The Unsung Stories Of African Ingredients In Some Of Your Favorite Beauty Products

There’s so much history.

by Shani Hillian
Originally Published: 
African beauty ingredients shea butter

Every beauty adicionado is familiar with the skin care rituals hailing from South Korea that include nourishing ingredients like ginseng and centella asiatica, dubbed K Beauty. Comparably, though there is no “F-Beauty,” French beauty brands like La Roche-Posay and Caudalie receive its fair share of recognition in the beauty industry for it’s simple, almost pharmaceutical approach to skin care. But when it comes to African beauty ingredients, brands, and rituals, the buzz is a bit more quiet.

The irony here is that there’s actually quite a lot to be abuzz about when it comes to African beauty. You may have heard of ingredients and products like shea butter, rhassoul clay, black soap, or chébé powder — all beauty ingredients that are common in some of the trendiest products on the market. But, if you’re unfamiliar with some of these terms it’s probably because most of the brands using these ingredients don’t prioritize pouring back into the culture and communities these ingredients are being sourced from. There often isn’t an acknowledgement, through marketing or education, that points to the origins of these ingredients. Nor is there a notable effort to give back to the communities that grow and harvest these materials.

In failing to regard and upkeep the core identity and culture behind these ingredients, there’s a degree of erasure happening. But African founders of Black-owned beauty brands are no longer waiting to be validated by an industry that fails to give rightful credit to African culture and, in turn, whitewashes ingredients that are indigenous to the continent.

The following four Black-owned brands are rewriting their own stories and connecting the African diaspora by ethically sourcing ingredients used in their products from their homeland — pouring back into these communities through fair compensation and shining a light on Africa through the marketing and messaging of their brands.

Salwa Petersen

Harvard Grad and founder of her eponymous haircare brand Salwa Petersen hails from the tribe Basara of Chad, known for their beautiful, long, and healthy waist-length hair. Petersen pays homage to her home by ethically sourcing the ingredients in her products — the main one being Chébé (from the croton gratissimus plant), which is a mixture of cloves, soubiane seeds, missic stone, and samour resin.

"I control 100% of my Chébé sourced from my family’s estate in Chad. Literally planting and creating the entire supply chain from scratch,” she tells TZR. The powder carries a brownish-red-like hue packed with many benefits that reduce hair shedding and breakage, which in turn encourages the health of the hair and boosts its growth potential. In traditional practices, it's mixed with water to create a thick paste that is finally applied to the hair as a leave-in treatment for a few hours, to even days, then rinsed — the ultimate deep conditioner.

Hanahana Beauty

Hanahana Beauty founder Abena Boamah-Acheampong is a first-generation Ghanaian-American who built her entire brand on the premise of shining a light on shea butter, the place it comes from, and the women who produce it.

Shea butter, an incredibly nourishing ingredient derived from shea trees that thrive from Senegal to Ghana, and even Sudan, has been a buzzy ingredient in the industry for years. It’s fat that is made from the fruit of the shea tree and can be made in unrefined and refined forms; unrefined shea is extracted from the seeds by hand, leaving its natural yellow hue and nutty scent; while refined shea is extracted from the seeds through a manufacturing process, removing its natural color and scent. Despite its somewhat recent popularity, this brilliant superfood for the skin and hair can be dated back to the Queen Sheba and Cleopatra eras of Africa thousands of years ago. It’s also been a lifeline for small-scale women farmers on the continent for decades.

"Being Ghanaian and growing up in a household where I used shea butter (nkuto in Twi) daily, it only made sense for me to start sourcing shea butter and black soap directly from Ghana,” Boamah-Acheampong tells TZR. “My curiosity and research led me to see the lack of transparency and sustainability upheld within the beauty industry, guiding me to the Katariga Women in Tamale, Ghana.” Ethically sourcing shea butter from its place of origin supports biodiversity protection, and improves the livelihood of the African women who are often under-compensated in the production line of this ingredient. In addition to ethically sourcing shea butter from Ghana, one of the initiatives Boamah-Acheampong birthed to support the women the brand works with is Hanahana Circle of Care. Through the circle, Hanahana focuses on giving access to healthcare and sustainable resources to these women by working directly with healthcare providers in Tamale.

54 Thrones

Founder of African beauty brand 54 Thrones, Christina Funke Tegbe, also sources her shea butter from Uganda and Ghana. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Tegbe has strong Nigerian roots, and her primary goal when building her brand was to lay a foundation of accessibility and to spread the message of the African version of clean beauty.

“When I first began visiting Africa and learning about these ingredients and beauty rituals, I came to my knees, with my ears and eyes open as I have always had a curiosity to learn,” says Tegbe. “The closer I grew to the natives, the more I felt like it was my duty to share just how beautiful, romantic, and joyful the continent is; an image folks don’t always get to see.”

One scroll through the 54 Thrones Instagram and you’ll find routine posts highlighting the beauty rituals from various African countries from Eritrea, Nigeria, Rwanda, to Guinea-Bissau. This is a novel way of amplifying the cultures and traditions that many beauty brands have “borrowed” from in the ideation of their products.

Furthering These Efforts

While the work these brands are doing is paramount, there is still room for visibility and action regarding the inclusion of African ingredients in beauty. “We need more transparency and authenticity in the sourcing of ingredients,” says Petersen. According to Boamah-Acheampong, there needs to be a call to action for more capital to be invested in responsible sourcing and the ingredient production pipeline, from the farmers to the producers, on the continent. Instead of sourcing from a big manufacturer, beauty brands should make the effort to get to know the area of origin these ingredients come from and work with local producers to source their materials — Hanahana Beauty is an excellent example of how this can be done authentically.

For Funke Tegbe, it’s all about owning her narrative as a Black founder and not waiting on Non-BIPOC to get in line, but rather lead by example. “How I see it is, we can't wait for big multinationals to change the industry. We are the culture, the voice. We are the change and the best way to make things better is to make better things. And that's precisely what we're building.”

There’s a rich culture, story, and people behind each African beauty ingredient that deserves to be shared, but so often just gets subdued due to a lack of intentionality that begins in the sourcing process. To bridge the gap, the beauty industry as a whole should follow the lead of Petersen, Boamah-Acheampong, and Funke Tegbe — yes, every brand isn’t African but when using African ingredients in their products, brands should seek to learn about the countries these ingredients come from, and make an effort to pour back into the communities that grow and thrive off these materials.

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