In an age of wellness, taking a more thoughtful approach to what we’re putting on our bodies is crucial to leading happier and healthier lives. As Black women, we need to demand cleaner, natural products without the chemicals big-name beauty brands have been supplying to our community. So where do we go to find conscious beauty products made by Black women, for Black women? The answer, sis — BLK + GRN — the first and only marketplace that connects Black women "to high-quality, toxic-free brands that share in our mission of health, wellness and community cultivation." Founder and esteemed professor of public health, Dr. Kristian Henderson, believes that a life free of toxins and all things artificial is a life worth cultivating.

I had the extreme pleasure to speak with Dr. Henderson on what inspired her to create BLK + GRN, why Black women should be fed up with the beauty industry treating us as an afterthought, and how Black women can conquer their own wellness journey by joining the movement to support Black-owned, small businesses.

  1. Check out our exclusive interview with Dr. Kristian Henderson below. 

Photo: BLK + GRN

21Ninety: How did the concept for BLK + GRN come to be? What inspired you to create an online marketplace for holistic, ethically sourced, and toxic-free products exclusively designed by all-Black artisans?

Dr. Kristian Henderson: So, my background is in public health and I've always been really interested in health disparities — particularly looking at Black women and why Black women have poor health outcomes when we compare them to their white counterparts. And there's been new-budding research around the connection between the products and the toxicity of the products that Black women are using, and the impacts that it may be having on their health. We know that 75% of the products that are marketed directly toward Black women are considered toxic. And so, just by hearing that statistic, I'm kind of like, "wow, that's interesting." I really wanted to personally start using products that were better for me, and then I also wanted to make it easier for other Black women to make that same choice. Simultaneously when doing that research, I read the book, Our Black Yearand it details a woman's journey to try and purchase Black for her family for an entire year, and how complicated it was. But also, it illuminated this fire in me of the power of our purchasing dollars. So, I kind of wanted to combine both movements — and that became BLK + GRN — of finding all-natural products that are also Black-owned, and so you can support your community, support small businesses, and also make a choice that's better for your health.

21N: According to a recent report on Popular Science, women of color have higher levels of beauty-related chemicals in their bodies compared to white women. As a professor of public health and natural lifestyle enthusiast, in your humble opinion, why are the beauty and wellness industries treating Black women as an afterthought? What sort of action do Black women need to take to show these industries that we are fed up with this kind of treatment?

DKH: I have to tell you that I do interviews all the time, and I've never been asked this question. So kudos to you, because I get asked the same questions over and over again. To answer the first half of your question of why they are marketing products to us that are so toxic — it's kind of a complicated answer. We haven't been diligent about the products we are using, and we haven't made choices based off of the quality and the ingredients of the products. So, the industry wasn't forced to be conscientious about the ingredients they are putting in the products that are marketed towards us. I think a deeper cultural issue is that we have been trying to ascertain this European aesthetic, and this euro-centric view of beauty, and I think that it's been a dangerous journey to try to obtain this euro-centric beauty. It's required things, like relaxers, and things like, chemical-bleachers, and probably the more toxic products that we use in order to achieve that aesthetic because we weren't valuing self-love and accepting ourselves as we were. 

Another piece of it is, in general, Black folks are very loyal to the products they use. I hear things like, "Oh, my grandmother used this. And I used it now. And we pass it down." So, there's sort of this loyalty to products. We also tend to have less disposable income, so we typically choose products based off of price. When you're making selections based off of price, then that generally means that you are selecting products that have lower quality ingredients. 

Given all those different factors that may have contributed to the problem, and on top of structural racism that exists, I think the way that we show the industry that we are fed up is by refusing to support it. Literally, the best way to speak to the industry is with your dollars. You vote with your money. Every single time you purchase something, you are deciding who gets revenue and who doesn't. You're telling the industry what you value. You're telling the industry what's important to you. So if you say that you value Black women's health, and you say that value entrepreneurs, and these are the things that are important to you, then your money has to also align those values. Personally, I don't want to support child labor — so I have to do a little extra research to not support businesses that use child labor to create their revenue. So, it's up to me to ensure that my purchasing decisions are efficient with my values. And I think a lot of us have not been doing that. 

