Have you ever wondered how native plants thrive in the UAE? How they can be so lush, green and plentiful, growing in direct sunlight, often with no water or fertiliser, while rooted in salty, sandy soil? Lina Yousef, who has an undergraduate degree in botany and a doctorate in soil science, sure has.
“If you're driving along the roadside and it's complete desert, you're going to see all these shrubs, super-green shrubs, by the way … like neon,” says Yousef, who is Palestinian-American and works as an assistant professor of chemistry at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi. “How do these plants survive? The chemicals they produce play a very big role in regulating their growth.”
Yousef calls it “a miracle” that the plants grow in such harsh conditions, without any input or support. It’s all part of the “awe” that drew her to study the biochemistry of plants and soil.
“There's so much room in this area with respect to research and discovery,” says Yousef. “It's quite tedious, but it’s so exciting.”
Still, it It wasn’t until Saeed AlKhoori, an Emirati graduate student and an engineer by training, working with Yousef’s research group, came to talk to her about soil that the idea of launching a skincare company was born.
“When he walked into the office, he gave me a little present; he creates his own bath balms, creams and lotions,” she says. “He's so creative, and I could see he's passionate about these things he's making.
“He doesn't come from a plant science background. He's an engineer by training,” says Yousef, “but he's like the dictionary of plants in the UAE. He knows every single plant that grows on the landscape.”
That interest started for AlKhoori when he was a young student and given a school project to sprout a chickpea seed. “You put the chickpea seed on cotton and wait for a few days until it dries, and then it is growing,” he says. “This, to me, was magic. It gave me goosebumps. Watching how nature evolves and exists is just fascinating.”
AlKhoori kept that passion going even as he studied engineering, visiting nurseries and picking out a plant at a time so he could learn all about it.
So Yousef and AlKhoori filed a patent through the university. When he graduated, they made a successful pitch to Catalyst, a business accelerator based in Masdar City, and De L’Arta was born.
That was two years ago, and Yousef’s sister, Sarah, has since joined the company, overseeing the marketing and communications side.
Earlier this year, the company produced its first farm-to-lab-to-market product created from a plant native to the UAE. Tetraena qatarensis not only grows abundantly but it’s a perennial, meaning once grown the shoots can be continuously harvested.
De L'Arta's Tq line, comprising a face wash, face cream and face mask, uses the Tetreana qatarensis plant, which has “wound-healing properties”, says Yousef, and hydrates, nourishes and protects skin from premature ageing.
The line is gender-neutral and suitable for all skin types. The face wash has a light consistency, gentle, clean smell and leaves no residue. The cream is rich and nourishing, as is the mask. A serum and a lip balm are up next.
Before he partnered with Yousef, AlKhoori was making his products with a focus on their consistency, without understanding how any of the active ingredients worked together. Yousef taught him how to connect science to cosmetic formulation.
“I didn’t understand how a small amount of biomass could give you a massive change in your skin,” AlKhoori says. “And how a little concentration can have a greater effect than a higher concentration.
When Yousef and AlKhoori explored the various phytochemicals of UAE plants, it turned out several had high antioxidant levels. Out of curiosity, they sent some extracts to a laboratory in France that focused on skin.
“The information that came back was very, very interesting,” says Yousef. “A lot of these extracts have wound-healing and anti-ageing properties so they induce collagen production in the skin, and depigmentation potential, for when you get dark spots. It made sense to incorporate these extracts into skincare while also highlighting the beauty of the native plants that grow here in the UAE.”
The founders have also been vigilant about ensuring every aspect of their production is steeped in sustainability. Everything in their product is made in the UAE. The aluminium packaging is minimal, and a plastic pump for the face wash is sold at an additional cost.
Tetraena qatarensis not only grows abundantly but is also a perennial, meaning once grown the shoots can be continuously harvested.
Another sustainability bonus of this work? The team at De L’Arta has seen soil composition improving “drastically” at their farm in Masdar City. The amount of organic carbon in the soil has increased and salinity has gone down, showing that the plant can be farmed alongside edible crops.
“Honestly, for us, it's a win-win,” said Yousef. “You're using this plant for cosmetics and health, but at the same time you're also restoring land.”
Tq is just the beginning for De L’Arta. New lines featuring products derived from other plants are on the way, including some that grow in the mangroves.
“We're thinking about introducing a coastal line in the very near future,” says Yousef. “We're also looking at other plants that can grow in this heat. We are working on a collection right now for which the actives are coming from a tree, and it's going to be a very cool, refreshing, range.”
Tq by De L’Arta is available at Faces in Mall of the Emirates, Dubai, and can also be ordered online from delarta.com