Sourcing ingredients from nature and only taking what you need is a more sustainable approach to skincare and holistic health – here’s what you need to know
In recent years, Millennials have been trading the chaotic city life for something more simple: rural and pastoral lifestyles. So, it’s no surprise that the beauty industry is starting to reflect that. Indeed naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau (author of the acclaimed title Walden) would be pleased to hear that two new sustainably-minded trends are showing a distinct return to nature: wildcrafting and foraging, concepts that are similar but slightly different.
“Wildcrafted beauty products refer to brands to source their ingredients from nature, whether from wild-tended gardens or completely natural settings, while the foraging trend refers to the hobby of going into nature to find wild herbs, flowers, and botanicals to use for food, holistic health, or skincare,” explains Mallory Huron, beauty editor at Fashion Snoops. “Essentially, it’s a return to nature by empowering oneself with knowledge of wild plants; whether as a brand looking to wildcrafted botanicals, or as a consumer harvesting local wild herbs as a hobby.”
The act of foraging itself, according to dermatologist Joshua Zeicher, MD, stems from the concept of living off the local land and getting everything you need to survive directly from nature; it’s an idea that stems from pre-industrial revolution, nomadic times, which is focused on picking botanicals and herbs. Foraging in the beauty space involves hunter-gathering for wild plants and other things that are used for consumer products but doing so in a way that still preserves plants and ecosystems.
The two trends follow a recent rise in small-batch, indie skincare brands. “Botanicals and herbs are key here, especially in terms of rare, seasonal ingredients, or crops that are difficult to grow on a large scale,” Huron says. Along these lines, beneficial skin care ingredients are being taken from nature to create alternative, more sustainable DIY-centric products. “Sourcing smaller batches of ingredients that are grown in a more natural, ‘wild’ way is certainly more sustainable in theory than harvesting ingredients in a way that ruins soil health, contributes to deforestation, or ruins indigenous and rural communities.”
Though some important questions the trend forecaster says we must consider before going out into the wild to harvest our own plants include: Are ingredients being harvested in a controlled way that will allow for natural regeneration? Have brands consulted with any local or indigenous communities who may rely on these ingredients for their cultural practices or livelihood? In harvesting a large batch of wild botanicals, is it disrupting the local ecosystem? No product is truly sustainable if it’s hurting animals, people, or the environment.
With wildcrafting, ingredients are grown just as Mother Nature intended. Huron says this means that they don’t use pesticides, fertiliser, or human-made processes, and they are imbued with more “natural goodness”, which translates to better, healthier benefits for the skin or body. “Wildcrafted ingredients are perfect for consumers who are looking to reduce their connection to mass-farmed products, and to support smaller brands that are more in-tune with their local environment,” she explains. While traditional skincare products are formulated with preservatives to prevent bacterial contamination, DIY skin care is much more short-lived because they can become contaminated quickly.
The act of foraging itself stems from the concept of living off the local land and getting everything you need to survive directly from nature
Fashion Snoops has been tracking brands wildcrafting ingredients like frequent forager Wilder North Botanicals, Woodspell Apothecary, which wild-harvests health tonics tied to the moon’s different phases, and Island Apothecary, an indie skincare brand whose small-batch, limited-edition Rose Hydrosol and Calendula Oil are harvested from gardens and outcroppings straight from their tiny Maine island. Monastery, a skin-care company that uses wild-foraged ingredients, harvest them from places all over the world including South Africa, Greece, California, Canada.
Though Zeichner says that it’s important to keep in mind that an ingredient list and creating a safe and effective product are separate issues. “Many of the botanical ingredients used in skin care products are actually highly concentrated extracts taken from the original source; these ingredients may require special formulations to allow them to remain stable.”
For an active ingredient to be effective, it must penetrate the skin, which is another distinguishing factor between purchasing a pre-formulated, tested skincare product as compared to picking the ingredient yourself from nature. “Chamomile, for example, is known to have skin soothing benefits which is why it is used for patients with sensitive skin. However, there is a big difference between applying a chamomile infused skin care product versus putting a freshly picked leaf on your face,” he says. There are some ingredients that can be used farm-to-table on the skin, like avocado which is rich in fatty acids, vitamin E, and has emollient benefits. “It can be applied directly to the skin as a mask for hydrating benefits.”
While botanical ingredients can be useful, natural is not always better; poison ivy, for example, is all natural but it’s also poisonous. “If you are picking plant-based ingredients from the fields, you must be sure that they are what you think they are and that they have not been in contact with any potentially harmful ingredients, such as animal droppings or poison ivy,” says Zeichner. Foragers must be careful when harvesting and be cautious with poisonous varieties of mushrooms, berries, and barks, plus fertiliser and toxic waste. Before applying foraged plants to the skin, Huron recommends educating oneself on the best practices; in fact there’s a wide variety of virtual seminars, Instagram and TikTok influencers, and online resources to help new foragers steer clear of these pitfalls.
Why is this happening? Due to the ongoing global pandemic lockdowns, consumers are appreciating nature found in their own backyards, neighbourhoods, and local parks or forests. “In a world where there’s little safe opportunities for exploration, foraging provides a unique focus to reconnect with the outdoors and gain new skills,” Huron says. “In addition to the desire to wander and explore, there’s a deep need to become more self-sufficient.” The pandemic, she believes, has also revealed how dependent we are on capitalism and how helpless we are without global supply chains.
“The idea that (in a worst-case scenario) we’re unable to feed ourselves without access to a grocery store is alarming to most consumers, who like to think of themselves as more self-reliant than they actually are,” Huron says. “Foraging provides skills and knowledge of the natural world, comforting consumers that they could, if necessary, fend for themselves.” Beauty and survivalism have officially merged and there’s a solid group of foraging influencers to prove it.
Iris Law shows followers “how to make delicious recipes like Wild Garlic and Cheddar Scones from foraged herbs, complete with a dreamy, ethereal cottagecore aesthetic,” Huron explains. “That said, Black women are really playing a key role in educating and popularizing the foraging trend; Alexis Nikole of the blackforger shows followers how to make delectable options like Cone Jam or tree bark syrup.” Then there’s thought leaders like Dr Fushcia Hoover of ecogreenqueen who Huron says have created a “Black Girl’s Guide to Foraging,” showing how followers can delight in the foraging trend, from harvested acorns, dandelions, and self-seeded tomatoes from the parks and green spaces of urban areas.
Practicing mindfulness while harvesting is key, which is why Akar Beauty, a Tibetan-inspired skincare brand that only harvests sea buckthorn and goji berries, its star ingredients once a year. "While we could harvest everything there, or even harvest three or four times a year, two or three years down the road, the crops would all be gone," Kate Chen, founder of the brand told Allure in April 2020. "That's exactly why you need to be mindful when you harvest."
Though the likelihood of these practices being scaled is not high. ”The beauty of foraging is that it is small scale, and therefore is inherently causing less damage than large-scale crops; It also contributes to the magic of foraging – that, perhaps, a little bunch of wild garlic that you come across in the woods was growing just for you, and had you not decided to wander on the path you had, you wouldn’t have found them,” says Huron. When it comes down to it, the spontaneity and unpredictability of foraging is part of what makes it so exciting and while it is considered a sustainable practice, she doesn’t see a way to scale it up and preserve the eco-friendly or charming aspects of it.