I remember the first time I was introduced to Laurel Skin creations. At first meeting, I was astounded by the vibrancy and purity of the products. And then when I began to dig dipper and discover their uncompromising ingredient and sourcing standards? I was inspired. It’s not too often a brand inspires within us feelings of doing better, not just for ourselves and our own health, but for the health of Mother Earth and the sustainability of those who harvest her beautiful gifts. But that’s just what Laurel WPO does: it inspires deeply. Because, while Laurel WPO’s creations are technically considered skincare, they are so much more transcendent than that label: they are catalysts for healing and self-love, as well as carriers of hope for a future in which artisan farmers are continually celebrated and ever-thriving.
I am honored to have had the opportunity to sit down for a cup of tea (metaphorically via email) with Laurel Shaffer, the founder/plant whisperer/master herbalist/engine of love behind Laurel WPO, to ask her some questions about how she is leading the way in the slow beauty industry with unparalleled sourcing, a commitment to farmers, and a mission built on transparency.
First, let me start by saying I am deeply excited to have the chance to speak with you, Laurel. I am a major fan! I'd love to start by diving right in and discussing sourcing. When I first discovered your products, one of the first things that stood out to me was their vibrancy and efficacy - a true testament to your sourcing. How did you begin sourcing directly from artisan farmers? Why is this so essential not only for the purity of the products, but also the health of the earth?
When I first started selling my products after finishing my herbal medicine studies, I started selling them at farmers markets. This was amazing, because looking back now, I consider that extreme “market research!” I saw the same customers week after week, and they were honest and direct with their feedback. This was great for me as I was starting out. These farmers markets were some of the biggest in the country, so I was able to meet so many farmers! I was exposed to ingredients and information that I wouldn’t have been otherwise. This is when I first started sourcing locally, by simply collaborating with the farmers I spent time with at the market each week. We still work with many of them today!
I think sourcing in this unique way impacts our brand’s carbon footprint on the environment as well as the efficacy of our products. If it CAN grow in our California climate, then it’s quite painful for my heart to source it from India, Bulgaria or China. There is carbon footprint and an environmental effect to consider in getting these ingredients around the globe when it’s otherwise not necessary. In regards to efficacy, in my experience with sourcing, the farther an ingredient has to travel the lesser quality that ingredient will be. People often speak of “Bulgarian roses” and “French lavender,” but honestly I can find much better quality when I work with local small-scale artisan farmers. The ingredients are always fresher, I have direct contact with them, and there is no middle man. The ingredients are also more expensive!! Just our Chamomile for example is 4x more expensive than if we were to buy it internationally, and even at that high rate our farmers are still selling it to us for less than the minimal wage it takes for them to grow, harvest and process. It really makes you wonder how things are done when it comes to these bulk commercial herbs.
I've heard you create an Abundant Harvest facial for spa partners. This seems so incredible - your commitment to your farmers is extraordinary. Could you please discuss what Abundant Harvest is and how the idea came about? Why is it so important to you to nurture your relationships with your farmers beyond the typical sourcing partnership?
Abundant Harvest is a program we developed to benefit two groups - it benefits our spas and estheticians by offering unique highly potent plant medicine and it benefits our farms by using what grows in abundance for them each season, that they otherwise might not be able to sell. Most skincare lines that work with spas and estheticians will offer what they call a “professional” line or a “backbar” line. These are products that are typically a bit stronger than what you would use every day at home, and they also might be trickier to use - so they should be used by skin professionals. Typically, you see this with chemical peels or extra strength retinols. We needed to do something in our own unique “whole plant” way, so we came up with these extra strength raw plant powders, that are meant to be mixed together and customized based on the client, as well as compressing facial teas. I also learned long ago that when a plant is growing “abundantly” (you know the plant that always thrives and simply takes over your garden?), those plants are the most powerful medicine, because they are the healthiest and completely uninhibited. By focusing on those plants, I am creating a more potent product. I reformulate the Abundant Harvest backbar line each year, based on what is most potent, healthy and abundant. This also serves our environment and community on a micro and macro scale. On a micro scale, this benefits our farmers by purchasing what would be excess for them. On a macro scale, I think this sends a message that “trendy ingredients” don’t always provide the most potent plant medicine, nor are they always good for our environment. Many plants are wild harvested to the point of endangerment, and even organic mono-cropping is not good for the soil. I feel it’s my job to create potent effective products, not to follow trends about which ingredients are being talked about in the media in that moment. Oh, and as for why it’s important to support our small local farmers - gosh to keep them in business! Their work is so important, and I am living my own dream by helping them live theirs. :)
In your creations, you use whole plants instead of utilizing various ingredients derived from plants. The way I look at it, it's like the difference between taking an isolated vitamin A supplement derived from carrots versus eating the carrots in their whole, natural state and obtaining the full nutrient and phytochemical profile in the process. Could you please detail what led you to create products with whole plants, why this is so beneficial, and what it means long-term for the health of clients’ skin?
Yes, that carrot analogy is kind of what it’s like. However, most “natural” isolated supplements are actually synthetic. They are “bio-identical” naturals. And when they do come from plants, it’s typically corn or soy, and can go through a dozen different chemical processes as well, so it’s not exactly a romantic “natural” picture. I am not one of those people who thinks “synthetics are evil,” despite what many may assume based on my strong feelings about this. What I believe more than that is that we are not smarter than nature. That is so silly for even the most skilled cosmetic chemist to believe. In just one plant there could be 500 phytochemicals, including ones that we really don’t understand at all yet. Yet, many cosmetic chemists simply choose to focus on 10 “natural” isolated compounds that they understand to offer the most benefits. That just rings silly to me. I love all aspects of science and look at each plant and phytochemical through the lens of studies and facts. I also love that there is so much that we don’t know. I think of a plant as something that is whole and perfect, and there isn’t anything I can do to make it better. I consider isolates as ways to treat symptoms, often temporarily. And I consider whole plants to truly improve the overall health of our skin. Much like taking a pharmaceutical for a symptom as opposed to eating healthy and exercising to improve our overall health. Many people don’t think of those natural isolates as pharmaceuticals, but they are…they aren’t being made by the small indie green beauty brands that use them, they are made by the same huge pharmaceutical companies that make drugs.
