It's important to pause every now and then to appreciate life's simple pleasures. With this in mind, we caught up with Jennifer Hirsch—botanist and consultant for The Body Shop—to discuss nature, laughter and what makes a superior beauty product.
As an ethnobotanist, you’re interested in the relationship between people and plants. When did you first discover that interest, and how did you decide to pursue it as a career path?
I’ve always been curious about the world around me. My favorite question is ‘why?’. I studied at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew where my curiosity flourished. Working with growers, harvesters, collectors and trawling the shelves of the British Library and the collection at Kew confirmed I was on the right track. And later, I met two women with a small natural beauty company who placed botany at the center of everything they did. They wanted an in-house botanist to join their team, and that was my first big break. Seeing the birth of a beauty product from a blue sky concept to a physical bottle on a shelf had me hooked.
How did you make the leap from botanist to beauty consultant with The Body Shop?
Natural beauty is a very small world, professionally speaking. I kept crossing paths with the sourcing team at The Body Shop while on the hunt for ingredients, speaking at conferences and attending industry events. After multiple encounters, one of the team members asked me whether I'd be interested in working with The Body Shop, and I jumped at the chance. The brand champions so much of what I believe to be true and important about botanical ingredients.
What makes you feel beautiful?
Laughter. It’s that simple! Laughing makes everything better. I only worry about the things I can control and let the other stuff slide on by.
What makes you feel powerful?
Networking—connecting people and then seeing their collaborations come to life. Relationships, connections, these are the things that make me tick and keep me telling stories. Stories, whether they’re about plants (my preference) or not, are how we’ve understood our world from our very beginnings.
Do you have any people that have inspired you professionally or personally?
Of course! My mother taught me to read product labels from a young age, encouraged me to ask why and helped me find answers. She nurtured and inspired my creativity by thinking outside of the box and going on adventures with me. She also instilled the importance of having nice manners, no matter the situation.
Anita Roddick, The Body Shop’s founder, inspires me professionally. Anita was a trailblazer. She might not have been the first to formulate natural products, but her understanding of women, the way we shop and our desire to use products that reflect our social values was truly groundbreaking. Anita believed that each and every one of us has the power to make a difference. In her mind, there was no excuse not to be the change you want to see.
We couldn’t help but to stalk your Instagram account (so many lush flower shots!). What are a few of your favorite accounts on Instagram?
@kewgardens— This is where I did my postgraduate study. Their Insta feed is guaranteed to deliver an overdose of all things green, exotic and beautiful.
@carolinehirons—Caroline makes me laugh in person and on Insta. She always speaks her truth about beauty.
@tate—The Tate because it’s like having an art gallery in your phone, and some days require great art.
@abelandcole—These guys deliver organic veggies to my door each week to supplement what I grow. Their Insta feed inspires me to do more in the kitchen.
@theperfumesociety—The Perfume Society was started by two of my beauty heroines, Jo Fairley and Lorna McKay, to make fine fragrance more accessible. I want to grow up to be just like them.
You have a quote from Aristotle included in one of your blog posts: “Nature Does Nothing in Vain." Do you have a ‘just the essentials’ approach to beauty?
Absolutely. Products only work when you use them, so having a bathroom full of choices is irrelevant, if you’re not taking the time to apply them. All of the research on the benefits of natural actives is based on regular use, so being faithful to a product or a ritual should pay off over a sustained period of time. And let’s face it, if a product is complicated, messy or painful, we’re not likely to use it. So don't bother!
Of course, my definition of essentials has expanded beyond cleanse, tone, moisturize and SPF to include a facial oil, eye serum, sleeping cream and masks. But I still start and finish the day with a great cleanser. For me, it’s the foundation of great skin.
The Body Shop 'Spa of the World' line conjures up images of world travel to far-off locations. What’s the most exotic location you’ve traveled to in the name of beauty and botany?
I’ve been to some amazing places, but Lake Malawi definitely stands out. I stayed in a thatched cabana on a cliff top above the lake and was serenaded each morning by fishermen setting out for the day. I was researching Kigelia africana—a tree Dr. Livingstone wrote about about. Spending time with the local Chewa and Ngoni tribes and seeing the impact the kigelia fruit has on the local communities continues to inspire me. Through trade, the communities are able to install boreholes and pumps for safe water, schools and immunizations. That’s pretty powerful for a beauty ingredient! You can learn more about Spa of the World on The Body Shop website.
What’s one plant-based product you cannot live without?
