It was a good thing I had a recorder for my interview with Dara Kennedy, because I kept losing track of what she was saying.
I was looking at her skin. It glows, sun-kissed, unblemished, smooth, smattered with freckles. I will do anything you say to get that kind of skin, I thought to myself. “I know this is a personal question,” I asked her, “But are you wearing any makeup right now?”
She laughed gently. “I’m wearing a little bit of powder, and some mascara.”
Dara Kennedy is the founder and CEO of Ayla, a San Francisco brick-and-mortar and online store specializing in non-toxic but effective beauty. Kennedy isn’t just a floaty, new-age healer who believes there’s an oil for every ailment. She’s a businesswoman and a mother who combines a hard-nosed quest for results with a belief in taking care of your body. She worked in the beauty industry for 10 years, first as a buyer, then as the global marketing manager at Elizabeth Arden Skincare. She went to Harvard Business School, and interned in London at Marcia Kilgore during her launch of the brand Soap & Glory. When she graduated, she was the first non-scientist hired at Living Proof, then went on to be a consultant at Interbrand before founding Ayla (while pregnant with her first baby) to feed her need for green beauty.
“I love the business, I love working with products, but I personally had more of an inclination towards natural and non-toxic products,” Kennedy told me. “I think it started when I began practicing yoga 15 years ago, and I got so much more connected to how my body felt, the choices I made and the effect they had on that.”
“I always thought I would do a product line, but the more time I spent in the business, the more I thought, we need a better retail solution. I would go and shop these places and think about how the regular consumer felt, and I felt by and large pretty awful, to be told there are all these problems you need to fix and this magical cream will help you do it. Or walking through a department store felt like a video game, because you have all these people coming at you.”
The Ayla website, at first glance, does not look like a “green beauty” site. The products more often have that French scientific look. But that’s because she’s looking for stuff that works.
“There are a few things we focus on,” she told me. “One is non-toxic products, but also things that really work. Because I don’t want people to start getting into green and non-toxic beauty and to be turned off, because they find out coconut oil doesn’t work miracles.” (Wait, it doesn’t? I’ve been lied to!”)
“And our other thing is our personalized attention that we give to each of our customers. Your skin and your hair are so individual, and they change constantly, too. You should shop at a place that recognizes that. And we try to offer products that people might not have heard of before. They’re from all over. I look for brands that have people behind them that really believe in what they do.”
She starts unpacking a tote with beauty products that she wants my to try. First is a box of pink pills, called Biocyte. “I found these when I was in Paris,” she says. The founder of Bio Recepte, a formulator that has worked for the top beauty brands for 20 years, is a big believer in hyaluronic acid, and told her to pick up a box to try. “After I had kids, my skin was very dehydrated and dry, and there was nothing I could do, as much water as I drank, it wouldn’t solve the problem. And this really brought my skin back to how it was before, in terms of hydration, but also, it’s one of the things that is proven to boost collagen.”(I’ve been trying out the pink pills, but I can’t tell if they work because I don’t have dry skin or fine lines, plus try as I might, I’ve never been able to get into the daily-vitamin routine.) “You see a difference in hydration after about a week, and after about a month you see an improvement in fine lines. One of the experts we work with is Dr. Macrene Alexiades-Armenakas, she’s a decorated doctor, and she’s a chemical phobe. She’s a big believer in hydrolonic acid. It’s plant based, while a lot of hydrolonic acid products are not. There are a lot of animal-based products that are out there that might be green, but you don’t know if they’ve been cooked or denatured, and it’s a little bit dicey.”
Are you picking up on a theme? Nerd alert! Kennedy cops to the label. “Because I worked in product development and marketing, and one of my favorite parts of that was working with the scientists and learning as much as I could. There’s some contextual knowledge I have that is helpful, working for big companies, developing products, understanding what goes into that and why they make the choices that they do, that gives me a more balanced view of green beauty.” What she means, is that instead of fear mongering or recommendating products based on her gut feeling, she actually knows what she’s talking about.
“The choices that we make in the brands that we carry aren’t necessarily marketed as green or natural beauty. You have to be able to see that something is working. There is no use in using oils on your face and then getting botox.”
She pulls out an armful of sample-sized EVOLVEh hair care products, saying they’ll be up on the site soon. “This is a brand from San Francisco. In hair care, it’s hard to find products that feels clean, as oppose to just is clean. A lot of it is really heavy.” I’m overwhelmed by the number of products. “You need to mix and match to find what works for you,” she concedes. “It takes some education.” (I’ve been testing them out, and the detangler is the best I’ve ever tried!)
She has her testers try everything for three months. “With the recognition that not everything is going to be right for me, I have a stable of testers. Some of them are friends, some of them are customers. Because we get to know our customers so well, I know what will work for them.”
Her favorite brand right now is Biorecept. “They are only sold in Paris, so it’s a process to get the products over here. But they feel beautiful, people use them and they say the next day they can see the difference, because of the texture, it sinks in so well. People who have dry skin but breakouts can use it. That is one of the most challenging situations to treat.”
“There’s a Swedish brand I adore called MyHavtorne,” she says, pulling out a couple products with indecipherable labels. “They grow their own sea buckthorn trees. They press them fresh. And they are just the loveliest people. For me, I have rosacea, and I have found it works miracles.” (I tried the toner and the anti-aging body oil. Both smell heavenly.)
I ask her how she decides what is clean enough for Ayla. She says it’s hard to draw the line. “The greenest beauty retailers probably wouldn’t sell things with silicones in it,” she says, by way of example. “There are so many shades of grey. There are certain types of silicone that are OK to use on your skin. A small amount of silicone is what makes a sunscreen sheer enough to convince someone to use it on a daily basis.” She’s right in that. It’s been a challenge for me to find a sunscreen that is clean but I like. “I’m comfortable playing in that grey area,” she says. “We have all the ingredient listings there. When a product is uber clean, that comes through, too. When you have hard and fast rules, it might prevent you from helping someone.” But, she says, “There are definitely some nevers that we have.”