Whether it’s shea butter or lesser-known ingredients like moringa, African botanicals have been leading the way in beauty and wellness for centuries. Stylist investigates the superfoods and the issues surrounding ethics and sustainability with three leading figures in the A-beauty space.
A few years ago, K-beauty spread across the world and dramatically changed the skincare landscape, showing us the power of heritage ingredients unique to their country of origin. Since then, there’s been a keen focus on categorising beauty hubs by country or continent, from molecular technology-driven G-beauty from Germany, to celebrating the rich biodiversity of New Zealand, and even the resurgence of French pharmacy skincare brands.
But one unsung area has definitely been the African continent, home to 45,000 plant species and one of the most commonly listed ingredients in haircare, skincare, and bodycare: shea butter. Brands worldwide have used the rich, golden blocks as the base of so many products, thanks to its ability to seal in moisture and repair damage, but its place of origin isn’t often celebrated as much as other beauty hotspots. Derived from shea trees that only thrive in the Sahel region from Senegal to Sudan, it’s pretty astounding just how much of it is generated for mass global use – much like soybean production in Brazil and palm oil in Indonesia. Its production has bolstered many small female farmer groups for decades, but there’s so much more to take into consideration. Given the continent’s history of mass extraction under colonial rule, and the fact that it’s home to some of the most delicate ecosystems, sustainable and ethical sourcing is the only way forward.
“The continent is home to 45,000 different plant species (and counting),” Julian Boaitey, founder of soon-to-launch skincare brand Yendy, tells Stylist. “A lot of what we know to qualify as a ‘superfood’ has been used traditionally by female farmers and harvesters for centuries, who have become an afterthought in traditional beauty supply chains – despite probably doing the most work in farming and harvesting these superfoods.”
With a more intense spotlight on sustainability and fair practices in sourcing beauty ingredients, the opportunities for ethical greenwashing are ripe. “It’s not enough to simply say that you source shea butter from a women’s group in Ghana on your website,” adds Julian. “Consumers are demanding more transparency over supply chains and more of an effort towards sustainability; we want to lead the conversation by revolutionising the supply chain, and shortening it as much as possible.”
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Ekwy Nnene, founder of haircare brand Equi Botanics, echoes the same ethos in her approach. “We only partner with sustainable suppliers who source directly from local farmers and who adhere to strict environmental and ethical principles,” she tells Stylist. “Brands need to consider working closely with suppliers to be aware of how they harvest, whether it’s wild harvested or cultivated, and if the suppliers are part of a trade association or sustainability schemes. Brands should also ensure they have complete information about the origin of the ingredients they purchase such as MSDS certificates.”
Indigenous communities are the backbone of Africa, and as the keepers of the continent’s incredible biodiversity, they need to be protected too. “There’s a Zulu saying: ‘Don’t dirty the well after drinking water’,” says Nomshado Michelle Baca, founder of wellness brand A Complexion Company. “As consumers, we need to hold brands that use heritage ingredients to this same standard to ensure communities aren’t exploited, and all land and everything grown on it remains their property. That way, we’ll still be able to enjoy these wonderful ingredients centuries from now.”
As the world increasingly taps into A-beauty, it’s up to all of us to consume responsibly; scroll on to discover the heritage African ingredients that are truly transformational, and the brands that are incorporating them in the most respectful way.
Even those who’ve never visited a savannah might recognise the iconic baobab tree silhouette, from its role as Rafiki’s home in The Lion King or as The Tree of Souls in Avatar. Native to West Africa, the entire tree has been used throughout human history to create clothing, store water, and give sustenance with its fruit – one of the most nutrient-dense worldwide. “The history of the baobab tree predates us as a human species, before the splitting of the continents over 200 million years ago,” says Julian. “It’s super high in antioxidants, potassium, magnesium, and iron and holds 10 times more fibre than apples. Baobab trees grow in the most remote and rural parts of Africa, often owned by local communities or families.” It grows in abundance, yet is not on most people’s radars – yet. National Geographic predicts a global demand for baobab, which could be worth $1 billion to rural Africa each year.
It can be ingested as a source of vitamin C and fibre to aid digestion, often in nutrient powders alongside fellow energy-boosters maca and lucuma. For skin and hair, its the go-to for irritation. “Baobab is anti-inflammatory, healing eczema and skin irritation along with sensitive scalps,” explains Ekwy. “Studies have shown that baobab oil can help improve the appearance of acne and hyperpigmentation due to the anti-inflammatory properties found in its heavy amount of Omega-3,” adds Julian. Being lighter than other oils used in skincare, it’s a great choice for even oily and acne-prone skin.
Equi Botanics Baobab Moisturising Sulfate Free Cleanser“We use hydrolyzed baobab protein which defends damaged skin and hair against UV stress by limiting cellular photo-ageing,” explains founder Ekwy. “It also restores skin vitality by reducing DNA damage following environmental UV rays exposure – we’ve had testimonials from surfers who notice their hair is restored with the Baobab Cleanser after one use!”
R and R Luxury Repair Baobab OilDon’t hate us – this one’s often sold out. Containing 100% pure baobab oil, this small bottle goes a very long way in repairing even the most delicate skin and hair with a silky, barely-there texture.
