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FIRST came home-made cupcakes, followed by spreads, granolas and nougats. The next trending products concocted in the kitchens of homegrown entrepreneurs? Scrubs, balms and lotions that sound good enough to eat.
Natural beauty products free from cringe-worthy chemicals and preservatives have been on the radars of eco warriors and beauty junkies for some time. Now, local skincare producers are eschewing the route of slapping their names on private label cosmetics, and formulating wholesome beautifying potions on their own; even as they face plenty of competition from cult brands imported from around the globe - many of which boast plenty of eco and socially responsible cred.
"I think Singaporean consumers, especially the younger ones, are beginning to want items that they can relate to and understand - and this is why locally made products are no longer perceived as inferior to ones produced by a large conglomerate in a factory overseas," says Kendra Liew, who launched Katfood, a line of handmade beauty products free from preservatives. "A product is no longer just an item that serves a specific function. What people buy now is a reflection of who they are and commercial, mass-produced products just don't tell a compelling story."
In fact, Cynthia Chua, the founder of Singapore-based beauty and F&B group Spa Esprit, is planning the launch of a farm-to-beauty skincare range. The entrepreneur behind international brands such as hair removal specialist Strip and Browhaus, a brow salon, is leading the movement to build urban gardens that will provide inspiration and ingredients for a new line of skincare products.
The healthful, pure ingredient movement originating from food is now progressing to the beauty industry, with plenty of new age apothecaries creating mouth-watering blends such as the Sweet Pea and Wild Honey body scrub by another homegrown brand, Mandy T.
As Mandy Leena Tan, founder of the plant-based cosmetics brand explains: "Living in the hustle and bustle of a city like Singapore, I find it even more important to use and consume natural ingredients which offer the ultimate in natural personal care, free from the myriad of harsh chemicals used in many mass commercial products on the market today."
Safe enough to eat
FOR former lawyer Kendra Liew, "putting your money where your mouth is" might just be an idiom that spurred her start-up. Last year, the National University of Singapore graduate invested time and effort into the launch of beauty products that are safe enough to eat. Boasting catchy names such as #nofilter Makeup Remover and John Lemon Lip Balm, and prices that are easy on the wallet, her range of 10 products has gained some newfound fans - including a couple who ordered her lip balms as favours for their wedding.
"I started Katfood because I have always wanted to run my own business, and I noticed that unlike more sophisticated skincare markets like the US, there was a lack of affordable natural skincare options here," says Ms Liew, who makes her products by hand in a home office. "I also felt that many existing products contained too many chemicals and too little quality ingredients, which is misaligned with the wants of today's sophisticated, discerning consumers."
Ms Liew makes her products, such as a cocoa powder-based dry shampoo or lavender and green tea hand salve, upon order because they do not contain chemical preservatives. The hand salve, for example, has a shelf life of about three months. Having used her own homemade beauty remedies since she was a teenager and shared them with her friends and family, she left her job to launch her business last September.
"I would say that there is definitely a growing awareness and interest in natural cosmetics," says Ms Liew. "Consumers nowadays are so inundated with commercialised, chemical skincare that they are starting to look away from those options and instead explore simpler, more relatable alternatives."
There are plans to acquire a retail storefront and production facility in the near future. But as much as her dreams may be ambitious, Ms Liew prefers to subscribe to a philosophy of fuss-free beauty solutions for her product range.
"I think the beauty of Katfood is that our products are, in fact, not dissimilar to what someone may whip up in his or her kitchen," adds Ms Liew. "Of course, we value-add by doing the hard work for you - we spare you the pain of having to clean up after whipping up a batch, we spare you the trouble of sourcing for the best of each ingredient, and we have done the trial and error to know which ingredients best work together."
WHAT started as a fixation with natural living was transformed into an intimate line of body and skincare products that are vegan, plant-based and completely natural. "In late 2013, I went shopping for a plant-based lip balm and couldn't find one that fit my budget or in flavours that appealed to me," recalls Teresa Foo, the founder of Balm Kitchen. "So I looked up a recipe online and made my own. At the same time, my son was having eczema and I made him a body balm and saw that it helped to improve his condition."
