Ten years is a long time when speaking in clean beauty terms. The only responsible beauty ritual I’ve been doing for ten years is washing my makeup off before bed. Ten years ago, I wasn’t privy to aluminum-free deodorant or the dangers of sulphates and phthalates. But, a decade ago is when Sarah Brown rocketed ahead of the beauty trends and launched the UK based, Certified Organic Pai Skincare. The brand known for delivering safe, effective skincare for even the most sensitive skin just celebrated their 10 year anniversary! With so many years of experience in an industry that is only just now becoming mainstream, Brown learned a thing or two about creating a reputable brand where others thought it to be impossible, navigating the murky waters of false ‘natural’ claims, and the future of cleaner beauty in both the U.S. and abroad.
Equipped with intelligence and grace, Brown is a total clean beauty icon. She is a treasure trove of wisdom, and don’t miss her skin healthy granola recipe for an added boost of glow.
The Moment: Hi! Obviously we are use fans of Pai, but can you tell us the story of how it all got started?
Brown: The business started in a garage in West London ten years ago. I had fifteen thousand pounds of saved money and I just started with a whisk and some big ideas and a real sense of mission. The reason that I was really compelled to start Pai was because of my own challenges with my skin. About 15 years ago, I developed a really bad skin condition called Chronic Urticaria. A lot of people have never heard of it but it’s actually incredibly common. It’s like hives, itchy and miserable, and it came on overnight. One of the things about skin conditions is you don’t feel in control. You don’t know when you’re going to get a flare up and when it’s bad, it’s bad. I was referred to different dermatologist and doctors and got very frustrated with the medical route of skin treatments (i.e., hydrocortisone creams, and different steroids).
When I was going through my condition, I was given lots of antihistamines to take, different strands for different times of the day. This was the solution that I was presented with. It’s not a solution. It takes away the symptoms but it’s not a solution. I think what was most frustrating was that. I’m the kind of person who likes to understand the causation. I had a real sense of instinct about what made it worse- Certain foods were triggers, certain times of the month were bad with hormone changes, certain fabrics against the skin were bad. Most of all, when I was run down or stressed, my skin was really bad. Every time I challenged doctors on it, I was told that it wasn’t related. When I look back now, I wish I challenged it more. It wasn’t getting better and I missed that feeling of control. I took the decision to understand skin better and that was a great, empowering moment actually. I documented what I was eating and what products I was using and I documented the days that I was stressed out or run down, or the days that I didn’t sleep well. Patterns emerged and I could see certain ingredients that my skin didn’t like. There were common ingredients in products and common ingredients that my skin didn’t like. It really helped inform how I was going to mange my condition. I was working in the wine industry at the time and wine was one of my triggers. I was allergic to my job!
The side effects for me from my condition was a complete intolerance to products. That was new for me, I never had issues before. I had to throw all of the products in my bathroom cabinet away and go out and look for new products. Like many people in my situation, I gravitated towards products marketed for sensitive skin. Usually with words like ‘hypoallergenic’ and ‘dermatologist tested.’ But hypoallergenic is a made up word. There’s no patch testing or extra testing done, any one can use that word. It took me a very long time to discover that. I think you just have blind faith and you think, it says it on the bottle, it must be true. None of that category of products worked for me, so ultimately I thought, maybe natural is the way to go. I never used natural skincare before but it seemed logical that it might be kinder to my skin, but the results were bad. There are lots of reasons for that, but one of the biggest reasons is that natural often doesn’t mean natural. There is a lot of green washing. The reasoning for that is, there is no label regulation around the use of the word ‘organic’ and ‘natural’. It’s not the same for food. Pai is Certified Organic through the Soil Association which is the UK equivalent of USDA.
The Moment: Have you seen that evolve in the last decade? Are regulations getting tighter?
Brown: Sadly the answer is no. We’re in the same boat as were were then. The situation in the UK is very similar to here. There’s the Soil Association in the UK which is absolutely equivalent to the USDA standards. They’re very similar, strict and stringent standards. They are good standards. They’re hard to get, which is good. You have to create these barriers that people have to jump through so that the customer is reassured and knows that they’ve done their due diligence on those products. I have no problem with those strict standards, I think they’re a really good thing for the industry. The shame is that they’re not compulsory. If you’re wanting to make organic, you don’t have to be certified. It’s a voluntary standard and it’s an expensive thing to do. Not just in terms of the actual monetary cost. They’re actually quite accommodating for smaller businesses so that the fees you pay are commensurate with the size of the business so it’s very fair, but the cost has more to do with the sheer time and the traceability standards you have to meet. You have to monitor and record everything. That takes time and people. It’s that piece, the time cost that is maybe difficult. But the number of Certified Organic brands is tiny in comparison to the number of brands that are making organic claims. That’s a real shame and the real challenge is that organic ingredients that are certified are much more expensive.
The Moment: Why is organic more expensive?
Brown: There’s a really good reason for that. They’re grown in clean soil and are extracted very beautifully and carefully. That costs money. What’s happening is lots of customers are paying a premium for what they think is natural and organic, but they’re not often getting it. That was the experience that I had as a consumer going through my skin problems. When you walk in those shoes of difficult skin, you are desperately searching for a solution and are wanting to put trust in products and brands. I felt very disenchanted when I would repeatedly take home products that I thought were natural or organic, and weren’t. I think that’s wrong. We’re being duped.
The Moment: Do you think that will change over time?
Brown: It hasn’t changed but I think the silver lining is, consumers and customers are getting smarter to it. I think all of the good things about all of the certification standards is that they’re easy to see. They’re a really lovely mark. If you can’t read ingredient lists and you find them really impenetrable, as most people do, that’s ok because you look for that standard and then you can feel confident that they have done the due diligence for you so you don’t have to worry. I always say, if you want to purchase organic, look for that standard. The one caveat to that is that there are lots of companies that put a leaf in a circle on their packaging. There are millions of fake natural logos out there. It usually is a tree or a leaf in a circle and it says, 100% natural. It’s designed to look like a standard and it’s not real. Go for those reputable names. The main names are USDA, Soil Association in the UK, there’s Eco Cert in Europe, and then in Europe, a lot of the standards are homogenizing in to something called Cosmos. Look for one of those standards and research it or check. It’s an easy thing to do. At least you can use the product with some reassurance that it’s gone through the mill.
The Moment: How did this all feel? Your skin changing, your frustration with dermatologists’ inflexible solution and products falsely claiming to be natural.. how did that affect your confidence?
Brown: People’s problems are relative and what might stress you out might not stress me out. A pimple might not stress you out but it might really stress me out. Skin issues are relative. I think one of the things that I felt going through my condition in particular (and I was really suffering from adult acne at the time too) was this feeling that I felt really defined by my skin. A lot of people think like that. I used to sit in the tube and look at people’s skin and think, ‘That person has beautiful skin. I wish that was me.’ It’s that comparison that’s so unhealthy. I think your face is what people see. It’s the first thing you see, it’s your window to the world. When it’s not great, it’s understandable that you’re going to feel bad. When people thought of me I thought they would say, ‘Oh yeah Sarah Brown, brunette, shot hair with bad skin’. It’s ridiculous but I thought that’s how people knew me. Most people don’t even think like that but you tell yourself that they do.
I think it goes back to Pai’s mission. We aren’t just a product company, we are a support company. When I was going through the problems I had, there was no sane advice coming from anywhere. I think what we are doing is really unique and it’s a real sense of mission that we aren’t just here to push product. We want to know the bigger picture and what’s happening in your life at the moment. We look at everything. You have to. What you’re using on your skin is just one piece of the whole puzzle. It’s giving that support and empowering people to take steps themselves. I went on a personal skin journey and came out the other end. The thing that helped the most was getting the cleanser right and then everything else started to fall in to place. It’s not just about finding the right ingredients to put on your skin and then making those products yourself, it was the diet and managing stress too. But I feel genuinely really lucky now because I learned a lot about skin health and my health and I would be a different person if I didn’t go through this journey. I see it as a positive and I think a lot of people need to go through that process and embrace getting informed.
The Moment: What wellness practices take priority when thinking about improving the condition of our skin? Maybe some that you personally practice?
Brown: The thing I would address first is sleep. I’m a busy mom and I’m a business owner and I’m very good at not practicing what I preach. I’m the worst at it. I ask people if they’re eating enough fish and nuts, meanwhile I’m just eating total fat. I’m always eating sandwiches at my desk and I’ll go through periods when I just don’t eat well. When I see myself derailing a bit and getting a cold, the best first step is sleep. I’ll get to bed early and read a book and I’ll switch my phone off. Those are the key little tips I have.
When lots of things are going on and I need to clear my mind, I keep a pad of paper with a pen next to my bed. I will turn the light on in the middle of the night, grab the pen, and just write. In the morning I can never read what I’ve written but it doesn’t matter. Because I got it out of my head and I can manage to get back to sleep. It’s such a silly tip but it’s brilliant. It helps clear the noise.
