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Saving our skin
By Joanne Furio, Photograph by Daniel Furon | February 11, 2010
The booming new natural skincare industry is becoming increasingly sophisticated, inventive, artisanal, righteous, hard-selling, and eco-intelligent—all arguably because of its location by the Bay.
Call it the local lotion revolution. Chances are that when you open your medicine cabinet, a bunch of the skincare products staring back at you come from companies based within an hour’s drive. The Bay Area is now the mecca for a new type of beauty industry: locally sourced, carefully crafted, and with a list of ingredients you can actually understand and feel good about slathering on your skin.
Bay Area beauty entrepreneurs have a long tradition of brewing creams and potions in their kitchens and backyards, but today’s players are competing in the international marketplace with a level of sophistication rarely seen before. The latest addition is Nude, an upscale natural skincare line created by Bryan Meehan, an Irish eco-entrepreneur, with Ali Hewson, wife of U2 frontman Bono and head of the socially responsible clothing company Edun (an anagram for nude). After launching the line in London in 2007, Meehan recently moved his family to Belvedere and set up shop in a 2,000-square-foot office in San Francisco’s financial district, in part to be closer to the North American headquarters of beauty powerhouse Sephora, his largest distributor. Nude is also sold at Barneys New York and at Whole Foods.
Meehan came up with the Nude concept after noticing that female customers at his Fresh & Wild grocery stores in the U.K. were bypassing the beauty aisle, instead opting for department-store brands loaded with the kinds of chemicals they avoided in their food. They didn’t trust that natural skincare would deliver on its antiaging claims. Meehan’s approach was to develop a beautifully packaged luxury skincare line with top-notch natural ingredients and “the high performance you’d expect from a Crème de la Mer.”
With Nude’s arrival, the Bay Area has solidified its reputation as the epicenter of the organic and natural beauty movement, currently estimated by Nutrition Business Journal to be worth more than $7.9 bil-lion in the United States alone. Almost 30 brands are based here, ranging from Oakland’s $20 million-a-year 100% Pure line to Yes to Inc., formerly of Tel Aviv, whose Yes to Carrots products are sold at Target. “It definitely feels like a magnet,” says Meehan, who chose the Bay Area because of its reputation for innovation, its association with health and well-being, and its obsession with food and nature. The ripples are being felt as far away as New York and Paris.
The Bay Area’s roots in the natural skincare movement go back to at least 1970, when sisters-in-law Peggy Short and Jane Saunders were selling handmade soaps and perfumes out of a garage-bazaar in Berkeley. The bath and body industry hadn’t even been invented yet, says Manda Heron, Short’s daughter and CEO of Body Time, as the business is now known (it sold its original name, the Body Shop, to the iconic U.K.-based company in 1987). “There was really just Jergens lotion in grocery marts and perfumes and makeup in the department stores,” Heron says.
In those days, natural food stores—the obvious outlet for such products—didn’t carry many, either (beauty was considered too bourgeois). “They were primarily interested in selling granola and yogurt,” recalls Dennis T. Sepp, an organic chemist who founded the hair- and skincare company ShiKai in his Santa Barbara garage in 1971 and moved it to Santa Rosa a year later.
The vast growth of the natural beauty industry—and the Bay Area’s emergence as a beauty center—came as Americans began to ask about their skincare products what they had already asked about their food: Where does it come from? How is it made? What are the ingredients, and are they safe? Around here, of course, people have been asking these questions for decades. “This has always been an area of conscious individuals and early adapters who are willing to take chances and want to be trailblazers,” says Zem Joaquin, who evaluates skincare products for her San Francisco–based website ecofabulous.com.
The food connection is huge. Many Bay Area skincare companies have a locavore-like emphasis on ingredients, artisanal craftsmanship, and sustainable packaging. At Marie Veronique Organics, whose diminutive Berkeley lab is just steps from the busy Fourth Street shopping area, products are made in a kitchen using Pyrex measuring cups, whisks, and four KitchenAid blenders. Clients sometimes call founder Marie Veronique Nadeau—a former high school chemistry teacher—the “Alice Waters of skincare.”
