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The beauty industry is guilty of cultural appropriation. Time and time again, we've seen beauty brands steal styles and practices from other cultures and attempt to repackage them as something "new" or "buzzy." The appropriation of hairstyles significant to Black culture like cornrows or the whitewashing of ancient Chinese wellness tools like gua sha are just a few examples that have been brought to the forefront. These acts alone are deeply problematic, but this issue also extends to ingredients.
Every country has plants and herbs indigenous to their land. But, what happens when brands who are not native to that land swoop in and audit their agriculture for use in their formulas? Throughout history, white-owned beauty and skincare companies have engaged in a pattern of sourcing materials from marginalized cultures in a quest to find the industry's next "trendy" ingredient. In doing so, they often fail to maintain an ingredient's cultural integrity and history.
African, Asian, Latin, and Indigenous cultures have all been affected by the colonization of their ingredients. The Eurocentric mindset skincare and beauty brands have operated with creates a two-fold problem. First, their failure to acknowledge the ingredient's native origins is a form of erasure. Second, they perpetuate the false narrative that a culture's ingredients are only worthy if fused with Western technology.
The Impact of Ingredient Appropriation
"When brands are thinking about their positioning, I think sometimes the convenient thing to do is just pluck that ingredient and insert it into whatever narrative they're trying to use or leave out things that are inconvenient for their narrative," founder of African beauty brand 54 Thrones Christina Funke Tegbe says. "I think that is one of the most damaging things that a brand can do."
As a Southern American with Nigerian roots, Funke Tegbe created her beauty brand to center the diversity and richness of Africa. 54 Thrones sources ingredients like shea butter from the continent via sustainable and ethical methods, which Funke Tegbe takes great pride in. Failing to respect the rich ancestral significance of ingredients native to Africa is the fatal misstep she sees many brands making.
"Africans were enslaved and taken from all different parts of Africa," Funke Tegbe says. "We were made to forget our names and our languages. We didn't have the foods we were used to, and we didn't have our ingredients. So, whenever I think about someone using an ingredient like Marula oil and acting like it popped up out of nowhere, it is so dismissive to African culture and history and Black culture and history."
Whenever I think about someone using an ingredient like Marula oil and acting like it popped up out of nowhere, it is so dismissive to African culture and history and Black culture and history.
Christina Kelmon and Ann Dunning, founders of clean skincare brand Vamigas, share similar frustrations surrounding erasure. Kelmon is a fourth-generation Mexican-American, and Dunning is Chilean-American. The duo joined forces to address the fact that Latinas are often ignored by skincare and wellness brands, yet these same brands constantly use Latin American ingredients.
"Ingredients like quinoa, chia, maqui, rosa masqueta, prickly pear, and yerba mate have become a major part of wellness," Dunning says. "But the background of all these ingredients [history] has been essentially erased. Brands are using these ingredients without any reference to where they come from. How are you going to take ingredients from our homelands and then exclude us?"
The Harmful Effects of East-Meets-West Rhetoric
Sara Ku, the founder of Filipino coconut skincare brand Kaya Essentials, has qualms with the ways brands have used Asian ingredients. And Ku's experiences have further illuminated the lack of space given to the storytelling of ingredients. In conversations with other entrepreneurs about her plans to celebrate coconut oil's connection to the Philippines through her brand, she's received pushback. "The advice that I would get is to market [coconut oil] from the point of view of discovering it," she says. "I pushed back on that because that disregards the cultural heritage of coconut oil in our community. If we look at the cultural significance of coconut oil, it's not a trend for South and Southeast Asian communities. This also made me realize [ingredient] storytelling is from a Western point of view."
If we look at the cultural significance of coconut oil, it's not a trend for South and Southeast Asian communities.
This brings to light the issue of the romanticized East-meets-West rhetoric many brands spew when they appropriate ingredients from other cultures. It gives way to the notion that Western methods are needed to improve a nation's already rich natural ingredients. "The belief that if an ingredient is manufactured in a lab with Western technology makes it better totally disregards the fact that ancestrally, it has been used for generations," Ku says.
This narrative also promotes the exoticization of ingredients, which again sends the message that they aren't special until they are "discovered" by Western companies. "There is a strong exoticism of [Asian ingredients]," she expresses. "Brands usually describe it as, 'We've searched the ends of the earth to find this' or 'We found this from this village.' That also disregards what that ingredient means for that particular community."
What Does Cultural Appreciation of Ingredients Look Like?
There's a thin line between cultural appreciation and appropriation in beauty, and historically, brands have repeatedly engaged in the latter. So, what does true decolonization of ingredients look like? It starts with cultural attribution. If you're going to source ingredients from cultures that are not your own, preserving and citing the ancestral importance of those ingredients at every touchpoint is the bare minimum.
For Funke Tegbe, who often visits the cooperatives in Africa that produce her ingredients, respecting the native people is paramount. "I'm Nigerian, but there are so many other countries [in Africa] that I'm not from," she says. "When visiting those countries, I come on my knees, and I'm open to listening and learning. There are certain ceremonies I've witnessed that I won't make a product out of because it's something very deep and close to the community. It's important to have that discernment."
She also says honoring a culture means ensuring a healthy working environment for the people producing the ingredients. This is especially critical as many international countries still engage in illegal and dangerous child labor and forced labor practices. "I want to work with the people who grow these things [in Africa] and make sure they're getting paid what they need to get paid," Funke Tegbe adds.
Ku seconds this point, and in addition to sourcing her coconut oil responsibly, she has developed give-back initiatives that help support the Philippines. "Ask yourself: Are you supporting local farmer communities? Are there fair trade practices in place?" she says. "My belief is if you're taking something from a community, you have to treat that community with the respect and dignity they deserve."
If you're taking something from a community, you have to treat that community with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Brands like 54 Thrones, Kaya Essentials, and Vamigas offer a blueprint for what it means to remove the colonialist mindset from skincare. By honoring their country's customs in a holistically authentic way, they also serve as a powerful example of reclamation. "We have a right to [these ingredients], and our ancestors created this," Kelmon says. "We want to decolonize ingredients by owning part of that market. We want to educate people about where [these ingredients] come from and encourage more money to flow into these indigenous communities."
Some non-BIPOC-owned beauty brands have begun to do their due diligence—publicly amplifying their ingredients' cultural backstory and supporting the countries that power their products. But, there is still more work to be done. Bottom line: Times up on brands cherry-picking and Columbusing ingredients from communities of color and not giving them the credit or support they deserve.