Ms Foo, a graphic designer, gave away the extra lip balms and body balms to friends and family. After trying her homemade balms, her friends liked them and suggested she try selling them as there weren't many local handmade plant-based vegan lip balms.
"I decided to give it a try at the Public Garden market as they are very supportive of local indie brands especially handcrafted ones," says Ms Foo, who participated in the flea market series for the first time last August. "Not only are my products plant-based, they are vegan too. I am aware that vegan skincare/bodycare products in Singapore are limited and starting a Singapore vegan skincare/bodycare brand would be good for everyone especially the vegan community."
After starting out with DIY balms from online recipes, the self-professed avid crafter wanted to learn about the science and the principles behind the products and went on to study organic skincare formulation.
"Now all products made are my own formulas and it is very exciting to see that my formulas worked for many people," says Ms Foo.
"Each batch can take up to two hours from scratch to packaging. I'm a one woman operation from formulation to production, design, photography and packaging, so working in small batches is more manageable."
Products such as a S$5.90 lip balm made from sweet almond and coconut oils, and get this, real dark chocolate, are made in Ms Foo's kitchen, according to the Good Manufacturing Practices standards, and in small batches to ensure freshness. She plans to start a studio to conduct workshops.
"There is a personal touch when a product is handmade, be it a doll, a book or a skincare product," says Ms Foo. "Being handmade adds a human touch to it. It is like you are looking into the creator's heart and that is what I hope my customers feel when they interact with me and use my products."
The beauty-preneur goes to great lengths to eliminate chemicals such as parabens - commonly used to prevent the growth of microbes in cosmetics products, yet takes care to properly preserve her products especially if it contains water.
"No one wants to use a product that is a breeding ground for bacteria, mould and yeasts," explains Ms Foo. "I want to formulate products that not only deliver benefits to the users but are also safe and enjoyable to use."
STORED in minimalist glass bottles with dainty porcelain spoons, Mandy Leena Tan's hand-crafted body creams and bath salts tantalise the senses while providing results. Take the hardworking Arabic Coffee and Coconut Body Scrub. Purported to aid blood circulation, firm up skin and moisturise, this is one caffeine fix to perk up your bod for the beach.
"There will always be a group of local consumers who prefer to pay for cheaper mass-produced products that hide behind international labels," remarks Ms Tan, who retails her bath soaps, which come with a dish, for S$26.90 and scrubs for S$49.90. "But I have seen a growing trend of niche local consumers, who appreciate well-designed locally handcrafted products. They are also prepared to pay a little more for the quality."
If the glass jars that hold her hand-made formulations remind you of your favourite conserves, the connotation is deliberate - all the better to allude to the food-grade ingredients she uses. Ms Tan has scoured international trade fairs and showrooms for premium ingredients to include in her paraben-, petrochemical- and colouring-free products, which are sold at 10 retailers such as Kapok stores in Singapore and Hong Kong, and multi-label boutique Front Row. Having experimented with different formulations in her kitchen, the small-batch products are now made in a workshop on Rochester Drive.
"Living in the hustle and bustle of a city like Singapore, I find it even more important to use and consume natural ingredients which offer the ultimate in natural personal care, free from the myriad harsh chemicals used in many mass commercial products on the market today," says Ms Tan.
"Over the years, I found myself disappointed by many skincare products that claimed to be natural but used synthetic dyes, parabens, and petrochemicals, were tested on animals and carried huge price tags. I also researched skincare ingredients and was shocked at how many dangerous chemicals were used in the products I was using."
Rather than pack her bodycare products - perfect for creating a home spa session - with affordable, widely available chemicals often with multisyllabic names, Ms Tan prioritises the use of a few choice ingredients sourced from ethical producers.
"The idea was to use fewer, better ingredients in a smarter way," adds Ms Tan. "We also believe we should be able to understand the list of ingredients on the back of our skincare products that are applied to our skin. That's why our ingredients lists are short and understandable."