A herbal heritage: The story of Lush and henna hair dye
The following article is an excerpt from the book True Colours: Hair Colouring for the Curious and the Cautious, by Milly Ahlquist and Mark Constantine.
It’s 2001 and Lush co-founder and product inventor Helen Ambrosen is late leaving her lab at 29 High Street, Poole. As the light outside slowly dims, she’s mixing a blend of Iranian henna leaves (Lawsonia Inermis), herbs, and cocoa butter together for the very first time.
On the shelf above Helen, an ancient form of currency known as a tea brick and owned by Mark has held pride of place for a few years. Today, an absent-minded glance has resulted in what could potentially be a stroke of genius - if she gets it right. Pressing the creamy mixture into an impromptu mold, she leaves it to set and heads home.
Nearly 20 years later, Mark Constantine still raves about Helen’s invention that evening. “Adding cocoa butter to the henna so that it melts when you add water and turns into this lovely creamy base was just sublime. It’s unpackaged and unpreserved; the cocoa butter makes it easier to comb and get the henna out. The simplicity, the clarity, the nod to history are just exquisite in my opinion.”
Back to our roots
Crush a henna leaf in your hand and you’re unlikely to stain your skin. Instead, the dye material is formed when the natural precursors in the henna leaf react to mildly acidic conditions, such as lemon juice, and oxidise. The lawsone then binds with the keratin in the hair cuticle, coating the hair fibre like a varnish. Using henna does not penetrate and damage the cuticle, plus it has the added benefit of giving extra shine and body to the hair.
Mark’s interest in the many benefits of henna was piqued early on in his career after a hairdressing apprenticeship in his hometown of Weymouth led to a hair stylist job at Elizabeth Arden in London. He then moved to study and practise trichology (the diagnosis and treatment of hair and scalp diseases) at The Ginger Group of Hairdressers.
“The period of the time when I worked at The Ginger Group was a very influential one,” Mark reflects. “It was my job to get your hair in the right condition for the stylist. Invariably the kind of work I would pick up would be a model who needed to look great. You had to get their hair in a good state, and one of the secrets we had were treatment creams. You would get someone in, apply a scalp oil and then ladle an entire treatment over their hair, steam that in, then shampoo and condition it again. And the combination of those things would get the condition back into the hair so the stylist could make it look good again.” Decades later, Lush now sells its own bespoke range of treatment creams, inspired by Mark’s learnings at The Ginger Group and enthusiasm for herb and plant materials.
Back in Dorset as the resident trichologist at prestigious hairdressers Marc Young, Mark’s passion for natural cosmetics became a business when he met beauty therapist Liz Weir. The two like-minded herb enthusiasts established the Herbal Hair and Beauty Clinic in 1977 at 29 High Street in Poole, Dorset, offering a range of beauty services.
“We used to host henna parties,” Mark recalls, “where we’d put loads of music on, get the clients gowned up, and then we’d dye their hair, steam it, and wash it. I used to charge just about enough to make a living, and it was great fun.”
Although sometimes raucous in nature, the parties gave Mark the opportunity to further hone his expertise in herbal hair colour. “I learned there is a real art to dying the hair with henna,” he explains, “particularly back then when I was using blends of dry leaves. It’s like making a cup of tea; you can make it one way or another. I’d really lay it on the hair, adding loads and loads, so it was nice and heavy. I also tried lots of different blends using coffee and red wine – I used a lot of red wine in henna. One glass for me, one glass for it! The smell of spices, clove, and nutmeg as it heated up was beautiful.”
As well as enjoying a hands-on henna service, clients of the time could purchase colouring products: Saffron shampoo to “brighten and condition blonde hair”, Oriental Treatment Wax “using sedra and Persian henna [to] give the hair shine and lustre”, and Henna Shampoo “containing 60% henna infusion to give the hair shine and body”.
‘Natural dyes are fun to use’, promises a saved Constantine & Weir services list from the time, “and the effect on the hair can be so pretty and natural (or dramatic and stunning), that you will wonder why you haven’t tried them before.”
It was Mark’s experiments in henna products that gained the attention of Anita Roddick, the businesswomen responsible for the rise of cult ‘80s cosmetics brand: The Body Shop. Mark sent her some samples, including, in his words “a henna shampoo that looked a bit like you’d done a poo.” Undeterred, she placed an order for £1,572.75 - a princely sum at the time.
Constantine & Weir consequently became both operators of a beauty salon and a R&D hub for The Body Shop. In Mark’s biography, Dear John: The Road To Pelindaba, childhood friend Jeff Osment recalls that Mark and wife Mo’s marital home in Poole soon became a stockroom for Body Shop products in development.
Back at 29 High Street, however, bagging the many bespoke Body Shop blends up and hauling them up and down the many narrow flights of stairs was the real mammoth task. “Liz was great,” Mark recalls. “She used to manoeuvre those 50kg sacks of the stuff down the stairs. How she did it, I’ve no idea.”
With the henna blends safely shipped via lorry to The Body Shop, Mark would then visit the shops and teach the staff how to henna hair, further imparting his accumulated wisdom. When the Body Shop bought the rights to all Constantine & Weir-invented products in 1994, the agreement also included a contract not allowing the Constantines to open a physical shop for a number of years.
They opened a mail-order business instead.
Causing a stir: hair colour and Cosmetics To Go
Cosmetics To Go sold some of their more avant-garde inventions initially rejected by the Body Shop like co-founder Mo Constantine’s shampoo bar and bath bomb inventions. While henna was not initially on the table, as Mark and co still sold it to The Body Shop, customers were introduced to hair products like Waxed And Clam-Baked shampoo bar (made with henna and juniper berries for processed hair) and Dimestore Blonde hair lightening kit “for a ‘summery’ look”.
