Pholk Beauty Founder Niambi Cacchioli on Curating Plant-Powered Skincare Products for Women of ColorDecember 15, 2021
For Niambi Cacchioli, a historian, aesthetician and avid gardener, plants are a form of healing. So much so, that she turned her love of botanicals and knowledge of beauty rituals from across the African Diaspora into Pholk Beauty, a skincare brand made with melanin-rich skin in mind. Ahead, she shares how she curates plant-powered skincare routines for women of color and offers advice on how to reinvent yourself at any age.
What inspired you to create Pholk Beauty?
I grew up in Kentucky at a time where most black folk were also green folk. I come from a long line of farmers and gardeners, so it’s a part of my DNA and daily culture. The women in my family used a mix of drugstore beauty essentials mixed with natural ingredients from the pantry and the garden (like glycerin, hard butters, olive oil and rosewater). I grew up learning how to take care of my insides and outsides with pure, natural ingredients. We didn’t have a name for it, but this was part of our family culture. It wasn’t until I moved to the UK for grad school that I realized there was an apothecary culture throughout Europe. It wasn’t seen as elitist, but rather it was like grocery shopping. I did a deep dive into the culture and it made me feel at home.
The ingredients I would buy at herbal markets reminded me of my grandmother, my auntie and my mom, as well as the gardens and vegetable patches I grew up in. As someone who is interested in sharing stories about beauty across the African Diaspora, you come to realize that there’s so much of that narrative in plants. Throughout my travels, I met black and brown folk and even if I couldn’t speak their language, we had this shared heritage of plant healing.
When I moved back to the United States in 2008, I was pregnant and was living in the Northeast for the very first time. Since beauty is my touchstone and it helped me repatriate myself. I didn't have time to make my own skincare because I was trying to learn how to become a mom while focusing on my career as an academic and a teacher. I would, however, do what I did in Europe and go to organic beauty stores. I found that I was invisible in those spaces here. I'd have to educate the staff on the needs of melanin-rich skin, using words like hyperpigmentation and ingrown hairs. They didn’t know how to curate an experience for me.
I couldn't find a regimen in any of the beauty stores, even mainstream ones, for my specific skin needs. Sure, there were slivers of products from Africa, the Caribbean and the American South, but they weren’t combined in a way that has our needs in mind. The beauty industry thinks of melanin as a problem to solve, so it doesn’t offer holistic solutions. Instead of feeling frustrated about it, I decided to bring together my strands of expertise and create this love letter for black plant healing. I am trying to be a part of a movement that teaches women of color and the rest of the beauty industry how to balance melanin-rich skin instead of trying to fade it.
How did you choose which ingredients you wanted to incorporate into Pholk’s products?
I started with ingredients that were both meaningful for me and my personal folk story — ingredients I grew up around like hemp seed oil, aloe and rose water. I’m both a girl from Kentucky and a beauty activist trying to do two things at one time. First, I’m trying to find ingredients that balance the skin. Black and brown women are always offered the harshest products on the shelf. Melanin is actually protecting the skin barrier, so I wanted to offer women of color the gentlest ingredients possible. Second, I’m trying to reclaim these ingredients, like calendula and hibiscus, as soul botanicals and heirloom botanicals that are cultivated with brown hands.
How did you cultivate skincare routines for different skin types?
For me, a melanin-positive approach to daily skin regimens focuses on ingredients that are gentle and meaningful to black plant heritage. Because women of color have such a wide range of hues and skin concerns, I wanted to make sure we offer daily regimens for all skin types, ranging from oily skin to dry skin. Regardless of skin type, it’s important that melanin-rich skin is hydrated and sealed with a moisturizer.
I love our hydrosol-based face mists to hydrate and cleanse. Our mists, including the Honeysuckle Rose Hydrating Face Mist, are sourced from farm distilleries to get the purest botanical waters so they are super gentle on the skin. A lot of our Pholk fam are essential workers at hospitals and schools and rave about how the mists are a quick and easy way to cleanse the skin, keep pores clean and minimize maskne.
After hydrating, it's best to seal the skin. Many women of color want to use coconut oil or avocado oil in the same way we use these natural ingredients on our hair and body. The challenge, though, is if you are acne-prone, have oily skin and have a tendency for ingrown hairs, coconut oil isn't the right fit. I love dry oils like hemp seed oil and moringa oil, which both give a nice plush feel without being greasy. As women of color, we are culturally mindful of looking shiny. We prefer to have a glow that doesn’t cross over into shiny. In thinking about how to get black and brown women to use oil on their faces, texture is important.
Do you have a favorite product?
The Honeysuckle Rose Hydrating Face Mist is such a dream and emotionally it means alot to me because my grandmother was an avid rose gardener and I am an avid rose gardener with sprawling bushes in my backyard. We had a honeysuckle grove in my backyard where I used to play. Allowing myself to be playful with my formulations is everything. During the slavery era, black women would use flowers like jasmine, honeysuckle and rose as perfume and in love spells. For me, my calling is really to remember the beauty of the African Diaspora and understand it as a framework for healing. I honor that through the mist.
On the other hand, I do really love the Werkacita Allover Balm. The Werkacita Allover Balm is amazing. It's for anywhere you’re ashy, but it can also be used in so many other ways. The hemp seed oil in those balms has been sourced from an independent farmer in my home state of Kentucky. Additionally, I've been making an iteration of this balm for like 20 years. First for myself, then for my friends. When my friends started using the very first version, they made me charge them money. They pushed me to start the business.
How do you practice self-care?
I have a garden. I love that I can have a backyard where my children can learn that growing plants is easy. Not at the beginning, but when you’re around it all the time, it becomes a part of your family life. Gardening keeps me grounded. I also have a pilates teacher who does a body positive version of the exercise. As I grow older, it's important for me to feel that my body can do new things. It helps clear out the mom brain and the entrepreneur brain.
What advice would you give — beauty or non-beauty — to your younger self?
I would tell my younger self that getting training is important. I backed into entrepreneurship. I was making something and people liked it. I finally decided to do farm training and esthetician training. That really gave me so much more credibility for the things I already knew. I see so many entrepreneurs in the beauty space trying to carve their place but they don’t necessarily know and understand the skin. If you don’t have a background in skincare, even if you don't want to practice as an aesthetician, I advise you to just train. It's a privilege to touch someone else's skin, so make sure you have the training and understanding of what the skin actually needs.
Entrepreneurship aside, when I was in high school, I was the awkward black girl in my squad. I basked in the shade of my friends’ sunlight. They were so luminous and I was very shy. I am such a late bloomer and although I’ve come into my own, I’ve learned that I used to create shade for myself. When you're ready to emerge, do it at your pace and your comfort level. It’s okay to reinvent yourself at any age.
Photo Credit: Niambi Cacchioli