Blogger Dena Smith’s Battle Against Cancer Is Beating Up Her Skin – And She’s Fighting Back With Leo Oil

Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer isn’t preventing Dena Smith from seeing beauty in herself or others. It is, however, preventing her from having irritation-free skin. The freelance beauty writer and blogger behind Leo With Cancer has created Leo Oil, a blend of blue tansy, rosehip seed oil and meadowfoam seed oil, to address redness and inflammation, consequences of the treatments Smith has undergone in her battle against cancer. “My skin is a nightmare. The chemotherapy and hormones I’ve been on have caused just about every skin concern you can imagine, and I already had sensitive skin to begin with,” she says. “I was so sick of painting a mosaic on my face every night in order to meet the different needs of my patchwork skin. I wanted one thing that worked for everything — aging, pigmentation, acne, dryness, eczema, dermatitis, bug bites — and I also wanted it to be something I could keep buying because I could afford it.” Beauty Independent spoke with Smith about her many moods, social media strategy, the challenges of running a one-person operation and her process for packaging the currently sold-out Leo Oil.

How did you launch the product?

I’ve been working on the recipe for over a year. When I found it, it was like magic. I originally published it as a DIY on my blog, but nobody cared. I kept using it in my Get Ready With Me [videos] and Insta Stories, and people kept saying, “What is that green thing?,” because it’s kind of magic how it soothes and plumps skin immediately. Finally, I did a poll [asking,] “If I make this will you buy it?” I got a resounding yas from the community. I threw up a Shopify and, all of a sudden, I had $1,000 worth of pre-orders in 24 hours. I thought, “OK, I can bulk order. I can do a real bottle and a label, [and] make this something.”

Leo Oil
Dena Smith, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 29-years-old, is the blogger behind Leo With Cancer and creator of Leo Oil.

How much money did it take to launch your brand?

So far, I’ve managed to bootstrap all of my growth and development through pre-sales of the products. Since everything is handmade by me right now, I’ve been trying to scale up so that I don’t have to raise the price of the oil in order to wholesale. I started the original pre-order at $28 a bottle. Now, I do pre-orders and ship out a batch each month at what I hope will be the final price of $36.

How did you land on the price?

It started out at $28 because that’s my lucky number, but I soon realized that was ridiculous. So, I did a bunch of planning using Excel sheets based on the cost of materials now versus when I get to scale. I’ve fiddled with it a little bit, but it was important to me that it’s accessible. I definitely looked at competitor products and pricing, and I’m on the very low end of the spectrum, but I’ve pushed back pretty hard on raising prices so far. I did an exercise very early on as soon as I realized this might be a bigger business than I realized about what the core values of my brand are. I came up with four words: luxurious, effective, natural, affordable. Every time I make a decision about price in terms of the ingredients, I make sure that whatever it is speaks to those four concepts.

Where do you source materials and ingredients?

From the internet. It’s amazing what you can find on Amazon in terms of manufacturing items. I just got a heat gun and cap seals for $30. As for the oils, I actually started buying them on Etsy. It seemed like the perfect place to find other small businesses like me. I hope that as my demands grow, we can grow our operations together.

You say on your website that you only make products when you’re in a good mood. Does chemotherapy affect your mood?

Actually, no. Chemo is not the defining aspect of my moods. I’m just a person with feelings. I get upset. I get sad. I get frustrated. I have fights. I feel disappointment. I don’t want any of that energy to go into my oil. So, if I’m in that mood, I won’t touch the oil. It’s funny because making the oil makes me so happy, it’s rarely a problem. I look forward to it so much. It’s this thing that has helped me to feel less worthless at a time when I wasn’t really sure what my place in the world was anymore.

Leo Oil
Leo Oil is a blend of blue tansy, and rosehip seed and meadowfoam seed oils.

When did you or do you plan to reach profitability?

I had a bit of a disaster with my last shipment. Even though I used the same supplier and bottles, about a third of them arrived leaking. I’ve refunded or will replace all of those orders. That said, if it weren’t for that, I would be making a profit, all of which I intend to invest in developing new recipes and working on making everything more sustainable and clean. 

Do you have plans to expand the product line?

Yes, but I can’t even keep this product in stock, so those are on hold. My next big project is to create a refill pack for the oil. I hate packaging waste, and I’m trying to do everything I can to keep it to a minimum. 

What’s a dream retailer for your brand?

Violet Grey. Period. Full stop.

Where are you sold now? What is your distribution strategy?

Currently, [I am] only accepting pre-orders on my website. I have had interest from boutiques. I’m always whipping out bottles in stores or, when I meet people, [I] make them test it on their hands. I’m just not ready. I still want to do every single thing myself, and I’m lucky enough to be a position where I can say, “Please wait, I’m refining this. It will be worth it.” And people do. I’m working on my first pop-up with this amazing store in Boulder, Colo., called Haven. We just had this deep, emotional connection. and her store is heaven.

Leo Oil
Smith aspires for her product Leo Oil to be carried by Violet Grey.

What would you do with a big cash infusion?

Pay myself? Just kidding, but not really. I don’t know any male CEOs who forget to pay themselves. I need an office/lab where I can bottle and employees. I would love to hire some people so that I can start accepting and filling some of these wholesale inquiries. My margins go way down if I can make a huge order for supplies, but I don’t have anywhere to store the materials or the inventory yet.

I’m not in a rush. I still want to touch every single bottle with my hands. I want to make sure when I do go big that every single thing is thoughtful and reflects back to those core values. I’m kidding around a little bit because the truth is as much of a hippie as I am, I have a budget. I have competitor research. I have a plan to scale. I have a business plan I’m refining every single day, and I know the company is doing something special because of the response from the people who have gotten to try the oil.

I’m OK with being a cult secret for a bit longer while I ensure that, when I do take on investment, I do it in a way that would ensure that all of those values are reflected by the investor, and that they could bring more to the table than just money. [I am looking for] things like an amazing board of advisors and a business partner who loves logistics as much as I love these other aspects. I want to build a team and a space that inspires me so that I can focus on product development and marketing, and the things I’m truly great at.

If your target customer had a name, what would it be, and what is he or she doing right now?

Dena. She’s lying in bed working because she’s not feeling so hot, but she loves what she does so much she can’t stop herself. She has on a face mask, one incredibly special piece of jewelry she can’t take off, and really cute stylish granny panties like from Lisa Says Gah and a Reformation top she wore last night and then fell asleep in. She’s drinking a La Croix, a green juice and a kombucha because hydration is her life.

What does the soundtrack to your brand sound like?

A wine glass being set down on the edge of a tub with “Broad City” playing softly in the background, a match striking, the flicker of flame on a scented candle, and the sound of bubbles crisping out.

Leo Oil
Leo Oil is currently sold out, and Smith is taking pre-orders for products shipping later this month.

Leo Oil has appeared on the social media accounts of influencers. Can you tell me about your influencer strategy?

I reached out to a few people who always inspired me asking for feedback, not even expecting them to post. I hadn’t really tested it on anybody but me, and I wanted some people who had tried a lot of things to weigh in and tell me what they thought. I was lucky that they all loved it and loved the bottle. To me, it wasn’t about drumming up buzz at all, it was about sending my friends something I’m proud of. I also sent it to friends who have no social media presence at all, I just love them. I guess that’s why it worked because it’s not a strategy. It’s just me being me.

If you could get your products into anyone’s hands, who would it be and why?

Everyone. I wish I could give a free bottle of Leo Oil to everyone with a handwritten note that says, “You’re already gorgeous, but I made this for you so you can take care of your skin, I love you.”