We are proud to be a vehicle for Grace Culhaci and her story in our ‘Making a difference’ series. Through her own health issues she discovered that the so-called natural products in her bathroom cupboard contained petrochemicals — so she set out on a mission to create her own. She’s done that so successfully that she won a government award.
I grew up in Vancouver, Canada, where it rains nine months of the year. But I don’t remember the rain or the cold. I remember the sense of community. Adapting to the inhospitable climate, Canadians make time for each other, particularly during the winter. They pride themselves on handiwork, preserving and generally all things practical, I remember weekly knitting bee socials with my congregation. I am grateful for this childhood and for growing up in such a positive environment. I learned that if you can’t do something you simply learn how.
Another formative element in my life has been my Christian ministry. I’ve been volunteering since the age of eight, and I’ve truly learned that by focussing on others and not ourselves we gain the greatest joy. It’s this combined sense of spirituality and positivity that enabled me to help others despite my illness later in life, and to overcome major hurdles along the way.
My family and I immigrated to Australia in 1987, and it took me a few years to learn all the local expressions, but I feel I can now say I’m a real Aussie. I love Australia, and the culture is in many ways very similar to Canada — Australians are at heart very open and positive.
My husband Sam and I married in 1995. Sam’s ancestry is Armenian Christian, and his great grandfather was alive during the genocide of Armenian people in Turkey from 1915-1920. Fortunately his grandfather survived and, to protect the family from persecution, their surname was changed from Culhacian to Culhaci. Sam’s mother and father immigrated to Australia when he was just five years old. Sam and I met through our congregation and have similar likes (both heavily into sci-fi). He his my best friend and greatest supporter.
My journey to wellness began after developing a skin condition during my first pregnancy. I reacted to the histamine produced by the placenta and broke out in a rash from my neck down to my toes. I didn’t want to compromise our baby’s health – so didn’t take any medicine as, on researching, I found that the drugs all crossed the placental blood barrier. To get relief from the incessant itch, I would sleep in an oatmeal bath of tepid water with Sam holding my head so I wouldn’t drown.
This condition heightened my consciousness of what I was putting on my body in the way of skincare and personal care products — if medicines cross the placental barrier, did skincare have an impact as well?I began reading books from leading environmentalists (Australian Dr Dingle, and Canadian David Suzuki) to learn about skincare ingredients and what to avoid. In one evening I removed every product from my bathroom that contained a toxic ingredient.I discovered that products that claimed to be natural frequently contained known carcinogens and toxic ingredients. This lack of honesty was deeply disappointing, but the inspiration I needed to make a difference.
After my daughter was born I started to enrol in courses to learn the craft of soap making, and skincare formulation. The more I learned the more difficult it all seemed. I began interviewing ingredient suppliers and they were rather discouraging. None of them seemed to think it wise for me to make my own products and suggested contract manufacturers. I met with several of the recommended cosmetic chemists only to be told it wasn’t possible to create a skincare range without petrochemicals. It was at this point I decided, in typical Canadian fashion, to do it myself! I spent the next few years experimenting and studying the organic standards.
During my second pregnancy I was diagnosed with an inoperable tumour on my optic nerve. This condition affected the vision in my right eye and I was in severe pain. My doctor informed me there was nothing he could do but wait for the tumour to grow a tail and hook into my brain, at which point he would remove my eye. I remember thinking, this will not happen, I am going to watch my daughters grow up!
After receiving the news, my husband and I immediately emailed our support network and asked if anyone had an alternative therapy to recommend. One dear friend named Dan who is a raw food vegan sent me an article on B17 therapy. After much research and sourcing pesticide-free apricot kernels we began the therapy. Within 30 days my sight started to improve and my pain completely disappeared.
My right eyesight is now stable at just 30% vision and my brain has adapted, enabling me to function normally (well during the day at least — at night I’m as blind as a bat!).
What I observed during my early years of skincare making was that while many women make healthy food choices they are willing to compromise on their skincare and use synthetic ingredients — the equivalent to a junk food diet for our skin — because they feel organic skincare, while safer, might not deliver the results they are looking for. I wanted to develop a skincare range that would offer genuine safety but was also results based.
