Sunday Riley claims to be the ‘lead formulator’ of skin-care products that cost up to $158 and promise amazing results, but her credentials are murky at best

Sunday Riley is the CEO of her eponymous brand. Hollis Johnson/INSIDER
  • Skin-care brand Sunday Riley is known for its range of high-end products, which retail for between $US22 and $US158.
  • Founder Sunday Riley has frequently described herself as the brand’s “product formulator.” Various media outlets have reported that she is a cosmetic chemist.
  • In 2010, the Dallas Morning News reported that Riley has a biochemistry degree from the University of Texas, and the Wall Street Journal later reported that she studied chemistry at the school.
  • Technically, cosmetic chemists are not required to have a chemistry degree, but most entry-level positions are suited to applicants with years of education and experience, a co-director of the School of Natural Sciences at Fairleigh Dickenson University told INSIDER.
  • A representative for the University of Texas confirmed to INSIDER that Sunday Riley did not graduate from the school. Sunday Riley declined to comment on this.
  • A representative for the Sunday Riley brand said that for all but one Sunday Riley product currently on the market, Riley was the lead, and only, formulator.

Sunday Riley launched her eponymous skin-care brand Sunday Riley Modern Skincare in 2009.

Nearly a decade later, her brand, which is more commonly known as Sunday Riley, is popular around the world for its range of high-end products, which retail for between $US22 and $US158 per item and are sold at retailers including Sephora, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, and Amazon. The brand calls itself a “pioneer in the field of green technology,” which Riley described in an interview with The Cut as “balancing science-based active ingredients with botanicals.”

The Texan entrepreneur regularly refers to herself as a “formulator” and a “cosmetic chemist,” terms that, to the average consumer, could imply a certain level of scientific education.

But Riley does not appear to have the academic or professional credentials that customers may believe she has.

A representative for the University of Texas confirmed that Riley does not have a degree from the school, which she attended between the years of 1994 and 1996.

And while Riley is a member of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists (SCC), an organisation dedicated to the advancement of science in the cosmetic field, the type of membership she has doesn’t require any kind of degree. There’s a separate level of membership for those with actual degrees.

Sunday Riley 1
Riley does not have a degree from the University of Texas. Hollis Johnson/INSIDER

The Dallas Morning News first reported that Sunday Riley has a degree in biochemistry in 2010, but her educational background is murky

The Dallas Morning News appears to be one of the first outlets to report on Sunday Riley, which launched at Barney’s in 2009. The 2010 article said that Riley’s “fascination with the native plants found on her family’s land, combined with a University of Texas biochemistry degree” led her to create the line.

Years later, in 2013, Riley was profiled by the Wall Street Journal, which reported that “after studying chemistry at the University of Texas,” Riley “worked in cosmetics labs.”

And in 2015, Houston-based blog Tidbits interviewed Riley, referring to her as a “UT grad” who has “used her science background to launch a career formulating high-quality skincare products.” During the interview, Riley did not mention studying science, but said that she “studied playwriting in London for years.”

In 20 interviews reviewed by INSIDER, Riley did not explicitly talk about her education. However, in 2015, when asked about her background by YouTube blogger Pixiwoo, Riley said she “studied chemistry,” though she did not cite a specific university or degree. It appears that the video has been removed as of November 7.

A representative for the University of Texas confirmed to INSIDER that while Riley did attend the university between 1994 and 1996, she did not obtain a degree from the school. The representative also said Riley attended the School of Natural Sciences, but did not have a declared major.

A representative for the Sunday Riley brand declined to comment on Riley’s educational background.

Riley says she’s a member of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists (SCC), but the SCC does not require members to have a degree

The SCC, a 5,000+ member trade organisation “dedicated to the advancement of cosmetic science,” does not require all members to have a degree.

It offers two tiers of membership, an affiliate level that anyone can join and a “general membership” for those who have a bachelor’s degree in chemical, physical, medical, pharmaceutical, biological or related sciences.

A representative for the SCC told INSIDER that Riley joined as an affiliate member of the society in 2016. Riley’s Twitter biography previously stated that she was a member of the society, but this was recently removed.

