Dr Jackson’s natural products is an ethical cosmeceutical company that uses pharmacognosy principles (the knowledge of medicines derived from plants) to harness nature’s goodness. Launched after 19 years of research, Dr Jackson travelled to the far corners of the earth where he learnt how the natural powers yielded from exotic ingredients have been curing people for thousands of years. His products are a rediscovery of ancient beauty secrets, but they also care for the rural communities from which they originate
The brand has been years in the making. Tell us about your journey and what triggered the idea of starting your own skincare line.
‘We set up Dr Jackson’s skincare in 2008 but did four years of ground work looking into the ethics and sustainability before we started trading. When I was doing my undergraduate degree I did a placement in Indonesia where I worked with the rural communities on a small Island called Sumba near Timor. At the time in 1992, there was a big uprising in Timor and there was very little trade yet the local people were living until they were 80 and 90 years old without any western medicine. As a young medic this really interested me. 90% of the worlds population use plants as their primary source of health care. Traditional medicine has been around for thousands and thousands of years but western medicine has only been around for two-three hundred years so it’s still very much in its infancy. What I’m trying to do is learn from these traditional cultures and to keep this knowledge alive.
For example, we get a drug called atropine from the plant Atropa belladonna, which in Latin means beautiful lady. Atropine is used in open heart surgery because it relaxes the muscles for surgery. Back in Roman times, they gave atropine drops to women because they saw doe-eyed pupils as a sign of beauty. It actually made them go blind, which is awful, but this sort of knowledge got me really interested in the skin side of things.
Have you discovered any ‘super ingredients’?
More recently we’ve been working in Africa which is where the baobab grows, an ingredient that now features largely in our products. Inside the fruit is something called a red funicle, which we’ve chemically identified has six times more antioxidants than green tea. The white powder inside the fruit also has six times more vitamin C than oranges, three times more calcium than a pint of milk, as well as being rich in iron. It’s been long used by native pregnant women as it’s so rich in nutrients and the seed oil is an effective moisturiser to protect the skin and hair from the harsh climate.
The other thing that I’m now famous for is the kigelia plant which is starting to become a super ingredient for cosmetics. I actually did my PHD on kigelia so I’m one of the world’s experts on it. What we’ve found is that it gives blemish-free skin. Traditionally it’s been used by African women who get dark pigmentation under their eyes and on their forehead after pregnancy. We’ve found on Caucasian skin, if you have dark sun spots or liver spots, using the kigelia stops the pigmentation getting any darker. As the skin sheds every seven days, the dark pigmentation gets lighter and you end up with an even skin tone. That’s really the aim for us, to use what’s been used traditionally for a certain thing and then refine it and produce a product that’s more concentrated.
When I worked at Charing Cross hospital in the cancer research department, we were identifying anti-cancer type activities from different plants. Many people are unaware that some of the powerful anti-cancer drugs we use now, derive from natural products. For example, from the yew tree you get a compound called Taxol which is used for breast cancer patients.We were looking at this plant to treat skin cancer and identified two compounds which promoted fibroblast growth in the skin. These are what we call normal healthy skin and as you get older they drop to a very low level. Fibroblast increase collagen production which promotes elasticity in the skin. We found that when we put kigelia extracts on the compounds, we got a significant growth of fibroblasts. In the beauty industry people want more youthful, glowing and healthy skin, and what we’re finding with these extracts is that we’re being able to promote elasticity, tighten skin and get rid of dark pigmentations.
Tell us about the ethical side of Dr Jackson’s products. How important is it for you that rural communities benefit from your skincare?
In 2008 we were sponsored by the United Nations, to produce products that could put money back into rural communities which is really what the business is all about. We spent four years initially identifying 200 plants, finding out which is used traditionally, whether they’re on the endangered list and whether it is sustainable. We then narrowed it down to 10 key species. We currently work in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana where we’re trying to impact as many rural communities as possible. In those countries we currently employ 441,000 households, which could potentially be expanded to 1.7 million households, so it could have a
really far reaching effect. This isn’t about making Dr Jackson’s empire or Dr Jackson the millionaire, it’s about putting back money into these communities and providing education and passing on this knowledge.
For example with kigelia, if this does become super popular, we’re able to make it sustainable so we’re not going to make it endangered. If kigelia gets as big as tea tree, which it eventually will, it could be worth 1.5 billion which will be a huge input into these developing countries. We are trying to set up building blocks to get this whole supply chain working.
In most skincare products, there’s a long list of chemical ingredients. Why do you use so few ingredients in your product?
What we’re finding a lot in the industry, is that people think “Wow this product is amazing”, just because it has 50-60 ingredients in it. This term in the industry is called ‘fairy dusting’ and has no real effect; it’s just for marketing purposes. So what we’re trying to do is say that you don’t need an arm’s length of ingredients in a product, you only really need a few key ones. There’s a new buzz word called ‘synergy’ which is the mutual working together of active ingredients. So when you have a product with 30 or 40 ingredients, what usually happens is that they cancel each other out or work against each other. From a pharmacy point of view, you might have a combination of five or six medicines to treat a disease. Likewise in cosmetics, you only really need five or six key ingredients in your skin cream, which is the basis of our products. Using a pure extract from a natural product in cosmetics is much more potent than mixing it with lots of other ingredients.
One of our unique selling points is our quality control aspect. For example if someone sold me baobab powder, how do I really know it’s baobab powder? In the cosmetics industry, people split ingredients with other things. Like with potato starch, you can’t smell it, it doesn’t taste of anything but if you put potato starch in a product you can bulk it up. So what would have been a twenty dollar product actually you can bulk it up to be a a hundred dollars. We apply a very high level of analysis in everything we use, so we can see that the extract is completely natural without any added ingredients to bulk it up. I don’t know any other cosmetic company that go to the level we do in testing products.
Do you find it’s difficult to persuade people to go natural?
For me the rule of pharmacognosy is about educating people. I think a lot of people want natural at the moment but people don’t really understand why. What we’re trying to do is to champion pharmacognosy and say there’s a real science behind this.
Just because there’s lavender oil in shampoo, doesn’t make it a natural shampoo; you have to understand the science behind it. For me it’s all about knowledge transfer, transferring this knowledge to the next generation and about commercialising these basic principles like checking the quality of ingredients and the concentration. When I get a woman coming to us who is 50-60 years old and has used only one brand all their whole life, it’s very hard to persuade them to go to a natural product, so it has to work. We have to show that just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s not going to work.’ y
Dr Jackson’s products are available at Harvey Nichols, Birmingham