It’s found everywhere tropical, from Mexico, Hawaii, West Africa, China, and Fiji. “Known as bissap, tsoborodo or wonjo in West Africa, it’s often called the national drink of Senegal,” explains Julian. “It’s another superfood with a super high antioxidant count, as well as naturally occurring vitamin C. The main antioxidant here are anthocyanocides – they help reduce pores for a smoother complexion.”
Aduna Organic Hibiscus PowderAs is the case for topical products, it’s important to get supplements from respectful and sustainable sources. Aduna has a range of baobab, moringa, and hibiscus powders to add to smoothies, porridge, yoghurt or teas, or as a topping. The vibrant pink hibiscus is harvested and processed in Egypt, creating income for 100 rural households.
Native to South Africa, marula oil comes from the nuts and kernels of the marula tree. “Elephants even get drunk from eating the fruit from the tree,” laughs Ekwy. “Marula oil contains tocotrienols which have been proven to help stimulate growth, repair damaged follicles, and fix scalp issues, nourishing deeply and instantly conditioning.”
For the skin, it’s up there with the likes of jojoba oil in terms of how lightweight it is. “It’s a great emollient first and foremost,” says Julian. “It packs 60% more antioxidants than popular oils used in facial skin care formulations, like argan and coconut. It boasts a healthy amount of vitamin E (a powerful omega-9), which really helps with fine lines and dryness.”
Yendy Antioxidant Power SerumThis one’s packed with all the greatness Africa has to offer: baobab for that antioxidant hit, marula to hydrate and restore tone, jojoba for acne and scarring, plus squalene and rosehip oils to help fade dark spots. We’ve already put in a pre-order – go, go, go!
Equi Botanics Marula Oil Leave in ConditionerAnother one that’s often sold out, this tube is full of creamy marula goodness, with added aloe leaf juice, broccoli seed and daikon radish oils to smooth hair without silicones, and nettle and horsetail herbs to boost hair growth.
Moringa’s been on the beauty scene for a while, but largely for its delicate floral scent. “Historically, it was used to create perfume in ancient Egypt,” explains Julian. “But it’s nicknamed the ‘miracle tree’ for reasons beyond that; it’s one of the most nutrient-dense superfoods in the world with most of the tree being edible, from the bark to the pods, nuts, seeds, roots, tubers, and flowers. Gram for gram, moringa has twice more protein than plain yoghurt, four times the calcium of milk, 25 times the iron of spinach, four times the vitamin A of carrots, and seven times the vitamin C of oranges. It’s one for believers of the saying: ‘If it can’t go in my mouth, then it shouldn’t go on my skin.’ It provides so much for our rural partners in terms of food, cosmetics, and medicines.”
During the Covid outbreak, many people were switched on to moringa as an immunity-boosting supplement. “It’s been used for centuries by indigenous communities to treat over 300 minor ailments,” Nomshado tells Stylist. “Due to the plant’s ability to survive drought seasons, it preserves many essential nutrients in its leaves, making the greatest benefit of moringa its contribution to your daily nutrient intake. Externally, the antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of moringa make it a great mask for the skin and scalp. Mixed into your conditioner or used alone as a paste, you can soothe an irritated scalp whilst eliminating any bacteria that may be affecting the skin barrier that keeps your scalp healthy and promotes healthy hair growth.”
A Complexion Company Organic African Wellness SuperpowderFounder Nomshado created this herbal supplement to cater to the needs of brown and Black immigrant women living in colder, greyer environments. “People have reported better energy and mental clarity, quicker recovery from sickness and burnout, and thicker hair and clearer skin,” she tells Stylist. We love ours mixed into green smoothies or whisked with hot plant milk and a squeeze of honey.
True Moringa OilSimply pure cold pressed moringa seed oil, this is nothing more and nothing less. If you want, you can add lemongrass, peppermint, lavender or neroli for boosted senses and spirits.
And now we’ve come full circle. “Probably the most popular superfood, at least within skincare – and a large part of the reason why we started exploring what other ingredients the continent had to offer,” reflects Julian. “Shea nuts and butter date way back to the time of Cleopatra, and were also used by Queen Sheba for her hair and skin. The earliest shea butter commerce can be tracked in ancient Egyptian trade approximately 4,300 years ago. It boosts skin moisture and carries many anti-inflammatory properties. It’s also been a lifeline for small scale female farmers on the continent for decades.”
Yendy Super Shea MoisturiserShea butter blends with squalene, vitamin C for brightening, rosehip to mend post-spot marks and hyperpigmentation, and hyaluronic acid for that hydration hit. It’s your daytime serum, moisturiser, and face oil all in one jar.
Liha Ivory Shea ButterMost shea butter we see is Nigerian; a rich gold colour and with that distinctive nutty scent. This one hails from Ghana (Liha do both varieties, though), with a lighter colour, crumblier texture, and an almost vanilla-like sweet scent. Plus, it’s 100% ethically sourced.
R and R Luxury Shea Oil in Revive LemongrassThere’s shea butter, and then there’s shea oil – and you need both in your life. Like liquid gold, this one’s blended with lemongrass for an incredibly uplifting scent (which also calms pre-bedtime), and won’t leave clothes greasy in the slightest.
Images: Getty/courtesy of brands