Origins Of A Skin Care Line

An interview with Étymologie founder, Raquela Cheesmond

By Sarah Jean Harrison, Peace Flag House

ClearLife welcomes Etymologie to our sustainable marketplace. Contributing Editor, Sarah Jean, sat down Raquela to learn more about how Etymologie came to be.

Sarah Jean Harrison: Let’s start with you and how you found yourself in Montreal.

Raquela Cheesmond: My family is originally South African and British but I was born and raised in Zurich, Switzerland. I do really identify with South Africa and you can see it in Étymologie. We source a lot of our ingredients from Africa.

I was always interested in things like molecular biology, biochemistry, even medicine. After my undergraduate degree in biochemistry and economics I was toying with the idea of medicine and you have great universities in Canada. I ended up choosing McGill University. And I liked Montreal as well because it was bit closer to Europe.  

SJH: Did you end up going to medical school?

RC:No, I didn’t. I studied food science in my master’s degree at McGill. I was very much interested in biochemistry, which is chemistry on a cellular and molecular level where you really get into the nitty-gritty of things. And I was always interested, without sounding too cheesy, in health, wellness, and sustainability. I thought food science with a bit of nutrition would be a really nice add-on to my education already.

SJH:  Did you know, or have sense, that your master’s degree would lead you into skin care?  

RC:  I always knew that I wanted to be in the wellness industry and that it wasn’t outside of the realm of possibility that I would come out with a food product or a natural health product. I think that food very much lends itself to skin care and overall self-care. But after doing my thesis research with Dr. Rigano in Milan, who really meshed food sciences with cosmetics, it became clear to me that skin care was a logical place to start.

SJH:  What was your research with Dr. Rigano?  

RC:  With Dr. Rigano I actually did my thesis on was novel UV filters. I was looking for really unique plant-based natural extracts that act as natural sunscreen. I was researching how we could use those ingredients themselves, or extracts, and isolate specific compounds from the plants to use in place of traditional chemical sunscreens.

SJH:  Very interesting! What did you discover?

RC:  Everything you would imagine really. Plants like green tea, which have huge anti-oxidant capabilities, can provide a lot of SPF. The problem is that they degrade really quickly in the sun, which means an ingredient manufacturer and researcher would have to isolate the specific compound that protects against the sun and just sell that as an isolate with water and glycerin. Or we’d have to find a way to stabilize the plant compound and prevent it from degrading on the skin so it would actually provide SPF. It was really interesting work because at the moment the regulations around sunscreen are very strict and all we can use as natural sunscreens legally is zinc oxide and titanium oxide. That’s all we can do for natural sunscreen and it would be great to have more options.

SJH:  That really does explain the marketplace. Because every spring I’m combing through the natural sunscreens thinking there has to be something that’s not zinc and I never find anything.

RC:   That’s why! Zinc and titanium only. For now, at least.

SJH:  Can you trace a direct line from your research in Milan to launching Étymologie?

RC:  Oh definitely. While I was working on my primary sunscreen project, I also had to help with a little bit of everybody else’s projects too, which was great because I learned so much about make-up and colour cosmetics. Dr. Rigano’s lab is not purely natural. They do a lot of synthetic stuff for very large clients and it was really interesting to see and learn about how all these things are formulated. My fun, side project became taking really famous cult beauty products and trying to and replicated them in a natural and organic formula.

SJH:  Amazing! Did you have any success?

RC:  Oh yes! But I definitely can’t tell you which ones! You won’t be surprised to hear that some of these ridiculously luxurious products literally cost 3 euros a kilo to produce. And way too often the “active ingredient”, like in one product we worked that added red wine, is purely for marketing. We were told to add red wine just until the product turned pink. There was no real benefit.

SJH:  Oh my goodness, what a story of greenwashing! Or maybe we should call it “health-washing”!

RC:  I think it’s “wellness-washing”.

SJH:  Tell me about the first version of Étymologie and the entrepreneurship contest you entered.

