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The science of great skin

From biodegradable packaging and recycling programs to maracuja and argan oils, spray-on clay and do-it-yourself sugar scrubs, beauty consumers are increasingly looking for greener options for skincare. The global market for organic personal care products is expected to pass $13 billion in 2018, according to a 2012 study conducted by Transparency Market Research, and organic skincare products will account for nearly a third of that revenue.

For the family behind Alaska's ArXotica skincare brand, though, natural skincare isn't a trend -- it's a business venture rooted in ancient indigenous practices.

Sisters Cika Sparck, Michelle Sparck and Amy Sparck Dobmeier are members of the Qissunamiut tribe who grew up picking berries near Chevak on the tundra of Western Alaska.

"Everything we gathered was used for food or medicine," Cika Sparck said. Traditional wisdom told them tundra plants had all sorts of health and healing properties. So they started thinking: What's good nutritionally must be good for the skin -- which is, after all, the largest organ in the body.

What started as a casual observation soon became a labor of love. The sisters began developing a line of skincare products with natural ingredients harvested from the tundra: Fireweed as an astringent and moisturizer; crowberry as an antioxidant; Arctic sage as a restorative. They added odorless, neutraceutical-grade salmon oil for its Omega-3 fatty acids. They left out ingredients like parabens and mineral oil. They sought out seed money, arranged for laboratory testing, researched the market and perfected their formula, and ArXotica's Quyung-lii serum hit the market in 2011.

"This is like the best and most potent of Alaska in a bottle," Cika said.

The science

ArXotica's product line is rooted in traditional practices, but there's contemporary science driving the market for antioxidant skincare.

In biology, oxidation is part of the natural aging process. Antioxidants are compounds that help slow aging by helping to neutralize the molecules that cause oxidation at the cellular level. When you spritz lemon juice on apple slices to keep them from turning brown, for example, you're using the antioxidant vitamin C in the lemon juice to slow the oxidation/aging process in the apple slices. In the world of skincare, studies indicate that antioxidants may help fight damage caused by factors including sun, smoke and air pollution.

The pigments that give plants their color, called "flavonoids," have antioxidant properties, and fruits and vegetables that have deeper colors naturally have more flavonoids and, consequently, more antioxidant activity.

Rich in vitamins A and C and anthocyanin flavonoids, blueberries are commonly thought to be the most antioxidant "superfood" available -- but then, most people don't have access to wild crowberries, which have many times more anthocyanins than commercially grown blueberries. Studies in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found crowberries to have higher anthocyanin content than other berry species and indicated they are a source of "health-promoting ingredients" due to their "diverse anthocyanin profile."

Which brings us back to the tundra. To document the benefits of the Alaska wild plants in their products, the Sparck sisters sought out third-party studies, assessments and analyses of their own.

"We kind of went overboard with due diligence to prove we had the goods to make the best skincare goods," Michelle Sparck said in an email. "We had our empirical, anecdotal and traditional ecological knowledge, but for a novice bath and beauty company, we wanted to come out of the gate as knowledgeable and superior ingredient-wise."

Funded with seed money from the Alaska Federation of Natives' Alaska Marketplace program, the research found ArXotica's materials to have high oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) scores and confirmed what the sisters already knew: The northern plants they harvest have through-the-roof antioxidant power.

"It's a phenomenon called 'northern vigor,' which is awesome," Cika said. "We have a short growing season, but it's more concentrated." Midnight sun, strong winds, flash frosts and other harsh conditions mean tundra plants have to build up more resilience than plants that grow under milder circumstances. The result, Cika said, is plant life that has something in common with the people who live under the same conditions: "We're more potent and strong."

The products

ArXotica's cornerstone product, the Quyung-lii anti-aging serum (pronounced "ka-YOONG-lee"), gets its name from a Cup'ik phrase that means "the potent one." Also potent is the price; a 1.7-oz bottle (about a five-month supply, the company says) costs $300.

In the world of high-end skincare, however, ArXotica's serum is priced in line with -- and sometimes well below -- serums from international luxury brands like Givenchy and SK-II that also boast natural ingredients. La Mer, the company that carries the banner for luxury skincare, markets its products around a "Miracle Broth" of sea kelp. Its own Regenerating Serum -- complete with Miracle Broth and a "bio ferment engineered with plant stem cells" -- sells for $310 per ounce. The high price tag is tied to the high concentration of beneficial ingredients; a serum has a higher ratio of active ingredients to fluid than a moisturizer or a cream.