From a nutrition side, I love cooking but have no time to cook. I hate microwave meals so I do a lot of smoothies and make a really good granola that has masses of seeds in it. I make it every Sunday and do a double batch to last for 2 weeks. It has everything in it; pumpkins, sunflowers, sesame, all of the key seeds. I make that and it’s really quick and then I know I have ten breakfasts done, but it’s healthy and I’ll have it with blueberries or banana and I know I’m starting the day well. Whatever happens from there on in, I know I’ve started well.
The Moment: Sounds delicious, will you share the recipe?
Sarah Brown's Glowy Granola
2 tbsp vegetable oil
80 ml or 1/3 cup maple syrup
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp vanilla extract
300g or 2 cups rolled oats
50g or 1/3 cup sunflower seeds
4 tbsp sesame seeds
50g or 1/3 cup pumpkin seeds
50g or 1/3 cup flaked almonds
50g or 1/3 cup whole almonds
100g or 2/3 cup raisins
50g or 1/3 cup coconut flakes
The Moment: After 10 years of working on Pai, what have been the biggest lessons learned?
Brown: I think there are two:
The first being, when things aren’t going right, fail fast. If you’ve made a bad decision, fail fast, sort it out quickly because you have to do it. Then move on to the next thing. You’ll make loads and loads of mistakes. The mistakes I’ve made have positively transformed the business. You need to be able to take risks and sometimes get it wrong. You learn certain things about your customer or market. Around Christmas time in Denmark, we did a whole gift around baths. We presented it to the distributor and they said, ‘Yeah.. you know Danes don’t take baths? We don’t even have baths in our house.” That was a big fail, we should have checked that. We’ll never make that mistake again. Fail fast and don’t be afraid to fail. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not being creative and you’re not thinking. We are a disruptor brand, an indie brand. We want to help millions of millions of people with sensitive skin. We are currently helping a few thousands but we want to help millions and millions but we have to be bold and innovative in our approach. Push creativity and don’t be afraid of it not working.
The second thing is, keeping manufacturing in house is one of the biggest challenges. We are one of the only brands doing it. I can think of two in the natural space. There are a few of us doing it and it’s so hard and it’s such a commitment to the cause but our products are better as a result. Our products are better because we make them ourselves and we have control of that process. I’m so proud of that because we do it in London. Bank managers have told us we haven’t got the space, we haven’t got the money, we haven’t got the people, skills, experience, or knowledge. It was a decision I took. It was all meant as well meaning advice but I was very resolute that we would not retain the quality of those ingredients and respect of those ingredients if we gave them to someone else to handle. At the end of the day, our products are the heroes and they’re amazing because we invest into the ingredients we put in to them. They are labors of love. There aren’t enough female manufactures and I do a lot by talking in schools to try to persuade young girls that manufacturing can be cool and they don’t have to wear overalls. There can be a glamorous side to it. I feel really strongly about it. I don’t think people think about manufacturing as a creative thing to do. It’s the most creative thing you can do- to come up with an idea for a product and to conceive it and create it and then produce it day in and day out. You see that bottle coming up the line, with the ingredients you’ve chosen, that has to be the most creative thing you can do and the most satisfying thing you can do. That remains the biggest challenge that I’m the most proud of.
The Moment: What Pai products you use daily?
Brown: I’m a big believer that you need really good building blocks, but you don’t need 25 products, and you don’t need to use them multiple times a day. Often when we have people come to us and they have sensitized skin, I tell them to scale back on the number of products they’re using. The skin is an organ and I know that it’s a cliché (but a true one), your skin is quite competent at doing its job, but you want products that are going to support those natural processes, not suppress them. If you use too many products too often, and the wrong types of products that your skin doesn’t like, you are suppressing those natural processes, and your skin is going to get out of balance. If your skin is the wrong pH, it’s going to overproduce or underproduce oil, and you’re going to have problems.
I use the Camellia Rose Cleanser, that’s every evening. I only cleanse once a day, I don’t over cleanser. I’m a big believer you shouldn’t over wash the skin.
Mornings in my house are absurdly chaotic and if I get to work with matching shoes on, that’s a remarkable achievement for me. I don’t have time in the morning, I just use moisturizer in the morning and usually do my makeup at work. I spend a little bit more time in the evening. Our cleanser is lovely, gentle, detergent free, and alcohol free. It takes off eye makeup. I love the aroma, it’s very floral, but very subtle and sweet- not overpowering. It’s a lovely ritual, and when I started the business, that was important to me. It wasn’t just about creating products you could trust or products that were organic, it was about creating products that would be a sensory joy to use. If you’ve got sensitive skin, you’re so used to being recommended products that are pharmaceutical looking, so why can’t you have something that’s a pleasure to use and is aspirational. It’s great for all skin types.