And thus the zk’in range (pronounced skin) came into being.
Sam supported me 100% in this decision — so much so that he built me a small lab at the side of the house so I could work from home and be free of the kitchen. This lab later become our first certified organic space.
We quickly outgrew that space and moved to a larger building in the inner west. My grandparents moved in with us to help us with after school pick-up and after school care. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but both Sam and I found the commute very draining and robbed us of precious time with our girls. I began to feel guilty about working so hard and resenting the very thing I was trying to create. After two years of trying to juggle raising a family with growing the business the building was put on the market.We viewed this as an opportunity to make a change that improved our work/life balance.Sam and I both set our sites on relocating to Rydalmere which is an industrial estate only ten minutes’ drive from our home. We had a small budget and really needed to find a landlord that would work with us, rather than expect us to renovate the building. Fortunately that is exactly what happened!
Our new factory is so close to home I can dash to my daughters’ primary school so I don’t miss out on being a mum, and can make it back to the office to carry on with my duties as CEO without making too big of a dent into my day. Life has definitely improved and I’m so glad we made the change. Our factory is now GMP certified (ISO 22716) as part of our ongoing commitment to quality and I’ve reached a place of harmony. I no longer resent what I have created but feel proud of our achievements. I still work too hard, but at least I can be home by 6pm each evening, cook dinner and spend time with my beautiful daughters.After their bedtime I’m usually on my laptop, which I know I need to stop doing. That is the goal for this year — to work no more than 40 hours per week.
One of the big highlights of our achievements over the last 12 months has been the Australian Government’s awarding us an R&D grant for contributing new knowledge to science. I worked extremely hard to create a preservative system that was free of petrochemicals and 100% natural.In fact the ‘z’ in zk’in is a reference to our zero tolerance policy for any unnatural ingredients. I have to admit that was a very fine moment, particularly when I think back to those that said it couldn’t be done.
We feature clinically proven active ingredients, every product has been dermatologically tested and approved non-irritant, and our organic certification and safety are second to none. zk’in is also certified cruelty free and completely vegan in honour of Dan.
We do not practise unrealistic Photoshopping as I believe this is damaging to women, and in particular to young women’s self-esteem.Interestingly, we intentionally chose an older model, Tanya Linney, who is now in her late 30s, to be the ‘face’ of zk’in. During the photo shoot I had given strict instructions to the photographer that no edits (other than lighting tweaks to remove shadowing, etc.) were to take place. He forgot to pass this instruction on to the editing team and the first round of edits came back with adjusted body parts! Tanya’s arms were ‘slendered down’, her neck elongated and her thoracic spine was completely straightened.
I was horrified! “Why did you do this?”, I asked.
The editing team replied, “Everyone wants their photos altered. We automatically applied the changes everyone always wants. You are the first client to ever refuse”.
The edits were all removed and what you see on our site is all real life Tanya — and she is gorgeous just the way she is!
At heart I’m a greenie and absolutely dislike waste. In fact, one of the elements I love about COSMOS organic certification (the new global organic cosmetic standard) is the energy audit that takes places each year. We track our energy consumption and despite rising production levels year by year we need to show how we plan to reduce our energy consumption. So far we’ve managed to do just that, thanks to industrial sized fans in the summer and eco heaters in winter to replace air conditioning units. This year we are replacing all the traditional fluorescent lights in the factory with energy efficient LEDs. Another initiative we have in place is the collection of all organic waste/foods scraps for energy creation and a recycle/reuse policy that has enabled almost complete diversion from landfill. We no longer have a landfill bin at the factory!
We seek out the most sustainable sources for our raw materials. For example, we source our coffee from within Australia. The plantation is set on rich volcanic soil which is both flood- and drought-proof, making it a truly sustainable crop for our landscape. Even better, we source the irregularly sized beans that are not suited to drinking coffee (as they would roast unevenly) and we use those beans as the exfoliant material in zk’in Clarifying Exfoliator. Our coffee source is what we call a ‘waste wise’ ingredient, and this model of sourcing is key to sustainability.
It’s been lovely to witness the appreciation we’ve received from consumers and stockists alike, thankful to find a brand dedicated to safety, honesty and integrity, but still delivering results consumers are looking for.
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