RC:  That was truly the first permutation of Étymologie. The product my colleague and I came up with was called Fleurmohn and it was a colour-cosmetic. But it was still very much in the natural sphere and still had the same brand values as we do now at Étymologie. Actually, it’s something we may very well do in the future.

My colleague and I took an MBA elective as part of our masters and we entered an entrepreneurship contest sponsored by National Bank through the course. We signed up not to win but because we figured we would properly learn something along the way. The other people competing actually had retail products and were seriously looking for funding. And there we are, somehow getting to the finals with no actual product to show because it was all just in our imagination. We didn’t have physical manifestation of anything. In the presentations for the final we literally put up a sketch that we drew up on a powerpoint and were like “this is our idea”. Clearly, we didn’t advance any further! But it was really useful to get through to the finals and present our concept, packaging and branding.

SJH:  Good for you! There’s a certain proof of concept in just advancing as far as you did.

RC:  There was and the competition idea really did become the basis of Étymologie in a way. It was these values and plan that we pivoted towards Étymologie. It was still a very useful exercise.  

SJH:  And after you finish your master’s you look at all this experience, research and this product idea from the competition and you think, let’s do this.

RC:  Exactly.

SJH:  But how did you move to the name Étymologie?

RC:  Well there are two answers. We were really struggling for name and we thought maybe we’d go with Fleurmohn, the name of our brand in the competition, but we didn’t like it. It was just to combination of our two last names and it didn’t fit this brand. We were having a brain-storming session about the name and my roommate at the time, who was a literature student and obsessed with her dictionary of etymology, said “why don’t you call it etymology?” She meant it as a joke but I thought it was really good name because for me, even though etymology means the origin of words, I thought it reflected part of our brand values. We really want to trace the origin of ingredients and traditional beauty rituals, looking at how they’ve evolved and become modern with scientific research. For me that sense of tracing origin really made sense.

SJH:  I certainly didn’t guess the roommate connection but the tracing of origin is exactly what I thought of when I say Étymologie. Traditional beauty and rituals have so much to teach us, especially combined with science. How are beauty rituals playing into the development of the brand?

RC:  Definitely on the ingredients front. We source a lot of our ingredients from Africa and it’s really interesting that some of the traditional beauty rituals associated with these ingredients are still use today. For example, the mongongo oil, which we have in our antioxidant serum, women used together with the Kalahari Melon Seed oil as a sunscreen and moisturizer. I found that really interesting and wanted to incorporate that into a little bit more of a researched modern product. And Kigelia extracts from the African Sausage tree, which the colloquial name, was traditionally used to firm women’s breasts. So obviously, as you can imagine, it works the same on face, plumping and brightening the skin. I think its amazing how traditional practices can be the inspiration for how to use an ingredient in a different way.

SJH:  Or use it just the way they use it!

RC:  Exactly! As you like!

SJH:  Are most of your ingredients coming from the continent of Africa then?

RC:  A lot of them are. The pure organics we do mainly source from Africa. And a lot of the scientific extracts or pure plant extracts come from organic certified and sustainable agriculture, but are prepared in a lab because you’re really isolating a compound and you want it to be high quality and stable. We get a lot of those compounds from high quality suppliers in Europe and a few in North America.

SJH:  How are sustainability and fair trade impacting your growth as a brand?

RC:  Since we set out to create Étymologie sustainability has always been really important to us and a goal that we continue to work towards. We want to be as sustainable as we can be and keep looking at ways to improve that. Not just in the product itself but also in how we run our business and how we grow. We knew from the beginning that when we sourced our ingredients it would have to be from sustainable organic agriculture. That along has a huge impact on conserving biodiversity and the local biosphere.

In terms of fair trade, we make sure that all of our suppliers are not using child labour. And for us what’s really important is women’s empowerment in developing countries. We work with suppliers whose workforce is at least 50% women and not just in the agriculture and harvesting, but in the management and the rest of the company. This is also one of the reasons we really like the Moringa oil. The supplier’s workforce is on average 75-80% women.

SJH:  What exactly is the Moringa oil? I’ve never heard of it before.

