Beauty brand grows its way to a glow

Malva sylvestris, or mallow, near Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, which Weleda harvests for use in skincare products, July 11, 2022. (Photos: NYTimes)
Calendulas look like daisies, smell like marigolds and possess powerful phytochemicals that can mend skin. At a garden in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, Astrid Sprenger’s blond bob and turquoise pendant swung in the sun as she picked the fiery orange flowers by hand.اضافة اعلان

“It’s one of the only plants you can put on open wounds,” she said.

Sprenger, 56, who has a doctorate in agricultural science from the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, is a head gardener at Weleda, a Swiss company perhaps best known for its ultrarich Skin Food cream. Sold in parrot green tubes, the moisturizer costs $12.49 an ounce on the company’s site.

Though Skin Food has gone by that name only since around 2010, its formula dates to 1926. In addition to extracts of calendula, it contains concentrated forms of chamomile and wild pansy, sunflower seed and sweet almond oils, and beeswax.

Topsoil at a field near Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, where Weleda grows plants for use in skincare products, July 11, 2022. 

The Skin Food line has expanded to include Skin Food Light, a less dense version of the original cream, along with a lotion, and body and lip butters. According to Swati Gupta, Weleda’s head of e-commerce in North America, the company in 2020 sold a Skin Food product every five seconds. Weleda is developing other Skin Food cosmetics, including some for the face, which it plans to debut next year.

Farm to tube

The plants used to make Skin Food and Weleda’s other products are grown worldwide. In Schwäbisch Gmünd, the 20-hectare plot that Sprenger oversees runs wild-ish with about 260 species that include stonecrop and mistletoe. It is one of eight gardens owned by the company, which is based in Arlesheim, Switzerland, in addition to sourcing from 50 partner growers.

Occupying about 24,000 total hectares, the web of gardens, which spans five continents, is roughly 70 times the size of New York City’s Central Park.

Last year, Weleda achieved B Corp certification, meaning its operations meet certain social and environmental criteria. It is also certified by the Union for Ethical BioTrade, which sets best practices for sourcing ingredients.

A gardener picks Malva sylvestris, or mallow near Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, which Weleda harvests for use in skincare products, July 11, 2022.

The gardens it owns are certified by Demeter, an organization that maintains the standards for the agricultural practice known as biodynamic farming, which Sprenger compared to regenerative farming — an organic method that focuses on soil health and forgoes elements of industrialized agriculture such as synthetic chemicals — but “on a higher level.”

The practice demands strict standards for biodiversity and soil fertility; at Weleda’s gardens, topsoil is not tilled, and crops are rotated and intercropped, or grown together in the same plot, with three to 10 other species. Another tenet of biodynamic farming is composting. “It’s not like poo,” Sprenger said as she plunged a trowel into a dark mound that disgorged bugs and a heady herbal odor. “It’s nice!”

The compost she was sifting through contained homeopathic additives, or preparations, made from fermented plants including yarrow and valerian. Preparations are also a requirement of biodynamic farming, and others are sprayed directly onto soil or crops. One, called horn manure, does include excrement. It is made by packing cow dung into cow horns that are buried underground for the winter and dug up in the spring; the dung is then extracted, swirled into rainwater at body temperature, and flicked at the soil with a brush, not unlike how a priest sprinkles holy water.

A field of orange Calendulas near Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, which Weleda harvests for use in skincare products, July 11, 2022. 

Some growers see preparations as magic potions of sorts, claiming they sensitize soil to cosmic rhythms. Followers of what is known as the biodynamic calendar sow, plant and reap crops based on the positions of the sun, moon, planets, and stars. (While not necessary for Demeter certification, some of Weleda’s gardens operate this way, but not the one in Schwäbisch Gmünd.)

Spiritual science leanings
Its first gardens, in Switzerland and Germany, were in operation when Weleda was formed in 1921 by Ita Wegman, a physician, and Rudolf Steiner, a New Age philosopher who two years earlier opened the first Waldorf, or Steiner, school. Then known as Futurum AG, the company has since inception produced pharmaceutical as well as cosmetic products (only the cosmetics are sold in the US).

Both the company and the school were influenced by the spiritual science movement anthroposophy. Also founded by Steiner, its adherents believe that everything in nature is interconnected. Before he died in 1925, Steiner gave a series of lectures on alternative agricultural techniques, which laid the groundwork for what later became known as biodynamic farming, said Peter Staudenmaier, an associate professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Steiner and his followers wanted “to heal the earth,” said Staudenmaier, who specializes in the political history of environmentalism. “Their mission was to regenerate the soils that had been abused and despoiled by industrial processes,” he added.

Steiner’s legacy is blighted by other teachings that were racist and inspired vaccine hesitancy. But his thinking about agriculture continues to inform that of the company he co-founded, which in 1928 was renamed Weleda in a nod to Veleda, a Germanic priestess and healer who lived during the first century A.D.

Domestically, its products were mainly sold at independent pharmacies and health food stores until 1984, when grocer Whole Foods began to stock them.

A worker harvests orange Calendulas near Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, which Weleda uses in skincare products, July 11, 2022. 

According to Ameena Meer, who formerly worked as a creative director for Weleda in North America, Skin Food started to become more widely popular in 2017, around the time that consumers began to seek products that promised “dewy, glowy, glassy, glazed” complexions. The next year, Meer developed a marketing campaign to modernize Weleda in the US, where she said it had a reputation as old-fashioned.

Both the campaign and the renewed interest in Skin Food helped to usher in a “cool comeback” for Weleda, said Meer, 59, who lives in Los Angeles and now works as a wellness consultant and psychic. Major retailers that sell its products include Amazon and Target.

Celebrity Fans
“It’s thick,” Morgan Jerkins, a writer in New York, said of Skin Food.

“I feel like if I wear Weleda Skin Food, I’m going to be OK if I walk to the subway in February,” she said. “I feel like it’s going to put up a fight.” Since she started using the product, Jerkins, 30, added that she had not had a need for foundation.

Skin Food also has fans in celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Sharon Stone. “I always have it in my set bag,” said Fiona Stiles, a makeup artist in Los Angeles who works with famous clients. “It’s so humectant!”

Stiles, 51, has carried the cream in her kit for 15 years. She particularly likes to use Skin Food as a topper, applying it with her palms onto the apples of clients’ cheeks for “a very even highlight”.

The product smells citrusy and, vaguely, of vanilla and bell pepper. “I imagine that people who love Campari, Ricola cough drops, and the fragrance Bistro Waters, by the perfumer D.S. & Durga, tend to gravitate toward its scent,” said Porochista Khakpour, a writer in Los Angeles. Khakpour, 44, discovered Skin Food more than a decade ago, in Berlin. “It’s deservedly iconic,” she added. “If someone is carrying it, I think they’re in the know.”

A sunflower in a field near Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, where Weleda grows plants for use in skincare products, July 11, 2022. 

This year, Weleda promoted the Skin Food product line as part of a campaign to raise awareness of its agricultural practices. Called Save Earth’s Skin, it features model Arizona Muse, 33, as its face. Muse, who lives in Ibiza, is also the founder of Dirt, an organization that funds biodynamic farming projects.

As a child, Muse attended Waldorf schools in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Tucson, Arizona. She credits her interest in agriculture to her mother, who introduced her to Steiner’s anthroposophy movement, from which biodynamic farming was born.

“This is such a deeply protective approach,” Muse said of the method.

In the Save Earth’s Skin campaign, she compares soil to human skin, encouraging a twist on the golden rule: Do unto the planet’s dirt as you would your own epidermis.

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