This month we asked Bridie Woodward, herbalist, writer and creative producer, to speak with Dominique Caron, Apoterra founder, herbalist, certified aromatherapist and product formulator at Apoterra about why freshness matters when it comes to natural skincare. Bridie originally apprenticed under the iconic Brooklyn-based Master Herbalist, Karen Rose, and knows a thing or two about plant ingredients. Now based in Lisbon, Portugal, Bridie continues to study natural medicine alongside local practitioners and growers. Read on to learn why it’s crucial to the efficacy of natural skincare products for each and every plant ingredient to be fresh and carefully sourced.
Plant based skincare is widely available, but not all products are made equal.
While ingredients might read the same, the effectiveness of products varies widely depending on the quality of the raw materials used.
Apoterra works with the entire product life cycle in mind to ensure that plant and mineral ingredients retain their potency. From harvest to packaging, each stage is carefully considered to deliver the highest quality natural skincare possible.
I spoke to founder Dominique Caron to understand a little more about the process and why it’s central to Apoterra’s mission.
Why is sourcing so important in natural skincare?
Raw, fresh ingredients are ready to be mixed for our Hibiscus Mud Mask.
If you are using good quality, fresh ingredients it will have an impact on the experience of the end product. Understanding how natural ingredients have been grown, harvested, processed and stored is really important, which is why we are diligent when choosing our sources and review every ingredient we work with.
What are some of the challenges of working with plant based material vs. chemical ingredients?
Synthetic or highly processed ingredients are much more stable and therefore have a much longer shelf life. A product could have been made three or four years ago and still be potent. Natural products tend to be more volatile and fragile, which means there are more question marks about quality when you are sourcing those natural ingredients.
Our products have a much shorter shelf life than lab-produced skincare products, which means we can only make our products in small batches. This is why we limit the volume of our production - we only make what we think we can sell within a few months.
For that reason we share production dates and ‘use by’ dates through our batch # system, offer stockists a freshness guarantee and retail customers a 30 day guarantee - because we want to make sure our customers are only using freshly made products.
What do you do with products that are nearing the end of shelf life?
We do quarterly inventory freshness checks to make sure that the products on the shelves are of the best quality they can be. We pull products that have not been sold quickly enough out of circulation. These products are not “expired” or too old to use, but too old to sell and give customers 6+ months of use. We donate these products to a local organization that works with Women’s Shelters, Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CCADV).
We also offer our stockists an exchange for fresh products if their stock gets old because it's important to us that all customers only use fresh products.
Apoterra has made a commitment to sustainably sourcing high quality ingredients. What do you look for when choosing growers and suppliers?
Usually with smaller farms, we are closer to the process and we will get updates on specific details, like when they are harvesting. With the bigger producers and distributors, I look for evidence - what information are they giving us about their production? For example if there’s no harvest date, then there is no guarantee that the plant, oil or hydrosol, will arrive will be fresh.
"With the bigger producers and distributors, I look for evidence."
Other factors we look at is if they have a ‘certificate of analysis’ and their quality control - we look at the frequency of their batch testing and what review processes they have in place.
When sourcing essential oils I try to only work with distillers and distributors that offer GCMS testing (gas chromatography–mass spectrometry) because the quality of essential oils vary so much between harvest and distillation. Depending on the chemical composition of the oil, the same plant species can have very different effects.
Once ingredients arrive at Apoterra we have checks in place to make sure they meet our standards. When we are talking about whole plants there's a certain vitality we look for - you can quickly tell when something has aged or hasn't been stored properly by the visual appearance, the color, and the scent. Using dried peppermint leaves as an example, we would expect it to arrive fragrant and a vibrant green color.
What kind of quality control measures does Apoterra implement to keep raw materials potent?
There are a few factors that play a part in keeping ingredients effective.
Vitamin and nutrient content decreases over time, so we track the age of all our ingredients and run quarterly audits - before we go into production we do a final check that all ingredients are still fresh and vibrant.
Temperature, light and exposure to oxygen also degrade quality. Our storage room where we keep all our ingredients is controlled at lower than room temperature and kept dark. Certain ingredients are stored in air tight containers and others, like some of our essential oils and hydrosols, are kept refrigerated in order to preserve freshness.
In 2015 you introduced the batch number system, which details the country of origin and ingredient certifications. Why is it so important to provide supply chain clarity transparency?
My inspiration for Apoterra came from changing my own lifestyle, in terms of trying to eat local, organic produce and starting to pay attention to where things came from. Then I started thinking about my skincare products, what I was putting on my body - as well as in my body.
I found there was very little transparency in the sourcing of ingredients, you might have olive oil or coconut oil as the base of a product but I wondered where it was coming from.
It's just not possible to list where all these natural ingredients come from on a label but I felt like that was a really important missing piece in terms of transparency, sustainability and quality.
I envisioned a system where you can look up the batch number on the product itself and then find out detailed information on our website not only about the ingredients but also the farmer or distiller behind the ingredients. It's still a goal of mine and I will slowly start connecting our customers to the farmers behind the beautiful ingredients in our products.
I’m really excited about a pilot program this summer with a local farm here in Connecticut. The farmer will be growing for us several of the herbs that go into our in-house herbal infusions. I am planning to launch the first “Meet the Farmer” information page around her to connect you with the process.
One of the things that sets Apoterra apart is a commitment to both sustainability & effectiveness. Have these been part of the brand’s DNA since inception?
When I started Apoterra (formerly Caru Skincare Co) in 2012, my initial vision was to create something that was healthy, effective, and as eco-friendly as possible.
When sourcing ingredients, we think about sustainability on a few different levels. From farming practices (we mostly purchase certified organic or thoughtfully wildcrafted ingredients) to the general sustainability of harvesting an ingredient. For example, I LOVE sandalwood. Unfortunately the production of this essential oil is raw material intensive. Sandalwood is a tree that takes a long time to grow (up to 40 years!) and it has to be cut down to create the essential oil. It's almost impossible to harvest in a sustainable way. Palo santo is another tree that is difficult to harvest sustainably. This is why you won't see either ingredient (among others) in our products as it's not sustainable to use them.
Our packaging and the way we ship our products are also considered. Part of my goal this year is to review and refine our packaging. We currently use glass, we print on recycled paper when possible, our soap labels are 100% post consumer waste, and we ship using biodegradable materials. I want to go a step further with how we think about it, eliminating the need for virgin materials and creating value for recycled material. I also want to find a viable solution for the caps and security seals we use.
Learn more about Apoterra's environmental commitment here.
About the Author
Bridie Woodward is a creative producer, herbalist and writer living in Lisbon, Portugal.