The botanical skincare products setting a new benchmark

Sales of plant-based skincare are on the rise as new technologies unleash their true potential. Lucia van der Post talks to the entrepreneurs at the cutting edge of chemical-free beauty products

Image: Getty Images

When somebody as addicted to hardcore beauty treatments as Inge Theron – How To Spend It’s very own Spa Junkie – decides it’s time to go pure and natural, you know something is afoot. And when Alexia Inge, co-founder of Cult Beauty, whose raison d’être is to cherry-pick the very best products around, says her sales in the natural beauty category have doubled over the past year – you can be sure of it. Plant-based, chemical-free products that really produce results and are as thoroughly tested as big-name laboratory-inspired ranges seem to be springing up all the time.

Talk to Sue Harmsworth, who started her almost entirely natural Espa brand in the early 1990s (“when you could get aromatherapy oils in little brown bottles, or mud and algae in big buckets, but nothing usable for everyday skincare”) and she will tell you she has noticed a huge increase in people turning against products formulated with parabens or anything else that could be called chemical or potentially toxic. “Our customers know the skin is the largest organ in the body and that what they put on it could seep into the bloodstream and other organs. It’s all part of the increased interest in clean food, clean air and ideas around sustainability.” Just as the farm-to-table movement is fuelled by a rejection of pesticides and other possible toxins, so there is now an ever-growing interest in farm-to-face skincare among sophisticated consumers who are increasingly knowledgeable about the pros and cons.

From left: Espa Optimal Skin ProSerum, £49 for 30ml. Chantecaille Bio Lifting Oil Free Fluid+, £232 for 50ml. Farmacy Invincible serum, £55 for 30ml
From left: Espa Optimal Skin ProSerum, £49 for 30ml. Chantecaille Bio Lifting Oil Free Fluid+, £232 for 50ml. Farmacy Invincible serum, £55 for 30ml

In the past, plant-based products were often lovely to use and smelled divine, but didn’t measure up to the deeply researched ones coming out of high-tech laboratories. Today, plant stem cells, new extraction methods, cold pressing (which preserves active nutrients that heat tends to kill), fermentation (which makes it easier to produce bioactives), PhytoCellTec (developed by Mibelle Biochemistry for the large-scale cultivation of cells from rare plants) and a much wider range of naturally derived products have all resulted in far more effective botanical-based skincare ranges – ones that, Harmsworth says, couldn’t have been produced even two years ago.

As Sylvie Chantecaille, one of the earliest to develop very high-end result-driven natural skincare (and among the first to incorporate plant stem cell technology), puts it, “We’re just now doing some very interesting new work with Plantago psyllium [fleawort, known to have antibacterial qualities], which we’ve found is effective on dark spots and pigmentation, while Nicotiana sylvestris [tobacco plant] helps promote collagen production. We test our plant stem cells extensively, stressing them thousands of times before we use them on people.”

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Leading the farm-to-face band are two US brands. Farmacy, co-founded in 2015 by New Yorker Mark Veeder, farms its own ingredients, of which the star is the patented Echinacea GreenEnvy complex – a powerhouse with a high concentration of antioxidant phytochemical cichoric acid, which firms skin and protects from the ageing effects of free radicals. When it went on sale on QVC, a thousand bottles of its Invincible serum (£55 for 30ml) sold in eight minutes flat.

Then there’s Tata Harper, based on a 1,200-acre farm in Vermont, where the eponymous founder and her husband grow many of the botanicals used in their 100 per cent natural high-end skincare products. Harper set out to “challenge the notion that natural means less effective” and to create an alternative to top-end beauty products that were “laden with industrial synthetics and potentially damaging toxins” – as well as to those natural brands she felt didn’t deliver on their promises. Tata Harper works with chemists, biologists, botanists and integrated medicine practitioners all over the world; its bestseller is its Resurfacing Mask (£52 for 30ml), which uses pink clay (to draw out impurities), beet extract (for hydration), white willow (to exfoliate and relieve redness), aloe vera (for healthy cell growth) and witch hazel (to protect against environmental damage). New processing techniques are making it possible to harness the power of these well-known botanicals much more effectively. At Cult Beauty, it’s the Regenerating Cleanser (£38 for 50ml) that sells best.

From left: De Mamiel Atmosphériques Intense Nurture Antioxidant Elixir, £80 for 30ml. Tata Harper Resurfacing Mask, £52 for 30ml. Oskia Renaissance Mask, £49.50 for 50ml
From left: De Mamiel Atmosphériques Intense Nurture Antioxidant Elixir, £80 for 30ml. Tata Harper Resurfacing Mask, £52 for 30ml. Oskia Renaissance Mask, £49.50 for 50ml

Linda Pop Pedersen – who runs Pure Shop, a Copenhagen-based store and website selling only products that are free from artificial preservatives, colourants, fragrances, petrochemicals, pesticide and herbicide residues, and forgo animal testing – highly recommends Tata Harper’s Elixir Vitae serum (£340 for 30ml). “It has the most cutting-edge natural antiwrinkle science – topical alternatives to more intense procedures,” says Pop Pedersen. “It addresses loss of volume at all levels of the skin to help redensify it.”

