Clean beauty: Fresh microbiome-friendly skincare

It’s an organ we routinely slather in lotions and potions, plaster when we bleed, and conceal in cosmetics. Yet, intimate knowledge of how to care for our skin eludes many of us. We cultivate routines without understanding the seasons of this delicate ecosystem, and smother it with products that eradicate the micro-organisms dedicated to keeping us healthy. We buy products that promise the world but harm the planet.

Lush co-founder and product inventor Helen Ambrosen has been navigating the complex science of skincare for decades. A microbiome whisperer on her 10,000th formula, her life’s work has been to create natural skincare that nourishes both your complexion and the protective microorganisms that live there. She pioneered Lush’s use of natural materials and meticulous formulation to create stable products that stay fresh without the use of synthetic preservatives - a concept she termed ‘self-preserving’.

“There’s so much pressure to make products like all the cosmetics in the industry,” she explains. “Standard products that can sit in warehouses for three years before they're sold, and have a 36-month shelf life from the date they are sold. Some of the most popular cheap brands also use really high levels of what we would see as quite harmful chemicals to create instant effects on the skin. They’re selling dreams to people and there can be a payoff for the skin; great condition at first then a steady decline in skin health. It’s a bit like being in the sun when the skin is all radiant for a week or so, then it collapses from the inside out. Or oedema [facial swelling] occurs as the skin tries to protect itself. This traps a hair follicle or two, leading to a spot, leading to stronger and stronger products being used.”

“What we’ve always done is to make wonderful fresh products with large amounts of natural ingredients, which guarantees a product that has great effects for the skin and hair. We use minimal preservatives or entirely self-preserving formulations to protect the natural microbiome of the skin, which has a central role in skin health.”

What is your microbiome?

Your microbiome is unique to you, a community of friendly bacteria, microorganisms and their genetic material, inherited from your mother as you pass through the birth canal, where it forms a quick defence against pathogens such as MRSA. If you were born by C-section, your first contact with doctors and the hospital environment instead provide this in the minutes after delivery.         

A diverse microbiome is a healthy one, caring for the skin and offering protection against the microorganisms that can cause disease. When we try to improve the appearance or texture of our skin surface, we can alter its conditions which then disrupts the microbiome

Modern lifestyles have drastically impacted the health of our skin. Populations living in urban western societies show a less diverse, healthy microbiome than indigenous communities, thanks to their everyday exposure to synthetics like cosmetics, cleaning products, washing powders and more. Our behaviours and environment are fundamentally damaging the delicate ecosystem of our skin, leading to ‘western conditions’ such as acne. When it comes to cosmetics, research has also found that products with a high level of synthetics deplete the natural diversity of your microbiome, unlike natural ingredients

That’s why Helen - and Lush - firmly believes fresh is best.

“A microbiologist in Vancouver did an analysis for us on our fresh face masks and found that within three hours the skin’s microbiome had overcome anything left on the skin,” she explains. “We didn’t ever even publish the work because we tend to just get on with it, making the products that will benefit people.”  

High standards

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 life, has to be bought by a customer within three months 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.”

If you purchase the self-preserving Mask Of Magnaminty over the minimally preserved original formula, you can enjoy all the benefits of fresh, carefully-sourced ingredients on your 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.

Take a look at our beautiful skincare range.

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