When you think of beachy, California-girl beauty, a very specific image comes to mind: long hair highlighted by the sun and spun by salty air into loose waves, glowing skin, long bronzed limbs slick with Banana Boat. She’s blonde. She’s thin. She’s white. She looks good on a surfboard. She might be a real, flesh-and-blood person, or she might just be a daytime hallucination of Kate Bosworth in Blue Crush.
That restrictive definition of beach beauty has never sat right with Amy Liu. The first-generation daughter of Chinese immigrants, Liu has lived by the beach in Santa Monica, on the west side of Los Angeles, for years. “Growing up in the ’90s, I never saw myself in any of that very beach-driven marketing,” she says. “You just don’t normally see a lot of color. I feel like that version of the beach is so different from what I actually see here.”
So when Liu, a beauty industry veteran who headed up marketing at Smashbox and Kate Somerville before becoming a creative consultant, created her own brand, she named it Tower 28 — after the lifeguard stand at the intersection of Santa Monica and Venice Beach. “It’s a really diverse part of the beach,” Liu says, of the area where scenic pier views and gritty skate culture collide. “You get everything there.” Liu launched Tower 28 in April 2019 with three products and a singular mission: to offer fun, inclusive makeup for every skin tone, type, and condition, at an accessible price point. (Also, make it cute: The brand’s crystal-clear packaging with pops of bold color and bubbly font sparks an instant serotonin release.)
The glitter-free SuperDew Highlighter Balm and clear ShineOn Lip Jelly in Chill were no-brainers — gleaming, healthy-looking skin is a California-girl staple, after all — but Liu’s third hero product, the SOS Daily Rescue Facial Spray (and the most expensive in the line, at $28 for the full 4 oz size), may have led to some initial confusion in the Sephora color-cosmetics aisle. SOS is not a “face mist,” nor is it a makeup setting spray: It’s a blend of electrolyzed water, sodium chloride, and hypochlorous acid, or HoCL, which Liu stumbled upon by accident while looking for a solution to calm her chronic adult eczema. Often used as a disinfectant in medical settings, HoCL is highly effective against pathogens and exists naturally in the human body, produced out of the need to heal physical trauma.
Up until that point, Liu had tried everything — from dietary changes to topical and oral steroids — to varying degrees of success, but she’d yet to see significant results. “A friend of mine’s husband is a surfer, and he was using HoCL as an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory to heal his reef cuts,” Liu says. “My friend said, ‘I think this could help your skin.'” She noticed an improvement on her body almost immediately, and soon began working with a chemist to create a similar solution for the face. The resulting spray is a kind of wondrous drug-free, dermatologist-approved panacea that soothes irritation, treats eczema, rosacea, sunburns, and inflammatory acne (yes, that includes maskne), and smells vaguely of pool water. It is frequently sold out at Sephora and on the Tower 28 website; Liu says what’s supposed to be six weeks worth of inventory often runs dry in two.
If the SOS Facial Spray seems like an outlier for a makeup brand, that’s because it is — but not for Tower 28. Liu is quick to establish that she isn’t a scientist, but she does work with some pretty damn good ones. With her team, she’s created a line that strictly abides by the National Eczema Association’s ingredient guidelines, and maintains vegan, cruelty-free, PETA-certified status while being free of irritants and allergens commonly found in beauty products, like fragrance (artificial and natural), essential oils, gluten, talc, urea, and propylene glycol. While it’s impossible to guarantee, Liu says that her goal is to leave out as many ingredients as possible that could potentially irritate anyone.
Tower 28 was named in subtle protest of the idea that the quintessential L.A. girl can only look one way, but the Santa Monica influence still shines through — particularly in the brand’s newest launch, the ShineOn Milky Lip Jelly, out today. Each of the four semi-sheer shades is named for a different alternative milk (Coconut, Cashew, Oat, and Almond), which, Liu confesses, is very L.A. (and also a personal choice — she says that dairy is one of her eczema triggers). The O.G. candy-colored tubes earned their cult-favorite reputation through word of mouth for being remarkably non-sticky and genuinely moisturizing, and these creamy, dreamy fall-ready neutrals deliver on the same promise.
At the end of June, Liu was compelled to act according to another commitment she’d made, one much more critical than creating great lip gloss: inclusivity. As a small business owner unable to provide grants or loans to Black-owned beauty businesses, Liu devised the Clean Beauty Summer School, which kicked off in early July. The initiative invited majority Black-owned beauty brands to apply for a 10-session crash course throughout the month of August and early September in everything it takes to plan, develop, manufacture, market, pitch, and raise funds as a rising star on the market.
The 10 finalists — 54 Thrones, Alodia, Aspen Apothecary, BASE BUTTER, Doubledown, Frigg, Hanahana, Ode to Self, Peak & Valley, and ROSEN Skincare — were each assigned a mentor to offer additional one-on-one support throughout the process, culminating in a “pitch day” where participants will present to a panel of judges including Sephora and Ulta Beauty buyers and potential investors. The winning brand is guaranteed meetings with buyers from both beauty megastores, as well as a $10,000 grant from New Voices Foundation and $13,000 worth of services from HeadKount, which helps provide sales support at the retail level.
“I’ve been so inspired seeing the beauty community come together and care so much about such an important issue, and really believe in collaboration over competition,” Liu says. “There’s so much competition that it’s hard no matter what, but then factor in being Black, being a woman, even geography, when these founders are in Ohio or Nashville and not influencer and media epicenters like New York and L.A. That’s a different type of disadvantage all on its own.”
Like its namesake lifeguard hub, Liu wants Tower 28 to symbolize safety — whether that’s for underrepresented communities in a notoriously cutthroat industry, or for anyone who’s ever felt like their sensitive skin has excluded them from the makeup conversation. That logo is life-preserver ring red for a reason.
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