The Natural Beauty and Cosmetics Advocate: Jessa Blades

by Elisabeth Donnelly

It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly natural beauty products started seeming more logical. Maybe it was the stories about Keratin hair smoothing treatments full of formaldehyde, or reading about the unregulated billion-dollar beauty industry in books like ‘Not Just a Pretty Face’ (Stacy Malkan) and ‘No More Dirty Looks’ (Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt), or maybe it was just a natural result of knowing someone in chemotherapy, and how they had to treat themselves like a person in a bubble, sensitive to all sorts of toxins.

I switched to a more holistic beauty lifestyle about a year ago, and recently discussed it with makeup artist, herbalist, and small-business owner Jessa Blades, who sells clean beauty and lifestyle products through Blades Natural Beauty, the website she started in 2008.

What is Blades Natural Beauty? What is “natural beauty”?

I am a natural beauty expert and a makeup artist. I’ve been a professional makeup artist for about nine years, and in that time have been exposed to many different interpretations of beauty and health. I came into the world of natural beauty because I was drawn to the idea that being beautiful and feeling beautiful don’t require sacrificing anything, hiding anything, or, most relevantly, unknowingly harming our bodies. The natural beauty part of Blades Natural Beauty speaks to my interest in helping people to understand what healthy products are and how they relate to makeup, skincare, and the idea of wellness. When I learned that many of the ingredients in products most commonly used aren’t, in fact, seeming to be doing our skin any favors, I made it my mission to discover what ingredients are good, and what ingredients to avoid. The current beauty industry can appear very confusing, with buzzwords, marketing, and greenwashing (i.e. posing a product as “natural” when it’s not). My goal, and my passion, is to do all the hard work of weeding through this sometimes deceptive world of makeup and skincare and offer people the information they need to make healthier choices, that help them to feel like the best version of themselves.

That is why I got into the business: I was an expert in the beauty industry, and even I didn’t know that there were toxins in products. There’s really a need for somebody to cut through all this confusion, be a bit of a “tour guide,” and hold some hands through the process of detoxifying the world of beauty — because it is confusing! I like doing the work and the research and learning about these ingredients that I can’t pronounce and telling the stories of people who are making these amazing products, instead of these companies that are knowingly putting chemicals in their products and women’s bodies.

When did you get that moment of inspiration that sent you out on the route to natural beauty?

I think it was a perfect storm of experiences — I studied art and psychology in college, then went to makeup school in Canada. I got into makeup because I was interested in the psychology of beauty and how I might be able to help women look good, which in turn helps them feel good. I saw this as really powerful work. At the same time, I was eating really healthy and walking my compost to the farmer’s market in Union Square, learning about organic farming, and I was interested in health — but I had no idea that I was potentially compromising my health and my beliefs in my job, and as a woman. I was also hearing things on the news like “there’s lead in lipstick” and “there’s mercury in mascara” … I started researching it and was dumbfounded when I realized there were toxic ingredients in my beauty products, and in the tools that I used as a makeup artist. Looking back I wonder: why did I think I could trust the beauty industry, as I don’t blindly trust any other industry?

What also happened at that time was that I had kind of given up on my own skin. I had the most sensitive, dry, irritated skin, and it would burn. The wind would blow, and I’d get a rash. I thought that there had to be something going on, because I couldn’t find any products that worked, and the dermatologists and allergists I saw were no help, either. So, I pared down my face-washing and moisturizing process to really basic ingredients, like coconut oil and olive oil. I left my skin alone and let it get back into balance. That was when I realized that my skin wasn’t sensitive — it was communicating, and it was saying, “Hey Jessa, there’s something here that isn’t right.” At the time I was reading Not Just a Pretty Face, a wonderful book that I strongly recommend, and it just dawned on me that there was a much bigger picture. What I learned was that a lot of the products I had been using weren’t as “beautiful” as I had thought, and that they wouldn’t inspire me to help women feel good.

A selection from Blades Natural Beauty online shop.

What’s your typical workday like?

I work as a makeup artist for celebrity/fashion clients, and I teach classes about how to apply makeup and how women can detox their beauty drawers and makeup bags. I really try to listen to women, helping them find really good products that they’re comfortable using and excited about because they’re healing their skin. I also make a line of products — handmade skin care and healing herbal teas — and sell them, too, as well as curated beauty products made by companies that I can say that I trust. I don’t think you need the choice of 20 different mascaras. Sephora seems to think that selling all these mascaras is liberating, but I find it overwhelming. On my site, you don’t need to do the research, because I’ve already done the work, and I hope that readers feel comfortable trusting me. After you learn this information about the once-trusted products you’ve been using, you may not know where to go and you may be even a bit scared. And that’s okay — but that’s why I do what I do. I want to buffer that transition.

