The apothecary is back. With a focus on natural remedies and local botanicals, apothecaries are popping up everywhere and are using plant-based alternatives to fix everything from skin woes — to headaches — to low libidos.
“If you dig deep enough into your own lineage, there’s plant medicine everywhere,” Max Turks, founder of Roots & Crowns Apothecary in Portland, Ore., says. “It’s part of the fabric of being human. It’s only in the past 100 years that it’s gone behind a veil because of the industrial revolution and the pharmaceutical industry.”
Apothecaries are trendy right now, like many things that resurface after a long absence. But the three apothecaries I interviewed for this story, Roots & Crowns, Blendily, and Sabia, transcend trend. Each store is at once modern and ancient, like the beautiful vintage rugs that hang from the walls of Roots & Crowns where I am spending this sunny March morning chatting with Max.
Max wears a black sweater and layered necklaces, one which reads “Aquarius” in delicate gold script, and is standing behind a polished stone counter. I feel calmer just being in her presence.
What apothecaries used to be is the medicine places of the town. What people don’t realize,” she says, “or maybe they do, is that pharmacies are literally the modern apothecaries. Unfortunately, it’s so far removed from what it used to be, but apothecary is medicine.
The day before I had a phone call with Ivy Chaung, founder of Blendily, a skincare kitchen offering “all-natural skincare, bath and body care, and herbal remedies handcrafted with fresh, organic, and wild ingredients.”
In 2012 it was uncovered that Johnson & Johnson had the formaldehyde-releasing chemicals quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin in their baby products; Ivy had an infant daughter at the time. This was the news that prompted Ivy to pivot career paths, formalizing her education in aromatherapy and natural product formulation, and becoming a licensed esthetician. “I was pretty alarmed because [my daughter’s] first bath in the hospital just minutes out of the womb was with this baby wash. It’s an immensely popular product, even now,” she says.
I think what was most upsetting was that formaldehyde wasn’t listed in the formulation itself. I had a lightbulb moment. This can’t be how it used to be. I realized everything you[use to] groom yourself can be handmade, the ingredients can be botanical-based and understandable.
Not all modern apothecaries make their own products on-premise. Sabia Apothecary curates an inventory of high-quality products, many of which utilize local ingredients including myrrh and rose petals in the Royal Rose Honey Mask, and Inventive Organics Environmental Cleanser, made using ginger, grapefruit, and tea tree oil.
Sabia Apothecary began as a “sleepy neighborhood herb and essential oil shop” in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Austin in 1994, Katie Day of Sabia Apothecary tells me. “A husband and wife team had a passion for natural healing and body care that they manifested in the brick and mortar Sabia.” They changed ownership in 2004, and have grown to include various skin, hair, and body care brands as well as ingestible wellness potions and a full spa service menu.
I ask Katie what she sees as the role of the modern apothecary and she explains impassioned, “I think there’s something that just feels good about healing your body with plants and nutritional foods if it’s available to you. Our bodies respond readily and synergistically with botanical formulations as we share DNA with plants and are quite receptive to the healing powers of ancient herbs and botanical ingredients. [There is] heaps of this sort of information at our fingertips.”
It seems like every time you turn an Instagram corner, there’s another influencer touting a new natural product that will change your life, or at least your skin. It can be overwhelming. “This is where the modern-day apothecary can step in and provide guidance,” Katie says. “At Sabia, we are not exclusively one way or the other. Most everything we carry is ‘natural’, but there is definitely a wide range to satisfy a broad spectrum of customers.”
Modern apothecaries are a place to come for guidance and genuine connection. Sabia offers “an ambient space where one can come to relax, peruse a curated selection of healthful products, and leave with a bit of new knowledge on how to self-care.”
Natural vs. Organic
I ask Katie, Ivy, and Max to help me unpack the differences between the word “natural” and “organic” and they tell me almost the exact same thing; those words really have no widely agreed upon meaning.
“There is a common misconception that has arisen along with the interest in ancient remedies and natural products; [some people think] if something isn’t 100 percent naturally derived then it must be bad,” Katie explains. “If you want to add dermatologist-developed retinol to your regimen, then by all means! We have the options and offer you educated guidance so you get to decide.”
“I think organic can be a buzzword,” Max says. “Things can be organically grown or cultivated even if they are not certified organic. I’m going to be working with a hemp farmer who may or may not eventually get certified in organic growth, but they are growing organically which just means that they avoid the majority of pesticides, and they work to make sure that the soil’s not depleted.”
Similarly, other brands may be “natural” in the sense that they are free of synthetics, dyes, parabens, fragrances, and other ingredients, but might not have the Ecocert or Certified Organic stamp on the label. Katie says, “we still love them anyway, as this detail does not compromise the integrity of the products we have carefully selected to carry here. We carry several brands from overseas that do not have the same FDA organic standards as American brands but still utilize organically grown ingredients, thus are organic.”
“Natural is fluff word,” Ivy says with a laugh. “It sounds nicer than chemical-free which is misleading in that there are chemical constituents in natural products.” Ivy tells me, to my surprise, that in the cosmetics industry there’s little to no regulation on these words. In the U.S., regulations on the word organic are only for food, so if you see it on a cosmetics label it means some of the ingredients (olive oil, for example) have been through the food regulation process.
I ask Max what can be done by the average consumer who is seeking safer alternatives to everyday items. “The best thing you can do when it comes to ingredients is have a relationship with the source and be able to trust it,” she says.
Ivy tells me that many of her customers come into the shop saying they have sensitive skin, “which is interesting because sensitive skin is really skin that is having a reaction. When you purchase skincare products there are so many ingredients you don’t know what you’re reacting to.” She tries to limit all of Blendily’s products to 10 ingredients or fewer.
Max advocates a similar simplicity in her products. “If you look at the average person’s bathroom vanity or closet it’s full of shit that they don’t even touch. People are amazed when I say you can use this facial serum as a cleanser, moisturizer, even an exfoliant. There is no reason why you need to have a $700 beauty regime.”
The love Ivy, Max, and Katie all show for plants is a love I envy in its purity and its ability to occupy both the scientific and the mystical.
Ivy describes to me one of the facial oil serums she produces seasonally called Ruby Skies. It’s made by infusing St. John’s Wort into Sunflower Oil to form a blazing poppy red color. “I’m pretty enamored with that product because it gives off a such a beautiful hue. The flower is yellow and if you were to infuse the flower when it’s dry, it wouldn’t give off that color,” she says. “It feels like magic.”
And then the next day, Max is telling me about violets.
I can’t express the joy that I feel when I get to see the first violet of the year. I’m amazed that we get this year after year, it just comes back like a resurgence.” She says. “Violet medicine is often told to be a creative expression. It can be helpful for people who are shy and introverted if they want to open up. I think of how that is such a metaphor for what violets do at the end of a dark quiet season.
“What lessons can you observe from plants?” Max wonders, more to the collective you or perhaps to herself than to me. “These things that seem little but they’re not little and they’re everywhere if you notice them.” She pauses, takes a bite of the breakfast cookie she’s been nibbling on all morning.
“That’s magic to me.”