The US$19 BO wonder cure that feeds our yen for artisanal authenticity

Persimmon, argan oil, snail mucus or baobab extract – the cosmetics industry is rife with handcrafted products using obscure ingredients, whose makers imbue them with sometimes mystical powers. Should we believe the hype?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 May, 2016, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 May, 2016, 12:19pm

There are so many next big things in beauty, it’s hard to predict what’ll come next. Koko Hayashi is hoping it will be persimmon extract, which she describes as having astonishing powers over body odour in her Mirai Clinical deodorising soap with persimmon.

Hayashi’s soap bar comes with an epic saga of pre-industrial techniques and the wisdom of geishas. These days, the artisanal process is as much the selling point as the product itself – and Hayashi is accustomed to spending a lot of time explaining why her soap costs US$19 a bar.

It’s crafted at an old family-owned soap mill and spearheaded by an artisan who knows by “some special formula in his brain” how to adjust his recipes to account for fluctuations of wind and temperature. The delicate liquid ingredients are mixed gently to avoid damaging them.

“Persimmon is very sensitive,” Hayashi says from her hometown of Sapporo in Japan.

After the soap cools, it is cut and dried and soaked and hand-polished, then dried and soaked and hand-polished again. Using machines, it would take a few days, but “we put it outside and, considering humidity, temperature, wind, usually it takes three months to dry.”

This is the labour-intensive world of artisanal beauty. The explosion of farmers’ markets and backyard bee-keeping attests to a hunger – largely among a privileged set – for handcrafted authenticity, simple supply chains and the way things used to be, or might still be in some far-off corner of the world.

The beauty market has been inundated by companies that talk of their beginnings in kitchens handcrafting small-batch face serums out of things such as carrot seed oil.

The brands may be small-scale and homespun, but artisanal beauty is fast becoming a big business, with more and more dedicated websites and retail outlets cropping up.

argan pi9lGwyneth Paltrow’s new Goop skincare products have ingredients with highly specific names – “poet’s daffodil” and “sweet iris,” for instance, in the US$90 Luminous Melting Cleanser – to emphasise their individuality.

“People are looking for an increased identity with the products, a personal relationship,” says Eleanor Dwyer, a beauty researcher for the market analysis firm Euromonitor. “There’s an idea that the products you use symbolise yourself.”

Hair and skin products have always touted what one might call “magic elixir” ingredients, and Mirai’s persimmon seems to be perfect for this moment. The taut orange fruit is still sufficiently exotic to American consumers; plus, Asian beauty trends and the ancient-geisha-wisdom meme are big. This year, Hayashi managed to get her soap, body wash, serum and spritzer into some of those Oscars celebrity gift bags. So far, Mirai Clinical is sold almost entirely online, but Hayashi hopes to get it to retail locations soon.

“I feel like I have a mission to introduce this Japanese greatness to the world,” she says.

The artisanal beauty trend has been fueled by a growing interest in natural ingredients, as whole-food shoppers who buy grass-fed beef consider what they’re putting on their T-zones, and environmentalists warn about the dangers of parabens and phthalates. Within skincare, “natural organic ingredients are among the fastest-growing [segments] in the marketplace,” says Karen Grant, NPD Group’s beauty analyst. A growing number of consumers care deeply about transparency, sustainability and fair trade, so companies that source carefully and recycle and give back to communities where they harvest are often rewarded for it.

Most brands don’t have Paltrow, though, so they must rely on compelling brand stories to distinguish themselves. The result is a bevy of origin tales as familiar as Greek mythology. These stories all seem to start with protagonists seeking to craft greatness from nature; they’re described as “plant-whisperers” or are said to be devoted to “wild-crafted” ingredients or a “farm-to-face” mission. The founder might be a professional apiarist who discovered the secret to good skin in the honey she was harvesting, or perhaps a globe-trotting pharmacognosist who has studied the curative powers of extracts taken from Africa’s kigelia and baobab plants.

Artisanal beauty products are often built around at least one obscure ingredient, the procurement of which (it’s implied) is extremely difficult. There’s no distance these brands won’t travel, whether for a body scrub with “white sand particles from the shores of Bora Bora”, or a “gel treatment serum” made from “the stem cells of Australian Kakadu plums”

They might need to go back in time to craft skin products made with “donkey milk ... known as a beauty elixir since the ancient ages”. There’s an emphasis on the rare find from nature, almost but not quite lost to mankind – fruit from a tree previously known only to peoples of the Amazon, for example, drawing on what Dwyer calls “that trope of the insightful magical native”.