"There are products out there that are practically a spritz size for 500 bucks," Cika said. "The reason you're going to serum is that you're choosing the best -- the most effective (product)."

Part of the challenge of selling an anti-aging product is that, unlike with acne treatments or other skincare fixes, users are unlikely to see obvious change overnight. While Quyung-lii has visible results for some users (it may even skin tone or reduce the appearance of lines; personally, I noticed a brightening effect after a few weeks of use), as a product designed to slow the signs of aging, there's a certain amount of trust involved -- and biology.

"Aging is not just (in) the skin -- it's the muscles," Cika said. "A product can't do anything about that." That said, she added, "If you pick the right products, they protect and nourish."

ArXotica also offers some of the benefits of Arctic botanicals at a lower price -- an unscented serum facial bar; a range of soaps with natural earthy, herbal and floral scents; and a selection of sachets scented with tundra plants. The additional products were developed after testing showed that even after going through the extraction process used to make the serum, the plant material left over still had powerful antioxidant properties.

"Nothing goes to waste," Cika said.

The future

In a little more than three years on the market, ArXotica has developed a small but dedicated fan base (which includes this writer; I use the serum nightly) in Alaska and beyond.

"They want to buy from us because they know the materials," Cika said. "They trust the source and they trust who it's coming from, but they trust the materials."

In addition to the products currently available, ArXotica has a toiletry line -- head and body wash, lotion and conditioner -- developed and ready to roll into production.

"We have enough extracts and materials to flesh out our whole product array," Cika said.

The hitch is securing distribution. The company has met with representatives of tribal gaming resorts around the Lower 48 about getting into their spas and hotels, but what the Sparck sisters would really like is to contract with Alaska hotels and luxury lodges to provide guest toiletries.

"People want the full Alaska experience, and I don't want them to walk into the hotel room and pick up another Gilchrist & Soames," Cika said. ArXotica's products are currently available in about two dozen retail locations around Alaska and the Lower 48, and they'd like to expand that reach as well. Earlier this year, they were awarded a contract for a retail space in a high-traffic location, but the bid process was scrapped over a competitor's objections.

"It won't deter us, though," Michelle said. "We have proved we are in this for the long haul."

For now, ArXotica's products are harvested in Alaska and manufactured in New Jersey. The sisters would like to base all their operations in Alaska, although there are infrastructure and transportation hurdles they'll have to clear. They describe a future in which ArXotica is an economic driver in Western Alaska, providing jobs and helping train chemists and ethnobotanists. They point out that the location of their source material helps keep their environmental impact low; their wild plant harvest can't really be mechanized, and their default shipping option is cargo backhaul on returning flights. Cika describes ArXotica's customer as a "conscientious consumer" -- someone who cares not just about the product but how it's made and where it comes from. She also sees tourism as a potential component of ArXotica's business.

"One of my big dreams is having a working and luxury trip," she said. She envisions bringing customers to the tundra on "glamping" trips on which they can harvest plants for their serum, then relax with a mobile spa unit, enjoying facials and massages on the shores of a Western Alaska lake.

"They're also (going to be) seeing the villages and seeing what we're working for," she said. "They'll see, literally, where we're coming from."

Where to find ArXotica

Anchorage

Alaska Native Arts Foundation

Anchorage Museum

Aurora Fine Art

Circular Boutique

G Street Fox

The Kobuk

Moostique, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport

Mosquito Books, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport

Once in a Blue Moose

Sourdough Mercantile, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport

Bethel

Bethel Council on the Arts

Cordova

Serendipitea

Girdwood

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, Girdwood, AK

Juneau

Hickock Trading Co.

Gastineau Guiding Co.

Nome

Bearing Song

Palmer

Silvertip Design

Sitka

The Cellar

Outside

Sage Spa, Morongo Casino Resort, Cabazon, Calif.

Blue Sky Native Market, Warm Springs, Ore.

Ink Well Tattoo, La Grange, Kent.

Little Creek Casino, Shelton, Wash.

Brette Space Designs, Atlanta, Ga.

Evolution Fitness, Southampton, N.Y.

Great Looks, Princeton, N.J.

This story appeared in the May 2015 issue of 61º North Magazine. Contact 61º editor Jamie Gonzales at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.

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