Native New Zealand plants are key ingredients that are setting our skincare products apart, writes Janetta Mackay.

When Soraya Hendesi set about making skincare she went a step further than most people by gathering her own ingredients. Eventually, she would like to move her family from Auckland to live among the berry laden puka trees on her peaceful 20ha plantation north of Warkworth.

In a valley traced by a stream, she pops a harakeke seed pod and cradles its glossy black seeds in her hands. The oil from the flat little seeds is finer than that from the larger common flax and is a key ingredient in her natural skincare.

So-called "hero" ingredients, such as harakeke, are a way New Zealand companies are seeking to differentiate their products.

Hendesi, who set up her Snowberry company in 2007 in tandem with buying the land for the plantation, says: "In the beginning we were using ingredients from all over the world, but now we are taking them more from here.


"Our aim is to find what we can get out of New Zealand natives."

The role of manuka honey in skin healing is well recognised internationally, but other indigenous ingredients of interest are emerging.

These include totarol, extracted from the dead wood of the totara tree and used for its antioxidant and antimicrobial effects, and a host of plant oils, gels and gums. Some have a history in traditional Maori medicine, others have properties only now coming under scientific scrutiny.

The long-established Living Nature skincare company was among the first to commercially make skincare using totarol, manuka oil and harakeke, which it gathers in Northland. From kumarahou - a shrub once called "gum diggers soap" because its flowers, when mixed with water, helped remove sticky gum from their hands - it takes a substance to replace harsher cleansing agents.

Alongside the use of native plants in New Zealand-made skincare, introduced ones gain credence from being grown in our "green" environment. Among them are grape extracts, olive and avocado oils, meadowfoam, chamomile, calendula and comfrey, used by successful exporters including Antipodes and Pacifica and cottage industry producers such as The Herb Farm.

Hops are the distinguishing ingredient in relative newcomer Oxygen Skincare, which is handy because the Nelson company is able to source direct from the family farm, Australasia's largest certified organic hop grower.

"Unlike most skincare brands I am able to produce and use my hero ingredient in its purest form," says founder Alana Riley. "I know exactly what is happening to them in their growth and extraction phase; therefore I can be assured that the extract that I am using has the sustainability and credibility linked to its origins," she says.

Meanwhile, Tebe grows and processes its own olives in the Bombay Hills, using oil and leaf extracts.

Making much of their ingredients is a key marketing strategy for many start-up skincare companies, but most have their products contract-made, often with rather less to set them apart than they might realise.

Hendesi, who has her own manufacturing plant in South Auckland, makes for others, alongside producing Snowberry for export. Her skincare products found early favour in Germany, then America, but China is now the growing market, right down to the need to take a lawsuit against irksome copycats of her distinctive packaging.

Harder to successfully copy are the contents, which is one reason Hendesi is committed to further exploring the potential of home-grown ingredients. She consults with botanists and is now focusing on the properties of a particular gum.

A small nursery on Hendesi's property allows her to trial different plants, and she has moved her extraction equipment on-site, up from Auckland. The journey from freshly picked is now just a few paddocks away.

Crushing a lemonwood leaf, she says next she would like to look at using fragrances like these. But Hendesi's vision isn't all earth mother. She is committed to including the latest anti-ageing high-technology peptides from Europe in her skincare.

Women want - and benefit from - what both nature and science offer, she says.