Analytical chemist Bridget May didn’t set out to found a beauty brand, but now she’s a leader in full-spectrum cannabis skincare and the Clean Beauty Movement. In talking with Bridget, we were struck by her warmth, compassion, and her science-backed belief in the powers of cannabis. Here’s her story.
What inspired you to create cannabis skincare products?
I’ve always been a DIY kind of person, even when I was a kid. After learning about local Native American tribes in third grade, I remember being super excited to gather acorns with my dad on one of our family’s nature hikes. We shelled the nuts and ground them into flour, and, after leaching out the bitter tannins with cheesecloth, we made muffins. I loved eating cherries or green beans right out of the garden, standing with the warm dirt between my toes, feeling self-sufficient. Later I started making balms and lotions for myself and friends. I’ve always used herbs like comfrey and calendula in my homemade products, and when I found out about the body’s endocannabinoid system — that there are receptors all over the skin and how powerful THC and CBD could be — it was a no-brainer to add the cannabis plant to my formulas.
I was obsessed, and the more I read, the more I was convinced that this plant was really important.
When I got the idea for the company in 2014, I had just been reintroduced to cannabis and was struck by how different things had become. There were still the shockingly potent strains that I could only take half a puff of, but now there were new ones too, like Cannatonic and Harlequin, which were different in that they were high in CBD, which helped me with anxiety and sleep. This was when I started reading all the scientific articles I could find. I was obsessed, and the more I read, the more I was convinced that this plant was really important. Cannabinoids are strong antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, and the potential for benefit to the human body is exciting to think about. THC, CBD and CBG are exactly the things you want to be putting on your face, to fight the free radicals and inflammation that lead to premature aging.
I was still working full time as an analytical chemist at a biotech company then but I was so inspired to experiment that I spent all my free time either in the kitchen, crafting something up or reading about cannabis.
I originally wanted to make tinctures because taking CBD internally helped me so much with my anxiety and insomnia, and because the tincture is such a mainstay of herbal medicine. But there were already so many good tinctures on the market, and I didn’t want to compete with the new friends I’d made in the industry. Since there was a gap in the market for high-quality effective skincare products made with cannabis and other plants, and I’d already been making it for myself, skincare was a natural place to start. I never imagined that I’d go from the cannabis world to a beauty brand! But my goal has always been to heal, and our skin is our body’s largest organ, so it actually makes sense and I’m glad I landed here.
In what ways has your brand evolved to meet changing laws?
When I launched in 2015, I was working in San Francisco under local cottage laws which made it legal for me to manufacture in my own kitchen. Those were the days. Ha ha. When cannabis became legal in California, I had to stop everything and find a licensed space to manufacture in–no easy task–as well as create all new packaging and labels AND find a distributor. Distributors are not mandatory in every state but they are in California and they take a huge cut. This is a hard pill to swallow in an industry that is heavily taxed and already has tight margins, but we are making due.
When our labels changed, we were no longer able to use the word organic ANYWHERE on the package, even when talking about certified organic ingredients that we paid top dollar for. Our solution to that was to add an asterisk in our ingredient list next to each organic ingredient and say *find out more about our virtuous ingredients at our website, where we could talk openly about the ingredients.
We also now have to have the Proposition 65 warning on our packaging, which makes me crazy since we are selling our brand as the “cleanest skincare on the planet”–it still is! First off, Prop 65 is not a product safety law; it’s a right-to-know law, which means we’re required to inform the public that a chemical from the Prop 65 list is present in a product, even if in trace amounts. There’s just a regulation that says that if there’s any of the terpene myrcene, which is naturally occurring in mangoes and lemongrass as well as cannabis, we have to add the warning. Myrcene has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory rats when given very large quantities but using our products is about as dangerous as eating a mango and there are no warnings on mangoes. That’s about the level of danger here. Not surprisingly, both cannabis and mangoes show anti-cancer properties. Go figure.
What’s a key point you’ve learned during your time in the industry?
Getting into the skincare and beauty world opened my eyes even more to the need for products that are free of toxic chemicals. I knew there were less-than-savory players out there but I didn’t realize just how bad it was until we dug deeper and read studies now that we were competing in the space. The beauty industry is really the worst of the Wild West when it comes to safety. Companies can put almost anything in their products and say anything they want on their labels with no repercussions.
What advice would you give to a newcomer to the industry?
Ask lots of questions, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Go to networking events! I can’t stress this enough. I met KEY individuals, mostly women, who changed things for me in big ways. I met people at Women Grow events in the early days and at City Hall in SF that connected me in ways that helped me grow and succeed. Get involved in the process–you will help the movement and make the connections you need at the same time.
What advice do you have for CPG companies that want to be more environmentally sustainable?
This has been the hardest thing for me! We want our packaging to look beautiful AND be environmentally friendly AND still comply with California’s strict regulations. When we first started looking for child resistant packaging there were very few options. Most containers available looked like prescription bottles–ugh. Not a good look for “affordable luxury”! We finally found a child resistant box that we love, at least the way it looks anyway. But it is still a ton of extra cardboard and paper. We’re already looking for a replacement.
We want something local and completely recyclable that uses as few trees as possible. My advice to others is: Keep looking! The options are starting to be there. There are a few plant-based plastic companies doing good work. Sulapac is one of them, but it’s not quite at the place where we can afford the large minimum orders. We like to use glass, because it won’t leach chemicals into our products like plastic can while it’s sitting on the shelf, and because it’s the most easily recyclable material. We try to avoid petroleum-based plastics whenever possible. Because even though a heavier jar has a larger carbon footprint when it comes to transport, the toxic waste that ends up in our oceans inevitably is just too big a cost. The answer to that issue is to encourage more manufacturers to use renewable energy and to support organizations that are working on the climate crisis. We also contribute and collaborate with these nonprofits. It’s something that we are building into our business model.
What industry achievement are you most proud of?
Our brightening eye cream won Silver at The Emerald Cup in December! There isn’t yet a category for cannabeauty so we had to enter our eye cream in the topicals field, which was dominated by pain-reducing topicals, so the fact that we even placed in the top two is amazing. We’re honored. More than 300 brands entered the competition, considered the biggest and best in the world. Our friends Chris and Clayton of Somatik had to enter their cannabis-infused coffee into the Emerald Cup Edibles category the year before, and now there’s a beverage category, so we’re hoping the market continues to grow.
What differentiates Green Bee?
We researched high and low and could not find another “clean beauty” brand that actually proves their products are clean. They SAY they are and some have some amazing marketing about testing, but they don’t share real test results per product batch. We do.
California’s cannabis product tests are stricter than organic food tests. And while they’re expensive and challenging to pass, being able to prove that Green Bee products are cleaner than an organic tomato is a huge differentiator for us.
What are the greatest advantages of cannabis skincare?
Well, like I was saying, cannabis is made to work with our skin’s own balancing system. We use THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD (cannabidiol) and other cannabinoids like CBG (cannabigerol) in our skincare because they have proven antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and analgesic properties. In plain English, this simply means cannabinoids can help fight off oxidation caused by stress and pollution; heal and soothe dry, itchy, inflamed or red skin; and bring oily, acne-prone skin back into balance, beautifully and naturally.
Combined with other phyto-cannabinoids found in cannabis and other plants — particularly CBD — THC is an anti-aging powerhouse.
We use THC in our pain-relieving topicals because it offers potent relief without the adverse side effects or risk of addiction of many pharmaceutical drugs. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concludes cannabis is “on a par with codeine” and researchers at the University of Guelph report it is 30 times more powerful at reducing inflammation than aspirin, without the dangerous side effects.
It’s also important to note that we use full spectrum cannabis for the entourage effect, which means that cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids and other compounds of the whole cannabis plant together are quantifiably superior to single compounds, such as CBD alone. Even small doses of THC combined with CBD can improve the efficacy of cannabis topicals. Simply put, THC and CBD work better together. While federal government regulations have prevented double-blind clinical trials here in the US — the gold standard of research — international studies scientifically demonstrate that the entourage effect exists.
What are your marketing strategies for overcoming the stigma of cannabis?
We educate about the history of the plant, both in ethnobotanical terms–the cannabis plant has been used since ancient times for fiber food and medicine–as well as political. The war on drugs in the United States is part of the systemic racism in our country and has put thousands of black and brown people in prison for cannabis possession…So we understand that the stigma around cannabis has little to do with drugs and everything to do with the “reefer madness” type of propaganda that was part of the plan to outlaw cannabis in order to control both black Americans and the antiwar movement.
By using imagery of all walks of people using cannabis to help themselves heal instead of something shady or illegal, we can help reeducate and destigmatize.
What should we be doing to promote diversity in the industry?
The fact that the majority of cannabis business owners are still white men is depressing to say the least, especially when you look at the statistics of brown and black people incarcerated for cannabis “offenses” compared to whites. Systemic racism is still here and STILL needs to be addressed. We can’t just talk about injustice and inequality once. We have to keep bringing it up until the system changes. What we do at Green Bee and what we recommend to promote diversity: Number one: hire POC. Number 2: when starting relationships with new vendors, ask them how they plan to promote diversity in their own company. Ask them, “Who owns the company? Who are in positions of power?” and “How many women do you employ and what are the racial demographics of the business?” We can choose who we decide to work with and we should. Number 3: We are developing a Commitment to Anti-Racism Contract with our staff. This will be a living document, but first and foremost makes a safe space for employees to discuss, call out, and demand consequences for racist behavior.
As women in the industry, how can we support each other?
I have had the most amazing luck finding wonderful women who support me and introduce me to the perfect relationships that take my business to the next level. This industry is so young still it is NOT the time to be competing with each other, but working together to educate and collaborate. Think about this in relation to cannabis infused drinks, for example. There are maybe 5-10 brands you may have heard of in California. Think about how many brands of craft beer there are. Or kombucha! There is definitely room for more. My advice to those getting started is to make time to meet as many people as you can. You never know when those relationships will become important. Sometimes I’m reluctant to take a call with someone who I think doesn’t have the thing I need right then. I’m a busy girl! But oftentimes those people are the ones who surprise me with info or contacts I didn’t even KNOW I needed and are sometimes the contacts that make the biggest changes for my company. You just never know!
What are your industry predictions for the coming year?
I predict we will see more skincare in dispensaries. Maybe Green Bee inspired the world but I’m finally starting to see a few other beauty brands join the space and even though they are our competitors, I’m actually glad! Like I said there’s room for more than one or two beauty brands! And they will help us inadvertently by helping to educate the public about the wonders of cannabis for your whole body, including your beautiful skin!