A great cleanser. The efficacy of everything else you apply afterwards is impacted by how good your cleanser is. I always go for a cream, balm or oil cleanser. You get great results without the pH-disrupting effects of a soap or foaming cleanser.
Can you think of some beauty wisdom from other cultures that we could use more of in The West?
Lots of other cultures, from African to Asian, revere their elders. They see wrinkles as the badge of a life well lived, of experiences had and memories gained. A Ugandan great grandmother from a shea cooperative told me her wrinkles were her story. That’s a beautiful and eloquent way to see and accept the process of aging.
You wrote that “Behind every botanical ingredient, there's a marvelous story of adventure, romance and discovery.” Can you briefly tell us one of your favorite stories about a botanical ingredient?
As soon as Cortez and the Conquistadors imported vanilla orchids to Spain from Mexico the commercial potential was clear. But while the plants flowered, the unpollinated blossoms would wither and fall off the vine without producing pods. In the wild in Mexico, vanilla is pollinated by the tiny stingless Melipona bee. Without its pollinators, Vanilla planifolia was fruitless. So by the early 19th century, the race to be the first to develop a technique to pollinate vanilla was on.
The person credited with developing the technique that created the vanilla industry outside of Mexico was Edmond Albius. Albius was just twelve when he developed the technique in 1841, and his method—the ‘marriage de vanille’—involved using a narrow bit of twig or grass to lift the flap that separates the anther (male anatomy) and stigma (female anatomy) of the flower. Then he used his fingers to spread the pollen on the anther all over the stigma. The simplicity and cost-effectiveness of this method led to its popularity not only in Réunion, but in Madagascar, the Seychelles, Indonesia and Tahiti. Within five decades, these islands would produce more vanilla than Mexico.
The Body Shop 'Oils of Life' line is entirely handpicked and cold-pressed. How does this benefit the final product and the communities where ingredients are harvested?
Handpicking offers quality control from the start. This method allows the harvester to select only the ripe seeds. And with seeds, being ripe is the critical moment when the oil and plant chemistry in the seed is at its optimum.
The cold-pressed method preserves the oils against heat and light, which can erode the active principles of the oil, ultimately causing it to oxidize and spoil. Oils of Life is based on three highly active seed oils: black cumin, camellia and rosehip. By using pressure rather than heat to express the oil from the seeds, the maximum activity is preserved.
What should our readers look for in a great beauty product?
Natural ingredients and performance. I think we should expect results. After all, what’s the point if you don’t see or feel a difference? For millennia, we achieved that difference through the cosmetic use of botanicals. Now, modern cosmetic science has made it even more convenient to do so. So there’s no reason to settle for a beauty product that is anything less than a joy to use.
What do you hope to achieve through your work?
Anita Roddick always said, "A mosquito can move an animal many times its size through its persistence." When put that way, I aspire to be a mosquito. Essentially, I hope to make a difference.
What are your three favorite natural scents?
The smell of a forest floor after rain, grass after the lawn has been cut and a baby's skin. As for the plant-sourced fragrance ingredients, I'd say:
Osmanthus—Fragrance and memory are closely associated, and this is the fragrance of southern gardens. This scent can transport me in seconds to the sun dappled warmth of my godmother’s nursery in South Carolina.
Lavender—For me, this is the most English of garden plants. I have no ‘granny’ association with it, only happy gardening memories. The best lavender smells like you’ve crushed a flowerhead in your hand. And on top of that, lavender is incredibly potent. We’ve always known it can help you sleep, but modern research has shown that it improves the quality of sleep you get. I’m obsessed with The Body Shop's French Lavender Massage Oil.
Tonka Bean—This bean from the Amazon river basin has amazing notes of hay, caramel, vanilla and yes, baby skin. I have to lock up my stash of beans or they'll go missing!
Where’s the best place to start for people who are unfamiliar with botanical products?
Start with a product type you’re already familiar with, be it cleanser, moisturizer, facial oil or body lotion. Then look at the product label to ensure it contains natural, active ingredients. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and do your research about the brand to understand what they’re using and why. Brands that know a lot about their ingredients—how and where they’re grown, what they do on skin—are more likely to understand naturals and how to use them. If in doubt, look for something Cleopatra used. She was the original beauty editor, and modern scientific research is justifying many of her beauty choices.
What inspires you & makes you feel powerful? Let us know in the comments below!
About the Author:Kate drives the day-to-day creation of content, aiming to inspire and inform Makeup.com readers by delivering the latest beauty tips, tricks and trends. As an employee of L’Oréal, Kate sources and tests the best beauty products from across the entire brand portfolio.