She may be the founder of seaweed-based skincare line Samudra Skin & Sea, but by San Francisco standards, Shilpi Chhotray doesn’t live near the ocean: she’s in Noe Valley. Compared to where she grew up in Ohio, though, Ocean Beach is close enough.
As a little girl in the Midwest, Chhotray wanted to be a veterinarian—until she visited Australia's Great Barrier Reef. There, she discovered a newfound passion for the ocean, which propelled her to a graduate degree in environmental resources management (with an emphasis on marine science) from the University of South Carolina. She’s been involved with ocean advocacy and conservation policy ever since.
But still, how does one go from learning about seaweed in the world of consulting to creating a detoxifying seaweed facial mask?
For Chhotray, it took a trip to India.
In 2014, Chhotray left the world of consulting and flew to coastal India to help out with a women’s empowerment project. There, she was "blown away” by the community-based approach of harvesting wild seaweed.
“Seaweed is inherently sustainable,” explained Chhotray. “It only needs sunlight and water to survive. Because of over-fishing and climate change, there are fewer fish in the ocean for the men to catch. Men in India are now counting on women and their seaweed to earn income for their families.”
When she visited India, Chhotray was suffering from very bad food allergies and painful eczema, and the salt and seaweed seemed to help. “My skin always felt revitalized after bathing in natural seawater and seaweed,” she said.
She returned to the U.S. with the goal of helping the women she'd met by bringing their seaweed to the American market. “I wanted to combine my passion for ocean conservation with wanting to live a healthy lifestyle,” said Chhotray. “That’s how Samudra Skin & Sea was born.”
Harnessing the power of seaweed was no easy task. “I am neither a chemist, nor a skin care expert,” laughed Chhotray. “All I knew was that seaweed is full of antioxidants and minerals and vitamins, it’s an extremely healthy source for food, and I wanted to take that concept and apply it to skincare.”
For several months, Chhotray shopped around for an organic manufacturer who could create the product formulas that she was looking to sell. She eventually found the right company, but her initial plan to use Indian seaweed fell through. “Even with the women’s empowerment component, the quality wasn’t quite there,” she said.
Instead, she joined forces with Larry Knowles, a seaweed harvester based near Fort Bragg. According to Chhotray, Knowles is Mendocino’s "resident seaweed expert," and uses an eco-friendly collection method called wild-crafting to ensure the health of the seaweed plants he harvests.
Knowles mostly works with food clients, and aficionados of edible seaweed might recognize the "kombu" that Chhotray uses in her products, which is sold by retailers like Rainbow Grocery and Whole Foods.
“You can literally eat the seaweed that we use in our skincare product line," she said, though she notes that her products, like a hydrating body butter, a detoxifying facial mask, and a hair and body soap bar, are not themselves edible.
“I wish,” laughed Chhotray. “My long-term goal is to have a refrigerated skincare line that you can actually eat.”
This weekend, Samudra will be featured at Pier 35's Green Festival Expo which is the country’s largest and longest-running sustainable living event. Chhotray will be there to show off her products in person.
As for the future, Chhotray is focused on growing the company’s bandwidth and securing funding. “It’s challenging to secure capital and to find time to really give Samudra the time that it needs to grow,” she said.
Chhotray says that some impact investors have expressed interest in Samudra’s product line, but nothing has come through just yet. In the meantime, she makes ends meet with her work at Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue, which is one of the most prominent ocean advocacy organizations in the world.
She hopes locals will think of seaweed as more than just an ingredient in their sushi rolls.
“I don’t think that anybody necessarily needs to buy Samudra products to save the ocean. There are a million ways to be a better steward to our oceans, whether it’s going with sustainable seafood or participating in beach cleanups or advocating against SeaWorld," she said. "But it's how I feel like I can play my part in being a better steward to our planet.”
Samudra products are available on the company's website and at a handful of local shops and spas, including the Mission's Thread Lounge and In-Symmetry Wellness Spa.
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