Landra Johnson of Charlotte, N.C., lives an all-natural lifestyle. Not only is she a vegetarian but she also only uses products free of preservatives, artificial ingredients and toxins. When her first child, Davis, was born in 2006, Johnson was determined to keep him away from these as well. But, it wasn't an easy task.
Johnson set out on a quest to find products that would naturally soothe Davis' skin and care for his hair's curly kinks and coils. She scoured the aisles of local hair care stores but all she found were products filled with petroleum, mineral oil and artificial concoctions.
"I wanted products that were genuinely chemical free and effective,” said Johnson, 38, a former broadcast journalist who now has two children. "The market at that time was really dominated by general products with nothing for the ethnic market."
"When we couldn't find it, we decided to make it," said Johnson, adding that she and her sister, Kristi Booker, launched in 2009 a hair and skin care line for children of color called Cara B Naturally. With little prior knowledge of the beauty industry, Johnson spent three years researching and collaborating with chemists who work with natural ingredients. Her line of all natural shampoo, soap, leave-in conditioner and body lotion is now certified by the Natural Products Association, Johnson said, noting CVS and Target offer her products.
Cara B Naturally is shorthand for Children Are Beautiful Naturally, a maxim that Johnson aims to promote with her products. Asserting that her line is free of parabens, sulfates, phthalates and mineral oil, she claimed that sulfates and mineral oil can have a damaging effect on African American hair by drying it out and preventing the production of natural oils.
In the last few years retailers have awoken to the profit potential of specialized products for African American women who don't treat their hair with straighteners. According to a report by Mintel, a consumer spending and market research firm, the number of black women who don’t chemically relax or straighten their hair increased to 36 percent in 2011 from 26 percent in 2010. With the African-American population in the United States growing more than 4 million people from 2000 to 2010, according to a March report by IBISWorld, sales of black hair products have become a $185.1 million industry annually.
"The trend is to go natural," said Johnson. "Going natural is not just a hairstyle but also a lifestyle. I've never seen a woman that goes from a relaxer to a natural hairstyle [and not look] better."
Johnson is familiar with the quest for straighter hair. As a child, she found that everyone around her seemed to presume that eventually she would get her hair relaxed. At age 11 she received as a birthday gift some relaxer, what is often referred to as "creamy crack," alluding to the "addictive" nature of achieving silky straight hair through this chemical process. It was a rite of passage that she remembered vividly. Johnson maintained relaxed hair throughout her adult life and during her 10-year career as a broadcast journalist.
Now her 5-year-old daughter Avery does not use relaxer and served as one of the initial testers of Cara B Naturally products. "I hope for my daughter that she will never feel the need to ask for a relaxer because she will grow up embracing her natural texture and not feel the need to use chemicals," Johnson said. "For her generation the norm will not be African-American women with textured hair who have relaxers."
Eventually Johnson decided to go natural herself and stop relaxing her hair. She found this to be an easy transition for her, since she doesn't currently face pressure from the corporate world, she said.
Natural product aficionados often have no problem paying extra for organic goods but for the average consumer this isn't always the case. In 2008 revenue growth from the African-American hair-product industry slowed to 1.8 percent a year, as a result of the recession, according to IBISWorld, and a decrease in disposable income during this time ed consumers to purchase lower-priced “essential items.”
Johnson has no intention of developing products for adults but plans to offer a head-to-toe body oil for kids. She also plans to offer a pledge on her company's website Carabnaturally.com that parents can sign to commit to providing their children with products made from all-natural plant-based ingredients.
"Once most people stop and think about what they are putting on their kids, they become more conscious about it," she said. "We just presume that anything we buy in the store will be okay. Be more thoughtful and our kids will be healthier for it."