That rare ingredient must be gathered with care, ideally by local villagers, processed in a lab under the most stringent standards, and then placed into a product whose label declares the transparency of its process, its freedom from potentially dangerous chemicals, its fair trade and cruelty-free status, its philanthropic efforts, and the all-around goodness of its intentions.

Consider the sea buckthorn berry. Ten years ago, no one had heard of it. Nowadays, well, lots of people still haven’t heard of it, but that’s only because they haven’t been watching The Dr Oz Show. (A healthy number of magical elixir trends feature a plug from Oz.) A Salt Lake City brand called Sibu, bases its entire existence on this tiny fruit – which, Dwyer says, could well be “the next argan oil”. (Everybody wants to be the next argan oil.)

The story of this fruit has, in turn been crafted with great care by Sibu on its website: one day, the entrepreneur Bruce McMullin went to India, where he “crossed paths with an Ayurvedic specialist” who “mentioned a powerful holy fruit, the sea buckthorn berry” that McMullin decided to bring to the West. (This sour, orange fruit grows wild across Europe and Asia, but Sibu says its particular variety boasts the greatest amount of omega-7 because it grows high in the Himalayas.)

The berries are “hand-harvested the traditional way”, with villagers hitting the shrubbery with sticks in the dark, for “it is crucial that these berries are collected in the predawn hours to protect them from the relentless UV rays and lock in the greatest nutritive value”. The berries are quickly puréed and refrigerated in “state-of-the-art facilities”, and sent across the ocean in refrigerated shipping containers “for formulation, blending, purification and testing”. Sibu’s “brand ambassador”, Wendi Coombs, says the company is Peta-certified, cruelty-free, vegan and in the process of becoming fair-trade-certified. She says McMullin and his wife are active philanthropists for causes in the Himalayas and Africa. And the narrative of the sea buckthorn berry’s discovery is integral to its existence:

“Without that story, there would be no Sibu,” Coombs says.

Randy Schueller and Perry Romanowski are cosmetic chemists who run The Beauty Brains, a website that happily debunks many claims of beauty manufacturers large and small – noting when a highly touted ingredient in a moisturiser is included in an infinitesimal amount, or when the quinoa protein in a conditioner won’t do much because it’s rinsed away.

They’ve seen a lot of trends. Some suffer from inherent marketing limitations – viscous snail mucin, emu oil made from the fatty tissue of the flightless bird – while others at least “sound sexy”, Schueller says, and are destined to be featured in big print on labels, whether or not they “have any bearing on the functionality of the product”.

Schueller says that trends often emerge from the marketing departments of big companies (“pomegranate is a hot colour, let’s put pomegranate extract in our shampoo”), or because suppliers offer a good deal on a raw material. (“I got this hot microencapsulated goat urine – are you interested?”)

“The difficulty with personal care products is that the technology hasn’t really changed much in the last 30 or 40 years, and so everybody has access pretty much to the same technology,” Romanowski says. “If you can get ingredients that no one else can get, and they have a good story, it can give you an edge – even if they don’t work any better.”

So if it’s not their actual effectiveness, what factors determine which magical elixirs emerge next? Look to the food world. Grant, of NPD Group, says there’s often a lag of a few years between when certain foods trend on kitchen tables and when they make it to medicine cabinets. Recent ingredients to make the jump include probiotics, cocoa, turmeric and quinoa. Also, coconut oil, which Annie Jackson, Credo Beauty’s vice-president for merchandising and planning, describes as the “avocado toast” of the beauty world.

Consult experts about artisanal beauty, and you’ll get a bevy of next big things: palmerosa rose hip oil, prickly pear seed oil. (Beauty Brains headline: “Is moringa oil the new argan oil?”)

Kelp could rise again, Dwyer suggests – perhaps with the help of a compelling founder and a group of villagers schooled in centuries-old kelp-harvesting ways. “The ocean is mystical, and it’s home to fish,” she says. “Even though it’s slimy, it’s sort of a more relatable ingredient than snail mucus.”

And there will always be a next argan oil to fall in love with.

“On some level, consumers don’t want to be demystified,” Romanowski says.

The perfect ingredient doesn’t just moisturise or smell good or look pretty on a label; the perfect ingredient tells a story we all want to hear.

The Washington Post