This Beauty Founder Harnesses Indigenous Wisdom to Create Her Products

Laura Bravo Mertz

Ruth-Ann Thorn, a Native American entrepreneur, producer, and San Diego art gallery owner, remembers the day three years ago when she took her daughter, Isabella, to Sephora to indulge the teenager’s budding love of beauty products. But instead of reveling in all the store aisles had to offer, the then 14-year-old became focused on what she couldn’t find.

“She asked me, ‘Mom, where’s the Native American section?’ I told her that was a really good question,” recalls Thorn, an enrolled tribal member of the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians in Valley Center, CA.

After a store associate directed them to an aisle of products for South Asian ethnicities, the mother and daughter realized the skin-care section they were looking for simply didn’t exist. That absence of a Native American presence among hundreds of products caused Thorn, 58, to reflect on her own youth.

There was no representation at all.

“I never saw a Native American model on the cover of a magazine. There was no representation at all,” she says. “Because I lived in Southern California, everyone thought I was Mexican. I had no sense of identity in my life.”

Some folks might have grabbed a few alternative products and called it a day, but not Thorn. The daughter of activist parents, Thorn faced a childhood that included her parents divorcing, multiple moves, and homelessness with a mix of steely determination, sharp intelligence, and the knowledge she was destined to do something more.

Already dedicated to portraying the diversity of Native American folks through economic development and arts initiatives, Thorn decided it was an opportune time to continue that mission by bringing Indigenous traditions and remedies into a beauty space that was sorely lacking in them. “You might find a few small, homemade items made by regional native people like salves and lotions for skin healing at pow-wows, but I couldn’t find any products in US stores,” she says.

Thorn got to work, consulting relatives, tribal elders, and medicine healers to learn as much as she could about ancestral remedies for skin care. In 2023, she launched N8iv Beauty with two initial products: the Daybreak Moisturizing Cream and Starlight Regenerative Cream, which both harness the skin-rejuvenating properties of acorn oil sourced once a year from tribal lands. (The brand name plays on the word “native” and what Thorn says is a California tribal tradition of observing eight, not four, seasons.)

Acorn oil was chosen as the products’ hero ingredient because it’s been used by Indigenous peoples both as a food and medicine for thousands of years, explains Thorn. “We gather acorns every year to eat, because they’re really a superfood,” she says. “But in plant medicine, acorn oil is also used for healing of the skin. I started using it myself and noticed a huge difference.”

Acorn oil is rich in essential fatty acids, tocopherols, polyphenols, and sterols, which can help reduce inflammation as well as hydrate, repair, and replenish the skin, according to the N8iV website. Acorn oil is rich in essential fatty acids including linoleic, oleic, and palmitic acids, which have emollient properties and help to support the skin barrier, according to Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.

“Acorn oil is also rich in polyphenols and tocopherols, which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, meaning they can help protect the skin from damage from free radicals,” King says.

Global Cosmetic Industry, a resource for those in the beauty industry, named acorn oil one of its “6 Emerging Beauty Ingredients to Watch” in 2023, but noted N8iV is the only brand they could find using the ingredient.

Only certain oak trees produce acorns suitable for skin-care products, with harvesting taking place every fall on tribal lands in accordance with traditions, Thorn says. “We want to be respectful of our animal relatives, so when the oak trees drop acorns, we wait one to two weeks for animals to have the first pick,” she adds.

Plant medicine is for everybody.

Waiting for the animals to eat their fill is part of a Native American guiding principle of all living creatures being part of a circle, not a hierarchy. “The plants are our relatives, the animals are our relatives,” Thorn says. “We are all part of creation, and we rely on each other. It’s the opposite of the ‘everything is ours for the taking’ [way of thinking].”

After harvesting, the acorns are soaked in large vats of water to remove their tannins, which are toxic if consumed, then cold pressed to extract the oil. Thorn explains that in small amounts, tannins are beneficial to the skin; leftover water in the vats was traditionally re-utilized for its ability to soften animal hides.

“The beauty of acorn oil is that the trace amounts of tannins break down the top layer of protein on the skin, so the product gets right into the skin instead of taking a while to absorb,” she says.

Though the brand is steeped in Native American traditions, Thorn says it’s important to her that anything N8iV produces be inclusive and suitable for people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. As she puts it, “Plant medicine is for everybody, and that includes males and nonbinary people.”

In keeping with respect for what the brand refers to as “Mother Earth,” all N8iV products are vegan and cruelty free, and made without parabens, sulfates, or silicones. “We utilize as many organic ingredients as we can and source as many ingredients as we can from neighboring tribes. In-house prep is done right on my reservation, on my grandfather’s land, in small batches,” Thorn explains.

Currently available online, N8iv products are set to launch in Nordstrom online and in stores later this year. This summer, the brand also is launching six new products, including a serum and cleanser infused with kelp and seaweed from “Mother Ocean,” a sunscreen utilizing the natural UV protection of cactus, and an eye cream with acorn oil. Thorn says she is sourcing as many ingredients as possible from both neighboring tribes and those around the country, and using Native American models who are diverse in their skin tones in marketing campaigns.

“I’m trying to create an industry,” she says. “My goal for the future is to employ as many Native American people on reservations as possible. We are so diverse, the plants we use are so different. My goal is to go to other tribes, tell their stories, and use their plant medicines.”

If running a blossoming beauty brand isn’t enough, Thorn is busy producing and hosting “This Is Indian Country,” a travel docuseries telling the stories of “modern Native Americans doing modern things.” The series she describes as “Anthony Bourdain meets Native Americans” is set to premiere on the FNX (First Nations Experience) network in November. Whether she’s telling stories through a TV show or a beauty product, Thorn says it’s all part of her overall mission to show the complexity of Native American folks as diverse contributors in the world today.

When it comes to traditions and creativity, “we feel our ancestors are leading us,” Thorn says. “I feel I’m called to make this space for us through beauty and film. I’m showing we are here and we have spiritual and practical wisdom the world really needs.”

Cathy Nelson is a freelance writer and editor with more than two decades of experience. Her areas of expertise include beauty, fitness, wellness, and health. Her work has appeared in numerous digital and print outlets, including PS, Well+Good, Verywell Health, U.S. News & World Report 360 Reviews, and The Manual.

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