The story of Lush and henna hair dye

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, a historic 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 mould, 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

Henna has an affinity to keratin, making it one of the few materials in nature capable of producing a lasting colour on the hair. Unlike synthetic permanent dyes which penetrate the hair cuticle, henna acts like a varnish, glazing (rather than altering) your natural hair colour in rich shades of coppery red. It has the added benefit of giving your hair extra shine and body, and is also not associated with the health risks linked to synthetic dyes.

Mark was sold on the benefits of natural ingredients like henna early 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 hair treatments, 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 hair colouring products: Saffron shampoo to “brighten and condition blonde hair” 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 businesswoman 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 50 kg 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 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” 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, with a shampoo promising “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 Lush could choose from Solanna, made with chamomile, rhubarb and red henna, for “dazzling strawberry blonde”; 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”; 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!” 

Bricking it

But the real henna revolution came in 2001, with Helen’s cocoa butter breakthrough. It was a moment of genius inspired by the tea brick: a means of currency in Asia from the 9th century to the 20th century. Merchants compressed loose tea into densely packed bricks, which were much more easy to transport along trade routes between China, Siberia, Tibet, Mongolia, Turkmenistan and Russia, and had the added benefit of fermenting further in the heat to give a stronger flavour. Helen used a similar technique to solve the problem of how to sell henna in the Lush shops.

She recalls, “When we first started Lush we used to have hot bain maries with the hot hennas in which was lovely. It made the shop smell beautiful but they didn’t sell very well really. I tried to make the henna more visual so I added cocoa butter, swapped the citric acid for lemon juice and pressed it into a mould. Even back then we were on a real mission to make everything that we could solid. I wanted to make it more visual; we’d had so many years of green powders!”

Mark was instantly sold on Helen’s tea brick-inspired invention, which was more user friendly and another nod to the historical genius of past civilisations. Together, they decided on four final henna brick recipes, Rouge, Brun, Marron and Noir, three of which included varying blends of the indigo and henna combination so loved by the Iranians to colour the hair darker shades of brown. A blend for blondes that proved particularly difficult did not quite make the cut, “We decided to give ourselves a quiet life!” quips Helen.

Future Lush Ethics Director Hilary, who was working in the R&D department at the time, was tasked with designing a mould that acknowledged the ingredient’s cultural significance. She recalls, "Helen and Mark loved the fact that, in the past, tea was pressed into bricks and used as trading currency in place of money - the idea that simple ingredients like tea and henna were once so very important to people. Instead of looking at tea brick designs, I looked at the beautiful henna designs used in weddings and adapted some of the recurring leaf themes I saw."

Same henna, new shade: Introducing Vénitien

Nearly 20 years after their invention, a new shade joined Lush’s henna range. Vénitien is a rework of Helen and Mark’s original blonde formula, with tweaks from Lush HairLab lead and colourist Daisy Evans to make a strawberry blonde henna shade for naturally blonde or light brown hair

Daisy, who began her hairdressing career at the age of five when (according to her Nan) she gave her sister the ‘perfect French bob’, joined Lush in 2018. Having worked as a colourist for six years, she initially approached henna with trepidation given its feared reputation in the hairdressing industry. Most hairdressers are not familiar with using henna. It’s not part of standard training and, thanks to its frequent contamination with materials that do not mix well with oxidative dye or perm procedures, it doesn’t have a good name. Very high levels of hair dye ingredient para-phenylenediamine in adulterated hennas can also make you susceptible to a severe allergic reaction when using synthetic colour. Thankfully, as Daisy soon discovered, Lush henna is 100% natural and free of any of those contaminants.

 “As a hairdresser, I was having to deal with people who hennaed their hair but I was never taught what it was and how it worked,” Daisy reflects. “It was this big scary thing.” Since then, working up close with the material and with Mark has given her new-found knowledge, confidence and appreciation of the herbal dye, so much so that she was inspired to take another look at Mark and Helen’s original blonde recipe.

“When I began working with henna, I discovered that a lot of people were requesting a paler henna hair dye, usually customers who had blonde or fairer hair and who had tried Rouge before, but found it was a little too bright and fiery for them. They loved the warmth of Rouge but not the depth that came with it. The word ‘strawberry blonde’ came up a lot, sounding very similar to the golden-reddish blonde that we know was very fashionable in Renaissance Italy.

“I chose to use our gorgeous red henna powder, but at about half the amount we were using in Rouge. This was the base to deposit a little warmth onto the hair. I then added cassia, which coats the hair in a translucent gloss, to slightly soften the effects of red henna. Cassia adheres to the hair but not as strongly as henna! After playing around further with many pigmented herbs and floras, I found rhubarb powder added a serious amount of golden tone, along with the blonde-enhancing chamomile powder that we already use in our Marilyn hair treatment.”

The result was Vénitien: the perfect brick to add golden red tones to naturally blonde or light brown hair. It can also be used to tint white hair golden red or to add warmth and shine to previously lightened hair if you’re ditching the use of bleach.

Daisy’s work on Vénitien also inspired a fresh look at the original henna bricks with a few small tweaks to create deeper, richer tones on the hair. For the warmer colours, Rouge and Marron, Daisy found that hibiscus added extra depth and redness to the hair. Noni fruit also combined well with indigo to bring cooler tones to Noir and Brun.

To celebrate 20 years of the Lush henna brick, each brick has had a redesign that pays tribute to the plant’s cultural importance in different regions. Reflecting henna’s historic use in Egypt and Morocco, Rouge has a geometrical angular design, inspired by the patterns found in North African skin art. Marron, Brun and Noir have designs inspired by the organic, floral henna designs traditionally found in Middle Eastern and Asian skin art, where henna and indigo have historically been combined to form a darker paste. In a nod to its own unique invention story, Vénitien features designs inspired by intricate patterns of lace from the Italian Renaissance.

These little updates, it’s hoped, will celebrate and enhance the joy that comes with each henna application: the luxury, the history, the beauty - and, of course, the mess. 

This article is an edited extract from Chapter 11 of True Colours: Hair Colouring for the Curious and the Cautious, published by Lush. 

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