It was a fine Sunday morning in Ubud, Bali, as six women and I were taken on a tour of Cantika Zest's lush garden. Our guide, Ketut Jasi, affectionately known as Ibu (mother) Jasi, reached out to pluck a leaf, which she crushed between her fingers before handing it to us. "Can you smell what that is?" she asked. We breathed in the sweet, slightly spicy fragrance that reminded me of baked goods. It was the smell of cinnamon. "It's beautiful!" exclaimed one woman.
That whiff set the mood for the natural skincare workshop. Run by Ibu Jasi, the proprietor of the Cantika spas and skincare products line, it is by appointment only and is a revealing look at the time-honoured beauty traditions of the Balinese that Cantika's products are based on.
After the garden tour and a brief introduction to a fraction of the herbs and plants it contained – antioxidant-rich moringa leaves, antibacterial neem leaves and energising ylang ylang for starters – we were taught how to use nature's bounty to make our own all-natural facial mask, scrub and body cream, later to be lavished on our skin in a relaxing facial.
At a time when natural products are being spotlighted, the Balinese have long looked to their garden and backyard for ways to cleanse and beautify themselves. Part of Cantika's appeal is in being able to take home a bit of this Balinese beauty know-how in a bottle or a jar. Made by hand, the products are packed with an abundance of traditional herbs, picked from the garden, with locally sourced ingredients such as organic cocoa butter from a neighbouring farm, in accordance with age-old beauty rituals.
Growing up, Ibu Jasi never dreamt she would be making shampoos, body oils and scrubs. It all started when an Australian friend took an interest in her homemade masks and encouraged her to delve deeper into her own roots. In time, Ibu Jasi's newly cultivated interest blossomed into a range of products and a chain of well-regarded spas in Ubud. But it's not only about making people beautiful naturally. For Ibu Jasi, it’s also an education into her own culture, which is about "protecting nature and all the plants", a tradition that she hopes to continue with Cantika.
Michelle Ho of Kinder Soaps in Malaysia started making soaps to help relieve her newborn's eczema problems. Battling eczema herself, she was loath that Andrea should suffer the same discomforts that she did growing up. She started experimenting with making soaps that are gentler on the skin, soaps that she could use on her daughter without aggravating her problems, and found that goat's milk and patchouli helped to relieve the red, irritated patches on the back of her child's knees and neck.
Through a good diet and using the handmade soaps, nine-year-old Andrea's skin health has improved tremendously, and a mother's mission to comfort her child has become a small but thriving beauty business. In 2009, Ho left her job as a department head of a unit trust company to concentrate on making natural soaps for sensitive skin.
The soaps, made with essential oils and produced via the cold-pressed method, are free from all chemicals and preservatives. As sensitive skin is triggered by a variety of reasons, coming up with a standard formulation for a specific skin problem can be challenging. "Choosing the right combination of ingredients took me a lot of time initially because I wanted to understand their individual properties, and test them out in formulations to see how they worked in concert, but the results were worth all the effort," she said.
Ho cares for the environment too. As of early this year, she has gone palm oil-free in her products, a difficult and more expensive but necessary decision to make in support of more sustainable sources. "There is no measurable way that I can think of, to say for certain that our practice of dropping palm oil will make any difference to the environment at all, but moving in this direction certainly gives me a certain level of peace of mind."
Bella Kuan and Jin Lim of Handmade Heroes have a mission to create all-natural skincare that is affordable and accessible for everyone. Using only natural ingredients such as organic rice and sweet almond oil, this vegan brand from Singapore has been certified as cruelty-free by animal rights organisation PETA. "We strongly believe in a kind lifestyle, from being kind to our skin and body to the environment and animals," said Jin.
Handmade Heroes mine long-established beauty methods and ingredients from the region for their products. The Super Duper Nourishing Rice Scrubs were inspired by the Malaysian tradition of using fermented rice as a facial toner and mask, while the Beauty Warrior Face Masks contain turmeric and ginger, both of which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. There are absolutely no parabens, preservatives or synthetic chemicals; the ingredients are listed with lip-smacking ingredients that sound good enough to eat.
"Our skin is the largest organ in our body. It is like a sponge absorbing anything we put on it, but a lot of the time, people don’t know what they are putting on their skin," remarked Jin. "All-natural vegan skincare is kinder, gentler and more nourishing on the skin."
For newbies, Jin recommends the natural lip balm or tint, made with assorted natural oils and cocoa butter. "We consume a lot of lip products without realising it. Our lip products are petroleum-free and are safe on the lips," she said. Starting from RM16.90, or barely USD4 a tube, it's hard to pass up this chance to do good by your body.