Brand Spotlight: PLANT Apothecary is Changing How We View Skincare

July 26, 2018

What do you get when you mix squeaky clean, safe ingredients with straight-forward, utilitarian design? PLANT Apothecary, one of the most successful unisex skin and bodycare lines in the healthy beauty realm. The line combines ingredients that are safe for even the most sensitive of skin with essential oils that actually impact your mood—so when you use them, you feel better and you can take on the day. PLANT stands out from other brands because it’s not asking consumers to buy in to a conceived notion or marketing campaign. Instead, its co-founder Holly McWhorter wants customers to use it the way she thinks skincare was meant to be used: to balance and improve your complexion. She shares more in our latest Brand Spotlight.

Tell us the origin story of your brand is. Why did you feel it was crucial to bring PLANT to the marketplace?

There were a few different reasons. One of the original inspirations behind the line was that I was tired of skincare and bath products being marketed in ways that were promoting an identity rather than the value of the actual stuff in the bottles and jars. We all know that so much of beauty marketing centers on the idea of making the shopper feel as though if she buys a particular product, she’ll magically begin to embody the lifestyle—if not also the appearance—of the women in the ads. And we all know that’s not how things work in real life, even though we all fall for it to greater or lesser degrees when we’re shopping for new products.

So I felt like there was a place for promoting the sheer utilitarian value of skincare and bath products, because if they really do what they say they’ll do, that should be enough—if the product also looks good enough to attract the customer’s eye. When I was formulating the body washes, which were our first products, I choose fragrances that would actually help you wake you up, calm down, cheer up, etc., with the use of clinically proven aromatherapy, and created labels that simply and directly tell you what the product would do. I figured it would be both a little bit funny in its total directness and also genuinely useful for the same reason.

Then another big reason behind the whole line was that organic and natural beauty products in particular, at least at that time (2011), always seemed to be marketed with this sort of earthy-crunchy or flowery, nymph-of-the-woods, kind of hippie vibe—which meant that nobody outside of food co-ops and Whole Foods ever even heard of them, or paid attention to them if they did hear of them. And that seemed like a waste, especially since so many skincare products on the market have ingredients that are bad for us and the environment. It seemed like it was time to bring out a line of organic products in packaging that would appeal to the contemporary design audience as well as the health-conscious one, because it’s not just healthy-living shoppers who need to learn about safe, natural, organic skincare—it’s everyone!

And finally, there’s the sensitive skin reason. I had started making skincare products for myself about 10 years before we started the line, after doing a deep dive into natural product formulation because I have seriously sensitive skin. I’d been giving them away to friends and family all along, and when I met Bjarke [my now husband and business partner] and it turned out his skin was even more sensitive than mine, he started using them too. So when we saw the opportunity to bring out a line of our own in packaging that we liked, it only made sense to make sure all the products were suitable for sensitive skin. We felt like that was particularly important because so many natural skincare products are formulated with essential oils as their primary fragrance, and while that’s nearly always better than synthetic fragrance, some essential oils are just as irritating to skin as some synthetic chemicals. So we wanted to bring out products that are truly natural and safe for both people and the environment, and formulated to be safe for even really sensitive skin, too.

We really love the unisex nature of your line, and how easy it is to use. Why was that important to you?

As for the unisex appeal, when it comes down to it, men and women (and everyone in between) all need products to do the same basic things: get us clean, help with any skin problems we have and maybe even smell nice. So it actually never occurred to us to make the line just for women or just for men—we all have skin, and the products are named and formulated for their actual functions, so we figured people of whatever genders were interested could just choose what they wanted by what they wanted the products to do. And as it happens, Bjarke’s and my tastes in package design run toward the minimal and the typographically oriented—which are aesthetics that don’t necessarily skew masculine or feminine.

As for ease of use, as designers, when we first brought out the body washes, it was totally critical for us that the packaging was easy to use—rather than looking a certain way to promote a certain lifestyle image that didn’t necessarily have any practical function. And I wanted to play up the idea of the products being for utilitarian (rather than fantasy-fulfilling) purposes by designing packaging with a very utilitarian look, which led me to the twist-open glue bottle caps—which we were the first skincare brand to use. And the package designs for the rest of the products, which Bjarke and I have chosen together, follow the same principles.

