ARTIST INTERVIEW: Justine Kahn of Botnia
Describe the path that led you to the work you do now.
Like many founders of beauty brands, I have a personal story. When I was a teenager, I struggled with horrific acne and tried everything I could to fix it. I went to a dermatologist and, of course, was prescribed the worst possible things for my skin. I took antibiotics and used Dial soap. My skin deeply affected my self-esteem. After years of bad advice (from my doctor, friends, and magazines), I decided to take matters into my own hands.
I enrolled in beauty school in Los Angeles in 2001 and began an apprenticeship with a renowned holistic esthetician. I owe so much to those formative years in that treatment room, where the belief that the skin is a reflection of our internal organs still forms the core of my own philosophy. I was primed to enter my own treatment room armed with a holistic knowledge of how to care for the skin. But I was met with conventional skincare that was the exact opposite of what I wanted. Most products sold by estheticians were filled with toxic chemicals, stripping agents, and irritating perfumes. I was giving my clients knowledge and care but causing them inflammation and irritation.
After years hopping around from spa to spa, trying different skincare lines and hoping to find one that was both effective and healthy, I knew my clients deserved better. I started cosmetic chemistry classes, where I learned about natural skincare ingredients and how to create products using botanicals and natural preservatives. Over time I found that the new products I was creating were super-safe and also effective at treating my clients’ skin! I still had one problem: organic products need a preserving system. I enlisted the help of my friend Clayton Coker, a Stanford-trained plant biologist. He brought his extensive scientific knowledge and background working with plants and applied it to our skincare line to ensure it stays fresh and safe.
This was a turning point: to offer a unique skincare approach featuring anti-inflammatory botanicals hand-selected for their effective nature while also being gentle to the skin. We are able to truly meet each client where their skin is at, no matter how complex or complicated their issues may be. Botnia has taken years to perfect and the results speak for themselves. Clear, beautiful, radiant skin with simple, effective ingredients–makes sense, right?!
What would you say is the driving force behind your creative work?
I started Botnia because I wanted to help people. I know it sounds clichéd, but it’s truly what drives me. More specifically, I wanted to help people with their skin. As an esthetician with fifteen years of experience in the treatment room, I’d seen so many clients using the wrong products for their skin, and I’d also found myself using the wrong products on these same people because I was limited by the skincare lines the spas chose. All too often, my clients left the spa with their skin even more red and inflamed, and I knew it was because the harsh, stripping, and overly-fragranced products were working at cross-purposes with the skin’s natural ability to heal itself. I wasn’t helping anyone’s skin problems, and that was a major turning point in my career, evolving from being an esthetician to also a skincare formulator and beauty brand founder. My solution to create a line of clean, effective, plant-powered skincare that I understood and trusted has a deeper mission of nurturing the frustrating and often emotional relationship so many people have with their skin.
Do you think the community is important to creativity? If so, how?
Yes! For me at Botnia, community works on multiple levels. From the beginning, I’ve been lucky to have such amazing mentors and friends working with me on formulating products–from scientists to farmers to gardeners to herbalists. And Botnia was truly born in the treatment room of my spa, where my lovely clients trusted me to try different permutations of these products on them. My clients have been priceless in offering their feedback to refine Botnia’s line to where it is today, years later. And now our community has grown to include fellow holistic estheticians around the country offering our unique facial treatments and curing complex skin issues with our professional apothecary-style skincare.
How is your work inspired by or influenced by nature and your surroundings?
Luckily for me, all I have to do is step into my backyard to be inspired by nature–we’ve built a micro-farm for Botnia with raised beds for all our skincare botanicals like chamomile and calendula. Roses, geranium, lavender–the incredible healing power of these beautiful plants inspires me every day. And I’m also inspired in the treatment room, whenever I’m interacting with my clients’ skin–our skin is such an amazing organ; I know so many folks have complicated relationships with their skin, and I’m inspired every day to help heal this relationship with effective, accessible skincare.
Photos by Nancy Neil