Odacité was founded by Valérie Grandury, a Frenchwoman living in California who, after a futile search for skincare that provided results as well as purity, started “blending custom-made skincare products, for private clients and myself”. She did her own research, discovering by trial and error what worked. She knew she was onto something when clients kept coming back and now scours the world for potent natural ingredients. Among Odacité’s most sought-after products are its serums (from £27.50 for 5ml), packed with pure actives, each designed to address a different problem, such as dehydration or pigmentation. You add just a few drops to a base cream, or indeed any cream you’re already using.

FaceGym’s Open Beauty Lab, where customers can mix their own beauty products
FaceGym’s Open Beauty Lab, where customers can mix their own beauty products

Georgie Cleeve founded Oskia after discovering that MSM, a natural sulphur compound sometimes referred to as the “Beauty Mineral”, boosts collagen production, promotes circulation and decreases inflammation. She now puts it into every Oskia product, including cleansers, supplements, masks and serums. It’s cult product is its Renaissance Mask (£49.50 for 50ml). Cleeve says that natural cosmetic science has changed so much in the past 10 years that most mainstream brands now also rely on incorporating natural actives. “New methods allow you to microencapsulate different ingredients so they penetrate to differing levels without reacting with each other. Six years ago I tried to formulate a highly antioxidant product for smokers, but failed miserably. Now I am able to create a formula that microencapsulates combinations of ingredients as well as single ones within the same formula, to prevent them from reacting and becoming prooxidant rather than antioxidant.” Oskia’s new CityLife range (cleanser, £36 for 40ml; concentrate booster, £120 for 15ml), which launches this July, neutralises certain pollutants such as particulate matter and heavy metals.

Pop Pedersen says that when she started Pure Shop in 2002 “there were no high-tech natural brands. Now, innovative, safe and effective treatments exist, made from 100 per cent high-performance organic and food-grade ingredients that work in unison with the skin’s natural biological processes. There have also been scientific advances, from natural cosmeceuticals to bioengineered spa products that use pure organic actives of the very best quality.” Pop Pedersen is a fan of The Organic Pharmacy ranges, particularly its Rose Plus Age Renewal Face Cream (£120 for 50ml), which in independent trials was shown to reduce wrinkle depth by 50 per cent after 30 days’ use.

From left: Rosalena Beauty & The Beast Face Oil, £42 for 15ml. Odacité Blueberry-Jasmine Serum Concentrate, £40 for 5ml. The Organic Pharmacy Rose Plus Age Renewal Face Cream, £120 for 50ml
From left: Rosalena Beauty & The Beast Face Oil, £42 for 15ml. Odacité Blueberry-Jasmine Serum Concentrate, £40 for 5ml. The Organic Pharmacy Rose Plus Age Renewal Face Cream, £120 for 50ml

But this is merely to touch on the revolution in natural skincare. There’s Rosalena, whose Beauty & The Beast Face Oil (£42 for 15ml) has become a favourite primer of several make-up artists; Mary Wiles, much behind the scenes at the Oscars, cites “more and more clients wanting products free of synthetic ingredients. I use Beauty & the Beast Face Oil to prime and hydrate skin, as it is absorbed quickly with no residue. I also slather it on myself when I fly.” Rosalena co-founder Helena Chapman says the combination of carrier oils makes it effective: borage seed oil (which combats dryness) is used in conjunction with bisabolol, which aids the absorption of vitamins.

Annee de Mamiel – whose botanical facials in the Agua Spa at London’s Sanderson hotel have a huge following – has just added Atmosphériques to her collection – Pure Calm Cleansing Dew (£50 for 100ml), Exhale Daily Hydrating Nectar SPF30 (£75 for 50ml) and Intense Nurture Antioxidant Elixir (£80 for 30ml) – designed to fight pollution damage. The natural ingredients include ferulic acid and superoxide dismutase, which protect the skin from free-radicals and have anti-inflammatory properties. 

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As for Theron, she’s created an Open Beauty Lab at her King’s Road FaceGym, where customers mix their own cleansing milk (£30 for 100ml), face oil (£30 for 30ml) and moisturiser (£50 for 60ml) using 100 per cent natural ingredients. “I was a non-believer in naturals,” she says, “but now I’m a convert. Partly because we have centuries of anecdotal evidence that they work, but also because many of us use multiple products a day, containing dozens of chemicals. I decided not to risk it. I’d rather treat my beauty like my food – farm-to-counter, organic and fresh.”

It’s important to remember, however, that just because something is entirely natural doesn’t mean it’s effective – or even benign; some botanicals can be toxic or allergenic (Socrates understood only too well the toxic power of hemlock). The best companies work solely with ingredients whose effectiveness and safety is tried and tested. Espa’s Harmsworth says price is something of a guide. “Making skincare this way isn’t cheap – it would be easier to use third-party laboratories. If they work, these products will be costly.” But for those who love the notion of pure and natural, there’s good news almost every day.

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