March 18, 2015

{interview} shrankhla holecek, founder of uma oils

Interview with Uma Oils Founder

Yesterday I made the bold declaration, during my review of Uma’s Ultimate Brightening Face Oil, that I would gladly pay $150 for it whether I was flush with cash or not (yes it’s that good).

And today I’m giving you a glimpse into the world behind the label through the vision and philosophy of founder Shrankhla Holecek.

This interview has 13 questions and is a bit in depth, but the perspective shared by Shrankhla is so informative that I know you guys will love and appreciate it.

Shrankhla, whom I’ve only spoken to over email, emits such kindess and sparkle with every word she writes that she’s without a doubt one of those bright lights in this world that make your life that much richer for being a part of it.

So, if you don’t have 15 minutes now to devour her incredible wisdom be sure to bookmark this page and come back later!

Interview with Shrankhla Holecek

Question #1:

Ayurveda, which believes in the union of the body, mind and soul, is at the heart of your product development. How does this 5,000 year old science in natural medicine influence your product development and the techniques you use to formulate your oils?

Answer:

Bringing the powerful science of Ayurveda from our home in India, to the Western world – in a results-driven, education-oriented and contemporarily sensible way – was a key reason we started Uma.

You’re absolutely right in that Ayurveda philosophies dictate all the practices within our product lifecycle – from our farming methods to the actual formulas in our products.

According to Ayurveda, everything in the universe is made up of five basic elements: Earth, Water, Air, Fire and Ether (space) and a close relationship exists between human and the universe we exist in – including nature, which has long been revered in Ayurvedic tradition.

Pesticides – a relatively recent development – would interfere with the natural balance of a plant’s composition per Ayurveda, and hence we farm organically. We also respect plant seasonality and adhere closely to practices that enrich the earth’s natural fertility – and try to minimize our dependence on artificial irrigation – all in accordance with the belief systems that natural energy thrives when natural functions are least disturbed. The harvesting and processing of our crops, including timing (e.g., never harvesting before ripeness or in the late evenings), all integrate Ayurvedic wisdom, as do the processing of our raw materials into their ingredients (never overheating substances to try and get higher yields, etc.)

Arguably, our formulation mechanisms require our deepest and most nuanced expertise on Ayurvedic remedies. In an ideal world, we would be consulting with each individual for whom these products are created and formulating a highly individual recipe. Given the practical difficulties with executing that, we spend a long time backing out the root-causes of common ailments (from acne to anxiety) to fundamental imbalances in the constitution, and layering in our interpretations of the environmental stressors that create those imbalances – from environmental pollutants to emotional stresses related to work. We iterate and test (on humans!) heavily calibrating both for big impact, and subtle reliefs – until we reach a balance in our products that we believe is truly the most beneficial, for the most number of people. Sometimes it will take us weeks to change a a few percents of one ingredient versus the other, but we believe the rigor is warranted because the results can become so profoundly magnified.

Question #2:

I’ve been researching Ayurveda myself and the wonderful oils native to India, or those cherished by its women. In particular I’m thinking of turmeric, brahmi, tulsi and neem. What are your thoughts on these oils and did you ever consider them for your products?

Answer:

Your research – as always – is immaculate, and impressive! I love all of these ingredients and they make their way constantly into many of my diet and skincare recommendations. There’s a few reasons why they haven’t – yet – made it into our products.

First is that they are – not traditionally, in Ayurveda – used in ‘oil’ format and we first wanted to launch with a set of products very core to Ayurvedic principles and in an area of rare expertise where we arguably have world-leading talent – essential oils and their farming and extraction. Second, these wonderful products sometimes produce results over time and consistent use.

In our quest to establish the result-orientation of Ayurveda, we wanted to lead with a set of products that produced visible results rapidly, and without side effects.

Our launch portfolio is highly targeted towards products that produce results within the first few days of use. As Ayurveda and longevity of results becomes more understood – as we hope it will – we will most certainly consider bringing out a set of products that integrate these powerful botanical ingredients in their most optimal Ayurvedically derived formulas.

Question #3:

Nearly all of your face oils, like the Ultimate Brightening Face Oil, are formulated in an organic pomegranate oil base. Why is that?

Answer:

Pomegranate oil is a remarkably lightweight and absorbent oil, which allows it to deliver nutrients more rapidly to the subcellular epidermis. Its texture dispels notions of oils as too heavy or thick for facial use – which is a frequently mentioned barrier to entry for women who haven’t used facial oils before. It’s also incredibly rich in nutrients, especially vitamins A, D, K, and E – and a wide range of antioxidants for extra defense from environmental factors and free radicals. It is, however, more expensive than more common carrier oils, hence the reason why it isn’t commonly used for this purpose.

