The Empire That Lice Built: Connecting The Dots With Fairy Tales Hair Care’s Risa Barash

Grace Williams

For the past 23 years, Risa Barash, co-founder of Fairy Tales Hair Care, has “talked more parents off the proverbial ledge” than she can account for. It’s because among other things, if head lice come crawling, her key customer base comes calling. Her company traces its roots and moniker to the still-standing Fairy Tales salon, located in Long Island, New York.

In 1999, a cousin who owns the shop noted that a great deal of frantic parents stopped in to scoop up the salon’s handmade rosemary scented shampoo called Repel. Parents claimed it helped them wage war on an ongoing lice epidemic. When her then-husband told her about the parental interest in Repel shampoo to fight head lice, Barash was winding down a stand-up comedy career and got curious.

As a fourth-generation entrepreneur, the art and science of taking business risks is practically in her blood. She saw the potential in the product and set out to research how to create something of salon quality that would be effective and used kid-friendly ingredients. Rosemary Repel shampoo and two companion products, a conditioner and spray to go along with it, soon followed. She ordered enough prototypes to distribute and set out to get it in other New York City salons, by walking in and asking owners and managers if they would consider using Fairy Tales.

Word of mouth and a website also helped to fuel its rise in popularity. Eventually, big department stores and supermarkets came calling, with Bed Bath and Beyond making company history as the first major name to sell the brand. Over time, Fairy Tales has branched out from the initial lice-related offerings, adding products for curly hair, detanglers, sun and bug care, and a hair brush.

Fairy Tales is now a multimillion dollar brand with national distribution, Barash says. She recently rolled out TBH (To Be Honest) Kids, a line of skincare and personal grooming products for tweens, a brand that she hopes will grow now that more of us (and the nation’s tweens) are out and about in the world.

Through Fairy Tales and TBH Kids, Barash has successfully filled necessary niches. Each year, an estimated 6 million to 12 million children ages 3 to 11 years of age experience a lice infestation in the US, according to the CDC. Meanwhile, in 2016, marketing agency Mintel reported that within the tween (defined as ages 9 to 11) personal grooming market, 80% used beauty and personal care products such as deodorant, lotion, or cosmetics.

Barash spoke with Grace L. Williams of This Is Capitalism about her journey.

Edited Excerpts are below:

GW: How did you start the business? What was the initial investment?

RB: Our business has been bootstrapped right from the start. We (my now ex-husband and I) invested about $20,000 of our own money and never took on any [outside] investment money, which has had its pluses and minuses. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I get to spend the money the way I want to, but on the other hand, we’ve grown very slowly and steadily.  We bought five dozen of our first three products and grew from there. We’ve never taken a dime of money from anyone. I still think my then-husband [encouraged me] to consider it to get me to stop talking about him on stage when I was doing stand-up. I thought this would be a side project for me to wind down my career. Meanwhile he was like,

“$20 grand to get her to shut up.” I took it to heart and said, “That’s it. I’m growing an empire.”

GW: How did you find a manufacturer for products like shampoo?

RB: The owner of Fairy Tales salon had used a turnkey place to create Repel. Turnkey manufacturers have the R&D, the chemists, and the facility. From day one I was able to work directly with them, which was really nice. We had to get good ingredients that weren’t too heavy. A lot of things I was reading were about making products for adults. There weren’t a lot of kids’ products out there. I learned how to work with the chemists to reduce certain things in the formulas. Rosemary Repel is probably on about the fourth or fifth iteration from its original.

GW: How do you craft the formula?

RB: It’s a joint effort between our manufacturer and us. We’re very specific about our natural oils. When you work with a turnkey manufacturer, they sometimes do all of those specifics but because we’re one of their top three customers at this point, we’re very involved in the process. So we know we want organic rosemary, tea tree, and lavender oils. Everything has to be certified and they get that for us.

GW: What are you mindful of during the manufacturing process?

RB: I sell products for children every day, and the whole process is way different when it’s for kids. Everything is made in the U.S. and I know where it all comes from. I do as much as I possibly can to [maintain] the efficacy and the safety of our products.

GW: How do you organize the brands and your team?

RB: Everything’s under the same umbrella. We are headquartered in Fairfield, N.J. and have a facility in the Midwestern U.S. that holds pallets for us. All told, we have 25 employees, and about five we outsource to, so 30 in total. We want to run a very lean machine.

GW: Why did you introduce a personal grooming line for tweens?

RB: I realized that the Fairy Tales customer was growing up and thought we should grow up with them. Why should I lose them in my circle of products? One day, my son came downstairs after I told him to wash his hair the night before. He was like, “Mom, I did.” His hair was still so greasy and that was this “Aha!” moment. He was the original Fairy Tales baby on our website. If he’s growing up and having this issue, a lot of other kids must be as well. We did some research and found there’s not much for this niche group. At first, I was thinking it’s a small niche, but so is the Fairy Tales customer and we’ve done pretty well in that category. We did a shampoo and conditioner and skin products; a wash, a wipe, and then we did a spot wash, spot wipe, and pimple patches.

GW: How did you go about launching the new line, TBH Kids?

RB: COVID-19 hindered its growth and we had to really focus on Fairy Tales. That’s our bread-and-butter, it’s in the retailers, and with social distancing and mask-wearing and no schools being open, Fairy Tales took a multimillion-dollar hit. We took advantage of PPP loans and needed to pivot quickly. A lot of our budgets that were scheduled for TBH for the last year and half went into Fairy Tales. We see TBH growing, not at the [initial] pace that we would have hoped, but we’re in talks with some retailers. We’re excited that this is the year we can really push this one out there.

GW: What are some of the challenges you face due to self-funding?

RB: I would love to have an endcap [aisle display] at Target, but that’s not in our budget. So we have to grow the business in other ways [like through] social media or influencers. One hundred percent slow steady finishes the race, which is really not my personality. So it was a challenge for me in the beginning, but it has proven to be very successful for us.

GW: What lies ahead for Fairy Tales and TBH Kids?

RB: TBH launched a year prior to COVID, and we’re not just a lice company anymore. Our [non-lice] brands grew 300% each during the pandemic. We picked up additional retail distribution. We were able to grow and become more of a personal care brand for kids, when we soft launched a body wash. We are expanding our offering to include body washes as a starting point to become the company parents can go to for quality products at an affordable price.  We hope to grow to include additional products for hair, body and skin care in the future. Not that I don’t love being called the “lice lady.”