Megan Behnke, the founder of genderless, clean skincare brand Ralphie and Alice, Zooms in from her workshop in Southern California, about a six-hour drive south from QUILL’s headquarters.
I cannot help but immediately tell her that her skin is glowing, and she can’t help but tell me that she’s always down for a last-minute chat with another founder fighting for genderless beauty.
Our conversation lasts 30 minutes, in which we share laughs and rolled eyes and running over the other’s sentences. But my favorite part? When I ask who Ralphie and Alice are. It’s a unique name, after all, for a company.
Behnke smiles gently, divulging that the names are those of her grandfather and grandmother.
“I was raised by a single mother who was an artist. She worked all the time just to make sure that me and my siblings were taken care of,” she tells me. “And on weekends and during the summer, we would always get schlepped off to my grandma and grandpa’s house.”
Clearly, this had an effect on you, I say.
Behnke nods eagerly. “Being with them was like my happy place. It was just the best thing ever.” She starts to tear up. “Even just talking about them, I’m feeling really emotional. They’re literally my best friends!”
Having lost my remaining grandparent at 20, I often wonder what it would have been like to be close to a grandparent for this long. (Megan and I are near the same age.) How would it shape me? Would we be best friends? Would I name my company after them? If I were to go off of Megan’s experience, the answer would most likely be yes.
But there’s more to starting a brand than being lucky enough to be best friends with your grandparents, so here’s Megan Behnke’s full story. Aka, why one badass gal is revolutionizing the skincare industry by cleaning it up and demolishing gender stereotypes in the process.
Megan Behnke can only wear clean beauty products. (More on that later.)
So, like the rest of us, she loves browsing skincare aisles to see what’s out there; after all, it’s easier to “go and buy some face wash instead of having to figure out how to make it myself, but with clean ingredients.”
But the stark difference between gender identities – and only two gender identities, of course – bewilders her each time she looks at skincare products. “I can’t believe that there’s still separation by gender,” she exclaims, eyes wide. Sure, AESOP is there, but AESOP isn’t affordable to all; Jergens says they’re unisex, but women-only marketing implies otherwise. “Even the scents – the girls have the rosy, soft, flowery scents and pink packaging. Then the guys have the burly scents and aggressive names.”
She had been running Ralphie and Alice for a few years when she had the epiphany while strolling through the cosmetics aisles: “to offer a clean, gender-fluid product, one that can allow the focus to be on oneself rather than an outdated marketing tactic.”
Much of this came from her own personal experience. Previously, Behnke worked at a clothing company that primarily targets Gen Z. She was responsible for product research and design, and she fell in love with the freedom and fluidity Gen Z was exhibiting in their self expression.
“I wholeheartedly believe that they’re the people who are gonna push us through the future,” she says, naming them as her target market. Her smile grows as she glimpses away from the camera. “I just think they’re so badass. And really inspiring!”
On top of this, Behnke grew up with brothers, and she enjoyed the convenience of 2-in-1 and 3-in-1 products (again, like me. Efficiency for the win, right?). “The only thing is, they are all very, very outdated. I’ve yet to see a clean 2-in-1 or ‘multi-tasking’ product.” And again, they are mainly marketed toward men – women are still marketed an arsenal of seven different products for the same purpose.
Clean, clean, clean. I’ve dropped it so many times. But it’s not because I’m teasing you – it’s because Behnke is only just starting to talk about this herself, and she’s given me the honor of being one of the first publications to mention it in-depth.
With your promise of gentle eyes, I’ll dive in.
Megan Behnke has a one-two-punch of mixed connective tissue disease (MCTD) and lupus.
“When I was younger, I didn’t know what it was,” she confesses.
“I thought I was someone who was unlucky and always caught the flu. When it started affecting my skin, I thought I had severe acne or even eczema.” On top of that, “I was constantly getting very sick and going through a bunch of different immune system related issues.”
So she cut everything toxic out of her diet, and then she began cutting everything toxic out of her skincare. The problem: “clean” is an unofficial declaration, with no actual meaning behind it. There’s Clean at Target and Clean At Sephora, and they share similarities in terms of ingredients they exclude, but “clean” itself? You won’t find one definition online or in the Beauty Encyclopedia.
