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Making minimally-preserved, fresh products means going against the status quo. At times, it has been a mammoth battle for Helen and her colleagues. In an industry that chooses quantity over quality, fresh cosmetics are an anomaly and, to some, a threat. They also do not easily fit into manufacturing standards for microbiology: a safety aspect Helen takes very seriously.
“The conventional method of testing cosmetics products - the ISO 11930 standard - is not appropriate for testing fresh products, which have a short shelf life and some of which have to be refrigerated,” she says. “Some of these formulations have a higher microbiological load than the guidelines, but we carefully monitor this and in-depth microbiological analysis confirms the absence of pathogens. With the supervision of an independent worldwide expert in cosmetics microbiology, we long ago developed a procedure to test the microbial viability of fresh products using human volunteers. We submit our information to authorities and they are happy with what we do.”
The process includes meticulous product formulation, a panel of human testers, in-house and external microbiology testing, speedy dispatchment from factories, and shorter use by dates - all to give the customer a better, fresher product. In exchange for a shorter shelf life, and sometimes making a bit of space in your fridge, customers get products packed full of goodness, not preservatives.
Take bestselling Mask Of Magnaminty, for example. This product, which has a four-month shelf life, has to be bought by a customer within one month of being made. A fresh face mask, with 28-day shelf life, has to be sold within 10 days of being made. Over 99% of the ingredients in both products are of natural origin. In the cosmetics industry, this is unheard of.
“When we say fresh, we can truly illustrate fresh,” says Helen.
Natural products benefit the natural world
Skin aside, Helen is also concerned about another ecosystem close to home: the planet. A huge number of the synthetic preservatives used to give cosmetics that long shelf life do not break down in water, meaning they bioaccumulate and damage aquatic life forms. This could also have consequences for human health that we have not yet uncovered.
“Synthetic preservatives stop things decaying in the environment, so when people use them they are going down into water systems,” she explains. “But materials like honey, salt and kaolin will break down by themselves and not harm the environment in any way. So creating fresh products also reduces the amount of preservative entering water sources and even human tissue.”
When a synthetic preservative is necessary, Lush uses a miniscule amount, far below the maximum dictated by cosmetics regulations. But Helen’s self-preserving technology, combined with solid, naked products, means the future is looking increasingly green.
“Minimally preserved products offer customers a choice if they’re concerned about the lack of synthetic preservative,” she says. “We offer some of our bestselling products like Dream Cream and Mask of Magnaminty in two formats as an element of customer service: one preserved, one self-preserving.”
Between April 2018 and March 2019, customers purchased 1,273,850 pots of self-preserving Mask Of Magnaminty over the minimally preserved original formula. They enjoyed all the benefits of fresh, carefully-sourced ingredients on their skin and prevented 800kg of preservative from polluting our water systems.
And Helen’s not stopping there. Along with colleagues, Karl Bygrave, chairman of the Cosmetic Committee for the British Standards Institute, and external microbiologist Melody Greenwood, she wants the industry to formally recognise fresh cosmetics with a British or ISO standard. “Some years ago, we tried to define ‘natural’ and ‘fresh’ as part of a British Standard, but a competitor was in there straight away, frustrating everything we were trying to do. But since then there are now, at least, standards for natural and for naturally-occurring ingredients.
“Now what we want to do is to present this information on our processes to the British Standards Institute. No doubt, it will probably take three, four or possibly five years to get either a British Standard or an ISO standard for cosmetics of this nature, but at least then there is a set standard for products of fresh and natural origin.”
Despite the challenges that have been and to come, Helen is also having a bit of a moment. “I realised something recently: for so long this information has lived in my head, I’ve been analysing the information sent back to us from labs all over the world, been in daily contact with our testing manager, looking at what’s happening to our products as they are developed and manufactured in sites throughout the Lush world.
“I came to write it all down and realised that we’ve spent decades creating processes that enable us to make these wonderful fresh products using large amounts of natural ingredients, which are enjoyed by millions of people in 49 different countries. And, in doing so, we’ve started a cosmetics revolution, without even realising it.”
Choosing a Lush product truly means leaving the world lusher than we found it.