Question #4:

Keeping our attention on the Ultimate Brightening Face Oil, the ingredients are beautifully uncomplicated; how did you choose the essential oils for this blend? How do they each work, and what’s the optimal percentage of each ingredient to boost their impact without overpowering its properties?

Answer:

For every formulation, we have three key considerations, in the following order of importance:

  1. therapeutic value and results,
  2. absorption quotient,
  3. and the aroma

(I realize that the last seems superficial, but I didn’t want to create a great product that nobody would want to use because of an unappealing smell. Of course, there’s no synthetic aromas in our products – we just take pains to ensure that the natural aromas of our botanical ingredients blend well together).

For a visibly brightened complexion, we brought in copious quantities of Rose – first and foremost, for its unparalleled ability to both create and retain natural moisture in the skin – because hydrated skin is luminous skin. Its natural astringent action also calms redness immediately bringing out an even tone and natural glow.

We followed that up with a generous quantity of Frankincense because of its cytophylactic properties (which is just a big word for aiding cellular turnover and regeneration!). Dark spots and rough skin – both that detract from brightness – are rapidly repaired when your skin’s natural cellular turnover is restored and boosted and Frankincense does that powerfully – and without drying, sun-sensitivity or thinning your skin out as retinols sometimes do (many know that that is the underlying property of retinols – aiding cellular turnover).

Finally, we focused on overall skin health, elasticity and powering its natural defenses against the elements – from bacteria to pollutants. Looks like we will go into the specific oils below.

In my humble personal opinion, a truly potent blend is much, much more than the sum of its (independently great!) parts and that’s where I believe that our generational expertise comes in. Knowing what oils, and in what proportion, would extend the performance and efficacy of another is as much art as it is science.

Sandalwood, for instance, enhances the active lifespan and staying power of other essential oils – and is also wonderfully sublime in its aroma, blending in beautifully with some of the richer top notes such as that of Rose.

Another reason we blend with such pristine attention to percentages is to minimize the risk of sensitivity to any one essential oil. Essential oils are powerful substances in arguably a plant’s most concentrated form – we combine our scientific knowledge of their components such as esters or naturally occurring compounds as azulene, with our rich, long study of their behaviours to determine every last percentage of each oil that goes into our blends.

Question #5:

You’ve stated that at Uma you harvest each plant no more than two times before replanting, because the first two harvests generate the highest quality essential oils. Can you delve into that? Why does the quality of essential oils degrade after the second harvest?

Answer:

This has a lot to do with nutrient component of the plant – as well as the soil it lives in. Plants are most “energetic” in creating nutrient-rich fruits, flowers and stems (parts of the plant that essentials oils are usually created from) the first couple of times they are harvested. Plants age as we do, and their resources (including cellular function) to create nutrients diminish over time.

Furthermore, soil – especially organic soil as ours is – also gets depleted of the nutrients that plants need to thrive on, and must “recuperate” its resources between plantings. We have derived these conclusions both from careful study as well as our own experience – essential oils created from over harvested plants are lower in yield, indicate less potency in lab tests, and are less resplendent in their aromas.

All things considered, we don’t believe that creating these inferior oils – though it may seem economically more lucrative at first blush – make for truly sustainable farming or high-quality oils that we have built our trusted relationships and reputation on.

Question #6:

You seem to favour five essential oils in your face products: lavender, orange, clary sage, sandalwood, and geranium. Why is that? What is it about these particular EO’s that you so highly prize?

Answer:

I’m glad you observed that! To me, these oils are foundational for boosting skin health, and creating the clear and luminous skin that we all desire.

I will start with Clary Sage because of its very unique and beneficial properties of balancing and regulating the production of sebum (natural oils) within the skin – working on both oily and dry skins alike to take them to moderate, healthy moisture levels. I point this out because so many of us rely on topicals that address just the “symptoms” of oil issues (either through heavy, often-synthetic creams or through drying agents) when such an elegant solution exists that works naturally with your skin cells to promote health from within.

Lavender – a much loved oil, and deservedly so – is rich in esters and has a very calming effect on the skin, soothing inflammations and skin damage. Our skin is constantly under attack from pollution and environmental oxidants, and the soothing properties of lavender go a long way in assisting the skin stay calm under these influences.

Orange, resplendent in Vitamin C, is a rapid repair agent and goes to work at the cellular level to heal cracks, dryness and the wear-and-tear that our skin undergoes on a daily basis. All Vitamin C is not created equal and it tends to also be a very unstable compound. We have found that it is both highly stable and very effective in Orange essential oil, which we use generously in our facial oils for its massive skin-repair benefits.

