The biggest point of difference between shopping for traditional skincare and shopping for clean skincare is that clean skincare takes a lot more research, thought and consideration. It’s not always as simple as picking up the prettiest bottle or the one that advertises the most unbelievable claims. Admittedly, it’s a lot of hard work. Our mission at The Moment is to make that process easier on you by bringing forward the clean brands we love, and most importantly, giving you the power to be your own advocate for clean beauty. Yet still, there are a lot of clean skincare terms and questions we’ve yet to dissect (IE. what exactly is wildcrafted), so we’ve asked Jenna Levine, Founder of an absolutely incredible botanics based skincare line called LINNÉ Botanicals, to lend her thoughts. Actually, Levine is even more than a founder, she’s actually crazy knowledgable and passionate about plant science. Having studied botany, herbal medicine, yoga, massage therapy, Ayurvedic traditions, and Chinese medicine (just to name a few of her hobbies), we knew Levine was the right person to clear the air. Plus we get to hear her speak passionately about her favorite subject, which is obviously the best.
If you haven’t already, definitely check out the Guide To Face Oils piece we worked on with Levine as well. It’s a fountain of great information on dissecting and understanding face oil formulas.
The Moment: Where and how did you learn so much about plants?
Levine: My passion for plants has taken me on quite a journey. However seemingly disparate, my studies, practice and work experience in farming, foraging, cooking, nutrition, phytoremediation, urban food systems, permaculture, native plant botany and herbal medicine have all been united by the medium of plants. They are my chosen material and the opportunity to work with them in such varied ways has allowed me to learn from a diverse community of teachers, healers, designers and explorers.
These dynamic mentors have shepherded me down a winding path that has culminated in the launch of LINNÉ. The name of our brand itself is a reference to the inspiring teachers who’ve helped guide me. While the Swedish botanist, mineralogist and pharmacist Carl Von Linné may be known best for his establishment of the taxonomic classification system, he was also a beloved professor at the University of Uppsala. As an exuberant educator, and lover of flora, we honor his legacy by sharing our passion for plants.
The Moment: What excites you about plants?
Levine: They are a constantly evolving renewable source of nutrition, medicine, shelter and beauty. They are highly adaptive to their environment and infinitely diverse. They support eco-systems, shape landscapes and inform cultural practices. That’s pretty exciting!
The Moment: What does clean, natural, non-toxic, organic beauty really mean? Are these terms regulated or should we be looking for certifications on our labels instead?
Levine: The skincare market is still the wild west of personal care and these terms do not yet seem to be regulated. And just as mass brands may greenwash with such terms, trustworthy indie brands may not have the resources to apply for meaningful certifications. It thus becomes the overwhelming responsibility of consumers and retailers to do their homework and cut through the clutter. Fortunately there are educational databases such as ThinkDirty, Truth in Aging and SkinDeep, the cosmetic division of the Environmental Working Group. These sites allow consumers to search for thousands of ingredients and products to learn more about their chemical composition and potential threat to human and environmental health. These sites of course won’t tell you if a certain natural extract contains harmful contaminants or if its constituents are even active but they can help consumers protect themselves from certain clear offenders. Furthermore they can help consumers become aware of the true nature of other ingredients that may sound complex and threatening but may be in fact gentle, biocompatible fatty acids, salts or sugars.
The Moment: What about these terms like wild harvested? Wild crafted? Active ingredients?
Levine: Wild harvested and wild crafted are pretty synonymous, and both indicate a foraging of uncultivated plants. In ideal conditions the plant is abundant, renewable, well protected, and in a pristine environment, but these qualities are not requisite and the terms can just as freely be used when foraging in an urban area for dandelion, plantain and other ‘sidewalk weeds’. Plants have the capacity to absorb nutrients in the air and ground and given this ability, plants are wonderful remediators of contaminated soils, but clearly these are not the plants we want to consume.
The other major point of consideration when electing to use plants from the wild concerns plant population vulnerability. To responsibly harvest plants in the wild, I was taught a code of conduct that includes a variety of considerations including, but not limited to, the strength and abundance of the plant population, the amount and way a plant or portion of a plant is harvested to allow for regrowth, and a respect for surrounding flora and fauna. When done responsibly, harvesting of wild-plants can in fact support the health and vitality of that plant population. A properly pruned tree will become more vigorous and fecund, and for that reason (and others) we use a lot of wild-harvested tree leaves to produce our essential oils.
As per ‘active ingredients’ within skincare, the term is regularly used to indicate ingredients with a skin-supporting function versus those that are included as a texturizing agent or filler. Some skin types can withstand a dizzying array of active ingredients, but for others this may stimulate a negative reaction. As a formulator it’s important to understand not only what the skin wants generally but also how to put together a cocktail that creates a synergistic harmony and not an aggressive assault.
