'Do I want to put gasoline around my eye every day?' Why Tata Harper built the world's leading clean beauty brand

High-tech but also 100 per cent natural, Harper's famed skincare solutions are now available in the Middle East

Tata Harper and her daughter on the Vermont farm where her skincare products are made. Courtesy Tata Harper
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Tata Harper had always been “a serious skincare customer”, but it was only after her stepfather was diagnosed with cancer, and she began taking him to various clinics and consultations, that she started thinking about the chemicals she was placing in, and on, her own body.

Reducing exposure to carcinogens

“I had always been part of the wellness movement, in a way, although the wellness movement today encompasses so many aspects of your life, from your spirituality to what you put on your skin. When I was growing up, the wellness movement was about exercising and diet. But I thought I knew a lot about it,” says the former industrial engineer and founder of the Tata Harper skincare brand.

“The doctors were recommending that my stepfather avoid all these chemicals that I had never read or heard about, and I felt so dumb. I was just mindlessly using things, thinking that someone was checking these things for me, and in reality, no one is. My health is my personal responsibility. So I started reducing my exposure to different chemicals.”

Tata Harper on the farm where the products for her eponymous brand are created. Courtesy Tata Harper
Tata Harper on the farm where the products for her eponymous brand are created. Courtesy Tata Harper

Beauty was the final frontier in her efforts to clean up her act, but when she started looking around for natural skincare solutions, she realised the options were limited, simplistic or “natural for the sake of being natural”, without yielding any real results.

'Do I want to be putting gasoline around my eye every day?'

“I’d go to department stores and they’d be like: ‘This is algae or this is orchid or this is honey.’ But then you’d look at the labels and yes, you’d see honey, or algae, or orchid, but mixed with 40 or 50 industrial chemicals. And industrial chemicals that are not pretty. Lots of petroleum, propylene glycol, which is antifreeze, things that belong in your car. Not on your skin or around your eyes every day. That was a big eye-opening moment for me. It’s not just about the health implications, but also the quality. Do I want to be putting gasoline around my eye every day, just because it’s a great emollient? There are natural things that are also amazing emollients.”

So she decided to develop her own line of clean beauty products. She spent the next five years creating the Tata Harper brand, working with natural scientists, green chemists and the handful of other people around at the time who knew how to harness the properties of natural raw ingredients.

Tata Harper's Hyaluronic Gel Moisturiser. Courtesy Tata Harper

“It was kind of like deconstructing a skincare formulation that was much more than the actives. You have the actives, because that’s the part of the formula that takes care of your skin, your wrinkles, your vitamins, your skin density, etc. But then there’s another piece of the formula, which is your functionals, your preservatives, your emulsifiers, your stabilisers. Much more goes into making creams than just the actives. So it was really about trying to deconstruct all of that and finding natural alternatives,” says Harper, who is from Colombia.

What is clean beauty?

Early on, she decided that she did not want to outsource her production and formulation to third-party labs, which often work with ready-made bases. She wanted to be able to create her products from scratch, to control the quantities they were produced in, and to personally monitor the quality of the raw materials, which are currently brought in from 86 countries around the world.

The Tata Harper farm. Courtesy Tata Harper
The Tata Harper farm. Courtesy Tata Harper

Harper already owned a 485-hectare farm in Champlain Valley in Vermont, which she describes as “a mini Switzerland in the US”, so she based her operation there. “I decided I was going to have our factories there and produce exactly what we needed.

“That way, when it got to our clients, it would be super-fresh, because we don’t have inventory sitting around for eight months. When I launched, everybody was asking about the shelf life; how long do the products last? My products last a year and a half, and I remember feeling like I had to apologise for that. But why would a consumer want to add a product to their skin that is already three years old? Where’s the benefit in that?”

