Q&A: Aurum Skincare

Photo of a hand holding birch bark beside the birch serum
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Inspired by the remarkable benefits of boreal birch, Aurum Skincare taps into a deep love of the Yukon and the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. Co-founded by Elise McCormick and Joanna Sherrard in 2017, the award-winning skincare brand seeks to soothe and protect the most fragile inflammatory skin conditions using raw birch water and birch bio-ferment. Having worked in collaboration with a pharmaceutical biochemist to develop a clinically proven formula that reduces skin redness, the Dawson City-based pair sustainably harvest the key ingredient and locally manufacture their hero product called Calming Birch Serum. Here, we chat with McCormick, the company’s CEO, to learn more about how Aurum Skincare came to be, how the brand will be expanding, and her experience as a Yukon maker.

 

What inspired you to create Aurum Skincare?
When Joanne and I met and became friends, we discovered that we shared a love for creating natural products, and that we also shared difficulties with our skin. Having moved to the north about 10-15 years ago, my proneness to rosacea and acne and her proneness to eczema were really causing us problems. We were also entering our forties, and we had to rely on skincare to help keep our skin healthy. But the challenge was that we couldn't find anything that wouldn’t exacerbate the issues we already had. We'd both had lifelong struggles with trying to find the right products. 

Joanne has a wild harvesting background and I have a background in academics with a strong interest in science. I self-teach quite a bit, and I tend to geek out about something. A topic can suddenly overtake me. With all the natural harvesting opportunities that the Yukon provides we wanted to see if there was a way to address our skincare issues. Through research, we realized that birch water in Russia and some other sub-Arctic countries has traditionally been used for healing properties, both as an ingestible and topically. So, we wanted to investigate that. Yukon University, which was Yukon College at the time, funded an experiment of ours and put us in touch with a pharmaceutical biochemist, Dr. Peter Sutton, to study the birch water as well as investigate fermentation. 

In 2017, we went through that process of developing a customized birch water bio fermentation process for prebiotics, and that same year we won the Yukon Innovation Prize. That gave us the funding to start Aurum. We’ve developed a highly functional product that was able to solve both of our skin issues, and we’ve built a brand around what we love about the Yukon.

 

How do you source the key ingredient, birch water?
Birch tapping season is a two-week period, usually starting in late April or early May, when birch water runs through the trees. We have a stand of birch trees that we have licensed from the Yukon government with the approval of the First Nations governments here, and we’re always striving to be good stewards of the land. Joanne goes out daily and harvests the birch water direct from the trees. She brings it to me in our lab in buckets, and then I freeze it. After that we put it through our bio-fermentation process and our ultra-filtration process. After that, the bio ferment is frozen again and is stored until we're ready to make the serum batches. It's all quite fresh and made in our lab here in the Yukon.

 

How did you develop the Aurum packaging design?
The serum is packaged in a resin container. We wanted to make sure that it was a resin that is both easier for the factory to work with, so it doesn't require a lot of resources at the time of fabrication, but then it's also easy to turn into post-consumer resin at the time of recycling. The hope was when we're reordering our packaging, we're also kind of reusing the same resin that we had put out there into the world the first time. We really spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether glass was more eco-friendly or not. With all the different kinds of delivery methods we wanted to do, we found that glass, because we're so far north, has a lot of breakage issues in the extreme cold. And so, it doesn’t really turn out to be more eco-friendly, either at the fabrication stage or at the actual in-use stage. We knew that we had to go with something that had the durability of resin but we wanted to make sure that the resin products that we picked could have that kind of lifecycle that would allow it to be reused.

 

What are your plans to expand the Aurum Skincare line in the future?
I'm working on a powdered cleanser made from upcycled birch bark material, a waste product from the logging industry. There are a lot of bio-actives in birch that have interesting properties, and birch bark is antibacterial and is known to be antiviral which makes it's quite helpful in terms of people that have rosacea and other reactive skin tendencies. Cleansing is usually the most aggravating step in a skincare routine for people with rosacea — it can exacerbate it. This next product will be a dry, powdered cleanser that you mix with water. The waterless formulation allows us to avoid the common preservatives and harsh surfactants that can cause irritating skin issues.

 

What do you consider to be special about being a Yukon maker?
Entrepreneurialism in general is not an easy path for anyone to take. It does require a leap of faith. The interesting part about being an entrepreneur in the Yukon, that I've come to appreciate more as I've gone along, is just kind of how much the odds are stacked against people in the Yukon getting their product to market. You really are far removed, and so all the things that make the product and the materials that you work with unique are also the things that can be barriers when it's time to find your consumer. People are always a little bit incredulous about why anybody would want to start a business — especially a craft business — in the Yukon, because of all the logistical challenges that are presented in terms of meeting people and physically getting both supplies and the finished products to people. And I think that is a challenge that almost spurs people on. Because it seems like it can't be done, I think that a lot of makers here want to prove that they can. That feeds a real creativity. If you're an artist and your palette is limited, you must get a little more creative in terms of how you tell your story. We don't have easy access to the people that we want to market to, and so we want to make sure that what we're offering them has that much more value, that much more meaning, so it overcomes the noise. That makes for some really incredible products and makers in the Yukon.

