Originally published in encore magazine, April 7, 2020
We have a multi-layered, toxic relationship with the cosmetic industry. At its foundation, so to speak, is the deluge of products we inundate our skin with, as well as the waste of purchased items that are hardly used.
A 2017 survey of 3,000 women (commissioned by SkinStore) found an average use of 16 products in the morning, including face wash, toner, serum, eye cream and moisturizer—and that’s before even getting to makeup. Another survey of 4,000 women by Poshly and Stowaway Cosmetics in 2015 revealed the average woman owns about 40 makeup products, of which only five are used regularly.
The plastic waste coming from these products is staggering. According to a Bloomberg article in June 2019, 120 billion units of cosmetics packaging are produced, mostly, for one-time use. Worse, 87% of these products often sit unused, only to expire and again end up in the trash, since cosmetic containers are typically too small to recycle, and mixed-material items usually end up in a landfill.
River Organics founder Corinne Lefebvre says there’s a whole generation of consumers interested in minimizing their beauty routines with chemical-free, plastic-free, sustainable and healthy products. Since launching in 2017, River Organics has focused the last three years on establishing key products to simplify daily beauty routines with hydrating products.
“I think young girls are embracing [less makeup] as well,” she says. “My older clients [are] just fed up with the whole makeup game, too. They just want healthy skin. . . . That’s our priority. I want healthy products and I want safe products, and I don’t want to kill the planet.”
Based in Wilmington, Lefebvre’s line of lip balms, blushes, body and facial oils, concealer, highlighter sticks and more are packaged in paper. Even the outer protective seal is made of biodegradable material and the label is made of sugar cane.
“It took me a year to develop that paper packaging,” she explains. “It takes a long time to develop these products in its own paper packaging.”
At first, it was all about aesthetics; River Organics’ paper packing is lightweight with minimalistic natural tones. It’s thinner than traditional packaging and, therefore, Lefebvre says, often holds twice the amount, as seen with her concealer (made of certified organic moisturizing and plant oils like Moringa, Apricot Kernel and Camellia seed). Nevertheless, Lefebvre faced a challenge early on as well.
“I didn’t think about hot liquid and paper packaging,” she quips. “But the crazy thing is that, even though it’s in paper packaging, the product lasts way longer.”
Lefebvre is originally from Canada but lived in the south of France for seven years. While there she taught art history and worked at a local gallery. Her husband, Fabien Scorza, was a chemical engineer for CHANEL. It came as a surprise when she learned CHANEL actually used a lot of natural products, and experimented with lavender, jasmine, peppermint and other indigenous plants that grow wildly in the south of France.
We often hear about the differences in products we buy here in America, and how they’re made, versus in other developed countries. For example, California’s 2019 Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act highlights chemicals (which are banned or restricted by other nations) reportedly used by 595 cosmetics manufacturers. Ingredients include formaldehyde, mercury, lead, asbestos and PFAS—the latter of which Wilmingtonians are all-too-familiar with poisoning our own Cape Fear River, i.e. our drinking water. In France, Lefebvre says, homeopathic natural oils and butters always have had a place on shelves alongside Sephora lines or Maybelline.
“[French] women seem to counterbalance things in that way,” she says. “I discovered using oils over there because I was just looking for a moisturizer that wasn’t a tiny little tin because all I could find was little NIVEA creams. I found I could purchase oil cheaply, and started using it to moisturize and then I read you could wash your face with it.”
After randomly coming across a lip balm recipe online, Lefebvre decided to experiment. She replaced ingredients with oils and butters she had on hand. It’s now the exact recipe and blend she uses for her lip balm today, seven years later. “I just made them for my friends and stuff at first,” she remembers.
It wasn’t until she moved to Qatar in the Middle East to open the country’s first auction house that she really started to think about her new hobby as a beauty line. “I was learning more about business at the time,” she explains, “so I was like, ‘Oh, I could actually do this on my own.’”
Lefebvre’s husband moved to Wilmington in 2010; when she followed in 2016, she knew she wanted to work for herself and not in art. She wanted to take her time cultivating her passion project in beauty and sustainability. Today she runs a small business with tight-knit relationships between her customers and the community at large.
“They are people like me who are involved, who have the ability, and want a better world,” she notes. She also works with the Plastic Ocean Project, donating monthly.
Lefebvre uses certified organic, humane and conflict-free ingredients such as lab-made mica for colors, as found in her rose-gold lip balm. (Mica is a controversial product because it is often mined in developing nations that lack child labor laws.) She also uses iron oxide for natural colors and pigments found in mineral makeup. “The colors are very sheer as well,” she notes. “So I use a lot of blends of colors and I experiment personally on different colors.”
River Organics can be found online or local shops Tidal Creek and Flourish Hair Boutique.