Interviews

How a Family Member’s Health Scare Inspired Tata Harper to Develop Her Clean Skincare Line

Tata Harper’s entry into the beauty world is perhaps one of the industry’s happiest accidents. What began as a health scare for a loved one became the launching pad for what’s now one of the most clean, effective, and luxurious skincare lines in the world. 

If you’re not familiar with Harper’s story, here’s the gist. After her stepfather was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2004, Harper, who accompanied him to treatments, began to understand the effects that everyday choices have on our health. When her stepfather’s medical team instructed Harper to switch him to a chemical-free lifestyle — from his refrigerator to his bathroom vanity — she decided she would do the same to her own routine. The selections, however, particularly in the beauty and wellness department, were slim.  

“I was able to find a lot for cleaning products, for food, but skincare was the last frontier,” she recalls. “I couldn’t find any products that were really natural and that were really effective. It was either formulas from supermarkets or little apothecaries or very high-tech [options] where they mixed botanicals with the same synthetic chemicals that I wanted to avoid in the first place.”

A self-described “beauty maximalist,” Harper decided she would create what she couldn’t find. Five years and countless chemists, herbalists, botanists, and labs later, Tata Harper skincare was finally born. Today, she operates the company from a spacious farm in her home-base of Vermont with over 300 employees and a jam-packed calendar.  

We chatted with the Colombian-born product pioneer about how to clean up your beauty routine, juggling career with family life, and what’s next for her brand. 

Spotlyte: Before you attended the doctor appointments with your stepfather, were you using any natural products?

Tata Harper: I was not using any of it. I had heard about natural/organic food. This was 14 or 15 years ago now — the beginning of the movement here in the U.S. I am a big environmentalist. I try to do my part, but I didn’t think I had to change my moisturizer. I didn’t have the knowledge or complete awareness that I had after those doctor visits. I’ve been a health enthusiast all my life, but never from that angle of personal care. I was looking for high-quality, high-performance and this hadn’t really sunk in at all. 

Spotlyte: Growing up, did you ever imagine you’d work in the beauty industry or become an entrepreneur?

TH: Never, ever. I was working in real estate — a lot of condos and developments in downtown Miami. I’m an industrial engineer. I never thought I would become a beauty entrepreneur [laughs]! 

It just really happened out of that need. Also, after realizing the importance of it and that this industry catered so much to women, I felt compelled to do something and to bring education and awareness to this topic. That’s been the mission of our company since we launched.

Spotlyte: When you began the line, did you envision the magnitude of success you’ve achieved?

TH: To be honest, I started it to provide an alternative, and I had no idea how big or how small it was going to be. Since I started, everything was a challenge. I was told I was crazy, I was naïve, that I was not going to be able to make this happen, why waste my money? I started this company with a lot of our savings, and with no knowledge, but being an outsider also allowed me to have a different perspective on things and gave me the courage to do things that made the most sense.  

Spotlyte: As an “outsider,” how did you begin to navigate the beauty world?

TH: It was an uphill battle. A lot of the [natural] ingredients to [help with] wrinkles were available — algae, roses, orchids — and the legacy brands had been using them for decades. What wasn’t available was everything else that you need, like emulsifiers, preservatives, stabilizers, pH balancers, thickeners. For the longest time, the industry has been relying on chemicals and more cost-effective ways of going about things. In the majority of these cases, the controversial chemicals are exactly those — preservatives and all of those things that no one really talks about — and we as consumers have no idea that they even exist. So really it was like, how do we do all of the stuff that synthetic formulas do using natural materials? I didn’t want to create formulas that were just about one ingredient. 

Spotlyte: What other challenges did you face?

TH: The beauty industry is very outsourced, from the formulation and the production, even the distribution. I’m an engineer, so I was ready to do everything. This idea of outsourcing the formulation and the production of the brand made me really uncomfortable. I wanted to be able to produce what I needed, when I needed it —  instead of storing months and months of inventory just because that’s what they said I needed to do. A lot of the labs were not used to putting in the amount of time that I needed for development. They’re used to selling bases that have a couple of new active ingredients. In my case, they were suggesting something from the Amazon because I’m Colombian, and that was it. 

I decided I didn’t want to do any of that and I definitely didn’t want to do formulations that would revolve around one active. I wanted to have lots of active ingredients and have the formulas be really potent and high-performance, multi-benefit, and multi-active, and that was really hard, especially to emulsify and preserve natural ingredients, that took us almost five years. It was a labor of love. 

