Conscious Beauty Spotlight: Abena Antwi
Our very own product designer shares her full-circle path to considered skin care.
For more than a decade, chemist Abena Antwi has been the scientific mind behind Burt’s Bees products. You can find her in our lab, blending and measuring and balancing her formulas until she’s perfected your next favorite lip balm, face lotion or baby cream. We caught up with her to talk about how life led her from her native Ghana to a globe-trotting post as our product designer and research fellow.
BB: Tell us a little about how you got started in your field.
AA: There were two fields in my household—nursing and teaching. My dad was a nurse, my mom was a nurse and a teacher, one of my sisters is a teacher, another is a nurse. I actually wanted to be a nurse at first, but I left nursing and majored in chemistry. I've always been interested in math and the analytical aspects of science.
I was thinking about where to go with this chemistry degree, and in my last year of college, I got offered two internships: one with L'Oreal, and one in the pharmaceutical field. I was like, "Okay, making lipstick or doing analytical work?” Lipstick won.
The internship was supposed to be three months. I was so intrigued with what goes into the cosmetics industry. I had no idea, going through school, that you could take chemistry and actually apply it to makeup. When the three months were up, I asked them if I could keep working. That's when everything started—my curiosity about raw materials, sourcing ingredients, everything.
It became a passion. I think it gives me a level of satisfaction that there's something at the end of your experiment, at the end of your work, that somebody is going to love.
You worked with traditional cosmetics for several years before coming to Burt’s Bees. Tell us what it was like to change gears and join a natural brand.
I came to Burt's for my interview and I was hooked. The guy that interviewed me was sitting yoga style, with no shoes on, candle burning behind him in a dark office. I'm like, "What did I get myself into?" He was just sitting on the floor, talking, and we really connected.
The lab had two or three chemists, and I'm coming from a company with like, 2000 chemists. It was scary at the same time because, looking at the lab, I'm seeing bottles of oils and natural waxes, and I was used to using a lot of synthetic products.
After my interview, I just thought, “I love this place. This is different.” That was 13 years ago.
My first formulas that I worked on were the Peony and Caramel shades of Lip Shimmer. I had a full understanding of synthetic ingredients, so it was a shocking experience. Going from formulating synthetic ingredients to natural origin ingredients, was like day and night.
Was that the beginning of your appreciation of natural ingredients?
I lived in Ghana, West Africa, until I was 15. My grandmother used to lather us with coconut oil and shea butter. So, I knew about these ingredients, but I just didn't know the chemistry of adding those ingredients together and coming out with something nice.
At Burt’s Bees, it's more than just natural origin ingredients in a formulation. We’re looking at sustainability, and how we’re sourcing the products. It’s what the company stands for.
You have to basically unlearn everything that you know in the industry to really understand how Burt's Bees formulates. We want the best ingredients out there. We want the best products out there, we want the best packaging and to be conscious of our impact on the environment. And we want something that's going to be delightful to use.
L: Abena with some of her favorite raw materials. R: Botanical ingredients decorate the walls of the Burt’s Bees home office.
Since you’ve worked with Burt’s Bees products for so long, you must have some favorites.
I also got a patent for the Burt’s Bees Baby Daily Cream-to-Powder. When I had my youngest son, I didn’t want to put powders on him like I had to for my oldest, so I put this formula together. It’s a really nice product.
Do you think skin care is self care?
Skin care is self care! Especially now that we have so much time at home, dealing with crazy children. Yesterday it was 11:30 at night, and I was like, “I need to get upstairs and just jump in my bath.” I usually put a drop of mint in my water, or peppermint oil or eucalyptus, that just kind of clear your senses and calm you down. So, I do a lot of that.
I love a clay mask, because I don't have time to sit down and not move. I want to be able to put it on and vacuum or something. I’ll do some steaming, too. I put ginger and mint in the water, put a little towel over my head and take five minutes to steam my face. I do that on the weekend as kind of a treat.
As a Black woman, have you found color cosmetics that work for you?
Natural pigments sometimes aren’t as intense as synthetic products. On people with the darkest skin, it may not show up as much as it will on somebody with fair skin. But we are moving the needle.
In the past few years, we’ve really been putting a multicultural lens on every product we make. I’m getting asked to find benchmarks that fit me and work for my skin tone, and that gives me a lot of energy. I know we can do it.
We're going to be working with a dermatologist who specializes in multicultural skin to help us to pull together something that's specific to that audience to help with hyperpigmentation, skin tone evenness, and just skin health in general.
What do you wish people knew about Burt’s Bees products?
The amount of work and thought that goes into each product. I always say that there's Shea Butter and there's Burt's Bees Shea Butter. Not every Shea Butter is the same.
My dad's family came from a cocoa farm, and they sold cocoa to corporations that were giving it fair trade price. That was why my dad was able to go to university—he was the first person in his family that went through school and basically took care of his family in that way.
Seeing Burt's Bees taking initiatives on sourcing, going to Burkina Faso and Ghana and India, and making sure that we source ingredients in a way that’s going to better peoples’ lives in that community, it's very close to me. We’re not just taking ingredients and profiting; we’re taking care of those communities. It makes what I do more rewarding.
What does conscious beauty mean to you?
Conscious beauty is a holistic way to approach personal care. We're using this ingredient that is not harmful to you, but where is it sourced? Where's your packaging coming from? It's a holistic way of looking at the industry and understanding where everything is coming from and how it's impacting the world overall.