Geranium is a potently anti-inflammatory essential oil, that also has wonderful moisture retention and skin balancing properties. It has an excellent effect on improving overall skin health and in helping repair scars and dark spots. An all round wonderful oil, It is among the best skin-toning agents in our arsenal and that’s why it makes its way into all our facial (and many of our wellness oils as well).

I end on Sandalwood because of my ongoing love affair with it! A sublime oil – native to India – it’s the ultimate wingman, in that it works so hard to boost the properties of every oil that it goes in with. It strongly assists skin health by slowing down cellular degradation – which in turn slows down the aging of the skin. It calms and supports the skin, creating that clean, flawless, luminous complexion that we all hanker after!

Question #7:

What’s your favourite DIY recipe to treat breakouts or dry skin?

Answer:

For breakouts, I recommend solutions that address all the issues afflicting your skin at the time, which typically are: excess sebum and bacterial growth, inflammation, skin breakage (which needs some TLC) and you also need to think about scar prevention.

For spot treatments that address all of above, I like a mixture of tea tree, clove and orange or lemon oil, diluted in a little grapeseed (try 30% essential oil + 70% grapeseed) and if you can get your hands on some dried “neem” (Azadirachta indica) leaves – that would be an amazing add.

Face masks are excellent ongoing treatments for breakouts because they help provide both the necessary nutrient replenishments to heal the skin, and loosen up clogged pores.

Three top notch ingredients for any face pack, especially for acne-prone skin: fuller’s earth (goes deep to pull out impurities, feels cooling on the skin), honey (anti-bacterial and will help lighten acne scars) and turmeric (highly anti-inflammatory and healing).

Great face masks for dry skin would include powdered sandalwood, grated almonds (soak them overnight first!) and yogurt. Rose water is an excellent toner for dry skin – with zero alcohol and all the toning properties of the synthetic stuff (and then some!) – this great elixir is not used nearly enough.

Question #8:

Where once there was none, now there are so many beauty oils on the market. Which is why you started Uma correct?! What differentiates Uma from other beauty oils?

Answer:

One of our key differentiators is our “farm-to-bottle” process – we’ve vertically integrated the entire oil production pipeline, from organically growing and harvesting our ingredients, to extracting them and crafting them into specialized blends. This means we have an unparalleled level of visibility and control over our product, and can implement quality control at every level of the production process.

Most of our competitors purchase oils from external sources, and have no reliable way to verify their quality – this means consumers may very well be buying diluted essential oil products without ever knowing the difference.

Aside from the integrity of our raw ingredients, we employ a team of experts who leverage generations worth of experience with the techniques and subtleties of Ayurvedic medicine. This combination of ingredient stewardship and scientific expertise allows us to provide our customers with a great degree of transparency into our process, as well as the knowledge to use our oils in a way that is authentic to Ayurveda, yet relevant to the modern day.

Finally, we are – and have always been – deeply committed to socially and environmentally responsible business practices. Our farming practices are pesticide-free and low impact, and we repurpose and recycle our waste to minimize our environmental footprint. We also foster gender equality in India – a nation that is unfortunately notorious for its lack of it – by employing a workforce of over 50% women, and providing them with the consistent and fair salaries necessary to ensure their financial independence.

This is in addition to other community initiatives, like free health and childcare, ongoing education, and retirement planning guidance

Question #9:

During the winter a lot of people tend to suffer from psoriasis, eczema or rosacea; do any of your oils address this condition or can the principles of Ayurveda be applied here?

Answer:

None of our oils were created specifically with these conditions in mind, although our oils deeply moisturize the skin and combat dryness across the board.

Ayurveda also offers guidance on this topic. Winter skin conditions that often manifest themselves in forms “dry” skin conditions such as the ones you mention, are believed to emanate from ‘vata’ imbalance (vata being one of the three key Ayurveda principles that human bodies are constituted of. I talk a little more about these in my articles on Chalkboard Mag).

Diet guidelines from Ayurveda for addressing these issues – avoid dry fruits, apples, melons, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, beef and peas as these aggravate vata further. Consumption of avocados, sweet fruits, cherries and oranges will help bring your vata back into balance.

Topically, Aloe vera gel or cream may also be used to gently massage the facial skin and add extra moisture. Antioxidant- and oil-rich avocado has a number of benefits for the skin, and is chock full of healthy fatty acids and vitamins. Mash up an avocado into a smooth paste and apply it evenly to the face. Once it dries off (in roughly 15 minutes), rinse off with cold water. You can follow up with one of our deeply moisturizing oils like Absolute Anti Aging or Total Rejuvenation Night Face Oil to lock in the hydration. Alternatively, you can also apply a few drops of almond oil and massage into the skin.

