients that would overload the system.” Each ingredient selected for her line, she said, was cross-referenced with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s About Herbs mobile app which looks to provide users with comprehensive, objective information about herbs, botanicals, supplements, and complementary therapies.

Instead of going to a contract manufacturer where formulas are 90% finished, I created a recipe using everything I’d learned and took it to a lab. We have a larger number of the most effective ingredients in higher concentrations than most of our competitors.”

Included in the line is The Perfecting Serum, a night-use exfoliating treatment formulated with a blend of anti-aging peptides, glycinate azelaic acid, and time-released glycolic and salicylic acids and designed to reduce oil and shine (priced at $115 for 15ml and $225 for 30 ml). The Retinol Renewal uses three retinoids; in an eight-week series of clinical and consumer trials, 100% of users reported a significant improvement in two or more skin care concerns.

“It targets everything on the surface of the skin,” she said of Retinol Renewal, which is priced between $125 and $250. “There’s visible improvement for several skin concerns, including dark spots, fine lines, wrinkles, large pores, and oiliness.”

Cunningham also wanted to take a holistic approach to skin care when creating The Skin Perfecting Complex, formulated to handle the triggers of oily skin internally using ingredients such as L-Theanine, amla, maritime pine bark, zinc, and hyaluronic acid. A month’s supply of the capsules is $60.  And Lalais’ The Blotting Complex was selected as one of Oprah’s Favorite Things eight days after the product launched. A sleek white $48 compact holds 100 sheets of powder-free Japanese blot paper for touchless, hygienic blotting.

For Cunningham, launching the brand required her to be fully immersed in research and development, and learning all she could about the most efficacious ingredients and how to combine them.

“I didn’t know anything about formulation,” she said. “But I’m a type A personality and I don’t do anything halfway. My HR background helped me identify the people at the very top and to be able to work with them. I dove into learning about the skin. And instead of going to a contract manufacturer where formulas are 90% finished, I created a recipe using everything I’d learned and took it to a lab. We have a larger number of the most effective ingredients in higher concentrations than most of our competitors. It took me four years to come out with products because I’m a stickler for quality, and I’m proud of all the clinicals we did.”

She wanted the line to work on all skin tones, and for people dealing with hyperpigmentation, melasma, large pores, excessive oiliness, cystic acne, and conditions such as rosacea.

“The beauty industry here is not as embracing of diversity as we need it to be,” she said. “I wanted to be able to say that my products deliver a full improvement on every single skin tone. It took me a while to learn how to do that, but it was critical to be able to look the consumer in the eye and say, ‘I know this is going to work for you.’”

Packaging is high-end, too: white with embossed gold to resemble “a wedding invitation.” Lalais immediately got onto shelves at Bergdorf Goodman, and Cunningham sees the brand in “intimate, apothecary-style boutiques.”

Still, despite the initial early fanfare, Cunningham is all too aware of the challenges of making it as a one-woman indie operation.

“It’s me and my savings that funded every single penny of this,” she said. “I realize I pulled the pin on the grenade in my career. I was the head of HR at a global company, and I said goodbye to that and decided to do this. I wanted to solve peoples’ issues, and to give them the confidence to go about their lives and feel fabulous.”