Before Gwyneth Paltrow became a vaginal-steaming evangelist and peddled her own beauty line, there was Tata Harper. Eight years ago, the Colombian-born engineer paved the way in the luxury natural beauty landscape with her nontoxic eponymous brand. She researches, designs, and manufactures the entire line from her 1,200-acre Vermont compound, where many of the plants and herbs found in the line are grown in a garden that abuts her home. The Cut caught up with Harper at her farm and talked about what it means to be a toxin, if natural brands hold a responsibility to make their products affordable, and the next oil to topple coconut oil.
Why is it important for you to have a natural beauty brand?
I realized that there was nothing out there similar to what I wanted to do. There are a lot of brands that use natural ingredients, like extracts, algae, or whatever, but then they use all of these synthetic chemicals that are really industrial, like battery acid, propylene glycol (which is in anti-freeze). Those are things that I truly don’t think belong in your beauty routine at all. Now that we’re in this quest for wellness and better decision-making for ourselves, it doesn’t make any sense to use that. It’s all a matter of ignorance. We don’t know how to read labels, we don’t know what is what when it comes to beauty. Having a product that’s not only about making your skin beautiful but also helps people make their life better — it’s very gratifying.
Does natural beauty actually work?
Natural beauty does work. It has gotten a bad rap because a lot of the first-generation natural products weren’t formulated to be of the highest quality, so people’s experiences with them was disappointing over the years. People think you need synthetic chemicals, but you don’t.
You’ve been called the “queen of green.” Do you feel a responsibility to set the standard in natural beauty?
Yes. We have the baton. We were basically the first brand to make products that were 100 percent natural and truly efficacious. We don’t add random extracts of calendula, or a little bit of chamomile, and a little bit of this or that. We bring high-tech, clinically proven ingredients into the natural space and take natural beauty out of supermarket shelves and into places like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. Natural beauty doesn’t have to be crunchy granola, it’s actually the ultimate luxury. It’s really about showing natural beauty in its full splendor and truly making products that are one-of-a-kind.
Where do you get your information on natural beauty?
I read a lot of studies from the Society of Cosmetic Chemists. I love a few scientists — they are actually skin biologists — and they come out with books and reports on the latest studies in skin care. These people aren’t necessarily beauty formulators but they find all of these rare ingredients around the world, study and pitch them to different labs for cosmetics and say this does this, this does that, and then the laboratory will take it even further and commercialize those raw materials. Other than that, I read a lot on aromatherapy. I also read a lot of trend reports to see what’s happening from a trend perspective. I love it. I prefer reading that over magazines because it motivates me to do new things.
Your products claim to de-toxify. What exactly are toxins?
Toxins are things that don’t contribute to the overall wellness and happiness of your whole body. They are things that just wreak havoc, whether at the cellular level or at the different levels of the epidermis. Toxins are things that have been studied on laboratory animals that have been shown to produce tumors. Some people say that doesn’t mean anything because it hasn’t been proven in humans. But hold on. That’s where the waters get muddy. They will probably never be tested on humans because of the ethical repercussions. But it doesn’t matter; we saw what it did on the animal.
What are the worst ingredients that mainstream brands add to their beauty products?
Acetone for acne. Also hydroquinone. It’s banned around the world, known to be really bad for you, and it’s super hard to get rid of it. It sometimes lasts up to ten years in your system. It’s linked to a lot of diseases like cancer. Phenoxyethanol is known to be a source of formaldehyde. Right now everyone is concerned about parabens because they affect your hormones, so now a lot of formulas are paraben-free, but they replace it with phenoxyethanol.
Speaking of parabens, it seems that it has become a somewhat-sexy marketing tool for brands to call a product paraben-free. Out of all of the synthetic chemicals in beauty products, why are parabens singled out as something even most mainstream brands proudly say they avoid?
A few studies showed that parabens are associated with hormonal disruptions. The word really got out about them, and now the message is everywhere. But instead of finding a natural preservative to replace parabens, a lot of the natural brands default to phenoxyethenol. By the way, Germany makes so many great natural preservatives.
Do you feel “green” brands hold some sort of responsibility to making sure their products are affordable?
Absolutely. We think about that all the time. The reason why we struggle so much is because I don’t like to make lousy products that are about one ingredient and make the rest filler. I like to pack it on. I struggle with that, but then at the same time, it signifies the difference between a product working and not working. A lot of times when I need to make those hard decisions, I always go, Yeah … this won’t be cheap. A lot of those raw materials aren’t cheap!
Just the way coconut oil became the “It” natural remedy, what is the next exciting natural ingredient?
All of the volumizing ingredients are pretty exciting. They are called liposomes. The Germans have mastered a lot of the natural preservatives and the natural volume. When we age we lose a lot of fat in our skin, so it’s really important to re-plump that out. A lot [of the volumizers] are derived from starches. There’s one that is derived from the fatted pulp of argan, and a couple are derived from sugar. Another ingredient that is really fabulous is evening primose, and also camellia oil from Japan. They moisturize the skin and give you a glow much better than coconut oil. You can use it for your hair, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed.