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Sabrina Elba, S’Able Labs Cofounder, Talks African Beauty

Sabrina Elba on Why African Beauty Isn't a Trend, It's a Lifestyle

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sabrina elba

Sabrina Elba is a bit of a skin-care nerd. OK, she's a big skin-care nerd — as the founder of a skin-care brand should be. The model started S'Able Labs in 2022 alongside her husband, actor Idris Elba. The initial offering was a trio of products for a bare-bones routine: cleanser, toner, and moisturiser, all packed with powerful ingredients sourced from the African continent.

Since then, the brand has added an exfoliating mask and micellar water to its lineup. Its most recent drop, however, is the brand's new Okra Face Serum ($75), a retinoid serum containing SymRenew HPR, aka hydroxypinacolone, according to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. It's a cosmetic-grade ester of all-trans retinoic acid, which you probably know as tretinoin. HPR works like a retinoid, but it's far gentler on your skin, which is right in line with Elba's vision for the brand.

"The whole point of our line is to not use sensitizing ingredients," Elba tells PS. S'Able Labs was created with melanated skin in mind, which means many of its products address concerns people with deep complexions often face, one being hyperpigmentation. But don't get it twisted: S'Able Labs is for everyone and the ingredients it sources from Africa benefit all skin types.

"If you start formulations for the most sensitive skin types, which happen to be Black skin — it's a skin type that lacks ceramides, making it the driest — guess what? You get skin care that's better for everyone," Elba says, referring to a 2016 study published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. S'Able Labs is one of a few A-Beauty (African Beauty) brands making moves in the space. The line is fuelled by powerful botanicals found on the continent — ones that have been used for generations. "There's a benefit to starting Black."

Elba's enthusiasm for S'Able Labs is palpable. She's inspired by the ingredients and the rituals that people developed as they used them. She's fascinated by their diverse application across different African cultures and she smoothly draws parallels between them. For her, A-Beauty is more than just a trend. It's history, it's culture, and it's a means of survival for many people on the continent.

Her work with S'Able Labs is just an extension of another passion of hers: giving back to the rural African communities that produce these raw materials. It's also part of what she does as a UN Goodwill Ambassador, a position that allows her to make an even greater impact on the communities she wants to uplift. Ahead, Elba shares more about her passion for using African ingredients, the new serum, and beauty rituals she remembers from her mom.

POPSUGAR: Let's talk about your new serum. Why did you use okra, which is a polarizing vegetable, for this face serum?

Sabrina Elba: I come from an African background, and you know, us Africans eat okra all day. My mom put it in her stews, and I didn't really think much of it until I started cooking it the West African way. When I got married, my mother-in-law was like, "You need to learn how to make okra stew."

It gets so slimy when you boil it. The consistency is like mozzarella cheese. I saw it, and thought, "This must be good for skin." Lo and behold, I go down the rabbit hole, and it's amazing for skin. It's firming but has bounce.

It decreases the mechanical function of the skin. So, anything that forms expression lines, in just over three weeks, it decreases its ability to do so. It's ever so slight, so it's not necessarily for someone who wants an alternative to Botox.

Expression lines form wrinkles — we can't help that we smile or make funny faces — and I don't want to not be able to do that. But I still want to inhibit the depth of my expression lines. I love that with something like this, you can still move your face, but you're still, at a cellular level, keeping your face from making those lines look really deep because of those polypeptides in okra.

PS: What other ingredients are in the serum?

SE: Then, of course, the serum contains a retinol, which is a great antiageing ingredient. It was very hard for us to incorporate if it was just going to [irritate people's skin], but retinol is an important ingredient to fight hyperpigmentation. We are so thankful, literally kissing the stars, that we found SymRenew HPR. We would not have released this product until we found the right retinoid.

It's not irritating — you can use it AM and PM. To be able to do that and for it to show a redness reduction in our clinicals, for a retinol, that's unheard of. Generally, what can happen when you use a retinol, is you might get red. . . This one leaves your skin looking glowing and radiant.