Sunday Riley Twitter
This screenshot was taken at 10:18 a.m. on October 24. Sunday Riley

According to the Sunday Riley brand representative, Riley’s Twitter page was changed to focus the account on the brand rather than the founder.

Sunday Riley Twitter
This screenshot was taken at 11:45 a.m. on October 24. Sunday Riley

“We switched out the Twitter photo and biography section on the @sundayriley Twitter account,” the representative said. “It has no longer operated as a personal account for some time, but rather as a business account.”

In interviews, Riley has been vague or silent about her educational background and how she learned to formulate products that claim to improve the appearance of skin

Sunday Riley really took off in 2016, when products like Good Genes, a lactic-acid treatment said to result in smoother skin, and Luna, a night oil said to reverse premature ageing, became popular. In March 2017, Riley was profiled by Allure, which described her as a “cosmetic chemist and product formulator.”

A few months earlier, however, when Riley was asked by Paper City Magazine how she learned about cosmetic chemistry, she didn’t mention her educational background.

“I take formulation continuing-education courses, belong to several cosmetic chemistry societies, and meet weekly with different ingredient suppliers to learn about the latest trends,” Riley told Paper City magazine.

In April 2018, when The Cut asked Riley if she is a cosmetic chemist, Riley responded: “A lot of what I know about cosmetic formulation I actually learned on the job.” She continued: “I learn a lot by trial and error. Take that as you will.”

In May 2018, YouTuber Liah Yoo described Riley as a cosmetic chemist during an interview. Riley did not confirm or deny the interviewer’s characterization, but did nod along.

More recently, Riley sat down with the Emma Guns Show for a podcast released on October 15. Throughout the interview, Riley describes herself as a product formulator.

“I’m the founder, the CEO, and the formulator for our brand, which is great,” Riley told host Emma Gunavardhana. “And that’s probably my favourite piece, is being the formulator, which means I have a lot of trial and error in trying to get things right. It can take me hundreds of times to get it right, but that kind of gives some excitement to my day.”

A representative for the Sunday Riley brand told INSIDER that its founder leads the formulation process for her brand.

“Sunday Riley founded Sunday Riley Modern Skincare on a shoestring budget and has grown it into a globally recognised beauty brand,” the representative said. “As the founder and CEO of this fast growing brand, Sunday Riley is hyper-focused on managing the business. In addition to being the full-time, hands-on CEO of the organisation, she leads the company’s R&D [research and development] process as the head formulator.”

Sunday Riley 10
The Dallas Morning News first reported that Sunday Riley has a degree in biochemistry. Hollis Johnson/INSIDER

There is no singular definition for a cosmetic chemist or formulator, nor are there set regulations about who can formulate beauty products

The beauty industry has notoriously murky marketing practices.

While the Federal Trade Commission says that, by law, claims in advertisements must be truthful, cannot be deceptive or unfair, and must be evidence-based,” it does not appear to have set regulations with regards to the qualifications of the people who make products.

Read more:
Skin-care brand Sunday Riley asked employees to write glowing Sephora reviews to persuade people to buy their products

Industry professionals told INSIDER that there are no strict, uniform credentials that a cosmetic chemist must have to hold the position. Technically, cosmetic chemists are not required to earn a chemistry degree to work in the field, but most entry-level positions are suited to applicants with multiple years of education and experience.

Jim Hammer, a member of the SCC and an industry expert, told INSIDER that one needs a strong science background and hands-on experience working in product formulation to enter the field.

“A cosmetic chemist is a person who is involved in the formulation of finished consumer products, typically cosmetics, health and beauty aids, and pharmaceuticals,” Hammer said. “Most cosmetic chemists are formulators, but others are more involved in the synthesis of ingredients used in these products, or in the testing of the products or ingredients.”

Sunday Riley 9
Industry experts say becoming a cosmetic chemist or formulator is becoming harder without a degree. Hollis Johnson/INSIDER

Mica Oba, who says she has worked in product development for some LVMH brands, told INSIDER that research and development formulators and cosmetic chemists are the same. According to Oba, most skin-care brands require a degree for formulator roles.

“Most employers, if not all, will require a BS in chemistry or some kind of related science,” Oba, who has a BS in pharmaceutical chemistry and a master’s in cosmetic chemistry, told us.

She added that while “it’s not entirely necessary to have a specific degree in cosmetic chemistry” to work in product formulation, “if you’re applying to a cosmetic chemistry-related position, and you have a general [chemistry] degree, that’s fine.”

Without a degree, however, Oba said it’s technically possible to become a cosmetic chemist.

“You can go outside the box, and try to work on it on your own, but you really gotta show up, like social media presence,” she said. “Or show up to SCC meetings or any other kind of conferences and show that you have the skills if you don’t have the degree.”

However, Oba said because the field is “super niche,” becoming a formulator requires hands-on experience.

“Most cosmetic chemists start off as lab technicians because in school, we don’t learn how to make a lotion or anything like that,” she said. “You often have to work at a contract lab or an ingredient supplier and learn how to actually make the stuff. And then from there, as you become more familiar with materials and you build your skills and you can make things from scratch, that’s when you become a formulator.”

To become a cosmetic chemist, Oba said that “having knowledge of just the skin-care ingredients is not enough,” and added that you need “the manual dexterity and the intuition to be safe in the laboratory” to succeed. “If you can’t physically work in the lab, you’re not gonna last.”

Dr. James Dougherty, the co-director of the School of Natural Sciences at Fairleigh Dickenson University in New Jersey, told INSIDER that working as a chemist or formulator is “becoming increasingly more difficult” without a degree.

“If you go back, yes it could happen, like probably in the ’80s,” Dougherty said. “But you’d have to go back quite a few years.”

Dougherty added that most universities only offer cosmetic science courses in master’s programs because committing to a specific study can be a big decision for undergraduate students.

“You need a lot of science education before you choose to specialize,” he said.

INSIDER searched for “cosmetic chemist” positions on the job-listing site Indeed to see what kind of experience is required. Of the more than 130 job listings that appeared, we found that while experience requirements vary from lab to lab, the majority of jobs required at least a bachelor’s degree in a science field and multiple years’ worth of experience working in a lab.

The way Sunday Riley has described its founder’s role and how its products are formulated has evolved over time

The brand’s website hasn’t always been consistent with regards to its founder’s role.

The December 2009 version of Sunday Riley’s website said that Riley worked with a team of chemists and a lead formulator “who in addition to being an MD and a PhD, holds an International Award of Recognition from the French government for Advancements in Biotechnology and Cosmetics.”

But by January 2014, the website’s “About” section no longer mentioned that lead formulator. Instead, it said only that Riley had “assembled a super-team of cosmetic chemists” to help her set up the brand.

A representative for the brand confirmed that a lead formulator had helped Riley develop her line but declined to give his name, saying only that “he was a teacher and mentor to Sunday and his friendship is missed.”

“Of the Sunday Riley products currently on the market, all product formulas were written and developed by Sunday Riley as the lead, and only, formulator, with the exception of one existing product which she co-developed with a master cosmetic chemist, who is now deceased, the representative said.

When asked about the early versions of the company website, Sunday Riley’s representative told INSIDER that its old site “was maintained by a third party.”

In recent interviews, Riley has presented herself as the line’s sole formulator.

“We have an unlimited research and development budget because I’m the formulator and I do it for free,” Riley told Allure in 2017.

That same year, Riley called herself both the brand founder and formulator without mentioning any other chemists in a video for Sephora’s YouTube channel.

In a now-removed 2015 interview with Pixiwoo, however, Riley did mention that she works with a team.

“I actually either formulate the entire product, every product, on my own,” Riley said. “Or I am part of a team that does it, and I lead that team.”

In their statement to INSIDER, the brand’s representative said that Riley is the “head formulator” of the brand’s products and that she works with two junior assistants in the company’s product development lab.

Mary Hanbury contributed reporting to this article.

Are you a current or former Sunday Riley employee? We would love to hear from you. Reach us at [email protected]

Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.