The Moment: Why is sourcing so important when analyzing our skincare ingredients? How can we learn about our favorite brand’s sourcing and what are the markers of a ‘good source’?
Levine: Responsible sourcing is essential. Unlike standardized synthetics, naturals are infinitely variable. There are so many factors to consider when sourcing and that criteria can vary from brand to brand. Some brands may focus on the levels of bioavailable skin-supporting constituents, while others may be more interested in the the extraction process, the way an ingredient was grown or the welfare of its farmers. We believe that all of these factors at least deserve consideration. A brand may or may not share every detail as it may like to keep some trade secrets, but at the least you should feel like you can ask questions of the brand and more importantly that they are asking questions of their ingredient suppliers.
The Moment: Are cold-pressed ingredients important to skincare?
Levine: When a fruit/nut/seed is expeller pressed it is put into a screw-like machine to force out the oil. Run at high speeds, the friction can produce high heat, which can help to produce more oil, but the heat can degrade the oil’s nutritional quality. Low-heat methods produce a higher quality oil, albeit in lesser quantities. Some heat is generated in the cold-pressed method, but not enough to damage the oil. Naturally we want to use the most nutritionally rich oil in our food and skincare so for that reason we choose cold-pressed, unrefined (no bleach or deodorants) pulp, seed and nut oils for LINNÉ products. When available, we also like to use CO2 extracted carrier and essential oils. During CO2 extractions, plant matter need only to be heated up to 104 degrees F. Carrier oils processed this way tend to have a longer shelf life and essential oils processed this way maintain a greater complexity of constituents
The Moment: What’s your take on products infused with good energy and positive intentions through healing crystals?
Levine: Good energy is always a good thing. I can’t verify if a product is more effective or better for the recipient if it was ‘made with love’, but I think that a caring state of mind is a great form of quality control. As per healing crystals, I love that we use minerals that have metaphysical value, but they are there first because they stimulate, oxygenate & protect cell health. We want to make sure we’ve at least covered the laws of nature before we transcend physical matter. But for those interested, our copper comes from malachite, a stone known to clear and activate all chakras. It is often called the ‘stone of transformation’. We use olivine as our magnesium source and it is celebrated for its anti-fatigue properties and for stabilizing emotions. And our zinc source, smithsonite, represents charm, kindness, positive happenings and auspicious new beginnings.
The Moment: What about preservatives in beauty products? Do we need them (if so, which ones are ‘clean’/safe) or do we simply keep an eye on the expiration date?
Levine: The goal of preservatives are to extend shelf life and inhibit mold, bacteria, fungus and yeast. Some products need preservatives, others do not. We do not yet provide dry powder products, but these are relatively shelf stable and will loose their potency long before they develop any mold or bacterial growth. Do keep these out of the fridge in order to prevent moisture contamination. Water-soluble products however are prone to mold contamination and if they are to live out of the fridge for an extended period of time, they may need something to protect them from spoilage. For our soluble products, we use a radish root ferment as our main preservative. Rather than acting like a standard antibiotic, wiping out all bacteria, it acts more like a pro-biotic, colonizing the product with good bacteria that will keep the bad out. This radish root ferment is also known to be a pore-cleanser and skin-brightener.
Other common preservative ingredients found in ‘clean’ products are ethylhexylgylcerin and phenoxyethanol. These emerged in the wake of the paraben scare but the latter seems to have some associated risks and I believe more research needs to be conducted before we widely adopt this synthetic preservative. Potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate are also common preservatives. They get a moderate hazard rating on the EWG due to their potential as irritants. And though they are just as common in food as they are in cosmetics, when sodium (or potassium) benzoate is combined with vitamin C or ascorbic acid, it forms benzene, a known carcinogen, so you can see how things can get tricky fast when mixing seemingly innocuous substances. A far less offensive, and very common preservative is tocopherol- good ol’ fashioned Vitamin E. It can be synthesized or derived from vegetable oils and it works as a preservative due to its antioxidant capacity. We use a lot of oils naturally high in Vitamin E for our oil based products and you’ll find tocopherol in our RENEW serum. Additionally to preserve freshness and efficacy, we steer clear of oils that are prone to rapid rancidity, and rather use oils with longer shelf lives and high antioxidant profiles. In both water and oil-soluble products, we employ ingredients (powders, extracts, carrier oils, essential oils etc.) that are known for their antioxidant and anti-bacterial/microbial/fungal/viral activity, thus creating another hurdle to spoilage. We put expiration dates on our products to promote use at their freshest but our products have shown to last far longer and we have yet to have a case of mold, yeast, or microbial contamination.
The Moment: How do we know when a product has gone bad and why is it important to replace it?
