Unknown to me when I first started using Skin Alchemists products, was the fact that brand founder Theresa Edward and I had more than a few things in common, even though I was born in Russia and she on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. To start with, there is mutual respect for the beauty traditions and knowledge of the past generations, appreciation of daily skincare rituals using natural beauty products, as well as the benefits of massages and aromatherapy. We also have two tremendously talented practitioner women, Sarah-Jane Watson & Michelle Roques-O’Neil, who we both admire, in common as well.
I have been using two of Theresa’s products since September and they both had me at the sound of their names. Facial Elixir “Sesenne” and Complete Cleansing Oil “The Humble Warrior”. Just let them roll off your tongue and see what effect just doing that will have on your nervous system.
Theresa was born & raised on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. She comes from a family of renowned herbalists and often watched her beloved Aunt Mano blend botanicals from her garden, creating remedies & tinctures, harnessing the medicinal power of plants in order to help the locals overcome all kinds of ailments. Recently I was watching one of the latest Sir David Attenborough documentaries, where he was talking about multiple visits to Borneo and the Amazon. Having first visited them in the 50s, its incredibly disheartening for him to see the destruction of forrests and wildlife caused by human hand. I was also thinking about Theresa and the foundations of her brand, as there was another documentary, this time by Simon Reeve on BBC2. In one of the episodes Simon was talking to a member of the native tribe in Mexico, who is struggling to protect the forrest, plants and animals that have been their livelihoods and reliable sources of plants and herbs renowned for their healing properties & providing fresh, seasonal nutrition for multiple generations of people. All disappearing “thanks” to greed, industrial revolution, unsustainable practises, bureaucracy and growing population, when the positive effect of forrest and plants on us is more powerful than many medicinal drugs we take at times when we are unwell.
Luckily for Theresa when she was growing up, she was surrounded by St. Lucia’s abundantly fresh superfoods and ingredients like Turmeric (known for its anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties), Coconut (moisturising) and Nutmeg (anti-bacterial). When she fell over and grazed herself, her mother would apply fresh turmeric. Cloves were used for dog bites or healing nerves. Many families on the island had their own ‘family fixon’, a traditional home remedy made out of local natural ingredients, herbs & spices that were taken at the first sign of illness. This knowledge was passed on from generation to generation, something that Theresa is already starting to do with her adorable toddler daughter, who she is raising in the UK.
Nowadays ‘self-care’ and ‘rituals’ are used in marketing and as hashtags. In the past they were simply integral to daily life, a way to look after our skin, hair and body. Utilising the sense of touch and smell, doing self-massages, treating your hair weekly with nourishing oils. Slow beauty rituals that were an innate way of life for many, as opposed to marketing this or that new launch on a daily basis. Here today, on to something new and fleetingly exciting tomorrow.
Now that you know a little bit more about Theresa and her background, let me introduce her knowledgable and powerful voice into the conversation, my monologue turning into a dialogue.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself & what inspired you to launch Skin Alchemists into the world?
Theresa Edward (TE): I’m from St Lucia. I’m a mom. I moved to the UK over 15 years ago to study, fell in love with many things, including the city of London and so I stayed. Fast forward many years and I was working as a high level HR Consultant and specialist head hunter in the City, which was both fast-paced and intense. I can freely admit that my health and wellbeing were the last things on my list of priorities and at one point my health paid the price.
I just couldn’t get my energy levels up, was gaining weight, struggled to sleep, had back-to-back lingering colds, one of which turned into a lung infection. Needless to say my skin was dull and I developed acne, something I never really had, even in my teenage years. On top of that, my hair was dropping out. So I took a holiday and went back to St Lucia for two weeks. My mom took one look at me and said I need a “colleen”, which is local patois for a detox. She began using traditional herbal concoctions on me and of course I was eating the local foods. After two or three days I began to feel what I could only describe as ‘much better’, but I didn’t make much of it. After all I was on holiday, getting fresh air and that would be expected to some degree. One week in and I couldn’t ignore the difference.
After two weeks of eating freshly picked organic foods, taking sea baths & volcanic mud baths and using herbal medicines, the difference in my health was profound. When I got back to London, I changed my diet and tried my best to replicate the Caribbean living. I found though that the fresh food in London didn’t taste the same. Also, in St Lucia I would eat smaller portions and stay fuller longer. That started a little hobby for me, or maybe an obsession, as I began to research foods and their nutritional density. I started questioning why stores carried five different versions of olive oil at five different price points. I began to look more closely at ingredient lists in order to understand what I was really eating. Why the taste of chicken differed according to price points, whether it was organic or corn fed.
