The deodorant category doesn’t exactly have a chic history. From bulky plastic containers to highly alcohol- and aluminum-filled formulas, antiperspirants weren’t exactly the type of product one would display in a “shelfie.” For consumers seeking formulas devoid of most mass-market ingredients, a glass jar full of cream to apply with one’s fingers or cardboard packaging was the norm. One woman who aimed to change that is Jena Covello, founder of Agent Nateur. What Agent Provocateur is to lingerie, Agent Nateur is to the highly ingredient-discerning personal care, wellness, and skincare category—a brand that infuses an everyday category with a degree of sensuality, luxury, and glamor.
Beginning with $300, 5,000 empty packaging components, and a single deodorant SKU, Holi (Stick)—a formula comprised of coconut oil, castor oil, avocado butter, and lavender made in Covello’s West Hollywood kitchen—the business has gone up an estimated $20 million in value since launching in 2015, doubling year over year since 2020. “I want every woman to know that if I can do, that they can do it too. I definitely paid my dues and worked my ass off, but I never gave up on my vision and I also didn't shortchange myself,” she says of the impressive feat. The journey there, however, was inspired by an even more personal challenge: Covello’s struggle with endometriosis, which resulted in her searching for personal care product alternatives.
A Search for Alternative Paths of Healing and Self-Empowerment
“I started at zero. My doctors were telling me to avoid aluminum because it's an endocrine disruptor, so I started making my own deodorant. It passed around by word-of-mouth and I set up an Instagram, created my own website and logo. It was very DIY,” she recalls. A shoe designer and styling assistant to Samantha McMillan and Ryan Hastings, Covello’s brand journey began with homemade solutions and a passion to find beauty and wellness alternatives to what the market had on offer. Working together with longtime collaborator, artist, and photographer Ayla El-Moussa (at the time of our interview the duo was en route to Paris for a photo shoot), Covello has managed to uphold this ethos through all of Agent Nateur’s campaigns and imagery: a modern, sleek, and minimal yet elegant branding. “I had this vision of elevating deodorant and making it really luxurious. I wanted to create something that was really beautiful on the shelf. I used to call myself the agent of nature because I was giving my friends tips on healing, recommending supplements, and sharing all of my endometriosis struggles on Instagram,” she comments.
Sharing these struggles with others is an important pillar of support for other endometriosis sufferers, as diagnosis takes on average 7.5 years, with laparoscopy, whereby a small camera is inserted through small incisions in the abdomen the only method of determining if they actually have the condition. As far as treatment goes, the inherent male bias of medical systems has been well documented, and female bodied-conditions are commonly misdiagnosed or take longer than usual to be treated, further complicating the treatment process. This difficulty extends to hormone health, with recent documentaries such as The Business of Birth Control only beginning to delve into the far-reaching effects that hormones can have on the body, from infertility to depression, but as its directors stated, getting this information out into the public domain is a challenge in itself.
It is in the space of holistic, whole-system wellness that Covello is looking to empower women, sharing the knowledge she has gained from working with experts to those who, in a majority of cases, are unable to get access to these treatments and information due to lack of coverage by medical care providers. Through Agent Nateur’s social media channels and blog, Covello shares AIP (auto immune protocol) and low-FODMAP meal plans, as well as healthy cooking recipes, alongside podcast interviews with guests ranging from Vedic astrologers to holistic pediatricians. Natural healing methods that often rely on everyday tools such as nutrition and movement are advocated to readers. And so, even for those who can’t afford the brand’s products, the founder is making sure they are still able to reap the benefits of her research.
She is also passionate about sharing her tools for success. In 2020, she founded a mentorship program for female beauty entrepreneurs of color, which supplies packaging, containers, and other production needs in addition to a $5,000 grant, as well as marketing and photograph consulting. “I want to help women who are starting from a place like me, who don't have money behind them. Even if you’re going to take an investor, don't give your entire brand away. Don't sell yourself short, don't make decisions in the short term. If your brand blows up, how are you going to feel if you gave away that amount of equity?” she asks.
Building a Brand through Organic Social Media Growth
After being a one-woman show from 2014-2016, Covello was able to expand her team and expand manufacturing facilities outside of her home, adding further deodorant launches to her brand. “It was easy for me back then because I only had one SKU. I didn’t have a lot of overhead costs. But today that would be very different. If I started today, I can’t imagine what the competition would feel like,” she comments.
To Covello’s benefit, the buzz around Agent Nateur meant retailers found her through social media and word of mouth. But it’s not just an opportune moment that has contributed to the brand’s success. After all, hype can only get one so far, and sooner or later will die down.
Today, Agent Nateur has over 120K followers on Instagram and is stocked by retailers like Goop, Violet Grey, and Detox Market, with over 200 retail outlets in total. Covello never took on outside investment in the process. It was here where her previous founder challenges (she had created a children’s clothing brand several years prior) became her biggest assets. “Because I had a business before, I knew not to give the equity away. Someone could have easily come in and taken half of Agent Nateur for almost nothing had I not learned from my mistakes before,” she states.
