The all-natural, all-Black-owned marketplace has been quietly decolonizing the clean beauty scene for three years.

 

Jessica DeFino
Jul 27, 2020 @ 2:42 pm
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Credit: Instagram, @drkristianh

What is clean beauty? And—for that matter—green beauty, eco-friendly beauty, and natural beauty? In Clean, Green, And In Between, beauty expert Jessica DeFino explores the ins and outs of these buzzy terms, reports on the products and ingredients to look out for, and answers all of your most pressing questions.

In the beginning, Black and Brown communities laid the foundation for clean beauty. They crafted it from African moringa oil and shea butter, Indian turmeric and gotu kola, Egyptian rose water and olive oil so many centuries ago.

Sometime between then and now—perhaps around the start of Western colonialism in the 1400s or modern capitalism in the 1600s, to take a couple of wild guesses—that foundation was co-opted. It was commercialized, commodified. It was mass-produced and pre-packaged, rebranded for the white and wealthy. The version of "clean beauty" perpetuated by the media, mega-retailers, and luxury brands today is one that often leaves out the communities who created it—and the communities who need it most.

“[Conventional products marketed to] Black women are curated with ingredients that are linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and reproductive damage,” Kristian Henderson, DrPH, who holds a doctorate in public health from Johns Hopkins, tells HelloGiggles. After reading a study attesting to that fact, Dr. Henderson set out to clean up her own beauty routine. “A couple months later, I read the book Our Black Year by Maggie Anderson, and it talked about the importance of Black people financially supporting Black-owned brands,” she says. “Her writing was so good it convinced me to also buy Black.” 

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There was just one problem: Tracking down skincare, haircare, and makeup brands that were both clean and Black-owned proved difficult. Dr. Henderson’s solution? Launching BLK+GRN, the all-natural marketplace by all Black artisans that’s been working to decolonize the clean beauty scene for three years.

Ahead, the founder talks to HelloGiggles about the importance of clean beauty for Black women, her personal favorite products from BLK+GRN, and the triumphs and challenges of being a Black business owner in the age of Black Lives Matter.

HelloGiggles: What initially sparked your interest in clean beauty?

Dr. Kristian Henderson: I read a study that showed products marketed to Black women are more toxic than products marketed to every other demographic. When I read that I was like, “Oh my God, that is so awful.” I went on my own personal journey of trying to use as many natural and clean products as possible, and I had this long list I was keeping of all the products I was buying. What I found in the Black-owned beauty space was that the natural brands were small brands. It was so much work to find them. I figured even if other people were interested, they wouldn’t put all this effort in. I wanted to make it easier. That’s how BLK+GRN was born. 

HG: What’s going on here? Why do you think the beauty products targeted toward the Black community are so much more harmful than your average beauty product? 

KH: I have a couple of theories. The first theory is that traditionally, African American women—African American people in general—often shop for cheaper things because money is scarce. I think the industry can make products cheaper by ensuring they are full of chemicals [and preservatives] so they can sit on the shelf for a long time. I think because we’re looking for a cheap price, oftentimes we’re going to get a product with more [toxic] chemicals. 

The second thought is that in our community, I feel like products are passed down. That means that people use the same products that their mother and grandparents use, and they don't ask questions about what’s in it. It’s what they’ve always used, so it’s normalized. They don’t turn the bottle over to read the ingredients. We aren’t paying attention to what’s what. Ingredients are hard to understand anyway—just reading the label doesn’t tell you [safety] information. 

The other part of it is I think that with the beauty standards that exist in America, Black women often want to look as less Black as possible. They’re trying to straighten their hair and trying to bleach their skin, and, of course, there are chemicals doing that stuff. A big thing we talk about at BLK+GRN is trying to make people love themselves and not feel pressured to make yourself look like you’re not a Black woman anymore. 

The part that is really surprising to me is that Black women are spending money on this stuff. The marketing is working. Black women spend twice as much as anyone else, but we’re spending twice as much and buying awful products. That part makes me sad. 

HG: When you started toying with the idea of launching BLK+GRN, how did you know there was even an audience looking for natural, clean products from Black-owned brands? Was there proof of market?