Then I learned that my skin was an organ and turned my curiosity to the ingredient list on my skincare. A lot of us put so much effort into taking the best care of our bodies by eating healthy and exercising, then forget to look after our skin. I wanted to feed my skin as I was feeding my body, yet there were ingredients I couldn’t pronounce on the INCI list. For example I would see ‘rosehip oil’ or ‘turmeric’ on an ingredient list, but the final product was… a sterile white cream. I understood that something was being refined somewhere and that propelled me on my journey to formulate nutrient dense skincare, bringing traditional plant medicine into skincare.
Why did you choose Skin Alchemists as the name for your brand?
Theresa Edward: For many years I was ( and still am!) obsessed with the book ‘The Alchemist’, which is about pursuing your dreams. Alchemy is about transformation and finding the philosopher’s stone, which turns lead to gold. I connected the two in a way, chasing my dreams of having my own business and creating products that would transform skin into its best state. Lead to gold with my products being the philosopher’s stone. Hence the name “Skin Alchemists”. The art of alchemy began in ancient times, though many of the principles are still relevant today. Again, like the processes I use in my formulations.
What are your brands USPs (Unique Selling Points) ?
Theresa Edward: To start with, the unique scents – each is different and yet we have not used the essential oils simply to scent. We’ve followed aromatherapy principles to ensure they also meet a therapeutic purpose, be it sleep or to calm the senses. (I worked with Michelle Roques O’Neil, one of the leading aromatherapists, to formulate each of my scents. I loved working with her because she layers scents so well, as well as ensures that scents also carry a therapeutic purpose).
- The quality and concentration of the ingredients. I only use unrefined ingredients.
- I haven’t cut corners anywhere nor used unnecessary fillers.
- Everything is freshly handmade in small batches.
Another important element to my products is Plant Medecine. I feel that sometimes green beauty gives itself a bad reputation with the lack of efficacy. Natural products do work and have done so successfully for generations. For example, Calendula is known to be a great healer, yet how many creams have you seen containing calendula which is white? Or the oil has only a slight tinge of yellow? For calendula to deliver its reputed results, the extract has to be a high enough concentration. Some green brands try to hit price points, rather than results. And then they have to use a lower concentration of an active – which will NOT achieve the intended result. I buy calendula flowers directly from the farmer, whom I know by name, and I have to place my order in winter for the spring. No Stock is over three or four months old with them. This farmer actually plants all his crops organically for the tea market, so everything he produces is edible. When ready, the flowers are handpicked, air-dried the same day and shipped to me about three days later. It takes a week to get to me in shipping and customs. Literally two weeks after being picked, I have them in oil, macerating in the summer heat. Not artificial heat or a double boiler. The result is the deepest orange oil you have seen and it smells amazing! I can’t give out my formula, but I use a very high percentage in my products. Now, THAT oil will make a healing difference to skin.
How do you source ingredients?
Theresa Edward: I try to get the best source of the ingredient. Sometimes it isn’t about buying local or from traditional sources, if the soil there has been over farmed and depleted. It is about where can I find a source that produces a nutrient dense product sustainably. I always give preference to small farmers or cooperatives. Little by little, I have been working my way directly to the plant farmers. Quite a few of ingredients in my deck are sourced directly from the farmer and I absolutely love that. It gives me more control and trust in the quality of what I am purchasing and who I am supporting. I can also better vouch for the farmer’s sustainable practices. Our Cacay oil comes from a cooperative in Columbia, which is refarming land that once belonged to the cocaine trade. Some ingredients, like cocoa and shea butters, I buy directly from a small African cooperative and the quality of these products is amazing! The shea butter is a mustard yellow colour, the cocoa is yellow, hard and smells of chocolate. These cooperatives ensure the farmers are paid fairly and also invest in their communities. All the ingredients I use are raw and unrefined. It means the oils smell more earthy, are darker and have the plants characteristic scent.
I have changed two formulas this year because of sustainability. The first version of Sesenne contained Rosewood oil, which came from the Amazon. I used Sandalwood mysore as well. As both of these oils can no longer be sustainably sourced, I stopped using both.
