Green Beauty and the Marketing Beast

December 22, 2020

Bakuchiol blog postAs a natural beauty brand, our highest priority is formulating products that are deeply connected to the earth and based on truly alive, unrefined, minimally processed ingredients. Because this commitment is often at odds with how the mass-market beauty industry operates, one of the biggest challenges we face is how to stay true to that ethos, but also make our brand feel accessible to customers who are new to the world of green/natural beauty.

For those who don’t know very much about natural skincare yet or who may be intimidated by trying something new, it can be helpful to hear how a handcrafted, naturally made serum or balm works in language that feels familiar. And yet the language of conventional beauty brands can also feel off-putting to some of our most loyal and knowledgeable customers.

Recently, one of these customers, Liane, initiated a really interesting and thought-provoking conversation about this issue after watching green beauty blogger Trish’s latest video (TheFloraesthetic: “My Fave ‘Botanical Retinol’ Products,” January 17, 2021), which featured one of our products. Liane noted how dismayed she was by natural skincare brands’ tendency to use Western medicine- and Western cosmetics-science-based terms to market their natural, herbal-based skincare products, when they could instead focus on the herbal merits of their ingredients alone, and skip any comparisons to conventional skincare at all.

One example is the bakuchiol featured in Trish’s video, which has been buzzed about lately as a “botanical retinol” or a “retinol alternative.” Bakuchiol is one of the key ingredients in Black Locust Firming Concentrate, and we do mention its retinol-like action in describing it on our own website. Of course, the truth is that bakuchiol is not a retinol at all—as Trish points out, its chemical structure is not the same as that of a retinoid. It is a valuable herbal ingredient in its own right, and traditional healers have celebrated its unique properties for generations. But because its effects on the skin—increasing collagen production, decreasing fine lines, improving elasticity—are similar to those of retinoids, marketers have pushed the narrative of bakuchiol as a “retinol analog” in order to help promote their products.

So is talking about these ingredients using modern scientific terminology, as Liane suggests, a disservice to them, to consumers, or to natural beauty on the whole? For those of us who care deeply about sourcing the best, safest, most effective ingredients nature has to offer, the natural benefits and traditional herbal uses of a plant ingredient like bakuchiol are far more important than any comparison to conventional skincare formulas. When formulating Black Locust Firming Concentrate, it was my years of training in herbalism and careful study of the plant’s unique energy that led me to include bakuchiol, an extraction from the seeds of the babchi herb used in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, in the formula, not any desire to mimic or “replace” a lab-made retinol. Those of us who make and love natural beauty products love them because they are different from the conventional, big-brand products.

But when it comes time to sell these carefully formulated products, it can be difficult to reach customers who are less experienced in herbalism, or newer to the green beauty world, if we don’t speak their language. And for better or for worse, the language of skincare today is the language of Western medicine: buzzwords like “retinoids,” “active vitamin C,” and “topical dermatitis” are the words most customers use in their Google searches and their emails asking for skincare advice.

So when a natural ingredient has been used to heal and beautify the skin since long before the word “retinoid” existed, is comparing it to retinol a “lazy” or disingenuous choice, or is it a useful way to invite in customers who may want to switch to safer, more sustainable skincare choices, but not know where to begin?

At Earthwise Beauty, I formulate from an herbalist’s perspective, but we market our products from a broader point of view in order to bring green beauty to as diverse an audience as possible. That’s why you’ll see information on our website about each product’s energetic impact and the traditional origins of each ingredient, alongside comparisons to conventional skincare elements like retinol, and links to current scientific research on some of these ingredients. We strive to maintain a balance between reaching our customers where they are, while also always celebrating the natural roots of our products and the ingredients that go into each one.

And although it feels necessary right now to offer customers both angles, I love the hope inherent in Liane’s idea. If enough people believe, as she does, that natural ingredients should be sold and celebrated based on their herbal roots and natural virtues alone, then there is enormous hope that herbalists can find a broader audience for their skincare lines using their own vocabulary and history, without having to borrow from or mimic the bigger, more mainstream brands. The ability to skip the comparisons altogether and allow clean, natural, ancient healing ingredients to stand on their own merits is another step in the right direction of making clean, green beauty the first choice for every consumer, not because of what it isn’t, but because of what it is.

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