When she was 26, Sarah Brown woke up one morning to find hives covering 80 per cent of her body. They were red, itchy and unrelenting, even as weeks passed. She sat in countless waiting rooms across London, desperate to a find a doctor who could fix or at least explain what was happening. "I was sort of plunged into this abyss," she recalls. She asked if diet or lifestyle changes could help, but was repeatedly told there was no connection. Instead, physicians advised her to take allergy medication daily. "Some people say they can't leave the house without lipstick, I couldn't leave the house without antihistamines."
Fed up, she decided to start documenting everything that was happening in her life, from what she ate to how she slept and felt. She thought that maybe if she put it in writing, she'd be able to uncover triggers or patterns. "I had many aborted attempts, but eventually, if you do it long enough and diligently enough, you start to form pictures and see trends. For instance, I realized raw tomatoes didn't agree with me, but if I cooked them, they were fine."
She also began dissecting the labels on her skincare products, an exercise she likens to opening Pandora's box. Her research revealed a web of green washing, regulation loop holes and blatant mislabelling. "I felt deceived and frustrated," she remembers. "I had no sane advice from anyone, so I signed up for courses on how to make products, bought really simple ingredients and just started playing around."
Some people say they can't leave the house without lipstick, I couldn't leave the house without antihistamines.
And so begins the origin story of Pai, a no-nonsense organic skincare brand beloved by celebrities (Léa Seydoux and Natalie Portman have both raved about the range) and mortals alike. We sat down with Brown during her recent visit to Toronto to chat about her skin journey and holistic approach to cosmetics.
What is your skincare philosophy?
"I have a very clear vision and it's never changed, and it's that we're just here to hold people's hand through different stages of their skin. It could be someone going through menopause, or dealing with the aftermath of cancer treatments, or getting ready for a wedding. It doesn't have to be an actual skin condition. We've found that the number of people who have true conditions is actually quite small. Most people are struggling with skin issues that could be coming from their gut or environmental triggers, like an ingredient that their skin just stops liking, or a change in weather, food, hormones, laundry detergent, anything. You just have to figure out what it is. The good news is that it can be fixed."
Skincare can be a difficult universe to navigate for consumers. What would your advice be?
"The problem we see is that often people misdiagnose their skin type. Very typically, they make assumptions that are wrong and when you unpick that, it solves everything because they're often just using the wrong products. The way we unpick that is to get them cleansing right, so no wipes, no detergent and no foam, just a gentle cleanser to prevent the skin from becoming sensitized. If you do that, there's no tightness and the skin is in balance, so you can really see what's going on. We also have an amazing customer experience team in the U.K. available on instant chat. People tell us about their skin and we try to figure out what's going on. We even have a nutritionist on the team. We look at diet, stress, sleep, everything."
In terms of caring for our skin topically, what are your main principles?
"I'm a big believer in using products that will support the skin's natural functions and never suppress them, which is why I always say less is more. Don't double cleanse, don't do twice a day, even if you've got acne, because you'll just strip everything away. Cleansing is usually the root of the solution because it can throw off skin's balance when done improperly. There comes a point where common sense has to prevail and you have to forget everything you thought to be true and just get to know your skin."
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Tell us about some of your hero products.
"Well, we only have one cleanser because it's universal. It's really gentle and keeps skin in balance. We have people use it for a month and then they come back to us and their skin is completely different. After that, we can look into what else they might need. Our Rosehip BioRegenerate Oil is probably what we're most famous for. It's got carotenoids and omegas 3 and 6, which are the building blocks of healthy skin. It really regenerates the skin. People with scars and acne scars have had amazing results. We even have people who have not needed a skin graft after using it. Honestly, it has magical powers."