Tata Harper's Clarifying Spot Solution. Courtesy Tata Harper
Tata Harper's Clarifying Spot Solution. Courtesy Tata Harper

But how, exactly, do you classify clean beauty? Harper acknowledges that there is no real definition, and that companies and consumers will have their own parameters. But for her, the baseline for clean beauty is “the absence of some controversial chemicals and potentially toxic ingredients that could present long-terms health problems, and also ingredients that are banned in other countries”.

100 per cent natural skincare solutions

As a brand, Tata Harper takes this to its nth degree, so its products are free of all synthetic and controversial chemicals, and include only 100 per cent natural ingredients. “But we are also a high-tech brand. That’s why we consider ourselves to be more of a green beauty brand than a clean beauty brand,” says Harper. “Clean is a little too general.”

Tata Harper in the lab. Courtesy Tata Harper
Tata Harper in the lab. Courtesy Tata Harper

As terms such as clean, green and sustainable have become buzzwords across industries, companies are jumping on the bandwagon, often in an inauthentic way. But Harper is confident “that eventually, consumers will weed those companies out”. At the same time, they will not accept a product that is clean for clean’s sake. “If you’re buying skincare, the most important thing is that whatever product you are buying, it is meeting your skincare goals. It needs to make your skin better. Going green, or going clean, is just an attempt to reduce toxic loads and the amount of chemicals you are exposed to.”

She recommends checking labels, seals and third-party certifications. Tata Harper has eight seals from independent organisations, including Ecocert, an agency in France that has been regulating cosmetics for more than 30 years.

In the 10 years that Harper has been in the beauty business, the industry has evolved considerably, she says. On the one hand, it has become very trendy to launch a skincare company, especially if you are a celebrity looking to cash in on your fame and establish a tidy little retirement fund. “I think hundreds if not thousands of brands have launched in my 10 years as a beauty entrepreneur, and it’s concerning to me that people are getting into the industry because they think they can make money quickly.

“That has attracted a lot of people and a lot of noise and a lot or corner-cutting into the industry. As a result, when you look at the landscape and the product, there is so much that looks the same.”

Avoiding the allure of 'hero' products

This has also given rise to the “hero” product, a trend that is not always beneficial to the consumer. “I think there are so many brands and so many people want to try everything. So a lot of people are layering ‘heroes’ from brands. They are mixing them together, even though they aren’t necessarily compatible.

“There’s a reason why brands have different products and they will often also have different formulation policies. I think there is too much hero-ness, instead of people doing a complete programme from a specific brand. For us, all our products are meant to work together. Not that they won’t work on their own, but you definitely won’t get the same results.”

Natural ingredients for Tata Harper products. Courtesy Tata Harper
Natural ingredients for Tata Harper products. Courtesy Tata Harper

During her time in the industry, Harper has also had a front-row seat as wellness has emerged as a global phenomenon – reflected by her brand’s expansion over the years, including its recent entry into the Middle East market. “Many parts of the world are embracing the wellness movement, which is not a trend, it’s really a movement. It’s a movement that’s led by consumers – people who are looking to elevate their quality of life and just want better products, from all angles, whether it’s better ingredients, better packaging, more transparency or more responsibility. There’s a lot of cross-currents that are happening globally when it comes to consumer products and people are demanding better things.”

The pandemic has fuelled this mindset, she says. “I think it has been an awakening for a lot of people. And it’s been a time where a lot of people have been taking a closer look at what they buy and how it’s made. We all get excited by the $9.99 T-shirt, but then you think: ‘What does it take to make a $9.99 T-shirt?’”

Self-care is more important than ever, she says. “Because it’s been such an unprecedented time, with so many ups and downs, and so much stress and so many uncertainties, we have resorted to pampering ourselves and dedicating more time to ourselves. As a way of soothing ourselves.

“Now that many of us are not commuting, we are using those extra two hours in our day to cook for ourselves or to eat better, or to spend 45 minutes exercising or to be more thorough with our wellness practices. It’s one of the positive things to have come out of the pandemic. We have all reallocated that time and gone back to nurturing ourselves.”