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When the Doctor's Office Is Also a Day Spa

Dr. Howard Murad mixes the concepts of medicine and beauty--and creates a $60-million company.

April 02, 1999|MIMI AVINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nothing in Howard Murad's appearance or manner suggests a rebel. At 59, he is a soft-spoken, natty dresser with stylishly slender eyeglasses and short silver hair. Yet throughout his career, and especially in the 10 years in which he's built his El Segundo-based skin care company into a $60-million-or-more-a-year business, he has been a maverick. In his characteristically calm, self-assured way, he says, "I'm open-minded, and I look at things differently than a lot of people do."

That has meant he's been willing to blur the lines between medicine and the beauty industry, to ignore the medical profession's taboos against aggressive marketing and to experiment with new treatment approaches.

The skin is the body's largest organ, as well as the most visible. Murad, a dermatologist in Los Angeles since 1972, knows just how concerned women are about their skin. As a physician-entrepreneur, he offers a product line bearing his name that promises to do everything from fade a freckle to fatten a thinning epidermis.

While giant multinational cosmetic companies market a profusion of potions to women eager to have the smooth, radiant skin of youth, many of Murad's products have the advantage of being "cosmeceuticals," a hybrid of a cosmetic and a pharmaceutical. As such, they parallel the current revolution in the prescription drug industry sparked by baby boomers who consider the quality of life as essential an element of good health as the absence of disease.

The new attitude toward medicine considers one of its legitimate uses to be improving a less-than-ideal situation. Feeling blue? Try Prozac. Sex drive stuck in park? Pop a Viagra. Going bald? There's Propecia. These medications, among the drug industry's bestsellers, address conditions that are not life threatening. Oh, no. They're lifestyle threatening.

So is dull, blotchy or wrinkled skin. In the '80s, when cosmetic problems, not rashes or suspect moles, brought more and more patients to Murad's Westchester office, instead of dismissing his patients as healthy but vain, he looked for solutions beyond the boundaries of medicine.

"I always ask the question, if you had no disease, would you really be healthy? The answer is often no," Murad says. "What you need to be healthy is a sense of well-being, a sense of the ability to function at your highest level. If having fewer wrinkles or a little more hair or having your nails manicured is going to make you feel better, that can add to your health."

Acupuncturists, massage therapists, facialists and nutritionists are all health care providers, Murad believes. His inclusive approach sounds rational enough, but at the time it defied the unspoken code that held that doctors, and the treatments they offer, are good, and anyone else might as well be a carnival huckster dispensing snake oil.

Uninterested in, and undaunted by, medicine's conservative traditions, he set out to learn what people who tended to women's skin--without medical degrees--had to offer.

"I wanted to address the patient's concerns, and if that meant using a facialist instead of laser surgery, then that's what I'd do," he says.

Promoting Products to Beauty World

The aesthetic community, a loosely bonded group of treatment salons, beauty supply stores and spas, uses trade shows to introduce products and equipment, and teach techniques. Arguably, a fair amount of snake oil flows at gatherings like the recent International Cosmetology Expo at the L.A. Convention Center, but pity the poor facialist who passes up a really effective electric pore vacuum. Murad began spending his weekends at such conventions, and in 1985 opened a skin care salon in Brentwood called A Sense of Self. His wife managed the business, which stated its goal as "creating a medically sound environment for absolute skin perfection."

As much as he'd learned from aestheticians, Murad was also interested in bringing information to them. He was in the vanguard in experimenting with a family of relatively gentle, food-derived acids that improve the appearance of the skin by causing the top layer of dead skin cells to shed, thereby exposing fresh skin better at retaining moisture. Glycolic, lactic and other alpha and beta hydroxy acids had been in use since Cleopatra bathed in sour milk. Murad believed they were due for a revival, and in 1989, he worked with a lab in Connecticut to develop Murad Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Gel, Murad Acne Prone Skin Formula and Murad Skin Smoothing Cream, all containing mild concentrations of glycolic acid.

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