Laurel products are abounding with nutrient-rich extracts like Nettle, Gotu Kola, and Lemon Balm that you all create in-house. That's so exciting! How do you all create your extracts and how do extracts increase the vitality of a formulation?
Gosh, we work with plants in lots of different ways, and some are in-house and some not. We work with some artisan purveyors for things like cold pressed raw oils, hydrosols, and essential oils; and then as you said, we make many of our own extracts in-house. We use a three-month solar oil infusion with our plants, but we’ve also perfected that process and do it in a unique way to extract many additional nutrients that are not only oil soluble but also water. I don't want to give all of that away! We also work with water infusions, biodynamic grape alcohol infusions, and organic coconut glycerin infusions. Each plant is different, so we treat each one differently. Different types of extracts draw out different constituents from each plant, and our goal is to have as wide array of nutrients as possible…this is why we use so many different techniques. Our next steps are to begin freeze drying in-house, as well as doing our own carbon dioxide compressions of plants… both are just more ways to emphasize different chemical components of plants.
You are truly committed to transparency along your supply chain and chain of creation. It's amazing. Could you please give us some insight into why you are devoted to such transparency and what actions you take to ensure you maintain this transparency?
Yes! My own desire for transparency comes from my own frustration of wanting it when it wasn’t there. For many brands, it still isn’t there, and that is incredibly upsetting for me. I remember when I was first discovering organic products, I really loved this “Peach Mask” by a brand I won’t name. I remember the warnings on the jar, “don’t ingest,” “poison control” - things of that nature, when from a marketing perspective it really was just suggesting it only contained peaches and other whole organic plants. Still to this day, this exact same brand lies constantly on their ingredient labels…creating formulas that I know first-hand to be impossible. I just don’t like that personally, and I want to be honest. As for supply chain it’s really the same thing. I do things with a lot of integrity. I want my choices to benefit our suppliers, benefit the planet, and in the end TRULY benefit the skin of our customers. None of my choices are to benefit our bottom line. That’s why transparency in our industry is important to me. Who are these choices being made to benefit?
As a user of your products, I can feel the love that goes into every bottle. It seems like part of this is possible because the Laurel team creates everything in your Open Lab in Sausalito. Did you always know you wanted to have your own Open Lab? How does it enhance the love that’s the center of it all?
Absolutely. I could never trust a manufacturer to make our products or to source the ingredients to the quality that we do. That is what I love to do. To give that away would be to lose what I love doing. I have met with labs to stay open minded, but when it came to sourcing discussions, I was always let down by their dishonesty or perhaps ignorance regarding quality sourcing. And yeah, the LOVE part!!! That is the best part! I love our small team! They are the best. I couldn’t do it without them. I think having things that are made by human hands is invaluable.
You have extraordinary knowledge about plants and their incredible goodness. You coined the phrase "Plant Medicine for the Skin." I love that so much. What is one of your favorite plants and why?
Oh, this is a tough one. I think any herbalist will always say they love all plants, because they are all so unique. But most herbalists I know do have a spirit plant. My own spirit plant is Scarlet Pimpernel. From an energetic perspective she represents joy, laughter and resilience. And from a medicinal skin perspective, I love her for hyperpigmentation, sun damage, and for a circulatory boost. She loves the sun and thrives in it. So, it’s only logical that all the flavonoids and other phytochemicals in her make-up are an excellent fit for helping us with our own sun damage prevention and repair. I have a lovely IG post about her on our page!
What's one of the most exciting parts of owning your own business? What's one of the most challenging?
I would say one of the most exciting parts would be getting to be creative, trusting your intuition and making choices based on what is truly beneficial to those around you. The most challenging for me personally is probably the opposite of that; so overthinking or worrying how something might be perceived instead of just trusting what you know is best.
Along your Laurel Skin journey, what is one thing of which you are super proud - both individually and professionally?
This is a tough one! I’m proud of many things…but I would say the most important to me would be the relationships I’ve developed with the estheticians who trust our products. Their trust means so much to me! Along with their feedback and participation as our brand continues to grow and develop. Their friendship means so much to me too. We just hosted our 2nd Holistic Esthetics Retreat and had over 55 estheticians from around the globe come together for four days of education and bonding. This is something that I don’t do for profit, I just do it because I love them. For me, it’s an excuse to hang out with them and give them the fit of additional education in the process. (Disclosure: they do have to pay to attend, but we share the costs with them.)
What is one product from your beautiful line you will never be without and why?
Our Antioxidant Serum. It was the first product I ever created, and it’s still my favorite. It has 31 plants that I feel I know intimately and keep my skin as healthy as it can be. :)
And, finally, what brings you bliss, Laurel?
Being in Nature with my family (which for me is my husband and our 2 dogs, Sequoia and Basil). We love the ocean, dogs included. So, a trip to Hawaii or a trip up the California coast line are both very welcome. We love hiking too, being amongst the redwoods has been a huge gift in my life. And lastly, formulating - because for me, that’s really being in Nature too!