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The Future Of Beauty: “Personalized Beauty Treatments With Genetic Testing” With Dr. Erika Gray of ToolBox Genomics

I believe everyone should have their genes sequenced. Our genes are the instruction guide to our unique bodies but we only test them when we are very sick or have had difficulty finding answers to our health conditions. We would never attempt to put together a complicated piece of furniture without instructions, but we regularly make decisions about supporting our bodies without using our own personal blueprint. For example, having information about how our detoxification pathways work or where we might have nutritional deficiencies from a genetic standpoint can mean the difference between a thriving life or a mediocre life.

As a part of our series about how technology will be changing the beauty industry over the next five years I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Erika Gray.

Erika Gray, PharmD, is a UCSF trained pharmacist, educator, national speaker and the co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of ToolBox Genomics. She has spoken extensively about the role of genetics in various health conditions and beauty on a variety of platforms including podcasts and national TV. Having had several years of experience in both in-patient pharmacy and emergency room, Dr. Gray realized the importance of helping patients understand their biomarkers and genetics early in their health journey.

Currently, Dr. Gray acts as a preceptor for UCSF pharmacy students and lives in the bay area with her husband and two children.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a little girl I dreamed of following in Jane Goodall’s footsteps and tracking primates through the jungles. Those dreams were re-examined after my diagnosis of endometriosis (an inflammatory condition in the pelvic region that manifested as lesions on my pelvic wall and ovary) as a teenager. After back-to-back surgeries, I had a third relapse and my ob-gyn would not perform another surgery. I had to figure out plan B because conventional medicine could not help me. Thankfully, my nutritionist worked with my OB-GYN and suggested compounded natural progesterone in addition to diet and lifestyle changes. I became fascinated with the use of bio-identical hormones and decided to pursue a path in pharmacy where I could directly impact the lives of women similar to myself.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

As a pharmacist, I had the opportunity to work in the Emergency Department. To my delight, I was required to attend traumas, codes and assist with patients who had complex medical needs. One day we received a call that an ambulance was bringing in a woman who was unresponsive with a history of diabetes, glaucoma and kidney disease. Unfortunately, she had a massive heart attack and we were unable to resuscitate her. Later, one of the medical assistants brought me two huge trash bags filled with her medications and asked if I could dispose of them. I opened box after box of unopened insulin; I found thousands of blood pressure pills, bottles of glaucoma drops and more. I was absolutely incredulous at the quantity of medication she did not take. All I could think was “how could I impact peoples’ lives to improve medication adherence and more importantly, how could I help people realize, decades earlier, how they could change their lifestyle to prevent what I saw with Patient Z.”

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

My tipping point did not come from financial success, rather it was a personal milestone. For many months, I felt terribly inadequate in my knowledge of genetics. I quickly became very good at extensively researching different topics prior to meetings, but I could never shake the feeling of imposter syndrome, especially in high level meetings with clinicians who had been in the field for decades. One day, I had an exploratory partnership meeting arranged with a medical director, who was also a geneticist, to demonstrate there was adequate research to support our work with nutrigenomics. At the end of the call, the director complimented me on my knowledge of the material and my supporting information. He even thanked me for highlighting additional information he was not familiar with.

After this meeting, I realized that as long as I could intelligently speak and support the core science behind my company I would be OK. In a rapidly changing field, it is more important to be able to think nimbly and make connections that others may not make, rather than having all the answers. A flexible mind and mindset will make all the difference.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My husband has been my biggest, realistic cheerleader. I say realistic because he constantly challenges my ideas, pushing me to explain my thoughts in a more constructive and cohesive manner. He never told me I had a good idea, unless I could demonstrate to him that my idea was solid, which led to a reluctance to share my ideas. Recently, I had complex intrapersonal conflicts with our team that threatened the stability of the company. My husband was the first person I turned to for advice. The caliber and quality of the advice he provided rivaled any high-powered performance coach. After an umpteenth conversation about another conflict, I looked at him and asked, “have you always had this level of knowledge and I was not open to hearing you? Or is this a new skill set you recently cultivated.” His answer was fascinating. He said, “I have had much of this knowledge over these years, but it is your recent ability to ask thoughtful, strategic, managerial type questions that have allowed me to tap into this information to help guide you better.” My husband’s ability to be so present and intellectually thoughtful, brought an entirely new level of respect, depth and intimacy to our relationship, even after fifteen years of marriage. With his help, I was able to tap into the necessary skills needed to guide the team.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. The beauty industry today has access to technology that was inconceivable only a short time ago. Can you tell us about the “cutting edge” (pardon the pun) technologies that you are working with or introducing? How do you think that will help people?