RC:  It’s extracted from the Moringa tree seeds through a cold press process. Why I like it that it’s very rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are amazing for mature dry skin types. But it’s very unique in that usually omega-3 rich oils are very thick and heavy. Maybe even a bit greasy but this one is really light weight and absorbs relatively fast. Plus, it’s also anti-bacterial naturally, which is not true of all omega-3 oils. What that means is that someone 65+ can really enjoy this oil and so can someone in their mid-20s with a bit of cystic acne because it will reduce redness and inflammation associated with the pimples. We call it miracle oil, which is a perhaps a bit cheesy, but I think it makes sense because it’s so multifunctional. I use it on my face, as body moisturiser out of the shower. Once a week I do a hair mask with it.  And it’s my makeup remover.

SJH:  I’m intrigued! I’m an olive oil user but this sounds potentially even better. How did you discover the Moringa oil?

RC:  Actually, my father, in his retirements runs an NGO and works with a bunch of small cooperatives, helping them organize themselves better and get ready to sell on the international market. I was lucky enough to be introduced through his NGO to the suppliers all over southern Africa. This was incredibly fortunate because it’s really a challenge to find good suppliers. There are a lot of bad or fake products on the market, so you really have to be careful.

SJH:  That’s the best kind of connection. Something personal. Now I’m so curious about your personal skin care routine. Can you walk me through it?

RC:  Sure. I pretty much only use my own products, of course! I’ll give you my night time routine.

If I’m wearing makeup or even sunscreen, I would use moringa oil and massage that all over my face. The use a warm muslin cloth to remove that and then follow up with our active clay cleanser. Give that a nice wash. Then I’ll either do a rose water toner or a vinegar toner. Let that sink in form a minute. Then I follow up with our hydrating elixir. After that absorbs I apply our antioxidant serum with a few drops of water if it’s summer. In winter I’d definitely add in our miracle oil because I really need that extra moisture. If I’m feeling fancy I’ll add an eye cream. We don’t have one yet but I use one from 100% Pure which is really nice. I’m not very loyal to face masks but I try to do one a few times a week.

SJH:  Did you develop that routine from a scientific perspective?

RC:  In terms of the products, yes. We really spend a lot of time on each product, thinking about what do we want this product to do. We really approach the development of each product from scientific perspective and we put in as many actors as we can but only if it’s going to work. In other words, everything in the bottle has a function. People are wise to ingredient lists and they know that if they’re scrolling down the bottle the last 10 ingredients are likely just in there for marketing. But with Étymologie everything really has a function. Take for example our clay cleanser. Low down on the ingredient list we have green tea extract, which in concentration is an antioxidant brightener. But this low down the list it’s not in concentration. However, its function isn’t about brightening your skin but stabilizing and protecting the formula. It’s a natural preservative in this case. It still has a purpose but in this product it’s not directly for the skin.

In terms of the actual routine, I can say that I’ve really tried everything on the market, synthetics, dermatological treatments, everything. I knew that I wanted something that worked gently over time and that people could use consistently. I’ve been referred things by dermatologist that say “this will fix all of your problems” and it just burns your face off. And I’m not about that. I’m not going to put on something that burns for 15 minutes every day. I’d rather something that worked a little bit slower, gave consistent results, and maybe even took a month or 6 weeks to really see results, as opposed to some magic that will burn my face off. Of course, that’s just me. Some people like that burning but I don’t.

SJH:  I appreciate that sense of taking skin care slowly, giving your skin time to respond and really building up a mindful routine. I really respect that you build time into your methodology. What’s next for Étymologie?

RC:  We’re looking at new products and even more ways to be sustainable. I think for our next production run we’re going to look at the packaging and exploring how to make that more sustainable.

SJH:  Could you give a teaser about one new product coming in the next year?

RC:  Something based on miracle oil likely. Creating a really nice, scientifically based oil cleanser would definitely be top of list. Something all skin types can use.  


Publisher’s Note: Sarah Jean Harrison is a sustainability communications specialist at Peace Flag House, working with sustainable fashion and lifestyle brands. Her work has appeared in The Canadian Organic Farmer, Spin Off Magazine, FORWARD Fashion and Eco Warrior Princess.