A number of local entrepreneurs actually started in the food business. McEvoy Ranch, for example, crossed over last summer, using its renowned Petaluma-grown organic olive oil in a line of skincare products called 80 Acres. Susan Ken-ward was a James Beard–award-winning cookbook author before starting a line of olive- and grapeseed-oil-based skincare called Olivina in Napa in 2002 (she added a Meyer lemon collection last year). Pioneering natural perfumer Mandy Aftel of Berkeley, who recently added skincare and bath products to her line, has worked with Michael Mina and chefs at the French Laundry. Reinforcing the culinary link, Petaluma-based Benedetta is the only skincare company with its own space in the food-oriented Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco. Founder Julia Faller, an aesthetician, describes the line as “food for the skin.” Meanwhile, Juice Beauty CEO Karen Behnke claims you could “literally eat” her San Rafael–based company’s new line of organic products “if you wanted to.” (They have been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)
As anyone in the food business knows, natural doesn’t come cheap: Julie Elliott, of the upscale line In Fiore, estimates that organic ingredients cost 40 percent more than synthetic ones. And despite the desire for local ingredients, most companies can’t rely on them alone. Le Sanctuaire, for example, uses lavender from Sonoma but gets its sangre de drago—“the most powerful antioxidant on the planet,” essential to its $62-an-ounce moisturizer—from the sap of an Amazonian rainforest tree, says aesthetician and company founder Rebecca Whitworth.
Even so, these companies’ wares are much more sustainable than the products from New York and abroad that dominate the $300 billion-a-year global beauty market. Susan Griffin-Black, cofounder and co-CEO of the $10 million-a-year brand EO—titles she shares with her now ex-husband, Brad Black—launched the company out of a Potrero Hill garage 15 years ago, after importing an upscale British label called Neal’s Yard in the early ’90s. “We were schlepping glass bottles halfway around the world, and it wasn’t making sense ecologically or from a brand-building perspective,” she says. To educate herself, Griffin-Black, a former Esprit designer, took a crash course in cosmetic chemistry at UCLA, supplemented by aromatherapy and herbal studies.
These days, EO—the name is a nod to the essential oils that inspired the brand—operates out of a nondescript, 23,000-square-foot facility in Corte Madera that serves as its factory, warehouse, and headquarters. Its 400 products, which include a bestselling lavender sanitizing gel, are made onsite. Being able to manufacture locally is a major attraction for many Bay Area companies, whose owners see it as part of a hands-on, holistic approach that allows them to stay close to their products and exercise better quality control. “If we are about product, how can we not manufacture here?” Black asks. Given the mind-boggling cost of Bay Area real estate, it’s also a sign of how committed many skincare entrepreneurs remain to the local lifestyle and values. “If your goal is to make as much money as possible,” Griffin-Black says, “Marin isn’t the best place to manufacture.”
The Bay Area’s spot on the map offers other important benefits, however. One of the largest cosmetics retailers in the world, Sephora, moved closer to Silicon Valley’s online technology, establishing headquarters in San Francisco in 1997. Nude’s Meehan, meanwhile, wanted to be closer both to Sephora and to the exploding marketplace in Asia. Indeed, thanks to the Bay Area’s strategic location at the crossroads of technology and trade, its dominance of the natural beauty sector is only likely to grow.
But there’s another huge reason that all these companies are putting down Bay Area roots, says Stacy Malkan, an investigative journalist and author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (New Society, 2007). She is also the cofounder of the San Francisco–based Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) and calls the Bay Area “absolutely ground zero for activism”—specifically, the kind of enviromental-safety activism that inspires creative do-gooders to dream up these companies and attracts more and more women to the products they produce.
The current natural beauty craze was kick-started in 2002, when three activist organizations based elsewhere—Health Care Without Harm, Environmental Working Group, and Women’s Voices for the Earth—joined forces to discover why disproportionate numbers of women had been found to have phthalates (industrial chemicals mostly used to manufacture plastics but also used in cosmetics to help fragrances adhere to the body) in their systems. The groups’ testing discovered phthalates—which are increasingly thought to cause developmental and reproductive defects—in 70 percent of women’s beauty products. To raise public awareness, the groups began the series of controver-sial ads that would become their signature, including one that ran in the New York Times depicting a pregnant woman with a bottle of Christian Dior’s Poison perfume. It read: “Sexy for her. For baby, it could really be poison.” (One result of all these efforts: As of January 2009, California has banned phthalates in baby products.)
Inspired by their success, the activists decided to create the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and turned to the San Francisco–based Breast Cancer Fund to host it. The powerful fund, the only national organization devoted solely to exploring the environmental causes of breast cancer, has also helped push laws banning toxic chemicals from toys and was instrumental in the 2003 passage of San Francisco’s pioneering Precautionary Principle ordinance, which requires the city, when making any decision, to choose the alternative that poses the least potential threat to health or the environment. Together, the CSC and the fund began to argue that cosmetics were a powerful teaching tool about the reach of toxic chemicals in our lives.