What makes PLANT stand out on a retailer’s shelves?

I’d say the directness and bold type of the packaging for all the products, and for many of the products, the type of bottle and the cap.

What would you consider your hero product(s)? 

Our GET HAPPY and WAKE UP body washes have always sold well, as have our SUPERFACIAL face oils. Our MATCHA mask also does well in higher-end stores, and our RE: FRESH face mist does well pretty much everywhere. I think it’s the cucumber scent—people don’t expect it!

What impact do essential oils have on your formulations? Why use them?

We use USDA Organic essential oils for all of our fragrances, not only because they’re free of the toxic chemicals found in most synthetic fragrances, but because they also have benefits for the skin. For example, rosemary, geranium, lavender and chamomile oils, which appear in a lot of our products, all have anti-irritant properties (among other benefits), and basil oil, which is in our NOT A SPOT mask, is a really old southern European remedy for acne. And sea buckthorn oil, distilled from the berries of the sea buckthorn bush that grows on the coast of Scandinavia, is basically a super-power. It helps heal burns and scrapes, soothes irritation, stimulates cell regeneration, and I could go on for ages. It’s really great stuff! And a lot of essential oils also have antibacterial and antiviral properties, helping support the natural preservatives in our formulations.

As for the fragrances, as our formulator, I choose essential oils that have been proven in clinical trials to have the effects they’re used for in traditional aromatherapy. A lot of people have the idea that aromatherapy is just in our minds, but even if they don’t mind that and use it anyway, we’d like them to know that it can be effective on a physiological level, as well.

For example, inhaling the fragrance of essential oil of bergamot has been proven to lower cortisol levels in the blood of lab rats that were anxious from having to run difficult mazes to get food. They actually calmed down and thought more clearly after smelling essential oil of bergamot, and were able to finish the mazes faster! And it’s been proven that inhaling eucalyptus oil vapors is associated with faster recovery from colds and other respiratory infections in humans.

So I think it’s important to use essential oils not only because they’re excellent replacements for sometimes-toxic synthetics, but because they have real health benefits as well. And because of that, they’ve become central to our mission to create products that don’t just look good, but really work.

In your production facility, you work with organizations that employ people with disabilities. Tell us how and why those partnerships originated.

We’re now working with AHRC, and they’re currently working on a project where they’re packaging thousands of our organic bar soaps! And we’re looking into having them assemble some gift sets and samples for us next.

We originally started working with BKLYN UNLTD (and other workshops for disabled adults before that) because we realized that there was no reason this underemployed population couldn’t do the kind of assembly and light manufacturing work we needed done, and we wanted to give them the opportunity to do it if they wanted it. I had been working with similar workshops for another product line before PLANT, and the way I’d come across that opportunity was by simply searching for an assembly workshop in general—which, to my surprise, turned up a number of ones for adults with disabilities, mixed in among the usual facilities for fully abled workers. 

Learning about the existence of that kind of workshop really resonated with me, personally, because my mom was mentally disabled for the last decades of her life. She, a former tenured university professor, suffered a brain aneurysm that left her unable to form any new memories—which of course ended her career completely. But she never got over the loss of her opportunity to work: to earn her own money, to be of service to others, to work alongside others and to have somewhere to go each day. People with mental disabilities need these things just as much as anyone else, and workshops like BKLYN UNLTD and AHRC provide that.  

As we’ve gotten bigger and have needed to produce more and more product, the role of BKLYN UNLTED changed from doing all of our manufacturing to helping us with packaging and sample manufacturing, like we hope to have AHRC do now. Their role may change again in the future, but as a company, we’re committed to keeping people with disabilities involved in our production and distribution processes to whatever extent we can. It’s been a great experience so far, and we’re looking forward to more work with them as we move forward!

Any new products you can share about coming up?

We are about to launch two new skincare products before the end of the summer: a creamy, lightly lathering face wash and a multipurpose, exfoliating charcoal mask. And—drumroll, please—our very first hair products! We’re bringing out a clarifying shampoo and a multipurpose detangling leave-in rinse-out conditioner, and both are suitable for all hair types. We are super excited about all of them!