A new generation of female founders are leading the way with small-batch beauty. Absolutely investigates the London beauty labs run by women
By Abbie Schofield
Take a look at your beauty stash. That expensive night cream in your cupboard? It’s probably not as worth it as you think — a generic formula with a dash of marketing pizzazz, wrapped up in glossy packaging.
It may surprise you to learn that most skincare is not created by the brand itself. Known as white label products, a cosmetic lab can produce a formula that any brand’s marketing team can purchase off-the-shelf. All the brand needs to do is design the packaging to give the perception of a totally unique product.
But there’s a new generation of women in the beauty world who are creating their own formulas in independent labs. Trained cosmetic scientists and formulators, they are paving the way with innovative, small-batch and sustainable skincare that really works.
Micaela Nisbet is a former sound engineer who fell in love with face oils while touring in the US. She took a formulation course to learn how to make her own blends, and Neighbourhood Botanicals was born. With a focus on naturally-derived ingredients and raw cold-pressed oils, Neighbourhood Botanicals’ original formulas are always backed by research.
Micaela has synaesthesia, a condition which links her senses together. It was a surprising advantage when it came to creating her own products: “When I was a sound engineer, the frequencies had their own colours in my mind, so I could identify them easily. The same thing happens when I mix the scents for our blends — all the ingredients have their unique colours which allows me to find the perfect combination. I chose the colours on the labels to reflect the smell and feeling of the products.”
Sustainability is key to Neighbourhood Botanicals, despite its challenges. “There is so much greenwashing in the beauty world, when brands use eco-friendly language when they aren’t sustainable. Being sustainable is often the more expensive or inconvenient option.”
Another female founder with a passion for sustainability is Montana Ashley-Craig, a Glaswegian cosmetic scientist with experience creating formulations for the likes of Aesop and Cowshed. “Natural doesn’t always equal sustainable,” she explains. “One kilogram of rose oil requires around 1,000 kilograms of rose petals to produce. When you consider the land and resources for that, a lab-formulated rose fragrance would be the more sustainable choice.”
Montana began her own brand, MONTAMONTA, after her friend (award-winning bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana) asked her to create a hand soap for his bar. Soon after, bars and restaurants across east London were approaching Montana, asking her to create bespoke products for their bathrooms. So far, she has collaborating with venues such as The Hoxton Hotel and Petersham Nurseries, and her products are available to buy online too.
Despite choosing botanicals as the base for most of her products, Montana doesn’t like using the word ‘natural’. “Unlike in the food world, there is no legal definition of what it means to be ‘natural’,” she says. “There’s also the fallacy that natural equals better. Arsenic is natural too!”
A more well-known brand with its own lab is Pai Skincare, founded by Sarah Brown in 2007. Pai is already celebrated for its organic, sustainable and ethical ingredients and processes, but recently the brand went one step further to launch Pai Labs. According to Justyna Jonczyk, Pai’s New Product Development & Formulation Chemist, “Pai Labs is a new incubator branch of the brand that we created to bring product ideas to market faster and with more creative freedom. Pai Labs is about testing new products and ingredients.”
“The platform gives Pai the opportunity to be experimental with creative ideas that address very specific consumer needs, and bring them out as soon as they’re ready,” Justyna says. “That means producing in smaller runs, with pared-back packaging and only selling them through our website. It can take five months alone just to develop the packaging on a new product but we were able to get Acton Spirit Hand Sanitiser to market in a matter of weeks through Pai Labs.”
While it’s unlikely that the world’s beauty giants will move away from mass-produced white label products any time soon, sustainability is high on the industry’s agenda for 2021. As consumers look for more considered, more effective and less wasteful products, small-batch beauty labs could be the answer.
Ladies who lab: the brands to know
Lab location: Leyton, East London
Formulas: All products are research-based, clean, vegan and cruelty-free.
Sustainability: The brand is carbon negative and uses 100% recycled content plastic as well as glass and aluminium.
Hero product: Face Off Oil To Milk Cleanser. “It takes like 5 seconds to clean your face with no trace of grime or makeup, and leaves your skin soft. Perfect for lazy girls,” says Micaela.£27, neighbourhoodbotanicals.com
Lab location: Broadway Market, East London
Formulas: Premium quality and botanical ingredients are used with well-chosen lab-made raw materials.
Sustainability: Packaging is made with infinitely recyclable glass and larger refill bottles are available. Products are produced in small batches to reduce waste and 98% of customers are UK-based.
Hero product: The All-Purpose Balm collaboration with The London Honey Co. “They have kept hives in central London for over 12 years including on the roof of the Tate Modern and Fortnum & Mason!” says Montana.£10, montamonta.com
Lab location: Acton, West London
Formulas: Organic with no controversial ingredients, and products are designed to nourish sensitive skin.
Sustainability: Pai has its own recycling programme for elements that can’t be recycled at home. The brand is certified by COSMOS (Soil Association), Cruelty Free International and The Vegan Society.
Hero product: Action Spirit Hand Sanitiser Gel. With each purchase, a bottle will be donated to an organisation or individual in need.
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