“Look at the marketing that’s done around cosmetics and breast cancer—everything has a pink ribbon on it,” says the fund’s CEO and president, Jeanne Rizzo. “Personal-care products were the most perfect way to educate the public to bring attention to products whose long-term impact has never been studied.”
Products used by children are a key focus, since, as Rizzo points out, “breast cancer doesn’t start at the age of 49—it can have its roots in utero, in early life, and in puberty.” One shocking report found the chemicals formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, both probable carcinogens, in 17 baby products (61 percent of those tested), including Johnson’s baby shampoo.
In 2005, the fund became a sponsor of the California Safe Cosmetics Act, which requires cosmetics companies to disclose to the state if their products contain ingredients linked to cancer or birth defects. Often working together, the CSC and the Breast Cancer Fund have also prodded the beauty industry to clean up its act: prompting nail polish manufacturer OPI to remove dibutyl phthalate (DBP), a reproductive toxin, from its American products; exposing the existence of lead in 61 percent of lipstick brands tested; and nudging Whole Foods to ban 300 ingredients from more than 2,500 body products and cosmetics sold in its stores. The CSC is now working with Congress to adopt stricter standards on cosmetics and to overhaul federal regulation of personal-care products.
Local skincare entrepreneurs owe much of their success to similar thinking. Karine Wittmer’s worries about her facial cream, which her two-year-old daughter wanted to dab on her own cheeks in copycat fashion, led her to create Edelbio, a skincare line based on the edelweiss flower. Susie Wang was working as a formulator for one of the largest skincare companies in the world when she accidentally spilled a vial of the petrochemical polyethylene glycol, which is commonly used to add viscosity and thickness to products. Unable to clean it up right away, she later found that it had disintegrated the Formica tabletop. “That’s when the lightbulb went on,” she says. The company Wang founded in her Napa greenhouse, 100% Pure, now occupies some 30,000 square feet in Oakland, and Wang has become an industry legend for figuring out how to stabilize vitamin C, treasured for its antioxidant properties. Her latest patented technique involves cosmetics colored with fruit and vegetable pigments.
As customer demand explodes, larger companies are becoming nature lovers, too. The pioneering brands Avalon Organics and Alba Botanica, both formerly of Petaluma, were bought in 2007 for $120 million by Hain Celestial, a natural-foods powerhouse based in New York that owns four dozen lines, including Celestial Seasonings. Burt’s Bees, purchased by Oakland-based Clorox for $925 million in 2007, now sells its products at Wal-Mart. Juice Beauty’s Behnke fields a couple of calls a week from prospective buyers and investors, and EO is considering a proposal from Target to bring select items to the store’s shelves. “It’s the same thinking that we had when organic and natural food incubated into the larger companies,” explains Scott Elaine Case, managing partner of VMG Partners, a San Francisco private equity firm that invests in body products. “The same has been happening and will continue to happen in personal care.”
But other companies remain committed to the idea that small is beautiful. “Whenever you go big, you lose quality,” says Body Time’s Heron, whose empire consists of just three stores in the East Bay and one in San Anselmo. “It’s the same with food. Could you imagine Chez Panisses all over the country?”
An indicator that the field has become increasingly cutthroat is the tendency among some companies to point out their competitors’ inadequacies, especially those that involve ingredients. (One recent example: a lawsuit by a personal-care brand claiming that other well-known companies’ products aren’t really organic.) And In Fiore’s Julie Elliott fears that the emergence of bigger conglomerates may stamp out boutique firms like hers with their massive buying power. She first noticed the threat this past fall, when she struggled for several weeks to obtain boronia oil, a flower-derived ingredient—but the product it was intended for never launched, because her New Zealand supplier had sold its entire lot to one, much bigger company. “In this kind of work,” she says, “your resources are really your best-kept secret.”
The larger the Asian market grows, the scarcer ingredients will become—and the more pressure small companies will feel to reduce quality or to sell out to conglomerates. But Meehan, for one, isn’t daunted by these challenges. He envisions that Nude will gain international fame and cachet without sacrificing its quality. “It takes time to build a brand,” he says. “If it takes 10 years for Nude to become a household name, I’m fine with that. I’m not going away.”
Joanne Furio is a San Francisco contributing writer.