Nuele’s founders set out to change the hair care industry after decades of frustration at the toxins in most products. Here’s why they started with a clean ingredient serum instead of shampoo and conditioner.
The haircare industry is notoriously toxic. From dyes to relaxers to the everyday shampoos and conditioners—harmful chemicals are lurking everywhere. Nuele’s founders, Dr. Christine Martey-Ochola, a chemist by trade, and Anne Cheatham, a nurse anesthetist, had enough of it. In 2015, they started out with a dream to create clean hair care that is uncompromised in ingredients, performance, and health, launching in 2020 with their first product.
Martey-Ochola had developed formulations as both a food scientist and technologist, working with hair product formulations since 2008. But it was her experience in the food industry that brought attention to the importance of 100 percent naturally derived formulations. Further motivation came from the many days Martey-Ochola spent in her mother’s hair salons as a child and the aversion to the chemical smells in relaxers and other products she was surrounded by.
Why are toxic chemicals in hair care?
“There’s a million reasons why clean ingredients are so important,” Martey-Ochola told Ethos via email.
“There are several ingredients commonly used in the beauty industry, like parabens and phthalates, that are known inflammatory agents that have significant health impacts on both the consumer and the hair stylist. But why? These ingredients are not required for high performance hair care, nor is it necessary for protection from the elements. It just seems like an unnecessary risk to us,” says Martey-Ochola.
Those ingredients are used often to extend the shelf life of products and prevent mold and bacteria from contaminating products. They can provide heat resistance to reduce degradation, and can help fragrances linger, among other reasons.
But they come at a cost, disrupting metabolic and reproductive systems, among others. Some products, like the keratin hair treatments, cause exposure to compounds such as formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
“We want ingredients that enhance overall hair health and physical health,” says Cheatham.
For Martey-Ochola and Cheatham, it was important that they only use 100 percent naturally derived and organic ingredients that do not have any known detrimental effects.
“It was really important to us that we avoid any known toxins when developing our products, and by leaning into organic and natural ingredients that do not contain synthetics, we are able to do so,” says Martey-Ochola.
But those ingredients also need to work, delivering results consumers have come to expect from their hair care products—natural or not.
“We are proud of our formulations and the performance that they bring—we best describe it as ‘whole grain bread,’” says Cheatham. “Many years ago, people were not thrilled about finding seeds in their bread. Now it has become the beacon of wholesome bread.”
The company is using still-fringe ingredients—the seeds in that bread analogy—that have been widely used in Indigenous cultures for centuries. One ingredient is moringa, which has been used across South Asia and parts of Africa for centuries, but is still widely unknown in Western countries.
“We create our own path—our ingredients are not often familiar—but we know that they bring great value to our consumers,” says Cheatham.
“All of Nuele’’s products are designed and manufactured in-house and are not sourced from third-party labs,” says Martey-Ochola. The founders say they hold the quality “close to our hearts” and each bottle is filled with their years of experience.
“We strive to solve fundamental issues that all hair types deal with, designing our products to provide non-toxic, healthy options to hair care products that provide the performance that our customers expect.”
Nuele also emphasizes that adding ingredients that don’t impart functionality to a product is done widely in the market, which can lead to unnecessary and sometimes detrimental damage to hair. “For each of our products, we operate on sustainability principles and only use ingredients that are necessary, in quantities that impart desired effects without over dilution,” says Martey-Ochola. “We’ve seen often enough that a product could have a great range of ingredients that can genuinely benefit the hair—but they dilute it so intensely to lower costs, that they lose the benefits.”
So Nuele is focused on beneficial products that are functional, intentionally designed, and formulated to provide the most positive impact on the hair, without compromising on the quality or quantity of ingredients.
Unlike most mainstream hair care brands that lead with shampoo and conditioners, Nuele’s flagship product is its Hair Serum.
“Hair serums are crucial to hair and scalp health, but they are not alternatives to shampoos and conditioners,” says Cheatham, noting they are complementary steps in your hair routine, “designed to nourish, protect and revitalize hair as needed, all the while moisturizing your scalp for healthier hair follicles.”
Part of that need to nourish and protect is all the chemical residue on our hair from decades of conventional product use. Overwashing is also an issue that can dry out hair. There’s sun damage, and even diet plays a role in how healthy or damaged our hair can be.
“In designing the Hair Serum, we looked at ingredients that had antioxidant properties to protect the hair from free radical damage, and we included ingredients that were deeply moisturizing as well as nourishing to the hair,” says Martey-Ochola.
“We put vitamins, minerals, and beneficial oils that enhance hair strength in each and every bottle. This product has been designed to disrupt the heat protectant hair industry, by providing a natural and organic product that enables versatility and ease of use for blowing or flat-ironing hair without the detrimental health impacts of synthetic and toxic ingredients,” she says.
The Hair Serum protects from heat damage when blow-drying, styling with heat, or being in the sun simply by deeply moisturizing the hair strand and penetrating deeper than the typical serum does. This, Martey-Ochola says, is a unique standard in quality “that other hair serums do not meet.”
Nuele’s founders say serums should follow washing (they recommend using a clean shampoo), while hair is still damp, in order to lock in moisture and protect the hair from subsequent styling and damage from drying. They recommend protecting from harsh temperature extremes—a serum can help. It can also be used on dry hair as a smoothing agent to tame frizz.
While the hair care industry serves all, it’s historically been targeted at women, which made it important to Nuele that they also lift up women through their value chain.
“To us, sourcing from strong female farmers was not a question, simply a necessity,” says Cheatham. “We know that historically, women have not had the same access to trade and fair compensation for their goods and products.” This was witnessed by Martey-Ochola and Cheatham as they saw the gender disparities in their home countries of Kenya and Zambia respectively. They want Nuele to work against this, they say.
“This doesn’t mean we only source from female suppliers. At all times, we seek the highest quality product, developed in the fairest system—women-owned is simply one component that we are proud to support.”
Shop Nuele’s products here.