Transitioning from Natural Deodorant to High-Grade Skincare
Built into the brand’s DNA from the get-go was an ingredients-first approach, one that has seen Covello travel the globe to procure the best ones for her formulas. To truly ensure the sensory experience of her products, Covello traveled to Grasse to learn about fragrance creation prior to launching, in collaboration with fellow natural beauty brand owner Shiva Rose, her second deodorant scent, a sandalwood and rose fragrance called Holi (Rose). As the brand momentum began to build, rather than following a foolproof formula of playing it safe, Covello decided to go against industry advice and follow her own creative intuition.
“I wanted to break out of this deodorant category that I was in for two years. People advised me to stay in the body category and that didn't feel authentic to me,” she recalls. Instead, she launched a face oil. Studying in the country famed for its skincare, she picked up an interest in anti-aging actives with proven safety and efficacy. “These actives had all of this science data backing and were clean, but not many people were using them. At the time, clean beauty really wasn't on the market in France, which was looking at what the US was doing. But it was weird because all of these actives were readily available, especially in Switzerland, and not many people were taking advantage and promoting them. I started to get very interested in how you could formulate with these actives in a way that truly gives results,” she recalls.
The end result was Holi (Oil) Refining Ageless Face Serum, which targets redness, signs of aging including age spots and loss of elasticity, scarring, and inconsistent skin tone and texture. The product contains oryza sativa, a Japanese rice bran oil for hydration; calcium ketogluconate, a patented molecule for anti-aging; and sodium ascorbyl phosphate, the most stable form of vitamin C, which shows benefits ranging from fighting free radicals to acne reduction. In clinical studies cited by Agent Nateur, in vivo clinical trials of calcium ketogluconate showed a 27% decrease in skin fatigue and sagging, with a 16% flexibility increase over the course of using the ingredient twice a day for 28 days. Despite these merits, Covello faced the challenge of establishing credibility in skincare when Agent Nateur had built its initial reputation in the natural deodorant category.
“I had to educate and go in on why people should trust me with their skin. I source all of my ingredients, and find the most expensive, best, most efficacious ones I can,” she enthuses. This includes high-end hyaluronic acid which goes for $2,000 per kilo rather than the regular standard of $200, and sourcing ingredients from Germany, the Middle East, Switzerland, and France. “I non-stop hammered in why my products were effective. Yes they're clean, but for me, it was going in on the clinicals and that you could actually have clean actives backed by science that give results, instead of just sitting here mixing essential oils and different carrier oils together,” she states.
Breaking Away from the Clean Beauty Label
Throughout its evolution, the clean category has witnessed immense growth in a very short span of time, a booming category to say the least. Today the stakes are also remarkably different. Customers are far more discerning about where they spend their INCI-conscious dollars, using apps like SkinSafe, Think Dirty, and EWG Healthy Living. The tension between clean beauty and the rest of the industry is increasingly palpable.
Covello prefers to not align herself with the category, instead sticking to the values she implemented in her brand from day one. “I tried to stay away from that name,” she says of the term “clean beauty,” using the controversy around parabens as one example.
“In 2016, everyone was saying paraben-free, but there are parabens that have been around for 30+ years that are completely safe. It's the newer parabens that have a longer molecular structure that are the problem, but there was so much misinformation with what is deemed clean and unsafe. I never went by those regulations, I go by EU standards,” she explains. “With the whole green beauty movement that happened in the US, they were talking about things that they weren’t including, but really weren’t a problem to begin with. I always promoted Agent Nateur as, yes, my ingredients are Ecocert approved, but just because something is synthetic doesn’t mean it’s bad.”
Ingredient efficacy and safety nonetheless provide a crucial touchstone of the Agent Nateur product philosophy. Take for example the brand’s latest release, Lash & Brow Serum. Standard eyelash growth-enhancing serums contain prostaglandin analogs, the side effects of which include not just itching, change in skin and iris pigmentation, and conjunctival hyperemia (a redness of the conjunctival vessels), but also a thinning of the eyelid margins and acquired blepharophimosis, which can cause drooping eyelids and fissures in the palpebral area (the space of the eyelids). Agent Nateur replaced this ingredient with Follicusan, a milk-based bioactive that vitalizes eyelash follicles; Capixyl, a patented peptide combined with red clover extract that stimulates and strengthens the hair follicle; and Redensyl, which activates the division of bulge stem cells to promote hair growth.
In addition to skincare and personal care, Covello has also expanded into the supplements realm, releasing Holi (Mane), a hair, skin, and nails supplement containing marine collagen and pearl powder, offering over 30 trace minerals for inner and outer health. The product helps to strengthen hair and nails, boost skin hydration, and lessen fine lines, wrinkles, uneven skin tone, and hyperpigmentation. It was released in December 2020, at a time when many were dealing with COVID-related hair loss, and became an overnight success. “It went viral. People were sending me their before and after pictures. I'm all about giving results, and the proof is in the formulas themselves once people give them a try,” she states.
