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Bringing Indian skincare into the 21st century

Forest Essentials' Mira Kulkarni makes bygone Ayurvedic beauty rituals relevant for luxury consumers today

Forest Essentials’ Ayurvedic Sheet Masks.
Forest Essentials’ Ayurvedic Sheet Masks.

Sheet masking is having a moment, with its fans ranging from actor Emma Stone and the Kardashian sisters to your friendly neighbourhood beauty blogger. Infused with a range of ingredients, from papaya to peptide, these masks are among the Korean beauty industry’s many innovations that have become a formidable influence on the global beauty market. But now the Korean sheet mask has competition.

Luxury beauty brand Forest Essentials has created what it calls India’s first Ayurvedic sheet masks, combining traditional Indian rituals with a new-age trend. “Sheet masks are such a worldwide phenomenon, I thought it would be a great thing to do," says Mira Kulkarni, founder of Forest Essentials, who spent two years working with her team to develop the products. “During our research, we found that masks are quite integral to Indian culture. Fabrics like muslin were soaked in kashyams (herbal decoctions) and applied on the face according to Ayurveda."

Skin and haircare rooted in Ayurveda have long been part of Indian beauty rituals, passed down generations as home remedies. In the last decade, a number of home-grown brands such as Kama Ayurveda, SkinYoga and Purearth have harnessed this knowledge to create luxurious new beauty and haircare products.

The scene was very different in 2001, when Forest Essentials was founded. Kulkarni’s brand grew from a personal interest. “I used to make soaps at home and wondered why we didn’t have proper handmade soaps in India," she recalls. The few Ayurvedic products available in the market then were priced cheaply, and made using low-value ingredients to make them cost-effective. Kulkarni decided to try her hand at something new—handmade soaps using quality ingredients and processes.

“Nobody ever thought anyone was going to pay 100 for a bar of soap," she says. “But I thought if I was willing to spend that much, others would be too. We created a new segment in the market." The brand grew, as Kulkarni couldn’t find pure oils for her soaps and decided to extract her own oils. “Everyone thought I was absolutely crazy, but we went ahead," she says. “Even now, we extract all the oils for the products ourselves."

Almost two decades later, Forest Essentials now offers skin and haircare products and fragrances, made using local natural ingredients. “There are no magic ingredients," says Kulkarni, who swears by natural methods. “If a herb is plucked at the right time, stored in proper conditions and infused without any dilutions, it’s going to work."

The process makes all the difference, and Kulkarni spends much of her time working with the brand’s research and development team to translate Ayurvedic processes into new products. The brand’s iconic Soundarya Radiance Cream is made using 24-karat gold bhasma (ash) while zinc bhasma is used as a natural sunscreen. “These ingredients were always around, but the key is to make them relevant."

Forest Essentials now has 62 stores across India and is also available at multi-brand retailers like Sephora. The brand is now considering a move overseas to cater to growing consumer interest. Indian ingredients—think coconut oil and turmeric—are big sellers abroad. “Women in India and other Eastern countries have beautiful skin and we take care of it," says Kulkarni. “There are a lot of things we have used for centuries. The West is now discovering that these work."

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