I founded my online store to share amazing products that work, and I’m always looking for new makers with great stories to tell. I really think the future of beauty is that what you do on the inside can truly help you on the outside.

You’ve been getting more into plant medicine lately, right?

Yes, I’ve been studying herbal healing and plant medicine for the past four years. I’m passionate about helping people get back in touch with the simple healing and folk traditions that our ancestors used and understood as powerful medicine. Most other cultures use herbs for their first line of defense against disease, and I think it’s time we remember how to do that here. New Yorkers are so stressed, and our nervous systems are totally fatigued. Teas like nettle, oat straw, and passionflower are easy ways we can get ourselves back to a balanced mental state, letting our bodies take care of themselves.

Sometimes these natural products seem prohibitively expensive — like Dr. Hauschka’s stuff, for example. Is there a way to approach greening your makeup/beauty routine affordably?

I think people sometimes have inappropriate expectations for natural products. You can’t expect the products will cost the same as what you’re used to buying at CVS. Natural products also have a different shelf life compared to normal products. Using healthy, non-toxic products can require a change in expectations, but it is an important and beneficial shift. I have products on my site that range in price from very affordable to expensive, but the truth is, well sourced, high quality ingredients are expensive. But I think they’re worth the price. There are ways to cut costs, though — for instance, use apple cider vinegar as a clarifying rinse and save money on buying a clarifying shampoo. Or use raw, organic coconut oil as your body moisturizer and save money on buying an expensive lotion and a foot cream.

What are some of the most interesting stories that you’ve found out about through your site?

There’s a great line called CV Skin Labs, started by a woman named Britta Aragon. Britta was inspired to create this line of skincare products after watching her father battle cancer, and after she went through chemotherapy and her own fight with cancer. Her mission was to create products that are safe and clean enough for people with compromised skin, people going through chemotherapy and experiencing the side effects of radiation, or medications, or who experience difficult skin conditions like eczema and chronic dryness. The ingredients are so amazing and safe, and I’ve found that the products work beautifully. The skin balm is basically like a new Neosporin, without petroleum; it’s the balm that seems to help with everything. She created her products to be without toxins, to heal and protect the skin. It seemed crazy to her to put chemicals on a compromised body, and I couldn’t agree more.

What is your proudest makeup achievement?

My best makeup jobs have been when I work with “normal” women, do their makeup, and they’re like, “Are you serious? I look that good? What you did was so easy, and I can do that?” You can see their posture change, see a smile take over their, face and feel their excitment. I think my style of doing makeup is to recreate the look that people have in August, when they’re on vacation, have just eaten a bunch of strawberries, and are looking healthy — that’s the beauty of makeup: helping people active that healthy glow. Teaching women that they can achieve that glow using healthy products that I believe in — that’s my favorite thing that I do.

What would you recommend as an easy makeup look in the winter?

One makeup look for winter that I love often involves bronzer. Choose one that’s a matte brown, without glitter. I love swiping a bit on the cheeks, chin, nose, and forehead. This will help bring a bit of life into your face. Top off with two coats of black mascara and a poppy lip. A hydrating lip balm with a pop of color complements the bronzer and “wakes up” the face. Winter is boring enough, so don’t be afraid of color, on both your lips and cheeks!

As a small-business owner, what kind of advice would you give to others?

Running my own business, it just doesn’t feel like it’s work. I feel like it’s something I’m lucky do every day, I forget that it’s work because I feel so passionate about it. I blurred the line between where my hobby starts — where work is and where my hobby is. I feel like that’s everybody’s dream, that they don’t feel like they’re working, that they get to play. I know a lot of people think that’s cheating. But I did makeup when I was 18 for all my friends and thought “this is so fun,” and I realized it could be a job. I never knew that liking to apply makeup and helping people look good and feel good would turn into something that is what it is today. A lot of people want to see what the end will be; but I say just start your project. You can’t teach or learn passion, but what you’re passionate about is contagious and can make people want to trust and learn from you. Life’s too short to be miserable — then again, I’m a hypocrite, I work seven days a week and it’s amazing, but I don’t always take good care of myself. I make my clients tea and relax them and I don’t always do that for myself.

Updated to include:
 — The Environmental Working Group’s ‘Skin Deep’ cosmetics database
 — “Cosmetic Wars,” New York Times
 — “The Story of Cosmetics,” The Story of Stuff

Elisabeth Donnelly’s greatest makeup moment involved a full-on David Bowie lightning bolt at a costume party in Stockholm.