Spotlyte: How has green beauty changed since you started?

TH: When I began, there wasn’t a lot of awareness from the customer standpoint. The awareness is much more apparent now. The industry has been cleaning up, too. Clean beauty is just about eliminating controversial chemicals.

Spotlyte: You have three kids at home. How do you juggle a demanding career with family?

TH: Because I’m an engineer, I’m very systematic. I spend a lot of time planning my time. My assistant and I operate what I call my scheduling matrix: all the meetings that I have weekly, all the meetings that I need to have bi-weekly, all the meetings I have monthly, quarterly, yearly . . . it’s crazy [laughs]. But, that’s what helps me achieve my life balance. A lot of times, I think people think those things fall into place automatically, and they don’t. Especially if your time is in high-demand, you really need to control it. 

Spotlyte: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

TH: Definitely knowing that we are making products that [may] make people’s lives and the planet better. It’s not just about making more eye creams and serums. We have products that are meaningful and are what they say they are. It’s not about marketing, it’s not about gimmicks, it’s the truth. Having a completely responsible, transparent company gives me a lot of satisfaction. 

Spotlyte: And the most challenging? 

TH: The most challenging part is just juggling everything on my plate. It’s not easy starting your own business, because you are its master and its slave. 

Spotlyte: What should people know when shopping for natural beauty products?

TH: It’s important to realize that not everyone has the same parameters. We all have our wellness barometer. Someone like me is super hardcore, and I want everything to be as natural, as green, as eco-friendly, and as sustainable as possible. But there are some people that are looking for the products only to be vegan and cruelty-free. You need to figure out what you are looking for, and then you need to get educated. 

Spotlyte: How has your beauty routine changed since launching your brand?

TH: I’m Latin, and we love, love using products. For me, it’s not a chore, or something that I don’t have time for. I always have time for it, and I always do it as a way to pamper myself. The biggest change has been the order of things. Now I’m much more knowledgeable about how to layer products. 

Spotlyte: What is your beauty routine?

TH: In the morning, I love to exfoliate. At night, I do a double cleanse with my oil cleanser or purifying cleanser, which is a detox for the skin. After that, I love using essences; they hydrate your skin and they serve as penetration enhancers. Then I use my two most important anti-aging products: my Rejuvenating Serum and my Restorative Eye Crème, and then after that I do my Crème Riche moisturizer and face oil. 

Spotlyte: Do you use products from other lines?

TH: I have to be honest, for treatment, I only use our products and I am not a big fan of a lot of makeup, although I love Kjaer Weiss and her reusable packaging. I also love Christophe Robin’s® regenerating hair mask, and another product called MILK™, a leave-on treatment for the hair. Also, Lavanila™ deodorant

Spotlyte: Have you discovered any unsung hero ingredients that really surprised you in their performance and efficacy? 

TH: There are dozens. I’m always surprised that we’re still talking about the same-old, same-old vitamin C, retinol, and hyaluronic acid. The technology has advanced so way past that, and the fact that we’re still talking about such old-school ingredients just really blows my mind. I really love the new transmitter peptides — the ingredients [provide immediate and long-term anti-aging effects], whether it’s [derived from] Spanish lavender or spilanthes . . . I also love the carotenoids we bring from Israel. It’s a special molecule derived from tomatoes that act like a solar panel for the skin. 

[Editor's note: Retinol shouldn't be used by those who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.] 

Spotlyte: If someone is interested in cleaning up their beauty routine, what’s the first step? 

TH: Number one, don’t dive right in. Getting into natural products should be baby steps. Get your toes wet and go slowly; don’t try to change everything at once. I’ve heard so many stories about people who tried everything and then they reacted, and their skin was a mess. Be willing to go slowly and invest in different options to see what works and what doesn’t work. 

Spotlyte: Do you get any professional skin treatments?

TH: I love doing mesotherapy treatments in France. It’s microneedling, but they infuse your skin with different vitamins; I love that. I love getting acupuncture facials. I love massaging my skin. I’ve tried lasers, but I haven’t seen much difference. 

Spotlyte: And what are your goals for the future?

TH: Right now, we are focusing our efforts in Asia. We just launched in Joyce Beauty™ in Hong Kong. It’s a new venture for us. We’ve been very careful about expanding. It’s never been about being all over the world. It’s been a lot of focusing on one market at a time, so we can do it well and keep moving on. Now it’s Asia — that’s the next frontier for us. It’s so big and so wide and so different—so exciting. 

 

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