Skin care cleans up: Bay Area clean beauty brands worth a second look

This article was originally published on 

Jan. 24, 2020 in the San Francisco Chronicle Culture Desk.

By Leilani Marie Labong


 Earlier this year, after an ill-advised change to my skin care regimen, my historically clear visage went haywire. I quickly descended into a digital rabbit hole of beauty blogs and Instagram ads for natural skin care products: “Learn more” and “shop now” were the calls to action, and I’d obey — swiping or tapping in the hope of finding a clean-beauty cure. Luckily, there is no shortage of indie skin care brands here in the land where tech innovation and holistic living attempt to exist harmoniously. (One might even call it a “gold rush” of sorts — Forbes reports that the global clean-beauty industry will be worth $22 billion by 2024.)

 Before long, I had five months of tireless research under my belt — all fueled by product images and caption promises on social media, as well as countless scaremongering beauty blogs and fawning product reviews. Since I could not make heads or tails of the information, I consulted aestheticians and doctors; meanwhile, I methodically worked my way through a tube of the dermatologist’s go-to panacea, Retin-A. Now, with cautious optimism, I can offer the following spoiler alert: I eventually discovered a natural line — Berkeley-based Marie Veronique — that seems to be restoring the health of my skin. I don’t plan to stray from it anytime soon (or ever). And yet, I still find myself clicking deeper into the cyber-barrage of clean-beauty hype.

Knowing how fruitless yet strangely addictive I have found this kind of online pursuit to be, I couldn’t help but wonder what was happening behind the scenes: how the local clean-beauty industry — a space devoted to all things holistic — has grappled with navigating the (often not so holistic) tech industry.

“I think many of the brands fueling the growth of natural beauty are smaller ‘indie’ lines, which have been able to find more of an audience through technology,” says Dara Kennedy, the owner of Ayla, an e-commerce site, and Pacific Heights shop featuring a strictly edited inventory of nontoxic beauty brands from all over the world.

Dara Kennedy is the owner of Ayla, an e-commerce site, and she also has a Pacific Heights shop that features nontoxic beauty brands from all over the world.
Dara Kennedy is the owner of Ayla, an e-commerce site, and she also has a Pacific Heights shop that features nontoxic beauty brands from all over the world.
Photo: Erin Sousa

As a former global marketing manager for Elizabeth Arden, Kennedy can recognize the intricacies of the selling machine at work. She intentionally counteracts Ayla’s online presence — which includes Instagram giveaways and makeup tutorials, plus a weekly email newsletter that spotlights clean-beauty mavericks — with telephone consults, handwritten notes to customers and in-store “guiding facials,” which allow the clean-beauty curious to test products on the Ayla shelves. Most of said products are from small, independent lines, and all of them have deep roots in science. (No homespun alchemy here.)

Kennedy believes that while there are some ingredients that should unequivocally be avoided in any clean-beauty formulation — hormone-disrupting parabens, for instance, or potentially carcinogenic hydroquinone — there are many that inhabit a gray area.

“In those cases, my automatic response is not ‘No,’ but ‘Why?’ Why did the formulator choose that particular ingredient for this product?’” she says, and gives the example of her go-to sunscreen, MD SolarSciences. It was formulated by oncologists and dermatologists, but nevertheless includes a tiny bit of silicone, a pore-clogging culprit, to make it spread on the skin more smoothly. “I choose to start from a place of curiosity rather than judgment.”

Marie Veronique Nadeau is a veteran chemist, and her Berkeley-based nontoxic skin care line, Marie Veronique, is as powerful and natural as science will allow; for example, she doesn’t formulate face creams that smell like, say, freshly blossomed jasmine, because that would entail occlusive waxes and unnecessary essential oils. Instead, Nadeau’s innovative serums, oils and tonics are profoundly distraction-free, and formulated to methodically nurture skin to optimal health from any number of issues, including acne, aging and a depleted skin-barrier function. Improving the latter — frequently the root cause of a slew of skin conditions — is the focus of her gold-label collaboration line with Bay Area aesthetician Kristina Holey.

Marie Veronique Nadeau (left) of Marie Veronique and aesthetician Kristina Holey.
Marie Veronique Nadeau (left) of Marie Veronique and aesthetician Kristina Holey.
Photo: Ashley Batz

With no venture backing or paid celebrity ambassadors, and only a so-so social-media following compared to other clean-beauty brands, Marie Veronique leads with strong science, which means that it’s often overshadowed by more energetic upstarts in the space, who might rely on “greenwashing” — misleading claims of “natural” ingredients are easily proliferated on the internet — to lure customers. Clearly frustrated with the blind trust placed in the industry’s viral success stories, Nadeau implores the masses to engage in some critical thinking.

“Question everything,” she says. “Look at the (active ingredients) in the formula and how they’ve been handled so that you get the benefits from them and not the ill effects. Make decisions using a scientific approach, which always starts with healthy skepticism.”

Some might argue that entrenchment in the world of tech is even the cause of a backlash in the wellness space: there’s our obsession with the 5,000-year-old (at least) practice of yoga. Then there’s our enthusiasm for trendy adaptogen-based beauty foods — for example, you may have only recently heard of ashwagandha, but the antimicrobial and antioxidant-rich root has been an Ayurvedic herbal skin healer for more than 3,000 years. And then there’s recent curiosity about facial gua sha. A 2018 article called this ancient Chinese massage technique “the secret to better skin.” Kennedy is so convinced of gua sha’s youthful benefits that she has included a 20-minute session as an add-on to Ayla’s guiding facial.

Arcana herbal tinctures, above, created by herbalist Anna Hsieh Gold, below left.
Arcana herbal tinctures, above, created by herbalist Anna Hsieh Gold, below left.
Photo: Lisa Jackson

“People are turning to ancient modalities as a way to ‘come down’ from the tail-spinning headspace in which we live,” says Anna Hsieh Gold, a San Francisco practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine who spreads the gospel of her TCM tinctures — addressing skin issues like acne, eczema and general lusterlessness — on her e-commerce shop Arcana. “Ancient healing modalities teach us to slow down, connect to our breath, connect to our bodies and ground ourselves.”


Reaching way, way back to slow the pull of a rapidly advancing future can probably be explained by the laws of the universe. (Principle of cause and effect, anyone?) Somewhere along the continuum exists a happy medium: Gwyneth Paltrow’s highly-trafficked lifestyle site Goop, for example, extols all manner of clean skin care. On the results-oriented end of the spectrum, there’s Paltrow’s collaboration with San Francisco’s Juice Beauty, a line that features overnight glycolic-acid peels and deep-pore cleansers infused with fruit acids and the detoxifying extract of malachite, a semiprecious stone. On the opposite, “belief-based”end, there’s natural skin care products from Australia that are showered in the most nontoxic ingredient of all: blessings (you read that correctly).

To circulate the news of Ayla’s first beauty product, a bath treatment of Big Sur sea salt and Monterey giant kelp, Kennedy uses Instagram to tell the story of its bygone inspiration. Detoxifying, remineralizing and calming, the Ayla Sea Soak is inspired by Irish seaweed baths of the Edwardian era, and its two-ingredient formulation may just be the purest example of healthy and intuitive recalibration in the face of tech.

“The act of simplifying makes complete sense to me,” says Kennedy. “Given the overload of our modern lives, it’s not just natural, it’s necessary.”

Leilani Marie Labong is a freelance writer in San Francisco and The Chronicle's contributing home editor. Email: