Hawaii’s Next Wave of Natural Skin-Care Brands

New York Times Style Magazine
By Jess Cole –

A new generation of beauty companies is rediscovering the islands’ powerful native ingredients, from taro to ferns.

It is not altogether surprising that Hawaii is at the forefront of our current golden age of natural skin care, in which botanical face oils and mushroom-infused elixirs abound. Few places on Earth contain such a diversity of plant species, and Hawaiians have been using this bounty — including nutrient-rich varieties such as hibiscus, coconut, ferns and kukui nuts — as a source of nourishment and healing for generations. Indeed, plants have been prized on the islands since the first millennium A.D., when the ancient Polynesians arrived by canoe, bringing with them life-sustaining crops such as taro, breadfruit and sweet potato. And though centuries of colonization have done their best to erode this deep-rooted connection to the natural world, it has endured. In fact, for many of the founders of the latest wave of Hawaii-based skin-care lines, using locally sourced botanical ingredients is simply common sense, part of a reciprocal, age-old relationship between the islands and their inhabitants.

Ke’oni Hanalei, a native Hawaiian, spent much of his early childhood in the garden of his grandmother, a medicine woman, on Maui’s southwestern coast. As he watched her tend her plants, she would teach him about their therapeutic properties (hibiscus for purifying the blood, kalamoho fern for sparking creativity) and how to, as she would say, “Ka nani pulama,” or “cherish their beauty.” Today, these lessons inform Pohala, Hanalei’s Maui- and Kauai-based range of oils and tinctures made with indigenous Hawaiian ingredients including both hibiscus and ferns. The brand’s Lakana Medicinal Body Spray ($17), for example, is infused with handpicked la’au kalakala, a thorny shrub with small yellow flowers that has long been believed to support the nervous system. “We have this code of conduct in our culture, huna, which means ‘secrecy,’” says Hanalei, referring to the safeguarding of ancient Hawaiian traditions. “Our families lived by this through the Western influence, and it is why a lot of our records are well preserved.”

Chelsa Davis, who is also of Hawaiian heritage and grew up by the ocean in Kailua, on the Big Island, feels a similar responsibility for preservation. She founded her skin-care line AO Organics Hawaii in Honokaa in 2017 in part to educate her community about the impact of oxybenzone, a typical ingredient in chemical sunscreens, on the archipelago’s marine life. (A 2015 study revealed that up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in reefs each year, and that the reef located in Hawaii’s popular Hanauma Bay is one of the most at risk in the world.) Accordingly, the line’s first product was the mineral-based Liquid Reef-Safe Sunscreen ($28), which uses zinc oxide, rather than harmful chemicals, to block the sun’s rays. It is infused, too, with organic beeswax, which Davis sources from the local producers Wai Meli and 808 Honey, to boost hydration. “Honey produces a natural form of glycerin, which attracts water to your skin,” says Davis, who also uses the ingredient in her anti-inflammatory, turmeric-rich Olena + Honey Foaming Cleanser ($30) and her lightweight papaya seed and babassu oil-based ?Ili Hydration Moisturizer ($32). “It is a gift from the creatures that give life to the island.”

“Sustainability is already a part of the tradition here,” says Leala Humbert, who has run the natural beauty line Ua Body with her husband, Blaine Kusler, on the Big Island’s Kohala Coast since taking the 30-year-old company over from her mother in 2019. In an effort to support the island’s ecosystem, the couple collaborates closely with the Hawaii Sandalwood company, a family-owned reforestation business working to replenish the Big Island’s sandalwood forests — which have been depleted by invasive species and overharvesting — in part by extracting oil from dying trees, a process that naturally prompts the growth of new ones. The liquid, which is believed to aid relaxation, is a key ingredient in Ua Body’s Iliahi Dry Oil ($48), a nourishing body moisturizer with a subtle, earthy aroma.

Similarly, the inclusion of macadamia oil in the antioxidant-rich ‘Opio Anti Aging Mano’i elixir (from $16) and intensely moisturizing Moha Beautifying Concrete Gelèe (from $14) from Oshan Essentials arose from founder Shelley Leemor’s desire to work sustainably, repurposing the imperfect nuts discarded by a local processing factory. “Macadamia oil is a nourishing, essential fatty acid that isn’t comedogenic,” says Leemor, who moved to Hawaii from the mainland 10 years ago, and launched her company in 2017 on a seven-acre farm on Maui’s North Shore. Powered solely by the sun and using water collected from rainfall, her entire manufacturing process is carbon neutral, and she grows many of the company’s botanicals, such as turmeric, papayas and guavas, on site.

Like macadamia trees, which were introduced to the islands in the late 19th century, the moringa tree is an originally nonnative species that has thrived in Hawaii. Brought over in the early 1900s by Filipino immigrants who came to work on the islands’ sugar cane fields, it is a nutritional powerhouse whose delicate green leaves are widely used in Hawaiian cooking and restorative teas. But it’s the cold-pressed oil made from the husks of the moringa seeds that features most prominently in the skin-care products from Maruyama Jones Farm in Kailua, on the Big Island. Co-founded by husband and wife Geoff and Misa Maruyama Jones in 2016, the company is based on a five-acre farm run by Misa’s family. “We do not own the land, we are in a relationship with the land,” says Misa, who is of Filipino heritage. “We are all akin to the plants, the animals, the soil and even the microorganisms in the soil.” Accordingly, the farm works on a regenerative model of sustainability, whereby organic compost made from local green waste and spirulina generates the nutrients for the moringa trees. Each bottle of the couple’s Moringa Seed Oil ($50), a hydrating all-in-one product for both the skin and the hair, is derived from nearly 400 hand-selected seeds grown on site and husked by Geoff himself.

The Oahu-based apothecary Indigo Elixirs, founded by the Armenian-American herbalist Deanna Rose Ahigian, also makes use of Hawaii’s potent native plants — in this case, those of the Manoa Valley, where Ahigian lives — but it strives to reflect, too, the diversity of Hawaii’s residents. The brand caters to a range of skin tones and hair types — its pikake-infused Moon All Over Oil ($27) is a silky serum designed to rehydrate thicker and Afro-textured hair — and many of its ingredients are inspired by “the strong Asian influences here,” says Ahigian. The line’s detoxifying Matcha Kalo Mask ($22), for example, contains rice flour, which is commonly found in South Korean skin-care products, as well as antioxidant-rich Japanese green tea powder. But another key ingredient is taro. Not only has this starchy root vegetable long been a form of sustenance in Hawaii but it also has anti-inflammatory properties. “And I wanted to use it,” Ahigian says, “because it’s the most sacred plant in Hawaiian mythology.” Indeed, like so many of the islands’ plants, it has been revered for millennia precisely because of its usefulness.

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