I will then mist and apply Rosehip Bioregenerate Facial Oil at night. The rosehip oil is becoming a bit of a cult product. That’s a brilliant product and best exemplifies out commitment to ingredient quality. The sum of its parts are amazing. It’s very unusual to use the fruit as well and we aren’t cold pressing. You should never ever cold press rosehips. They’re full of omegas and essential fatty acids, it’s a very very fragile botanical and that oil is very fragile. A lot of rosehip oil is just the seed oil. If you put just those seeds between two plates and grind them to produce the oil, you are generating heat. Even cold pressed is still generating heat and oxygen is present. What happens is it all starts to oxidize immediately. The way you can tell is the color gets very pale and you get that cooking oil smell. If you ever have a facial oil that smells a bit of cooking oil, it’s rancid so you shouldn’t use it on your skin. CO2 extraction is a much more sophisticated method. It’s more expensive but it’s very eco friendly because there is no waste and a much cooler process and it’s much more robust, you get a longer shelf life. I’ve moved now to using it every night. I use 3-4 drops, pat in to damp skin.
Sometimes I use the Echium and Argan Gentle Eye Cream, maybe two or three times a week. In the mornings I’ll use a wash of water and our Geranium and Thistle Day Cream. It was the first product we formulated. It sits beautifully under makeup, you get this matte finish. It’s used on loads of film sets as a result now. There are some products I’ll use occasionally like our Brightening Exfoliator once a fortnight, the masks I’ll probably use every fortnight. It depends on my skin.
I use our Gentle Body Wash because when I was diagnosed with Urticaria, that’s the one thing I struggled with. I always had an ambition to do a body wash that didn’t have the usual detergents in it and we also got lots and lots of customers asking. Off and on, our products are inspired by our customers, which I think is the way it should be. We ask them every year what they want!
The Moment: What piece of knowledge would you share with someone who is more interested in going toward organic and natural route, but has their routine and is set in their routine?
Brown: I think there is nothing wrong with doing it in stages. If you have a full bathroom of products that you’ve happily used for years, they may be synthetic- you don’t have to replace them all in one go. My general advice is start with the biggest surface area, so start with body. Look at what you’re washing with and your body cream. You’ll find that body creams in the organic space are comparatively quite expensive. But it’s worth it. It’s a completely different product and you’re putting it all over your body. You’re absorbing it all over your body. Then you can substitute as you run out of things. If you run out of eye cream, you can replace it with an organic one and see how you go and build your regime. It doesn’t have to be everything in one go.
The Moment: What do you think the future of organic beauty looks like?
Brown: I’ve got this catch phrase. When I started this business 10 years ago, I used to have lively debates with journalists about performance of organic, and I would often be told, well of course you can’t get performance with organic. I want to head butt the wall. Generally it drove me crazy because I’ve been that person with awful skin and I’ve experienced the transforming effect that certifiably organic ingredients has had on my skin. For me it was an easy decision. I passionately believe the remedial properties of our ingredients is the best thing for sensitive skin. That position is changing, I don’t hear that so much anymore. In another 5 years, we’re going to be saying, you can’t get performance without organic- that’s my vision and that’s my mission to make that become a reality and I do think it will happen. The natural category is the category in the skincare industry that’s growing the fastest. I think it’s really lead by the wellness trend that’s hit the world market by market. And that’s not going away. I don’t believe it’s a trend because it’s being lead by millennials and it’s becoming their way of life. It’s not a trend, it’s going to stay that way for a long time and I think that’s the brilliant piece of that- wellness is here to stay. It’s an incredibly positive thing. I think organic beauty has a really positive future.
The natural category has so improved in sophistication. Ten years ago, the true organic brands were packed with beeswax and essential oil and they were just very simplistic in formulation and the packaging wasn’t very premium. Now products on the market and coming on to the market from niche indie brands are often of sublime quality. We can look at natural ingredients and using it in this proportion, we can make those claims about efficacy that we couldn’t make before. I always believed it was true, but there wasn’t the data to back it up and now there is. It’s all growing and that makes me very excited and every time I see competitors on the market, people think that would be frightening, it’s competition of course. But I think, no, I love competition because it makes us better, it pushes us forward, you can’t rest on your laurels in business. There is space for all of us and we are all on a connected mission and that’s a really positive thing.
Special thanks to Sarah Brown!
Photo by Sally Griffiths
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