Inside a Clean Beauty Factory

In the same way that an organic or biodynamic farm resembles a conventional, factory farm in only the very vaguest way, the differences between making clean beauty products and conventional chemical ones are pretty dramatic. Visit the Burt’s Bees factory in Durham, North Carolina, and the workers manufacturing sunblock there will explain why working on sunblock there is so much better than it was at their previous (conventional chemical sunscreen factory) jobs: They don’t have to wear gas masks. Chemists remark on the fact that they’re able to work through their pregnancies, rather than being reassigned at their (again, previous) conventional beauty product company jobs because of concerns about toxicity.

The consequence of all that healthfulness (for workers and customers) is that formulators don’t have access to the usual chemical shortcuts for making products feel, look, and smell nice. Petrolatum-based lip balms feel incredibly moisturizing—if you don’t mind consuming petrolatum. Chemical sunscreens sink right in—but are linked to endocrine disruption, irritate skin, and destroy coral, to name a few of their many significant drawbacks. Making their famously emollient lip balms or faintly cinnamon-scented SPF 30 or their deeply hydrating Lemon Cuticle Balm without synthetic fragrances, petrolatum, or chemical sunscreens—to name just a few of the chemical shortcuts at the conventional beauty-formulator’s disposal—takes serious re-engineering and often added expense, in terms of time spent and in materials.

Walk down the hallway at one of the manufacturing barns at Tata Harper, and you smell warm honey in the air floating from one room, the scent of flowers and herbs from the field just out the window, drying on screens. In another room, they’re >melting oils and waxes in a big metal mixer, and macerating herbs and flowers to non-toxically extract the active molecules within. (Extracting active ingredients often involves harsh solvents).

Once the key, skin-improving elements are extracted, blending them into formulas that people will want to use is a major challenge for all-natural and clean producers. Silicones make moisturizers feel more hydrating (even though they displace actual moisturizing ingredients with a formula); trying to create the same feel without silicones is an enormous challenge. Without drying surfactants, cleansers (for hair, body, face) won’t foam. Without endocrine-disrupting parabens to preserve them, clean chemists have to come up with new ways to ensure the formulas stay stable.

“It’s incredibly difficult,” Harper says. “People see an ingredient list and they think, they just grind up some fruits and seeds and I put it on my skin! But engineering clean ingredients takes serious science.” Not to mention incredible dedication.

Harper’s initial motivation to go the (many) extra miles to create clean, healthy products was her stepfather’s bout with cancer; as she began developing products, she wanted them to be as luxurious as her favorite, ultra-high-end conventional brands. “I didn’t want to feel like they came from health food store,” she says.

Green-glass bottles stamped with Harper’s gold insignia and filled with her delicately-textured yet incredibly powerful formulas are the result. The Nourishing Oil Cleanser is wildly moisturizing and incredibly easy to wash off; the lip balms and lip and cheek tints are incredibly flattering. The aromatic treatments, packaged in tiny-yet-unspillable oil vials, are irresistible: there’s an Anti-Irritability Treatment that you rub into your balms and then inhale, a Love Potion, a Stress and a Bedtime version. They make you smile, they really do work, and are absolutely worth the serious amount of extra work they require to make.