The Trinity boffin leading the way in natural skincare
A Trinity pharmacist is leading the charge to bring natural cosmetics into the mainstream
John Murray and Simon Jackson of Modern Botany, at home in west Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Dr Simon Jackson picks out little details in the buildings as he walks to the pharmacy department in Trinity College Dublin. “Those circular patterns up there are all made from Irish granite,” he explains, before sneaking into the geography building to see an ancient skeleton of a great Irish elk. Education is his passion, and passing on knowledge is part of what he hopes his brand, Modern Botany, will achieve.
Modern Botany is a multipurpose oil for men and women, and was founded in 2015 by Jackson and John Murray, his partner in business and life. Both men are passionate about “plant power” and using natural products to their fullest potential.
Modern Botany’s ingredients are 100 per cent natural – a more unusual claim than you might think in the current skincare market. But this isn’t any of your “hippy-dippy” hemp-type of product.
“This is a bathroom staple,” Jackson says. “It’s a single skincare product made using evidence-based science.”
Few people are better-suited to produce such an oil than these two. Cork man Murray has experience in health and social care. Jackson, who was born in Lincolnshire, has a doctorate in pharmacy from King’s College, London, as well as a postdoc in skin diseases and experience working with skin cancer in Charing Cross Hospital.
For so long, so many people have thought natural products just weren’t as good as big synthetic brands”
He has spent time travelling Asia and Africa studying the natural properties of the plant life and is what’s called a “pharmacognosist”. Pharmacognosy is the study of medicinal drugs obtained from plants or other natural sources. Herbal pharmacy is another way of describing it. Think science crossed with the plant world.
Jackson was working with GlaxoSmithKline in 1996 when it closed the entire natural product division. At a loss for what to do with such specialised knowledge, he applied for a job in Trinity, one of the only places offering pharmacognosy.
There are only three places that offer pharmacognosy in Europe and the UK: Strathclyde in Scotland, King’s College in London and Trinity College Dublin. The lecturers in Scotland and London have either retired or are just about to, which has left Trinity in a unique position, holding the reins for the future of natural product science in Europe.
This is something Jackson feels passionately about. “We’re really trying to make Trinity the centre of excellence globally for natural product research.”
And there is certainly a big market interest out there. Not since the 1980s and the height of the Body Shop phenomenon have cosmetics seen such an interest in natural products. Last year the natural beauty sector was earmarked as the biggest growth area in the €12 million Irish beauty market. Jackson, as one of Trinity’s “Entrepreneurs in Residence”, wants to ride this wave and use his business experience to help push the university’s natural pharmacy department into the limelight.
Jackson and Murray have founded a natural cosmetics business before. In 2008 their brand Dr Jackson was born and was sold globally by the exclusive and luxurious online retailer Net-a-porter, as well as in shops such as Liberty London.
“The thing is,” Jackson says, “before Dr Jackson no one knew that there was a whole arm of science dedicated to this stuff. After, people started talking about pharmacognosy and that helps to keep natural-product science alive.”
“For so long, so many people have thought natural products just weren’t as good as big synthetic brands. I think what people liked about me is that I was saying, well these are pharmaceutical-grade extracts, and they have real therapeutic effect.”
Something for everyone
Once Jackson became an authority on natural skincare, investors came in and bought the company. This freed the founders up to pursue other interests, such as getting married, moving to Ireland and setting up Modern Botany.
It is very much about making products that are science-led”
Jackson says the Dr Jackson product line “was very exclusive; not everyone could afford or access it. We wanted to make something inclusive”. So, in west Cork, Modern Botany was born.
“It was, and it is, very much about making products that are science-led,” says Murray. “There is evidence testing, and the product needs to do what it says on the tin.”
Modern Botany claims are impressive. It works on wrinkles, redness, bruises, adult acne and skin issues such as eczema, rosacea and psoriasis. It’s anti-ageing, anti-inflammatory, hydrating and soothing on skin. It also claims to be safe on babies and for people undergoing chemotherapy.
“We’re appealing to people out there who want to make positive lifestyle choices and use natural products,” says Murray. “And that is a growing group, especially among young people.”
We really believe Ireland can become a centre for natural products”
Jackson says: “We’re trying to lead by example, and give people a healthy alternative. We also want to point out what to look out for in other products and what ingredients to avoid.”
Parabens, sulphates and silicates are prominent ingredients in many household beauty brands, some which may even market themselves as natural. Most of these synthetic and potentially harmful ingredients act as preservatives, and, while much is still unknown, there have been links made between parabens and breast cancer.
“If you look at the deodorant you put on, then the face cream you put on and the shower gel you used, they’re all full of parabens,” says Jackson. “Then the clothes you put on have been washed in parabens. Individually, they are not toxic, but when you load them all on top of each other, day-in day-out for 30 years, you are going to have a big impact on your health.”
“We want to help other natural-product companies make quality products and jump through some of the hoops we have had to over the years. We really believe Ireland can become a centre for natural products.”
Plans are in the pipeline for an educational course in basic pharmacognosy to help with this. Until then, read the labels of the products you are buying before you lather them on your skin.
Modern Botany is available in Lloyds Pharmacy or at modernbotany.com