What are your ‘star’ ingredients & why?
Theresa Edward: Each ingredient really has been chosen because it is a “hero ingredient” and pretty much all should fit here.
A few “stand outs” are our fresh herbal extracts of Calendula, Nettle, Yarrow, Melissa and Red Clover. Why? Simply because they are part of plant medicine, which have been used for generations in folk medicine to successfully treat skin conditions. As to Cacay oil, it has the highest content (over 50%) of natural Vitamin A found in a plant.
How do you look after your wellbeing while running a brand & being a mother?
Theresa Edward: Admittedly it’s a struggle, as I have a 17 month old who demands my attention and I tend to work when she sleeps. My main philosophy is prevention is better than cure, as opposed to the Western approach to wellbeing, which is more reactive than preventative. I detox regularly and still maintain my diet of whole foods, nuts, fruits and eating seasonally. I have a love affair with nature and will connect with it in some way each day. During the warmer months it’s long walks through my favourite Epping Forest. In the winter months rather than have the shopping delivered, I’ll walk to the supermarket. Exercise is important to me, however being time poor, I find simple ways to incorporate it into my daily life. For example when I drop my little one off at the child minder, I’ll jog back home. I believe in the healing power of touch and every month get a full body massage.
How did you come up with such beautifully dreamy product names?
Theresa Edward: Whenever I am formulating a product, it forms a character in my mind. With Serene, it was evoked by my love of Rose de Mai, the cabbage rose which is the variety we have in Caribbean. Its soft and sensual scent simply demands attention. It also reminded me of St Lucian folk singer Sesenne Descartes. She was the lead singer of our La Rose folk festival, a Chantwelle as they are called, and she became the character for the facial oil. With the skin treatment candles, they were both formulated to help me sleep, so one became Sweet Dreams and the other contains Jasmine which blooms at night, hence Midnight’s Serenade. The Humble Warrior actually came about from a yoga pose. During the humble warrior pose you bow and that sort of reminded me of a cleanser. Unlike other skin products which stay on your skin, a cleanser does its job battling dirt, makeup and…. bows away.
What does beauty mean to you & why do you advocate more natural products & holistic lifestyle?
Theresa Edward: Beauty to me means caring for yourself, so you can be confident in who you are, the best version of yourself at this point in time. I advocate a more holistic lifestyle because it works! Modern science has its place, but it is also very good at creating a problem and selling us a very expensive solution. For example, in the beauty marketplace dedicated to face care, we often see synthetic Vitamin A products being heavily touted and then the sunscreen market booms!
I grew up seeing my grand aunt heal many ailments with herbal medicine. Before everything else there were natural therapies and it must be no coincidence that similar practices can be found in cultures on opposite sides of the globe. Patients used to come to grand aunt for her to perform a massaging ritual on them whenever they had strained themselves or felt generally unwell. Her treatment was one of touch, massage and she would begin her ritual with a prayer. She would give them turmeric tea to drink. Can I just say she was of African descent, yet across the globe and particularly in India you find Reiki – which is healing with energy and Ayurvedic practices, which use turmeric and touch.
When I e-mailed Theresa my questions, I also asked her to add anything that I might have omitted or something that was important for her, as a beauty brand founder who advocates healing modalities and holistic lifestyle. Theresa replied that what is central to her eco-luxe brand is highlighting the efficacy of green beauty. “It is like any kind of food ingredient – quality and concentration make a marked difference! I’m not necessarily saying that green beauty has to be expensive, but that green beauty does work. However, often in order to get the quality and quantity that will make a difference to your skin, you will need to pay a premium for a certain grade of ingredients.”
This is a very important, as well as a ‘telling’ element within the strategy of every brand, as well as a consideration or lack of, for us, consumers. Ultimately it comes down to quality, efficacy, provenance and honesty of the brand when engaging with consumer. Often the money that should go into the quality of ingredients is spent on marketing and packaging. Spotlighting niche brands allows me to have an open dialogue not only with creators and founders, but with you, my readers. In my opinion without properly thorough engagement with the customers and a wider community that contributed to the creation of beauty products in the first place, a brand has no long-term future.
To learn more about Skin Alchemists, please click here (note that I don’t use affiliated links on my website).
P.s most of the images (except for the two of the products that I took) in this post are courtesy of Theresa Edward & her Instagram.