Photo: BLK + GRN

21N: I completely agree, and that's actually a great segway into the next question. All of the collections sold on BLK + GRN are specifically designed by Black women for Black women. How do you go about choosing Black artisans? Do you offer any opportunities for interested Black artisans to submit samples of their products to BLK + GRN?

DKH: Yes! There's a two-way process. Brands that I find myself — on Instagram or by reading an article — I will reach out to them and invite them to apply. And there are brands that find us that apply on their own. The application process, I've heard people complaining that it can be kind of strenuous because we do ask a lot of questions, but if you go on our website — and scroll to the bottom — you'll find Our Approval Process that shows the four steps that we go through when reviewing applications. We look at ingredients. We look at sourcing. We look at packaging. We also want to know if it's meeting a new niche. As much as I love shea butter, like any other Black woman, I can only sell so many shea butter products (laughs). So, we need diversity in products — products that are unique, products that are new, products that are meeting a different need. If someone tells me they are making a toothpaste, I'm like, "Oh, tell me about it" because I don't have a toothpaste on the platform currently. So I'm always interested in try to make sure that we are finding gaps and building those gaps — that way we can give our customers as much diversity as possible so that we can replace them having to purchase their personal care products from other places. 

21N: That's dope! I really support what you and BLK + GRN are doing by putting all these brands in one space. After looking at your website, I came across a lot of brands that I have never heard of before and it's really nice to have a platform we can go to to learn more about them.

DKH: Absolutely. And that's what I was finding — when I first wanted to use all-natural products, the story is, I talked to most of artisans and they were on a similar journey with using all-natural products, and ended up just creating their own thing. They, too, didn't realize that so many other Black brands existed who were also creating all-natural products. There are literally hundreds of brands that are already doing this, we just don't know that they exist because no one was bringing them together. So at first, I just had spreadsheets with all these brands listed on it and that's how I was buying my own products. And then my friends and family wanted to start purchasing the products I was buying and asked, "where are you getting them from?" So, I would send them these spreadsheets. But eventually, that got hard because you have to go to each of those websites and pay shipping multiple times. So there had to be a way where everything was brought together and in one place.

Photo: BLK + GRN

21N: In addition to connecting Black women with natural lifestyle brands, BLK + GRN also curates events that travel around the country. What can Black women expect to gain from these poppin’ events?

DKH: We have our Black Oasis tour that we do every summer, and it was really just trying to help create a moment for self-love and self-care for women to find other women who are on the same journey as them. We were hearing from our customers that often they feel isolated, or they feel alone, as they were trying to welcome their wellness journey. So we wanted to curate this event for women to find each other.

We were also hearing that most women don't know about Black-owned businesses in their own backyard. So at our events, we bring Black nail technicians, Black beauticians, Black massage therapists, Black acupunctures, and they commence the event so that not only the folks at the event use the services, but now, you're connected with these wellness modalities and continue using them in the future. And we have our pop-up shop there, so our customers can also try our products out in real life — they can see it, they can hold it — because whether good or bad, Black-owned products typically have a negative connotation. Often people assume the quality is not going to be there. So when our customers actually get to see it and hold it, they're like, "Oh, wow! These products are actually amazing." It just kind of help to relieve their fear.

Photo: BLK + GRN

21N: What has been the most rewarding aspect — as an entrepreneur — since launching BLK + GRN? 

DKH: It's probably when we get emails from customers who are really excited about the products. It's also when we get emails from artisans who thank us because, without us, they would be out of business and are able to move products in ways they never have before. So, it's people's experience saying, "Thank you. I've been looking for this. I've been needing this. I want this." It definitely has been a labor of love, and though all aspects of it has not been rewarding — like, it's a really big sacrifice to start a business, particularly retail, is the most lucrative business to get into. So at times, it can be difficult. For instance, right now, we are fighting a trademark battle with Mansa Corporation, that actually owns BLK/OPL, over the use of the word "BLK." So, that has also been shocking of the role these big brands can have by stifling the growth of small businesses. 