Covello worked with esteemed functional medicine expert Dr. Will Cole, a specialist in autoimmune, brain, gut, hormone, and thyroid health, as well as author of the New York Times bestseller Intuitive Fasting, on the supplement. Dr. Cole was a crucial figure in Covello’s own health journey, being the first medical provider who helped her heal her hormone imbalances. “I had estrogen dominance since I was 20 years old, not one doctor could get it under control. When I followed his protocol, my hormones finally balanced for the first time in my life, when I was 38 years old. I then asked him if he wanted to work on a supplement together,” she explains.
In an era when thousands of women aren’t getting the answers to their health queries from traditional Western medicine, Covello hopes to spread information about other solutions. “A functional doctor will test your hormones and thyroid with more advanced testing than just a regular Western practitioner. A lot of them dismiss it because they were taught from this old school of thought, they’ll say it’s bullshit,” she explains. “Well, if it’s bullshit, how did this fix my hormones?” For those looking for help, the founder shares a list of recommended medical and wellness starting points in a contact registry on the Agent Nateur site, alongside live interviews with a host of experts on the brand’s Instagram account.
Maintaining Brand Growth in a Pay-to-Play Era
Covello’s brand strategy, while born out of sheer necessity, actually was riding the wave of social media strategies and organic audience growth before the online platforms became so immensely oversaturated and expensive to advertise on. “For a long time, you could promote your brand just on social media, people would find you. Now it's so oversaturated, and with everyone shopping online versus going in store, some brands want to pull out of the retailers because their DTC is so strong. I don't think that's a smart approach, because those wholesale retailers are where people are discovering your brand. DTC can be a sales driver, but wholesale has become the PR for brands,” she remarks.
Nonetheless, getting into the wholesale space isn’t as simple as sending over a few samples, or as was the case with Agent Nateur, having retailers discover the brand on social media. “It’s very much pay to play. Some bigger retailers, who before wanted to promote you for your ingredients, now want to know how much you're going to pay them. They don't want to place you unless there's a lot of marketing and advertising dollars that you're going to spend. That's the only way you get your brand out there. If I were to start the brand today, I don't think I would have been able to because I don't have any investors,” she reflects.
Rather than going for a quick cash influx, the founder is looking to take a more curated and long-term approach. “We’re living in such a wild time. No one knows if we're going to hit a recession. It was always in the back of my head that I would price fairly in case that ever were to happen, that my pricing could survive that. I believe slow and steady wins the race. If I am investing in brick and mortar or pop-ups, I want longevity and something that feels authentic and special,” she states. Her creative independence remains a crucial facet of ensuring that authenticity stays intact. “I didn't want too many cooks in the kitchen, telling me what to do and when I had to release and what I had to change, because the brand is my baby, the love of my life. I enjoy what I do and I want to keep it that way,” she comments.
It’s a mission-over-money approach that can be seen in Covello’s everyday interactions with Agent Nateur’s fanbase. When followers asked her to recommend an acne-clearing product, the founder decided to ask them about their diet instead, recommending to cut out testosterone-heavy foods such as nuts, beef, tuna, egg, and dairy to reduce hormonal acne. “I didn't try to sell them a product because I know you can treat it topically, but what's going on inside your body and why? Let's get to the root cause,” she says.
A proponent of finding the gray area in a black-and-white world, Covello prefers a holistic meets science-backed approach to not just her skincare, but overall health and wellness mission. “This drastic way of thinking in terms of what's considered unnatural or what's considered a chemical in beauty, you have it happening in medicine as well with holistic versus traditional Western, but those worlds need to marry each other because both are needed,” she says.
Equally, she wants to empower those going through endometriosis struggles to trust their bodily instincts and find alternatives such as uterine artery embolization before going through drastic measures such as hysterectomies. “The percentage of women having hysterectomies because of fibroids alone is astronomical and people aren't even aware of these other technologies because it's more profitable to do that hysterectomy. I did a live on Instagram with the radiologist Dr. John C. Lipman and have had women reach out to me and say, ‘You saved my uterus. I had a baby and didn't have a hysterectomy because of you.’ That's the biggest compliment I could ever receive,” she states.
As someone who wouldn’t settle with the inadequate solutions provided for her own endometriosis struggles, she wants to encourage others to look further if their own medical providers are not providing the needed answers. It’s an important tactic given the fact that a recent survey by The Alliance for Endometriosis found that 90% of endometriosis sufferers are dismissed or ignored by others at least monthly. As Covello states: “It's almost like we have to become our own doctor in the sense where we need to trust ourselves. We all have this intuition that we have to tap into.”
Whether in business or health, Covello's intuition has been an unwavering guiding star that is not just a help to her, but also to her devoted online and in-store following. The coming year promises to spread even more of that ethos with an upcoming face cream, lifting serum, supplements, and entry into the color cosmetics category in the works. For a self-made founder who turned a personal struggle into business triumph, it’s the next chapter in the adventures of Agent Nateur.
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