“Show us an actual photo of someone who’s used Dimestore Blonde and I might be tempted to buy it,” wrote Michelle from Surrey in one of the cult Cosmetics To Go catalogues. Proud Dimestore Blondes Helen Ambrosen and fellow soon-to-be Lush co-founder Rowena Bird promptly featured in the next issue, showing off their shiny, highlighted locks.
The Really Cookin’ range of 1993 introduced henna treatments to a new batch of customers, including Cajun Swamp Water, made with red henna for “natural or ‘varnished’ red locks”; Zydeco, made with henna, coffee and cloves for a “mahogany red-brown sheen”; and Jalapeno, cooked up with red henna, rhassoul mud and lemon juice for “fiery red” locks. These fresh treatments needed to be refrigerated and used within two weeks. Also on offer was Le Soleil highlighting kit: a power and cream kit to lighten the hair on its own, or possibly before use with the red henna treatments.
Sadly, before customers could say “ready, set cook”, by January the following year Cosmetics To Go was no more, a victim of its own success as detailed in Mira Manga’s book: Danger! Cosmetics To Go: A Company On The Edge! The doors were closed on the veritable Wonka’s factory of beauty confectionery - but not for long.
Lush and fresh handmade hair colour
By 1995, the team behind Cosmetics To Go had rallied and were cooking up cosmetics in 29 High Street once more. Restrictions on running a retail shop now lifted, Mark, Mo, Liz, Helen, Rowena, and former IT manager at Cosmetics To Go Paul Greaves spent the little money they had left on fruits and vegetables from a market stall and returned to their fresh, handmade roots. In 1995, 29 High Street opened their doors once more and was later christened ‘Lush’: a small-scale business that was to succeed where Cosmetics To Go had faltered.
Henna featured as an ingredient in the very first ‘Lush Times’ brochure in 1995, in products such as Plantational shampoo: “ A smooth blend of powdered seaweed, henna, nettles and rosemary [to] give shine and freshen colour on all red and brown hair.” Yet, by 1998, pre-made fresh henna treatments were being sold on the shop floor like bowls of ice cream at a delicatessen.
Mark and Helen had been hard at work with their formulations, using their wealth of herbal knowledge to create henna-based concoctions that all customers could benefit from - whether that was to colour the hair or simply add body and shine. Perusers at 29 High Street, and the newly opened Kingston shop could choose from Solanna, made with chamomile, rhubarb and red henna, for “dazzling strawberry blonde”; Erborigian Flax, an “intense treatment for blonde hair”, made with chamomile and fresh lemon juice; Capella File d’Oro, made with red henna, cloves and coffee “for rich red brown tones”; Al Khanna, a fresh lemon and henna blend, to create “fiery red” base; and Sea Henna, “an intense treatment conditioner for all hair types” made with henna and balsamic vinegar. “Order these fast -” warned the 1998 Lush Times catalogue, “- they smell so delicious our Kingston shop sold out the very first morning they were in stock!”
But the real henna revolution came in 2001, with Helen’s cocoa butter breakthrough. She and Mark decided on four final henna brick recipes, and Lush ethics director Hilary created intricate designs based on traditional henna wedding tattoos to reflect the ingredient’s history and cultural significance.
A little bit of Lush naughtiness went into the range of course too. The category name ‘Caca’ was a play on the fashion for dolling up cosmetics with fancy French names (‘Caca’ meaning ‘shit’ à la France). Caca Noir, for example, literally translates as ‘black shit’. According to Mark, this was apt both because of its look, and because “they were and are the shit”.
Four henna bricks were launched for customers to purchase: Rouge, Brun, Marron and Noir, each using a bespoke mix of ingredients inspired by the Ancient Egyptians - without the blood of a black cat some contemporaries recommended. Using Iranian red henna in various quantities, combined with ingredients like indigo herb and clove bud oil, not to mention Fair Trade organic cocoa butter, customers could find a range of shades from fiery red to the glossiest darkest brown. A blend for blondes, which proved particularly difficult to combine with cocoa butter, did not quite make the cut.
Because the richest red lawsone is released under mildly acidic conditions, Rouge and Marron included a dash of lemon juice to enhance the warmth and brightness of the colour.
Where the intended colour is darker, like Brun and Noir, Mark and Helen used a combination of henna and indigo, a herb known formally as Indigofera tinctoria. The latter is indigenous to south west Asia and south eastern Europe and has a long history of use as a revered blue dye in both hair and textiles.
Similarly to henna, indigo’s colour is formed by a chemical reaction during an extraction process. As powdered leaves are soaked, precursors within the plant react to the oxidation and fermentation process and a blue dye is formed. Unlike henna, however, indigo does not adhere neatly to the hair’s keratin, making it harder to use as a hair dye. When combined with henna, it can be successfully used to dye the hair and adds a dark blue tint to counteract the orange.
Even if you weren’t switching up your hair colour, the combination of ingredients within the henna bricks gave them kudos as hair treatments too. Applied to brown hair, for example, Brun would moisturise courtesy of the cocoa butter, while clove and rosemary would treat the scalp, and the lawsone component would add body and shine to the hair fibres. This final point was particularly useful for finer hair. “If your hair is very thick,” explains Mark, “henna might not seem to improve the combability because it adds a bit of body. But it would still be improving the overall condition as well as adding shine.”
Nearly two decades after patenting the henna brick, Mark and Helen are taking a fresh look at one of nature’s oldest and best dyes. Watch this space to see where herbal hair colour takes us next.
“Order these fast -” warned the 1998 Lush Times catalogue, “- they smell so delicious our Kingston shop sold out the very first morning they were in stock!”