One word: personalization. Beauty based companies are looking for ways to personalize the experience, the product and the outcome for their users in an effort to stand out with their user base. As a genetic testing company, we are in conversations with several companies who are interested in developing unique experiences for their users. As companies have realized that the ability to age gracefully is significantly influenced by genetics. For example, knowing if someone has a predisposition for age spots or increased collagen breakdown would yield a different product recommendation at an early age compared to someone who did not have the genetic predisposition. With the low price of genetic testing, beauty companies can add additional value to their consumers by helping them support their beauty from the inside out.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

Your genetics will only show your predisposition for a particular outcome. People still have to put in the work of caring for their body and nourishing themselves. You can speed up the aging process through environmental influences. For example, someone may have excellent skin genetics. As a result they believe they can smoke, drink or eat a diet high in processed foods because they don’t have the genes that age them faster. However, the environmental impact of their lifestyle will outweigh the excellent genetics.

In a further effort to personalize what an individual may look like, companies use AI programs or facial recognition software to show what you “might” or “could” look like if you use x or y product. Because software is very good at erasing flaws or imperfections, I’m concerned that people, women especially, will have an increased level of discontent with their face because it doesn’t match the computer generated projection.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the “beauty-tech” industry?

  1. The use of laser technology to help stimulate collagen production, change gene expression and reduce age spots as well as pore size. Laser is an excellent option for people to explore who are looking for greater support for their skin beyond regular facials.
  2. Microbiome sequencing for our skin: people are realizing that our skin has a unique microbiome. Understanding our unique skin microbiome can help consumers select products that will nourish their skin microbiome.
  3. Collaborations between companies who combine clean, non-toxic ingredients with personalized skin/genetic assessment and technology that personalizes skin regimens that include: diet, supplements and lifestyle recommendations.

Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

  1. The beauty industry’s success is based on people not feeling their skin is optimal or their skin is somehow flawed compared to the “standards” they see in magazines. I would love to see a greater emphasis on aging gracefully. There is a huge emphasis on anti-aging, wrinkle reversal, age defying products, yet very few companies ever focus on the foods or supplements that can help support skin pathways that play a role in aging.
  2. Only 2% of women in the world describe themselves as being beautiful. In other words, 98% of women do not believe they are beautiful. Women are constantly comparing themselves to the way other women look and pointing out their deficiencies. This frame of mind starts young. I see my 16 year old daughter’s friends constantly worrying about how they look and how hard they work to make sure they do not stand out from the crowd. I believe we have a moral obligation in the beauty industry to help change these statistics. We need to begin by focusing on what is going well for women, their face and their bodies. We need realistic role models for clothing and makeup. I believe this movement requires a fundamental change from women viewing themselves as flawed to having integral beauty that will change over time.
  3. Most makeup products do not list their list of ingredients or test their products for heavy metals. Our skin is our largest organ and is our first barrier to the environment. Yet we are constantly slathering it with various products that claim to make us more beautiful as a result. Unfortunately, in an effort to bring lower priced beauty products, many companies’ products contain traces of heavy metals and harsh chemicals. Many women, especially young women, do not realize that cosmetic companies are not focused on the safety of their products. Education is key, for example teaching people that cheaper does not necessarily mean it’s a wise choice. For example, there are derma rollers that come from certain countries that actually leave microscopic cuts in your face versus the microneedling. Terms such as “scientifically proven” may only mean the product was tested on skin cells in test tubes. We need to teach people how to read labels and to use medical grade products with ingredients you can understand.

You are an expert about beauty. Can you share 5 ideas that anyone can use “to feel beautiful”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Being confident and proud of who you are. Many women with low self esteem do not see themselves as beautiful. They will unconsciously hunch their shoulders or make themselves appear smaller than they are.
  2. Great lighting. With so many people tele-commuting, use a selfie-ring or a light ring to help highlight your features and make your eyes pop
  3. Work with a stylist or a friend who loves clothes. Have them show you colors that are flattering with your skin tone and styles that fit your body today, not your body after a 10 or 20 pound weight loss.
  4. Smile! Smiles are infectious, especially when paired with good eye contact. The combination of a big smile and eye contact signals to other people you are engaged and interested which often causes them to reciprocate.
  5. You are what you believe. It may sound trite, but believing you are beautiful will change the way you view the world and the way people view you. Start by selecting specific features about your body that you can be proud of: your cute nose, your great eyes, your beautiful hands.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I believe everyone should have their genes sequenced. Our genes are the instruction guide to our unique bodies but we only test them when we are very sick or have had difficulty finding answers to our health conditions. We would never attempt to put together a complicated piece of furniture without instructions, but we regularly make decisions about supporting our bodies without using our own personal blueprint. For example, having information about how our detoxification pathways work or where we might have nutritional deficiencies from a genetic standpoint can mean the difference between a thriving life or a mediocre life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”~ Steve Jobs

From my endometriosis, to my unexpected pregnancy to my co-founding ToolBox Genomics, each instance seemed random and unexplainable looking forward. Only when I looked back at my life could I see the powerful role each dot played in shaping who I am today.

How can our readers follow you online?


IG: thegenewhisperer

LinkedIn: Erika Gray; toolbox genomics

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

The Future Of Beauty: “Personalized Beauty Treatments With Genetic Testing” With Dr Erika Gray of T was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.