Skip to content

Feature: Taking a hands-on approach

When Antonia Philp qualified as a nurse 15 years ago, she quickly developed a terrible skin condition, the consequence of repeated hand washing during relentless shifts on her first children’s ward. Devastated when she was forced to take a two-week break so her cracked hands could recover – and convinced she’d be forced to abandon her childhood dream – she spent a small fortune searching pharmacy shelves for a solution. When that failed, Antonia and future husband Jonny invented their own hand cream; tried it, tested it and, within a couple of years, developed a product now readily available and very popular with nurses across the country. It’s even had offers from Dragons. Today, Nursem is the go-to hand care product for thousands of nurses and, as Colin Young discovers, Antonia and Jonny have plans to make the hand-sized red and blue tube an essential part of the uniform on all NHS wards.


You will never be lonely in a house with dinosaurs.

And there are a lot of dinosaurs in the Philp household.

Toy ones, of course. The adults are innovators. 

It is the joyful detritus of Antonia and Jonny Philp’s sons aged six, four and two. 

Youngest Archie is asleep upstairs, and older brothers Oscar and Harry are at school while his parents enjoy some rare downtime.

And where now there are dinosaurs and trains, there were once boxes, boxes and more boxes of the hand cream which is helping to ease the lives of hardworking, hand washing medics.

The couple went to school together in Haydon Bridge, Northumberland, becoming an item after a disco 22 years ago, and moved to Manchester together to study. 

But when Antonia qualified as a nurse and started working, she soon developed a skin condition due to the constant hand washing during her endless shifts. 

And faced with the heart-breaking prospect of giving up her paediatric nursing career before it had even started, she tried every hand cream available at her local Boots, but to no avail. 

Antonia, now a specialist paediatric transplant nurse at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital, says: “I went to Manchester University to do my nursing degree in 2005, qualified in 2008 as a children’s nurse, and no sooner had I started working on a busy medical ward at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, I started having problems with my hands. 

“You have to wash your hands; you can’t avoid it. 

“You have to protect patients and protect yourself; on average, you have to wash your hands 55 times a day.

“There were loads of IV antibiotics, and with that you have to be even more cautious, because you’re handling stuff that’s going to go into people’s blood.

“So you wash your hands, put gloves on, prepare your IV, take your gloves off, wash your hands, go to your patient, wash your hands, put a new set of gloves on, give the IV, take the gloves off, wash your hands again. 

“It’s just back-to-back hand washing. 

“My hands quickly became broken down with cracks and bleeding. 

“They were pretty horrendous; I even had a child say to me, ‘what is wrong with your hands?’

“I can remember being absolutely mortified. 

“After about five months, I went to occupational health and they said, ‘your hands are horrendous’, and they told me I couldn’t work for two weeks.

“I remember being really upset because I’d just spent the last three years busting my guts at university, and here I was potentially going to be knocked down at the first hurdle, because I couldn’t do my job if my hands were ruined.”

During her enforced break, Antonia sourced every hand cream and treatment available in a bid to find a solution.

She says: “I remember having a very expensive trip to Boots, but nothing worked.  

“A lot were petroleum-based, so not very good for your hands or the planet, and they would sting.

“And a lot of them had heavy fragrance in them, which stung at times too. 

“Nothing really worked. The next step was steroids, but I didn’t want to start putting loads of steroids on my hands. I was so angry.

“I started discussing it with Jonny and we knew there were other members of staff struggling with it as well.”

Jonny had quit his consumer marketing and product development degree after three months – “because the course was too slow” – and launched a business supplying first aid kits to companies like Boots.

Antonia’s dilemma presented this natural entrepreneur with a fresh opportunity and, between them, they set out to create the hand cream which would keep her career alive.

He says: “I had some good contacts and we found a manufacturer and went with a list of ingredients we potentially wanted in this hand cream we’d develop ourselves.

“I’d been learning the ropes of product development and business and thought, ‘why not just change the way you wash your hands?’

“The problem is that involves a wholesale change of policy in the NHS, which is there to protect patients and staff; it’s infection control, so you’re never going to change that.

“Even if you just wash them with water alone, over time, 20 times a day is enough to take the protective barrier off your skin and degrade it. 

“But I thought, ‘does the world really need another hand cream?’ There was a whole wall of them in Boots.

“So I started reading into it. I love geeking out over white papers and medical reports, and I learned the problem was occupational contact dermatitis.

‘We realised we didn’t have to change people’s behaviour,  but if we could engineer a hand cream from the ground up, people would understand it.

“We attacked it from a medical standpoint and preventative measure; it needed to be more than just a lovely fragrance and attractive tube.”

“And it had to be functional,” adds Antonia. 

“I was obsessed that it had to fit in your tunic pocket, so you could have it at all times during work.”

When he moved back to the North East around 2011, Jonny secured an incubator slot at Newcastle Science City, a partnership between Newcastle University and the city council, securing seed funding to start developing their new product.

