Natural beauty the West Indian way

Plants and herbs have been used for centuries by the many peoples of the region for their medicinal qualities

  • Soaps from Italblends, Jamaica. Photograph courtesy ItalBlends/Susan Lee Queew

In some ways the people of the Caribbean have always been green. Among the Amerindians, an oft-used cure-all comprised herbs, stones, and different types of snakes mixed in an alcohol-based liquid. Later, East Indian immigrants brought with them Hindu herbal treatments, such as the use of turmeric, or hardi, to cure headaches. Then there are the local “bush” concoctions of our childhood: vervaine tea for a “cooling”, chadon beni (bandaniya) root for fevers, coughs and colds.

Now we’ve turned to Mother Nature to help us create a wide range of toiletries and cosmetics, including body soaps, lotions and body butters; shampoos, conditioners, hair moisturisers and other hair-maintenance products; massage oils and facial cleansers.

Words like “natural”, “herbal”, “organic” and “green” are now familiar to everyone. But they don’t all mean the same thing. The term “organic” has a legal meaning, and is given to crops and animals obtained from farms that follow strict standards, including crop rotation and the intensely restricted use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides.

But while these standards are enforced in North America and Europe, there aren’t similar guidelines for producers in the Caribbean to follow, or anyone to test the products and grant such certification. Furthermore, Caribbean toiletry-makers import many of their raw materials, and cannot guarantee that these have been grown and reared under organic conditions.

For these reasons, many Caribbean cosmetic-makers are reluctant to call their products organic. Instead, some prefer to call their handiwork “natural”, or use the label “herbal”, which describes goods that contain only plant products.

Some producers, such as Trinidad and Tobago’s Cheryl Bowles, favour local ingredients which are usually available without much hassle. The sorrel, coconut water, bois bandé and shea butter used in her Cher Mère products are all sourced locally. Similarly, Michelle Yap of Jamaica’s ItalBlends obtains the goat’s milk she uses in her soaps from local producers whenever possible. The bias towards local ingredients is part of what Bowles calls “culture cosmetics”, the spirit of which is captured in product names including Trinidadian expressions such as Bazodee Body Lotion, Doux Doux Body Butter and Hott Foot Pedi Scrub. A similar sentiment is shared by Italblends, whose product lines use well-known Jamaican sayings such as “Lively Up Yourself” and “Pure Niceness”.

It’s possible for producers to grow some of their own ingredients. At the Soap Kitchen’s base in Tacarigua, Trinidad, a variety of herbs and fruit are grown on the spacious grounds. Leigh Mohammed cultivates lemon grass, rosemary, thyme and other herbs. She also has mango trees, whose fruit she uses. When mangoes are in season, she dries them and stores the dried fruit for use whenever she needs it.

In Jamaica, Italblends grows the aloe vera used in their products. In Guyana, North West Organics’ crabwood massage oil and crabwood soaps are both made using oil obtained from the seeds of the crabwood tree.

In spite of all this, some raw materials still have to be imported, from sources as far apart as India, the United Kingdom and Florida. Sharon Wilson of Earthscents, Trinidad, uses a number of ingredients that simply are not available in the Caribbean, for example peach, apricot and strawberry. Essential oils are the basic ingredients found in most natural beauty products. Popular oils include camomile, coconut and lavender.

Even where Caribbean products are used, they may not be available in the territory where the products are being made. At the Soap Kitchen, for instance, Mohammed imports coconut oil from Guyana, since the decline of agriculture in Trinidad has meant coconut growers are not always able to meet her demand. At Cher Mère, Bowles imports large quantities of Hydropuntia cornea, a seaweed from St Lucia.

But producers are trying to make the supply of local raw materials larger and more reliable. Mohammed is working with the Trinidad and Tobago Coconut Growers’ Association to revamp the dying coconut industry and ensure a more stable supply of coconut oil. In Jamaica, Ital Blends’ Michelle Yap is expanding operations so that in the next year, the company’s Irish Town site will house its own goats, giving her a reliable source of the milk that forms the base of her products.

What goes into the final product varies according to each individual maker’s interests. At Earthscents, Wilson’s interest in aromatherapy leads her to combine oils that create distinctive scents. Noses entering her shop are treated to an almost overwhelming olfactory orchestra. At Cher Mère, Bowles’ biochemistry background ensures that her creative process is informed by scientific research, conducted with the Department of Chemistry at the University of the West Indies. This means that her herbs and plants are combined to produce cosmetics that help skin ailments such as acne.

The cosmetic-makers’ work continues with the packaging of their soaps and lotions. Recycled paper and reusable glass bottles are popular choices, and the use of plastics is kept to a minimum to ensure that products entering the market are completely “green”.

Many of these small-scale manufacturers began in the same way, prodded by female friends and family members to create a soap or a hair-care product that suits their needs. Early samples are tested on keen acquaintances, who, pleased with the results, spread the message of the new product wherever they go.

With time, however, the popularity, production and distribution of the products have increased.

“People would call me to say how my soaps had helped their dry skin and eczema,” says Mohammed of the Soap Kitchen. Cheryl Bowles recalls the initial success of Cher Mère’s hair food, her signature product, among customers at her mother’s beauty salon. For Italblends, increased popularity was the result of product exposure at local expos and through the assistance of organisations such as the Authentic Jamaican Gift and Craft Cluster.

The industry has also received a welcome boost from the global green movement. As Mohammed notes, people are becoming increasingly aware of concepts such as sustainability, and are eager to do whatever they can. Michelle Yap observes that people have become increasingly conscious of toxins that enter their bodies via food and body-care products, and are making a greater effort to take care of themselves.

And it’s no longer just women who are interested in natural beauty products. In July 2008, Earthscents launched Earthscents Dessertz, a line of colourful cupcake soaps, sweet-smelling lip glosses and fruity body butters aimed at pre-teens and teenagers. Cher Mère has also launched a line of products for men, including a shaving assist, face wash and skin-fit gel.

Natural cosmetics are well-received locally, and sell well at shops and kiosks in malls and hotels across their respective territories. However, with a competitive international market, exports of natural products have not been significant in the past. Bowles has managed to take her products beyond Trinidad, running two Cher Mère spas in Christ Church and Spice Town, Barbados. She’s currently improving her online order system to facilitate sales outside Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. In Jamaica, Italblends is gearing up to begin exporting soon.

As the green revolution radicalises the way people think about their health, their food and the products they use, these “guerrilla” cosmetic-makers will be called upon to provide alternatives to conventional products. This, coupled with the region’s herbal history, ensures that these green goodies will have a ready market in future.

It’s only natural.


Caribbean natural-cosmetic makers

Dominica: Natural Botanicals, Portsmouth

Barbados: Cher Mère Day Spas: Christ Church, Spice Town

Jamaica: Italblends, Irish Town, Jamaica,

Guyana: North West Organics

Trinidad and Tobago: Cher Mère, Trincity, Woodbrook, Long Circular,

Earthscents, Cascade, Port of SpainThe Soap Kitchen, Tacarigua,

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.