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Meet The Hitchin Founder Of Sustainable Skincare Brand, SBTRCT


Absolutely Hertfordshire meets Hitchin-based Ben Grace to find out more about his skincare brand, SBTRCT, his background with Bulldog and why sustainability is so important

Tell us about your background in the beauty industry…

My skincare journey started over 20 years ago in my first job out of uni. I joined a marketing agency and my main account was Beiersdorf (parent company of NIVEA). From there, I went on to work across other disruptive consumer product brands before joining the founders of Bulldog Skincare to launch the brand in May 2007.

How do you look back on your time at Bulldog?

My journey at Bulldog was fantastic. I was fortunate enough to join the founders before we launched the brand, and was even invited to invest, as they were still fundraising at the time. In joining, my hope was to expand on my experience beyond marketing. There were only three or four of us for the first few years and so I’m delighted to say that was absolutely the case – whether it was sales, formulation, manufacture or supply chain, we all worked across everything. It was great fun and I found that start-up life definitely suited me.

I look back on it very fondly and it was a privilege to be with the business right the way through to our exit. At the same time, I also view the experience as being as close to being a founder of a business, without actually being the founder of the business. That was an itch I really needed to scratch and I guess SBTRCT is the result of that.

Ben Grace
Ben Grace

The press release I was sent says you have a ‘legacy of building disruptive brands’. Why?

Ha, it does indeed. Rightly or wrongly, I am one of those people who needs to believe that what I am doing has a purpose and is something creative, innovative and ground-breaking in a category. With Beiersdorf, that was NIVEA For Men (the first skincare brand created specifically for men); Bulldog was the first natural men’s brand, with a very different approach to anything else in the marketplace at that time; and now with SBTRCT, the first expert, sustainable solid skincare brand. I just gravitate towards that disruptive approach – but I also believe it is the route to success. 

Instead of launching SBTRCT, I could have launched a skincare brand with plastic packaging, water-based formulations and palm oil-derived ingredients. It’s much easier and far less costly to do that. However, there are serious environmental implications of doing that and, quite frankly, I think the world has more than enough of those types of product. My advice to anyone thinking of launching a beauty brand is do something tangibly different or don’t bother.

What inspired the idea behind SBTRCT?

Having moved on from Bulldog in 2017 I took some time off to re-evaluate my life and figure out what I wanted to do next. I am naturally minimalist and environmentally aware and of course the fact that I wasn’t earning meant I bought less and focused more on what really mattered to me. I found myself happier and more content. It was this lifestyle that was the genesis of SBTRCT and perhaps more tellingly, our one guiding principal; less is more. I believe that, by stripping out the things we don’t need in life, we are more able to love the things we’ve made a conscious choice to keep. I believe that this is the future of consumerism and I decided to apply this to the creation of a skincare brand. 

From this, ‘Subtract’ was born. But with a desire to thread the ‘less is more’ ethos through everything, the removal of the vowels seemed the obvious next step. Subtract became SBTRCT and I set the mission: to create the highest performing expert skincare with the lowest environmental waste.

Was it tough to get off the ground?

I think the toughest thing is just getting started. There is of course the fear of failure that you have to get over, and then also the idea that the vision has to be perfect from the outset. It doesn’t. Brands grow, evolve and find their product/market fit over time. The most important thing is that you get things going.

I was fortunate enough to have some money from the sale of Bulldog that meant I could get the initial design work done, the products formulated and accessories sampled before needing to raise money. The contacts that I have built up over the years also came in very handy.

Of course, Covid was a curve-ball and meant product development took a little longer than perhaps it might have but, looking back, I see this as a blessing. We’ve created something very innovative with our products and having the time to develop award-winning formulations that deliver incredible skin results, as well as crucially being better for the environment, has been key to our success so far.

Sbtrct Bathroom Range
SBTRCT’s bathroom range

In a nutshell, what do you offer?

Innovative and formulated from scratch, SBTRCT is a range of expert skincare bars formulated using the very best proven ingredients in a concentrated solid state to deliver the very best skin results. The range consists of cleansers, moisturisers, and serums, including two world firsts; the Rejuvenating Night Balm (the first solid retinoid) and the Vitamin C Booster (the first solid vitamin C serum).

SBTRCT also addresses the three biggest environmental challenges facing the beauty industry: plastic pollution, water waste and over-reliance on palm oil, so we are 100% plastic-free with domestically compostable packaging, palm oil-free and with nominal water content. It really is where expert skincare meets sustainability.

How do you create your products?

We are fortunate enough to work with formulators who share our vision for the brand and indeed the industry as a whole. Working with people who believe in what you’re doing is key. Coming up with a new product can come from my own desk research or a formulator finding a new ingredient that has proven results and might work in a concentrated solid state.

A great example of this is Granactive Retinoid®. This is an incredibly stable retinoid that is proven to even skin tone and reduce fine lines, while also causing far less irritation than traditional retinoids. Using this ingredient within our award-winning Rejuvenating Night Balm…, we developed the world’s first solid, plastic-free retinoid, something I am really proud of.

Once we’ve found the ingredients, we sample the product in the lab, stability and challenge test it (which takes 3 months), and then it goes on to pass its formal safety assessment. We then undertake user trials with our research partner to validate our claims and make sure that the product performs.

Once that’s complete, we start looking at pack design and finally launch plans. It can be a lengthy iterative process, but I absolutely love it and launching a successful new product is incredibly rewarding.

Why is sustainability so important to you?

Everything – from the milk we drink and the trainers we wear, to the way we carry our shopping, water and our coffee – is changing for the better. Small conscious choices can cumulatively make a big difference in reducing our environmental impact. But the world of premium skincare has been slow to sit up and take notice.

It seemed ironic to me that an industry created to cleanse and care was – and still is – making our planet a dirty place and having such a disastrous impact on the environment. I wanted to create something that would help to tackle these problems. We want to empower people to reduce their environmental impact, starting in the bathroom and by applying the ‘less is more’ ethos. We call this SBTRCTIVISM. Now we don’t need to leave our ethics at the bathroom door.

Sbtrct Rejuvenating Night Balm
Rejuvenating Night Balm

What have been your bestsellers?

Our Gentle Foaming Cleanser, Moisturising Facial Balm and our Vitamin C Booster all sell incredibly well, though we’ve seen strong and consistent growth across all products in the range. 

Recognising that solid skincare is new for many people, we have also developed a Discovery Set that contains a mini of both the Gentle Foaming Cleanser and Moisturising Facial Balm, and retails at just £16. Since its launch, it has been incredibly popular for people wanting to dip their toe in first. 

We are fortunate to also see a lot of repeat custom from those who continue to buy once they’ve tried SBTRCT, which we think further validates the performance and enjoyment of our products.      

You have just launched with Harrods. What does this mean to you?

Harrods is huge. It has such luxury heritage and of course it’s world renowned. To be the first plastic free solid skincare brand in their H beauty stores is something I am very proud of.  For me, it’s proof that luxury and expert skincare can indeed be truly sustainable. The team at Harrods share that vision and it’s incredibly exciting to be partnering with them.

Where would you like to take SBTRCT in the future?

I’d love for SBTRCT to be a global brand. We’ve already had a lot of interest from the US and Asia, which is very exciting. I think the brand has huge potential to stretch well beyond skincare and I would love to have our own brick and mortar stores at some point.

Whereabouts do you live in Hertfordshire, how long have you been there and what originally attracted you to the area?

I live in Hitchin. We moved there from North London in 2019 just before Covid struck. My wife and I knew we wanted to move out of London, but we weren’t too sure where. My family are from South London and hers from Birmingham, so Hertfordshire felt like a good middle ground. We had some friends of friends living in Hitchin and they raved about the community and schools etc so it was on our list. Then, when we found a house we loved, it all just came together.

Since moving, everyone has made us feel so welcome and the kids have settled in really well too. The biggest revelation for me though is being so close to such breath-taking countryside. I run a lot and being on country lanes in 10 minutes is a joy.

For more information, visit or follow the story on Instagram @sbtrctskincare

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Picture of Mark Kebble

Mark Kebble

Mark's career in journalism started in 2001 when he landed a role on a small lifestyle magazine in Angel, North London. Soon enough, the magazine was purchased by a larger organisation and Mark found himself promoted to editor at the tender age of 23. He later became group editor, working on magazines for Angel, Crouch End, Muswell Hill and Highgate. He was also involved in a launch in Hadley Wood and a major new group website, later becoming Group Hub Editor. In 2021, Mark joined Zest Media Group and oversaw the launch of many Absolutely titles across the UK. To date, Mark has launched in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Sussex, Essex, Yorkshire and Cheshire. When he does have some free time, Mark is also the Chairman of an amateur football club in Surrey and is also a fully qualified FA football coach.
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