Question #10:

How long does it typically take to bring a new product idea to market?

Answer:

I think there’s a two-fold answer to that. Theoretically we can create a new formulation in a matter of weeks because we are completely vertically integrated – allowing us ready access to all our farm-harvested organic ingredients, deep formulation expertise in our in-house team of doctors and scientists, and state of the art operational facilities.

What takes us time is the academic and testing discipline we impose on ourselves, and that has served us well. Our top formulators independently come up with the proposed ingredients and their percentages in a planned blend and we debate (enthusiastically!) over the merits of the one ingredient or blend versus the other. We build iteratively on our blend ingredient-by-ingredient over weeks as we like to let our blends evolve over a few days to see if its therapeutic or aromatic properties are evolving as we expect them to. And finally, we test empirically and rigorously prior to release. Without taking into consideration the bottling and packaging, I’d say four months is the minimum time we need to “certify” a formulation ready.

Question #11:

Uma, in Hindi, stands for “bountiful” and “the creator”. What’s up next for you? Do you think you’ll be adding hair or body oils to your lineup anytime soon?

Answer:

In addition to having a beautiful meaning in Hindi, our brand Uma is also named after my dear aunt who had a pivotal role in raising my sister and me, and who we unfortunately lost about seven years ago. She stands as a constant source of inspiration to me for her true selflessness (she never married to support her younger siblings after their father passed at an early age), effortless beauty (gosh, did she look radiant even at sixty – I never saw her with makeup a day of her life!), and for her deep classiness in everything she did.

In keeping with her legacy, I want to ensure we are creating value with everything we add so at this moment we are very heavily focused on creating a knowledge base around Ayurveda and how the nine blends we have create rapid and lasting results before, adding other oils.

With that said, Sophie Uliano – a dear friend, NYT Bestselling author and venerable expert on living green (& doing it gorgeously!) – convinced me to create a blend for her new 30-day lifestyle guide called Gorgeous for Good. I’m very, very pleased with the results and the blend is truly sublime – a unique combination of uplifting, inspirational, and grounding at the same time. Hold your breath (or may be inhale deeply) – we launch the blend, Uma Gorgeous for Good, April 7th on our website.

Question #12:

What is one thing you think everyone should try in their life, and what is currently on your nightstand?

Answer:

I realize this sounds so terribly trite, but I’m going to say it anyway. Meditation, and in general, practicing mindfulness.

We’re leading lives with a decidedly unsustainable (and unproductive) amount of stress and fragmentation. For those of us who have a successful practice – more power to you. For those of us who are getting there (and I’m with you), let’s remind ourselves of meditation’s value, and support each other every day in that journey.

On my nightstand are a variety of books on mindfulness and meditation – that hopefully take me a little further along that journey every day.

And did I say travel? Please travel. Much.

Question #13:

If you could only share one piece of beauty advice with your daughter what would it be?

Answer:

Simplicity.

Keep your beauty rituals (and your life and thoughts!) uncomplicated, honest and natural. Whether it’s going back to using simply a washcloth and warm water for facial cleansing, or going to bed every night not ruminating over the day that passed – incredible beauty will find you, and stay with you through this practice of simplicity in your thoughts and actions.

  • A beautiful interview, Sonja.

    I was super interested and happy to hear about how Shrankhla values meditation – mostly because that’s what I really enjoy doing since ages… I think I started age 14 or 15 learning from a yogi in the family 🙂

    Her ingredient knowledge and how the company is set up to support workers, in particular women – which also means supporting the local communities – are impressive. The farm to bottle promise sounds like the best thing to do.

    I hope they consider finding a European distributor, I can imagine Amazingy to be a great fit.

  • What a great thorough review! Will definitely need to read this several times over to really digest the info!

    • Glad you liked it Jade and found it valuable! xo

  • A beautiful brand, philosophy, and founder. This is such a lovely interview and I admire how transparent and dedicated she is to her brand and ethos. I also with have to try some of these lovely DIY recipes!

    • She’s such an open and honest lady; absolutely love her approach to her products and life in general 🙂

  • Margie

    LOVED this interview!
    Such informative, thought provoking, inspirational, and beautifully related answers (and questions!). Great post as always!!

  • OMG! Bookmarked for later. I can’t wait to read this interview. <3

    • Yaaaay!! I hope you enjoy it, she has so many interesting points to make 🙂 xo