If the UAE’s desert plants can grow lush and brilliantly green without water, what could they do for skin? That’s what the team behind the UAE-born, all-natural and organic skincare line De L’Arta wondered.
The co-founders – engineer Saeed AlKhoori, soil scientist Lina Yousef and her sister, Sarah, who works on the marketing side – launched the company last year with their first products made from the Tetreana qatarensis plant, aka Tq. A plant that’s been tested to reveal wound-healing and de-pigmenting properties, Tq hydrates, nourishes and protects skin.
Lina joined The Livehealthy Podcast to talk about getting into skincare, circular economies and the power of plants.
You’ve harnessed the power of the UAE’s very resilient plants…
I mean, it’s the first thing you notice when you come, if you’re driving along the road side and it’s complete desert, you’re going to see all these shrubs, super-green shrubs by the way, like neon, some of them have a neon-green color. You’re wondering, how can they grow without any input? There’s no extra input that goes into supporting the growth of these plants. So that, by itself, I think is a miracle. It’s crazy how hot it is, but these plants are able to withstand direct sunlight with no water, and they’re actually quite vibrant, so it’s quite interesting. When we think of plants, they don’t look interesting, but their biochemistry is very interesting. I mean they can survive. They can take carbon dioxide and fix it into organic carbon to support them. We’re heterotrophs, so we eat other things to support us. But they’re able to use sunlight directly just to support their growth. This is very basic, fundamental stuff, but that’s part of the awe of studying plants.
So what is Tetraena qatarensis?
The nice thing about the Tetraena qatarensis plant: it’s the most abundant plant in the desert, it grows everywhere. Literally it’s everywhere and it’s a perennial, meaning, if you cultivate it, you can continuously harvest the shoots, and allow the plant to grow so there’s a sustainable mechanism for harvesting from this plant.
It also can grow on super-poor soil so with respect to fertilizer input and water requirement, its water requirement is almost nil; it can essentially use very little water to survive. It doesn’t need any fertilizer and this is where, from a scientific perspective, I’m always curious about how do they get their nitrogen to support their growth? I think there’s microbes in the soil that help them, that’s the plant-microbe interaction part.
For us, it made sense because it’s the most abundant, so it’s available. It’s a perennial so we can sustainably cultivate it. From a sustainable angle of water and resources to maintain this plant, it’s quite low, and then of course the beneficial properties of this plant. And it’s not really a food source, so we’re not really competing for food. We’re cultivating these plants on marginal soil, so the soil is typically not suitable for anything with respect to agriculture. This is also part of our long-term vision, is to showcase soil regeneration using native plants. It takes time, but it works. We’ve seen changes over the year that we’ve cultivated our plants. You look at soil structure. So when you have saline-destroyed soils, it tends to be dispersed, broken, it’s very prone to erosion when there’s wind. We extend the lifespan of a product. In addition to desert plants and things like that, we’re also interested in exploring waste management. Not all types of waste, we focus on organic types of waste, plant-based types of waste and avenues for the reuse. That’s something we also look into potentially in the skincare market.
How would that work?
You have all these farms producing all this foliage that’s not being used, you could compost it or you could actually look at the value of maybe extracting stuff from this waste for its use in health applications, in agriculture. The point is, traditionally you think you use something, you throw it, right? The question is, how can we maximize the utility of this product once it’s available before it ends up in the landfill? Or does it even have to end up in the landfill?
Can we continue to recycle it? That’s something that we’re very interested in, especially focusing on agricultural residues, materials used in agriculture. For example, in hydroponics, traditionally when you’re growing plants in hydroponics, if you’re using something called rock wool, you just throw it out. Can it be used for something else? This is essentially the thought behind a circular economy with respect to agriculture.
The point is, yes, we’re looking at desert plants and that’s exciting, but we believe there’s also other opportunities that we can look into here in the UAE without having to look outside of the UAE. Anything that’s produced locally, instead of it ending up in the landfill, can we somehow reuse it or transform it into something else?
All your packaging is really minimalist too. It doesn’t come in boxes.
When I go shopping, I tell them, ‘Don’t give me a bag’. For example, when I buy shoes, I don’t want the box of the shoes, I just want the shoes. Why do we even need these boxes? It’s just a waste of resource. Even bags, when I go shopping, I don’t use bags. It’s a hassle for me because I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t want to participate in creating waste. You know what I mean? We’re quite minimal. For now, we chose aluminum because it’s compatible with our ingredients. Aluminum was the right choice for us because it’s lightweight, it’s recyclable, it’s very easy to recycle aluminum. We like the scientific feel it has, like silvery, imagine you’re in a lab somewhat.
Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.