But the interesting thing is there are hundreds of other trademarks that have "BLK" in them. So, you can't trademark the spelling of a common color (laughs). 

21N: Exactly! That seems so absurd.  

DKH: Right! But what I'm learning is that by fighting it, whether it makes sense or not, it's expensive. It takes money to fight. What happens to a lot of brands is that they just end up changing their name — they risk going out of business because they can't afford the trademark fight. Even if they're right, even if the small business isn't violating someone's trademark, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to keep filing the briefs and paying for lawyer fees. So, it's been eye-opening. And for me, it's a little more frustrating because BLK/OPL presents as a Black-owned brand — a lot of people think BLK/OPL is a Black-owned brand — but they actually are not. They just want to capitalize Blackness without actually being Black, and then try to stop an actual Black company from thriving. At least that's how it feels to me, that they are trying to stop me from thriving. So it's been very difficult to grasp my head around. 

Photo: Dr. Kristian Henderson

21N: I'm so glad we are able to feature you and get BLK + GRN more notoriety to hopefully bring in more customers. The name BLK + GRN embodies the whole essence of what you're striving for. And at the end of the day, when it's For Us, By Us, we want to thoroughly support a brand that is catered to our needs and our wellness. 

DKH: Thank you so much!

21N: Are there any projects you are currently working on? What can we expect to see from BLK + GRN in 2019?

DKH: We're calling 2019: Toxic-Free 2019. And we're really trying to focus on helping Black women remove toxicity from their life in whatever form that exists. Whether it's people or whether it's products, we want to support Black women in removing these toxic behaviors and introducing healthier, whole habits. 

We also just launched a podcast a few weeks ago, so that's exciting to try and help people get information and connect with our artisans better — to build a community is what we care a lot about and try to help Black women on their journey because the wellness space does not often look very Black (laughs). 

21N: Do you have any final words of advice or encouragement for Black women who are reluctant to join the holistic wellness community? 

DKH: Oh man, this is such an interesting question. I think my advice if you're reluctant, I would want to know why you're reluctant so I can give targeted advice. But not knowing their caused reluctance, I think I would just remind people that historically we have always gone to Mother Earth for all our needs. And there's kind of been this disconnect when women pulled away from the Earth and started to rely on man-made products with chemicals for these quick fixes, but that's not really our culture, that's not what we always done. A lot of people think wellness and this holistic stuff — this white woman's movement that they can't really be a part of — that's the way it's pictured sometimes. Even yoga sometimes is very whitewashed. At the core of these movements are Black and Brown people who have been practicing these lifestyles for years. So, I try to encourage people to not see it through the lens how media has portrayed it, but instead to see it as a reconnecting to who you are. Reconnecting to what the things we've always done, and finding healing to separate from these man-made chemicals that, we're learning, have been more hostile.

Photo: BLK + GRN

And if none of this speaks to them, then I would ask: why are you trusting these big corporations who do not have your best interest at heart? If they do not care about you, then let's just question it more. What I have found is that people aren't reluctant to be a part of the movement, it's usually that products that are natural are more expensive. And that is true. To me, the real conversation is: why I should spend more money on personal care products? A natural deodorant can cost $10. But do we want to risk breast cancer? Do want to risk the build-up of aluminum? Is that worth spending half as much on your deodorant? I like to argue that it's not because in the long run, not having breast cancer or not exposing yourself to those chemicals are going to be a lot cheaper than paying money for your deodorant. 

The reason why chemically-infused products are so much cheaper is because those chemicals and preservatives allow the products to sit on the shelves for four or five years, so I can cut the price down. Whereas natural products don't have that same amount of chemicals and preservatives to last as long on the shelves, so you end up throwing away a lot of inventory. Making a chemical in a lab is a lot cheaper than using tea-tree oil, so just recognizing that you get what you pay for. 

At some point, as Black women, we have to prioritize ourselves enough that we are willing to pay for better. And on that, I'll drop the mic (laughs). 

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