Cristina Carlino woke up on Christmas Day, 1994, with a bad case of the holiday blues. Though successful professionally—she owned a skin-care line called BioMedic, which is sold in doctors' offices—she felt unfulfilled and alone, especially since her boyfriend had opted to spend the day without her. But after hiking up Squaw Peak near her Phoenix home to clear her head, she spied a rainbow and felt, she says, "a moment of grace." Carlino, 38, who had long struggled with her weight, finally realized, "My problems had nothing to do with my looks. There didn't need to be one more diet, one more hairstyle. There needed to be a contribution from me."

While cynics may scoff at Carlino's depiction of a textbook epiphany, they can't scoff at what resulted from it: Philosophy, a skincare and makeup company that rang up $15 million in sales last year by offering cleverly named products that preach against society's obsession with beauty. (The packaging of Philosophy's Eye Believe cream directs users to "stop looking for lines and you won't see so many.") Available for $10 to $180 at stores like Barneys New York and Nordstrom, the 250-item line has attracted such celebrity fans as Courtney Cox Arquette, Drew Barrymore and Ashley Judd. "Every morning I put Hope in a Jar on my face," Oprah Winfrey has said on her show. "Everybody says I had a face-lift. No, it's Hope in a Jar."

A onetime aspiring songwriter who pens all Philosophy's pithy sayings herself, Carlino sees no contradiction in hyping inner beauty while selling the outer kind. "Our lives are not just about how we look," she maintains, "but cosmetics are a way to help you feel better." To spread the good feelings around, Carlino donates the entire proceeds from several Philosophy products to homeless shelters and other charities. Her customers aren't buying just because "the words are cute," she adds. "The products are all based on hard science."

Carlino's grounding in the science of skin care originally came from being a patient. The second of three children of Mario, 62, a Phoenix optometrist, and Patricia, 62, an artist (sister Michele, 41, is a philanthropist, and brother Mark, 33, is chief counsel for Carlino's companies), Carlino developed severe acne at 13. By 16, two years after her parents divorced, she weighed 210 pounds. "It was painful," she says. "I sank into a very deep and dark depression."

After years of visiting dermatologists and diet doctors, Carlino bypassed college for beauty school. In 1982, with $6,700 borrowed from her mother and a friend, she opened a Phoenix boutique offering facials and a private line of makeup. In 1985 she moved to Los Angeles and began working as a licensed skincare provider for plastic surgeon John Williams.

There, in 1988, Carlino created the 15-minute MicroPeel, which removes damaged skin using dry ice, acids and a blade, and an accompanying product line she named BioMedic. With a $3,000 loan from her sister Michele, she set up shop, charging doctors up to $5,000 each to learn her methods. Carlino's selling point was her combination of effective products and meticulous patient care. "I don't know of another skincare line that is as problem-oriented," attests Beverly Hills dermatologist Dr. David Amron. "It's a comprehensive way to look at people's skin."

Carlino applied her BioMedic lessons to Philosophy's launch, to good effect: Last year, combined sales for both lines topped $30 million. Now that life is beautiful, "I can't believe it all happened," says Carlino, who happily lives alone in a two-bedroom house in Phoenix. "I feel like Cinderella."

Julie K.L. Dam
Karen Brailsford in Phoenix

  • Contributors:
  • Karen Brailsford.