For Behnke, “clean” required being a totally vegan formula filled with healthy ingredients that benefit the skin, and absolutely zero fragrance.
Unsurprisingly, this left few options for Behnke. So, “I started cooking up products in my kitchen, one by one.” And when she made a batch that was a bit too big? “I would share it with family and friends, they’d beg for more, and that’s kind of how the ball started rolling.”
That was seven years ago. Then the epiphany in the skincare aisle happened, and Behnke was left all the more determined to start a clean, genderless skincare brand. She continues to perfect her craft, but so far, her products have multiple five-star reviews raving about the benefits of the products. Behnke credits her personal experience for the inclusion of the ingredients.
For example, her Pop Stix – a tinted lip and cheek balm – has nourishing shea butter and avocado oil, moisturizing and healing rose damask oil, and dry hibiscus for itchy and irritated skin. The Lip Stix, another popular product, has only five ingredients, which include shea butter, candelilla wax for its glide, avocado oil, rosehip seed oil for healing, and jojoba oil for moisture. The vast majority of the ingredients are organic, too.
Behnke is still learning how to talk about her illnesses. “I feel I’m at a place where I am accepting of – and strong enough – to talk about the pain and trauma that comes along with having an auto-immune disease,” she says.
Photo by @ANDREWALLER
“I was misdiagnosed for a long long time. And because of that, I was mentally left in limbo and physically started getting really severe pancreas issues that I continue to still deal with daily… like, every single time I eat food.” She shrugs in a way many chronically-ill people do, myself included.
On top of talking about her diseases, Behnke is taking action, too: Ralphie and Alice is currently in the process of being certified by the National Eczema Association. “We have a ton of customers who have eczema and who absolutely love the performance of our products,” she explains.
But, let’s be real: as if that’s the only way Behnke is giving back with her platform.
Meghan Behnke describes herself as an empath.
“That’s another thing that I’m extremely passionate about: just, helping people. I don’t like seeing people struggle or even hearing of people struggling.”
So, not only is she providing clean products to the world, talking openly about a diagnosis that has impacted her life significantly, and still fitting in time to spend with her family and friends (this entire time, Behnke has been radiating adorable joy in a Betty Boop T-shirt, post-niece play-session; “it’s anti-fashion,” she jokes) – she’s also a philanthropic fiend.
Behnke rallies her community to make change every month. “Our community picks a theme or the issue that they want to raise awareness and money for, and we work with customers who are graphic designers to come up with a nice design.” They then sell the apparel exclusively for 10 days, though Behnke notes they’re hoping to sell all designs on a regular basis.
“At Ralphie and Alice, we’re not just making a post online because it’s Pride Month or Black History Month. We work towards being year-round allies, doing our part in educating, connecting, and raising money,” she says. As someone who has worked for places both performative and genuine in their activism, I can tell Behnke means what she says. It’s yet another reason why our meeting feels kismet.
“Kismet,” I repeat silently to myself: a perfect word to fit in the article title.
My emails with Behnke the day before official feature month begins changes the title significantly. Here’s why.
We are nearing feature week, and I have excitedly sent an email to Megan Behnke about it.
The response I get breaks my heart: they lost dear Ralphie less than a week before.
But, she says, she’ll rush to get Ralphie and Alice assets to me by EOD.
I tell her to take a week. Celebrate his life and grieve, and QUILL will be right here when she’s ready to have the feature go live. She thanks me, and we agree to talk in a week.
In this past week, I considered starting the article multiple times, but I put it off the second I sat down at my computer. I was distracted by anything and everything else. It wasn’t quite avoidance, so what was it?
And then, thinking about the way she talked about Ralphie, it hit me; her relationship with him reminds me of the one I have with my mom. And even though the OG Siri, as I like to call her (her name is literally Siri), is alive and kickin’, it’s crossed my mind once or twice that my hero won’t live forever.
So, as I sit down to write this article the night before, I want to dedicate this piece to everyone’s Ralphie, whoever they may be. A Ralphie that believed in you, took care of you, and loved you unconditionally, right until the very end.
And I want you, dear reader, to know that you are their Megan, who was lucky enough to have loved them right back.