 

What inspired you to create Aurum Skincare?
When Joanne and I met and became friends, we discovered that we shared a love for creating natural products, and that we also shared difficulties with our skin. Having moved to the north about 10-15 years ago, my proneness to rosacea and acne and her proneness to eczema were really causing us problems. We were also entering our forties, and we had to rely on skincare to help keep our skin healthy. But the challenge was that we couldn't find anything that wouldn’t exacerbate the issues we already had. We'd both had lifelong struggles with trying to find the right products. 

Joanne has a wild harvesting background and I have a background in academics with a strong interest in science. I self-teach quite a bit, and I tend to geek out about something. A topic can suddenly overtake me. With all the natural harvesting opportunities that the Yukon provides we wanted to see if there was a way to address our skincare issues. Through research, we realized that birch water in Russia and some other sub-Arctic countries has traditionally been used for healing properties, both as an ingestible and topically. So, we wanted to investigate that. Yukon University, which was Yukon College at the time, funded an experiment of ours and put us in touch with a pharmaceutical biochemist, Dr. Peter Sutton, to study the birch water as well as investigate fermentation. 

In 2017, we went through that process of developing a customized birch water bio fermentation process for prebiotics, and that same year we won the Yukon Innovation Prize. That gave us the funding to start Aurum. We’ve developed a highly functional product that was able to solve both of our skin issues, and we’ve built a brand around what we love about the Yukon.

 

How do you source the key ingredient, birch water?
Birch tapping season is a two-week period, usually starting in late April or early May, when birch water runs through the trees. We have a stand of birch trees that we have licensed from the Yukon government with the approval of the First Nations governments here, and we’re always striving to be good stewards of the land. Joanne goes out daily and harvests the birch water direct from the trees. She brings it to me in our lab in buckets, and then I freeze it. After that we put it through our bio-fermentation process and our ultra-filtration process. After that, the bio ferment is frozen again and is stored until we're ready to make the serum batches. It's all quite fresh and made in our lab here in the Yukon.

 

How did you develop the Aurum packaging design?
The serum is packaged in a resin container. We wanted to make sure that it was a resin that is both easier for the factory to work with, so it doesn't require a lot of resources at the time of fabrication, but then it's also easy to turn into post-consumer resin at the time of recycling. The hope was when we're reordering our packaging, we're also kind of reusing the same resin that we had put out there into the world the first time. We really spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether glass was more eco-friendly or not. With all the different kinds of delivery methods we wanted to do, we found that glass, because we're so far north, has a lot of breakage issues in the extreme cold. And so, it doesn’t really turn out to be more eco-friendly, either at the fabrication stage or at the actual in-use stage. We knew that we had to go with something that had the durability of resin but we wanted to make sure that the resin products that we picked could have that kind of lifecycle that would allow it to be reused.

 

What are your plans to expand the Aurum Skincare line in the future?
I'm working on a powdered cleanser made from upcycled birch bark material, a waste product from the logging industry. There are a lot of bio-actives in birch that have interesting properties, and birch bark is antibacterial and is known to be antiviral which makes it's quite helpful in terms of people that have rosacea and other reactive skin tendencies. Cleansing is usually the most aggravating step in a skincare routine for people with rosacea — it can exacerbate it. This next product will be a dry, powdered cleanser that you mix with water. The waterless formulation allows us to avoid the common preservatives and harsh surfactants that can cause irritating skin issues.

 

What do you consider to be special about being a Yukon maker?
Entrepreneurialism in general is not an easy path for anyone to take. It does require a leap of faith. The interesting part about being an entrepreneur in the Yukon, that I've come to appreciate more as I've gone along, is just kind of how much the odds are stacked against people in the Yukon getting their product to market. You really are far removed, and so all the things that make the product and the materials that you work with unique are also the things that can be barriers when it's time to find your consumer. People are always a little bit incredulous about why anybody would want to start a business — especially a craft business — in the Yukon, because of all the logistical challenges that are presented in terms of meeting people and physically getting both supplies and the finished products to people. And I think that is a challenge that almost spurs people on. Because it seems like it can't be done, I think that a lot of makers here want to prove that they can. That feeds a real creativity. If you're an artist and your palette is limited, you must get a little more creative in terms of how you tell your story. We don't have easy access to the people that we want to market to, and so we want to make sure that what we're offering them has that much more value, that much more meaning, so it overcomes the noise. That makes for some really incredible products and makers in the Yukon.


How do you cultivate joy as a maker?
Joanne and I spend a lot of time thinking about why we choose to do the things that we do. One of the most strategic decisions that we've made along the way is just to make sure that the process itself, and what we are creating, is something that we're personally proud of. It’s important that we can see the value in what we're committed to. It isn't just kind of a means to an end; it is kind of the end in itself. The making becomes the thing that makes joy. What happens after that is just kind of gravy, for lack of a better term. That has allowed for the resilience needed to be able to face the ups and downs of running a business. We must be able to believe in what it is that we're creating, and why, and what the function and utility of it is for us in our lives. Keeping that focus on ourselves has allowed us to move through challenges that are beyond our control.

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