“We were very lucky,” he says. 

“Science City was designed to back science-based innovation and, as a start-up, I was classed as an innovation manager.

“I took the business in there, and had a salary and the cash to do some testing.

“Because nurses would be going to use it, we needed to know it was hospital-safe.

“Retail products have cosmetic regulations, but they don’t have to hit a certain standard to take it on to a hospital ward.

“But we had to make sure we didn’t have ingredients that might potentially harm someone.

“Science City gave us the cash to do all the testing and it paid for our first batch. 

“We could not have launched the business without it.”

However, they soon found developing the new hand cream – then called Yes Nurse – and launching the business was the easy part. 

Jonny and Antonia had a lot of stock to shift, and not enough nurses.

“This was my naivety,” says Jonny. 

“I had no idea what I was doing. We had a pallet of stock in the house, but there was no investment or anything else. 

“Between 2012 and 2017, we basically lived on Antonia’s salary and we had some pretty dark days. 

“But we realised, instead of trying to sell to nurses, we could just build a retail base, which I knew how to do.

“I paid myself £500 a month – for too many years – which was enough to fill the car up and buy the groceries. 

“That was my job, and we had a spare bedroom full of stock.

“We persevered. 

“You know when you do the Great North Run and you’re pooped, and just want to walk for a bit? And then you reach a lamp-post and think, ‘I’ll just run to the next one, I won’t walk’. 

“That was our business. 

“Every year we’d say, ‘let’s just get it into Boots’, and if we can’t, we’ll just give up.”

The couple married in 2015 and in January the following year, Jonny was diagnosed with a brain tumour. 

It was removed in an operation last year.

He says: “The silver cloud is that before the diagnosis I was probably a bit blasé and didn’t value things as much as I should’ve done.

“I started to get tinnitus, I went to the doctors and I had an MRI scan. They discovered a benign tumour, which grows really slowly and I knew the operation was coming.

“I had a clock and tried to squeeze in as much as possible before the operation.” 

There have been other significant obstacles too.

After their eldest son Oscar was born in 2017, they had to claim Universal Credit to pay for his childcare, making the difficult journey to the job centre, in central Newcastle, every week.

“We both had to go, and that was hard,” says Antonia.

“It was a pride thing. I knew it wasn’t forever, but I couldn’t believe we were having to do it.

“In my mind, I was ready to walk away. 

“Jonny kept saying, ‘just give it a few more months’, but we were both thinking at various stages, ‘should he just go and get a job?’”

They got a break around 2017 when they were put in touch with a nationwide marketing company through a colleague at the Freeman and, after going into a new partnership, re-launched the brand as Nursem. 

They also adopted the ‘Nursem Promise’, to deliver a month’s worth of free hand cream to a nurse or midwife for every product sold. 

So far, more than 625,000 healthcare professionals have benefited from that scheme. Their aim is to donate to every nurse in the NHS by 2025.

“We wanted to do something really special for nurses,” Jonny says. 

“We like brands like Patagonia – businesses bigger than business – who have that philanthropic element to them.

“It did give us a bounce in our step again because someone successful in business believed in us, and saw the potential. We needed that charge.

“After sitting in your spare bedroom for seven years, you start to believe again.”

It meant they could concentrate on the business, and extend to foreign markets like the US, with the aim of building it “north of £20 million”.

The foundations for such were dug deeper in 2020, when Antonia and Jonny appeared on primetime BBC show Dragons’ Den.

Having rehearsed their lines and the business’ numbers at the kitchen table in front of their children, they received a clean sweep of offers from Dragons including Sara Davies, founder of Newton Aycliffe-based Crafter’s Companion, and Vitabiotics boss Tej Lalvani.

In the end, the couple didn’t pursue the pitches, preferring instead to continue their journey without flagship investor support. 

Not that it slowed the momentum.

With their metaphorical stock having risen from their time under the bright lights, Nursem continued to grow, impetus which is set to be further bolstered by the recent launch of a Crowdcube campaign, which aims to raise £750,000 and give its ‘Nursem community’ an opportunity to participate in the next phase of the company’s journey.

Whatever the future holds, sometimes just seeing those familiar red and blue tubes is enough.

Antonia adds: “I see nurses using them at work and it still lifts me up. 

“It gives you that warm fuzzy feeling that we are making an impact on people.

“For all the hardship –  and there have been a lot of low, low points – seeing someone wearing our lanyard, or hearing them recommend it, while not knowing it is our company, is just lovely. 

“And it feels like we’ve succeeded.

“We have this community and it would be nice to think the success of our brand doesn’t just affect us but that whole community. 

“If we can share a proportion of Nursem with the crowd, that would be a huge driving factor for us.

“You’re not just buying and using a product, but investing in it, so every time you buy it, it helps a nurse and pays back in multiple ways.”

November 2, 2023

  • Feature
  • Promoted

Created by North East Times