It's also got a ton of antioxidants since we used the African Resurrection Plant. It looks like [an] African tumbleweed — very dry and sad. But the second it gets water, even after like two years of being in this dry state, it blossoms again. It's an ingredient that doesn't get enough love.

PS: Why is it so important for beauty traditions, ingredients, and practices to be reclaimed by people of African descent?

SE: It's about ownership. Ownership with a story. [African ingredients] have been historically appropriated. Even today, if you go into Erewhon, you'll find most of these ingredients in a health shot. Of course, that's with no background story, no context, no appreciation for the ancestral traditions, heritages, or faces that come with that ingredient story.

That's so frustrating to me. Call it A-beauty — call it what it is. Give it a face [and] give it a name so that when people look to buy products, they see and recognise Black skin as the authority and leaders in that space.

Then there's the sourcing and supporting the communities behind that. We forget when we pick something up off the counter, everything in the bottle that's [a] natural ingredient was sourced by a person. What are we doing to support that person [and] that community? What are their wages like? What are the working conditions?

PS: What makes A-Beauty so special?

SE: First, I think the antioxidants on the continent are some of the most powerful in the world. They exist in harsher climates and then become more resilient. So, in one sense, it's the efficacy.

In another sense, it's these practices that have been passed down for generations because they work. The same thing that's attractive about K-beauty — the story, knowledge, and history — is exactly what you're getting with A-beauty. It's ingredients that have been tried and tested for generations.

When it comes to skin care, inflammation is one of the biggest triggers for hyperpigmentation. Antioxidants are one of your best defences against that. If you're going to battle inflammation, you've gotta look at antioxidants first. And you should go to the continent with the strongest antioxidants.

PS: What barriers do you think A-Beauty might face as it becomes more of a thing?

SE: There's an unlearning that needs to happen — it's not even the consumer's fault. For example, when you go into a big retailer, "Black" products are in a separate aisle. The retailer is telling the customer, "That's not for you." A re-education needs to happen so people realise that just because a founder is Black, doesn't mean you can't use the products.

PS: Where did your passion for skin care first come from?

SE: From wasting money. I was spending so much money on the wrong things and I needed to understand why nothing was working. I bought everything; I've tried everything. I was super frustrated and didn't want to spend so much just because melanin was an afterthought. Skin care should be formulated the other way around at a reasonable price, regardless of the demographic you're a part of.

I wanted to do it myself and I've been very privileged to have the infrastructure around me in the form of friends, a partner brought over from Tom Ford, and to have taken an aesthetician course to educate myself.

Education has been more democratized; it's a lot easier than when we were younger. I didn't know what melanin meant when I was a kid. Now you can watch a TikTok video on how melanin is broken down. It's great, but it can also lead to a lot of misinformation. We need to fact-check your research — don't just watch one video, watch 15.

PS: What kind of Somali beauty rituals or traditions do you remember experiencing growing up?

SE: I ignored them. I did the thing when you're a teenager and go, "Mom, you don't know what you're talking about." I used to watch her sit over this thing of frankincense and get her clothes and the whole house smelling like it. I saw her making masks in the kitchen that she would wear all day — even to the grocery store. The fact that you can wear a mask for just 12 minutes, she can't wrap her head around.

PS: Let's chat about being a UN Goodwill Ambassador and why that's important to you.

SE: I love being able to give back. If I want to be remembered for anything, it's that I tried my best to give back in some way and make a meaningful impact. I fell into it because my mom grew up in an agricultural, rural setting.

Agriculture is such an amazing way for rural people to build a sense of independence. And then we benefit, by the way; people are not just feeding themselves, [they also feed us]. It is in our benefit to take care of rural people. Things are so delicate, as we saw during COVID. We had to start buying locally because grocery stores were empty. We forget that there is so much infrastructure in the world around food. One rural person in Mozambique makes a difference.

Jihan Forbes is a POPSUGAR contributor.

Sabrina Elba, S’Able Labs Cofounder, Talks African Beauty
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