KH: Honestly, no. I wasn’t sure at all. I had a blog that I was writing on, and I had talked a little bit about it, like, “Is this something you guys would be interested in?” I just went ahead with my idea because I thought this could be something. I took a leap of faith.

HG: How did you decide what brands and products to launch with on the BLK+GRN marketplace?

KH: Everything has to be tested and tried by me. I don’t bring anything on BLK+GRN that I or someone on my team hasn’t tried and confirmed that it works. Since I had tried so many products, that was an easy place for me to start. 

HG: BLK+GRN has a “Toxic Twenty” list, a list of 20 ingredients that you do not tolerate in the products you carry. There are some familiar words (parabens, coal tar) and some not-so-familiar (triphenyl phosphate, resorcinol). How did you decide which ingredients to ban?

KH: I did a lot of reading trying to figure out which ingredients are the most toxic and which are really harmful. I also looked to countries that do a better job at this than we [the United States] do. If they don’t allow this, then why don’t they allow it? I would dig in, figure out why they don’t allow it, then say, “Okay, I guess that’s a smart thing to not allow.” And that’s where it all got started.

HG: What are some of your favorite products on the BLK+GRN site right now?

KH: I get this question all the time, and I always say, like a parent, that you love all your kids. It’s really hard for me to pick just one product because I love them all. Since I’m always sampling products, I don’t have a favorite; I’m always trying something new. 

HG: Obviously, Black-owned brands have been getting a lot of attention lately, following the death of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. What has the past month been like for you—emotionally, economically—both as a business owner and as a Black woman? 

KH: I think a part of me is frustrated because I’ve been doing this for three years. I’m frustrated it took a tragedy to make everyone else open their eyes. Like, This is what it took to make you realize that this is important? Okay. I’m saddened by that. 

I definitely have seen growth, though—business has probably doubled. My audience is also changing. Traditionally, I’ve always served Black women, but now I see an increase in white people buying from me. That’s a new thing that is happening. Then, also, because unfortunately white guilt exists, we’re getting more and more emails from [white] people trying to express their appreciation and their gratitude. On some level, I have work to do and you’re clogging my inbox. At one point it was like, “There’s no way I can go through all these emails.” On the other level, I know you’re trying to show me you care—but the best way to show me you care is to go buy products. 

HG: Has that growth changed your plans for the future of BLK+GRN at all?

KH: No, my plans have always been the same. The marketplace of BLK+GRN has always existed from day one, but the doubling has allowed me to push up my to-do list. 

HG: So what’s next on that to-do list?

KH: One of the items on the list is we’re going to start a book club. I’m really big on the thought that what you ingest becomes a part of your body, essentially. A lot of people think of ingesting food and will be like, “Okay, I won’t eat sugary foods, I won’t eat fatty foods.” I’m working on people understanding that what you put on your skin is ingested into your bloodstream, too, so it can also have health effects. Then the next level is what you watch and what you read you also ingest. I want to start helping people ingest positive things, uplifting things, and I want to make space for Black authors, so I’m starting a book club where we read books by Black authors. 

I also want to control the supply chain from the very beginning to the very end. My artisans are making products, but where are they getting those raw ingredients from? Eventually, I want to be a supplier of raw ingredients and work with Black commerce to do that.

HG: There’s a great quote on your Instagram page: “The wellness movement is forcing Black women to redefine what it means to be a happy Black woman.” What does being a happy Black woman mean to you?

KH: I have a really good self-care routine where I take time alone every day to do my own thing. I have those tough conversations with myself where I think through problems. I have a love box, or a love mason jar. I made a list of all the stuff I like to do, then I rip it up, put it in the jar, and pick one out—these are the things that make me happy. Go walk outside, go play with my son. Whenever I’m feeling sad or down, I go to that mason jar and pick something out because I know it will make me happy. I’m a yoga teacher, too, so I’ll do yoga. 

I also think it’s important to understand your values, your tenets, the things that are really important to you. I want every decision I make to be consistent with my beliefs. I believe that buying Black is really important, so I’m going to make sure I do that all the time, because I believe Black people are important. The way you spend money oftentimes reflects your values, and so I try to make sure I always do that. 

Shop BLK+GRN at blkgrn.com.