On my WhatsApp group chat there’s a friend who is so evangelical about apple cider vinegar that I call her ‘Aunty ACV’ thanks to her consistent wisdom about how it's changed her (skincare) life – and how it could change mine, too. Whether it’s a spoonful of the acrid concoction in hot water or mixed with Aztec healing clay for a mask, I now can’t live without it.
Tales of the benefits of natural beauty concoctions aren’t limited to one-off posts on a group chat. This movement in the beauty world has been bubbling for some time and, logically speaking, it makes perfect sense that we’d react against our polluted urban centres and lust for a return to nature. The trend towards ‘natural’ or ‘raw’ skincare has taken off in what might be a natural extension of veganism, entering the mainstream in a huge way, and the last year has seen an opportunity to merge ancient techniques – many of which originate in global communities of colour – with current skincare routines. If coconut oil was the trend of 2015, current beauty blogs present products like Aztec healing clay, turmeric, manuka honey masks, charcoal, and ACV as staples.
Brands like Holland & Barrett are at the forefront of educating consumers about the benefits of using what nature provides. Lucy Pottinger, head of category beauty and aromatherapy at H&B says that there’s a clear market for this kind of back-to-basics beauty. “Charcoal, due to its association with detox/absorbing toxins, has seen a massive spike in sales over the last two years,” she says. “All our products have seen a 50% increase and to help with this demand in popularity, we have listed an additional 16 products. We have seen a 90% increase in turmeric product sales over the past few months and apple cider vinegar tablets have increased by 40%.”
YouTubers like Farah Dhukai, SunKissAlba and Cali Curls showcase everything from egg and mayo hair masks to rosehip oil moisturisers; new platforms are springing up to cater to the growing interest in – and market for – this kind of beauty advice. Mahtab Laghaei is one of them. She started her UK beauty website Sabzi & Saffron last year to share tips on homemade remedies after she felt disillusioned with current beauty offerings. "I had invested a lot in store-bought face masks, some claiming to be all natural, organic and others pioneering the power of chemicals," she says. "However, no matter how expensive they were, I would never get the desired effect promised. Additionally, I have very sensitive skin, so I would quickly react to harsh ingredients (regardless of how minute its composition was)." A brief look at the site shows yoghurt and coriander masks, tea and avocado pairings.
Natural products have been rebranded, coming a long way from the tree-hugging stigma of the '90s. Much of this might be a reaction to the unrelenting demands of the beauty industry. Now, we have more accessible information about the uses of rosehip oil on skin before bed (recommend) and cold-pressed coconut oil on eyelashes to stimulate growth (also recommend) by trusted sources. For many, reclaiming our faces is as much about education as it is about the ritual of self-care – sending a simple message that we are self-sustainable.
Pottinger says: "I think it’s true that natural has taken on a new life. Now natural beauty products are much more effective than their first generation versions. I think that’s a combination of both brands getting better with formulations, and also customers learning about ingredients and what they’re really putting on their skin. We’ve seen a trend towards ‘cleaner beauty’, which is about empowering customers to know more about what’s really in their products."
Of course, much of this is a realisation of what communities across the world have known for millennia; turmeric and its inflammatory properties have always been part of Indian Ayurvedic techniques, and raw shea butter and black soap have been staples in many African communities. If anything, mainstream beauty influencers are only now catching up.
The trend isn’t just about affordable skincare, though. It feels representative of a sea change in our relationship with chemicals (just as many women have been turning off hormonal contraceptives) and how we've changed since Naomi Wolf wrote about the beauty myth of corporate industry promises back in the '90s. Now, brands recognise the business case for including labelling terms such as ‘plant extracts’ and ‘natural’ for incredibly large city-dwelling markets, desperately trying to reap the benefits of living off the earth without actually living anywhere near grass, fields and, well, the earth.
Beauty writer Tolani Shoneye makes the case for individuals taking control. "Beauty is not for an elite bunch of people who can afford dermatologists or fancy products," she says. "You can now mix things you have at home, and tailor it to your skin type." She has also noticed a shift in where our trusted sources are. "Younger consumers don't look to magazines alone for beauty tips. They are watching YouTube videos, they are seeing Instagram videos, and they are sharing tips online. As a teenager, I was not clued up about beauty and skincare. I used soap and was seen as fancy because I moisturised. I put toothpaste on my spots. Younger people are more clued up now."
It might also be true that creating mini trial and error rituals in our bathrooms is a response to the rise in affordable spas. ACV face masks, self-whipped shea butter moisturisers and avocado oil hair treatments all rely on the ritual of self-care, taking time to have agency over what goes on your face by doing it yourself.
The desire to be connected with our old stories and nature, while creating something for ourselves, is all part of the quest for self-care. Take a deep breath, and listen to ancient wisdom. Apple cider vinegar at the ready.