Levine: If you notice something like separation or specs of floating material and aren’t sure if they are okay or not, message the brand- it’s possible that all your product needs is a good shake as many natural products are made without the emulsifiers that keep ingredients infinitely integrated. If however your intuition tells you that is smells off or if it has an icky strange growth, it’s time to dispose of that product. Depending on the product, using it expired, such as a body oil, may just mean it won’t work as effectively, but a moldy mask conversely may cause infection or other undesirable results.
The Moment: What are some ingredients that are great for certain beauty products, and not so great for others? (IE photosensitizing essential oils)
Levine: Citrus oil can be photosensitizing, especially when cold pressed rather than steam distilled. This is because citrus peels contain furanocoumarins. For that reason we use a furanocoumarin-free organic Bergamot essential oil in our SCRUB, RENEW and SMOOTH products. Also worth mentioning is essential oils should never be applied directly to the skin. Given their concentration they should be diluted in carrier oils.
We avoided including occlusive ingredients like waxes in our face products but that’s just a personal choice. We do however recommend beeswax-laden salves, such as our SMOOTH balm, for lips, hands, feet and other chapped, less delicate areas.
It’s also worth mentioning that baking soda, an often common ingredient in deodorants, can disrupt the skin microbiome and can lead to irritation boils and staph infections. Understanding the microbiome and the physiology of the skin is very important when choosing product ingredients, whether they be for the face or body.
The Moment: Are there natural ingredients that don’t mix well together or create something toxic? Especially important for the clean beauty consumer mixing their own blends at home.
Levine: You can inadvertently cause harm to yourself using natural ingredients. Many synthetic ingredients are less superficially reactive than natural ingredients which isn’t something a lot of people want to hear. With that said, if from a good source, fooling around with basic natural butters and carrier oils, such as jojoba, avocado, mango and shea, shouldn’t cause harm (assuming no allergies). Essential oils however are far more concentrated and my chemist advises against their willy-nilly use. She says that each EO has its own safe use level and given the presence of certain compounds, blending for safe use is a technical process. In fear of missing something, I feel it irresponsible to set general guidelines as there are so many factors to consider.
The Moment: You also cook! What do culinary recipes and formulating skincare products have in common?
Levine: I spent over two decades learning about culinary ingredients, technique, flavor composition and recipe development. And with all that time spent in the kitchen, professionally and otherwise, as a home cook now, I am able to prepare delicious meals with an experimental approach and free-spirit. While I love collecting cookbooks for inspiration (and trust me I have MANY), unless I’m baking, I never follow a recipe.
When I formulate skincare, I often start with a totally intuitive approach that is similar to my cooking style. I start with the best sourced ingredients and iterate to get the feel, smell and experience I desire. I choose my ingredients based on their known constituents and add them at safe and effective percentages. When I feel my formulas are nearing that sweet spot, I share them with my chemist to ensure that we have safe, appropriate and synergistic levels of actives to achieve the results we desire. We do stability, microbial and pH testing to furthermore ensure that the products are shelf and skin safe.
In essence both practices start with a similar attitude and approach, but ultimately formulating skincare has become for me a much more critical, deliberate and serious affair. These days I never make the same culinary recipe exactly the same twice, and I usually don’t feed more than 20 people at a time. It is my goal however to make skincare recipes that may satisfy thousands of people, each with their own proclivities and skin types. Moreover as we grow as a brand, it will be important to establish consistency between batches, something I haven’t tried to do with food since I was cooking on the line 😉
The Moment: Do you think skincare ingredients need to be food-grade?
Levine: Simply stated, we think of our products as skinfood and want them to provide comprehensive nutrition for the skin, but with that said, food grade ingredients have a different standard and cosmetic-grade is often safer and in many cases better for the skin. Food grade ingredients have a different microbial burden. Given the expected difference in shelf-life, the standards for cosmetics are far more stringent than food. Nevertheless we use a lot of cosmetic ingredients made from common (and less common) culinary ingredients and furthermore we want our products to be safe enough to eat. My fiancé even says he’d like to spread our SCRUB mask on toast, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to lick your lips when masking, but all in all I think you may just prefer to eat what’s coming out my kitchen than what’s coming out of my lab 😉
The Moment: What advice would you give to someone who is still wondering why switching to clean beauty is so important?
Levine: Whether you are using safe naturals, safe synthetics or a combination of the two, do your body a favor and choose ingredients that have low to no toxic burden. A product may promise superficial anti-aging results, but any product that is going to cause your body stress to metabolize (or disrupt your endocrine, hormone or immune system), is ultimately going to age you. Safe, clean skincare is here and more sophisticated than ever. There’s really no reason to ‘suffer for beauty’.
Special thanks to Jenna Levine!
Photo by Sally Griffiths
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