Lately, talk at my Brooklyn-based book group inevitably turns not to the moral and aesthetic implications of preventive Botox, as it once did, but to oils — who is saving up for a bottle of Vintner’s Daughter, a cult favorite California-made face oil, and who is blending their own concoctions with extracts procured from an online retailer called Mountain Rose Herbs that specializes in organically grown ingredients for aspiring aromatherapists and facialists.
From a beauty perspective at least, we are living in the age of the oil. Botanical oils — the result of pressing plants, nuts and seeds into dense liquids — are the cornerstone of the fast-growing (if murkily defined) clean beauty market, which can mean anything from charcoal bar soap and apple cider vinegar toner to products made with safe synthetics. Face and body oils became popular because of their unusual adaptability: They can effectively deliver moisture, vitamins and antioxidants to the face, body and hair. Some (argan, tea tree) have been found to have antimicrobial properties and prevent inflammation, while rosehip seed is thought to stimulate cell turnover much like a retinol. And while plenty of the latest blends are multipurpose, qualifying as both skin care and scent, some are meant to be used only as fragrance or for the purpose of aromatherapy.
Given their plant-based origins and promise of holistic health, the tendency is to imagine that these oils are made as close to nature as possible. In fact, most are formulated and bottled far from the source — in industrial warehouses, studios and apartment kitchens. Some of the best are being made in Brooklyn, the borough that’s brought you homemade kombucha, locally sourced granola and “bean-to-bar” chocolate.
Whether because of a collective nostalgia for its manufacturing roots or simply a desire among its very self-serious residents for “authenticity,” Brooklyn has become the 21st-century capital of all things small-batch. One standout, Plant Apothecary
, in Williamsburg, is owned by Bjarke Ballisager and Holly McWhorter, a husband and wife team who privilege sustainably grown ingredients and outsource some production aspects to Bklyn Unltd, a nonprofit workshop for adults with mental and physical disabilities; Rachel Winard’s vegan skin care line, Soapwalla, is operated by an all-women team from an industrial kitchen space in Gowanus. Then there are the three made-in-Brooklyn companies highlighted here — one very small-batch and two more established — whose lines, in addition to being clean, are among the most luxurious on the market.
Mullein & Sparrow
Anit Hora, the founder of Mullein & Sparrow, spent seven years as a knitwear designer for Calvin Klein Collection, among other labels. Burned out, she left to backpack through South America for a year and a half, which changed her ideas about wellness. “I’d go to the pharmacy there and say ‘I’m sick, I need antibiotics,’ and they’d say, ‘If you’re sick you should rest and drink this tea.’”
When Hora returned to New York in 2012, she started studying Ayurveda, the Hindu health philosophy based on mind-body connections that her parents followed (“I grew up with it, but had always kind of ignored it”), and making teas, tinctures and an organic face oil made with squalene, a carrier (base) oil similar to one that human skin produces naturally, blended with essential oils including helichrysum extract, also known as immortelle for its ability to minimize scarring and fine lines. Hora has since added to her line two other face oils (a rose and frankincense option for dry skin, and a rosemary and clary sage one for combination skin), made entirely in-house at the company’s Greenpoint studio. She’s also introduced a trio of oil-based fragrances, whose heady floral notes of lavender and jasmine fill a room but dissipate before they become overwhelming. “They’re really more about balancing,” Hora says. “I’m looking at 1,000-year-old remedies and choosing scents that soothe.”
“It’s partly about the mood that oils put you in — they’re an elevator and a grounder,” says Rebecca Misner of Theia Botanicals. As a teenager in Portland, Ore., Misner would drive to alternative mom-and-pop shops for supplies to blend her own body oil. “You could get maybe three essential oils back then: lavender, tea tree and citronella,” she recalls. Since then, the offerings have multiplied, and Misner has gotten more scientific about her formulations, perfecting a jojoba-based day oil with sea buckthorn and raspberry seed, a natural sunscreen, and a night oil with jasmine and cape chamomile “to take you down a bit.” Misner, who is a magazine editor by day and studied classics in graduate school, named her line after the goddess mother of the sun, the moon and the dawn.
At her home in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood, working from a dining room table frequently laid out with beakers, funnels, stirrers and ultraviolet glass bottles, she used to make oils only for friends and family — her husband has worn her citrusy body oil for years — but began selling to the public earlier this year, when her friend, the New York-based fashion designer Ulla Johnson, commissioned her to develop a signature scented oil for her new NoHo store. Ulla, a dark, rose-scented roll-on, that’s “still got a little dirt to it,” sells out regularly. It was the push Misner needed to debut her four other favorite blends later this winter: the day and night oils; her husband’s (unisex) signature, named Hombre in Arcadia after the Arcadia neighborhood in Phoenix; and an astringent, toning body oil with dwarf juniper, cypress, samphire and lemongrass “for areas that may need a little extra love.”
Frederick Bouchardy had been making candles with sustainably harvested palm-wax oil when, in 2009, he decided to expand to perfume oils, which he fell in love with for their intimate, bespoke quality. “All of their components come into contact with the skin at the same time, and change significantly according to the wearer’s bodily chemistry,” he says. Now, Joya’s 2,000-square-foot studio in the Wallabout district is lined with aluminum drums of oils sourced from all over the world — rose from Bulgaria, vetiver from Haiti, patchouli from India. His house line — which includes roller-balls vials of a perfume oil called Foxglove, a plant that grew wild in New York City when it was settled by the Dutch, spiked with blood orange and salt-meadow grass — remains thoroughly independent, but is supported by commissions from clients such as Maria Cornejo and Thomas Keller.
Bouchardy, a self-proclaimed “ingredients obsessive,” makes scented oils that are just that — scents. He approaches his complex compositions like a traditional nose, describing a recent scent as deep, dark and challenging, “with a jammy, fermented feel.” Now he’s working on a range of multipurpose oils for face and body, due next year. “I’m not trying to start a serum business,” he says, “but I think there’s room for something with both efficacy and beauty.”