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Clean beauty: Fresh microbiome-friendly skincare

Around 90% of Lush’s all-year-round products are self-preserving. That means they stay fresh and effective with no artificial preservatives. It makes our products especially gentle on the skin and simply lovely to use (even when they’re bloody difficult to make!). In an industry occupied by highly preserved, long-life cosmetics, Lush are skincare rebels.  We believe it’s worth it though to do your skin a world of good. By harnessing short shelf lives, clever product formulation and manufacturing products in smaller fresher batches and distributing them quickly, we’re all about treating you to skincare full of goodness, not preservatives.

Lush co-founder and product inventor Helen Ambrosen is passionate about making fresh, effective skincare for all ages (and she’s been doing it for ages). A microbiome whisperer on her 10,000th formula, her life’s work has been to create natural skincare that cares for both your skin barrier and the protective microorganisms that live on your skin. 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 Lush termed ‘self-preserving’.  

When it comes to skincare, Lush’s offerings can be broken down into four categories:

  1. Products that are made of fruits, vegetables, clays and seaweeds without preservative that last for 28 days and that you keep in the fridge, such as BB Seaweed fresh face mask.

2. Products that are made mainly from clays and glycerine without preservative or minimal preservative and that last for 3-4 months, such as our fresh cleansers and Mask of Magnaminty.

3. Products that are made with essential oils, fruits and vegetables, less water but higher quantities of butters and oils, and no preservatives that last for 6 months, such as Self-Preserving Skin Drink facial moisturiser.

4. Products that are made with higher quantities of fruit and vegetables and contain minimal preservatives that last for 14 months, such as Skin Drink facial moisturiser.  

“There’s so much pressure to make products like all the cosmetics in the industry,” she explains. “Standard products can sit in warehouses for 18 months 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 synthetic 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 long-term damage occurs underneath. 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 delivers a product that has great effects for the skin and hair. We use minimal preservatives or entirely self-preserving formulations that contain no artificial preservatives to protect the natural microbiome of the skin, which has a central role in skin health. We tell you when we made the product so you can see how fresh it is, we tell you when to use it by and how to store it to get the best effects.”

What is your microbiome?

Your microbiome performs an important immunological function straight away from birth when you exit the womb. Babies born vaginally inherit their microbiome from their mother as they pass through the birth canal, where it forms a quick defence against pathogens such as MRSA. Babies born by C-section are believed to inherit theirs from contact with doctors, the hospital environment and their mother after delivery. Around four to six weeks after delivery, a baby’s microbiome becomes ‘site specific’, meaning it differs according to sites on the body. As we grow, biological sex, age, lifestyle, environment and ethnicity also inform the microbial differences that make us unique.

The healthiest microbiomes are often found to be composed of a diverse community of microorganisms, caring for the skin and offering protection against the microorganisms that can cause disease. Skin diseases can often be correlated with imbalances (known as dysbiosis) such as atopic dermatitis and acne, and an impaired skin barrier. When we try to improve the appearance or texture of our skin surface, we can alter its conditions which then disrupts the microbiome. Helping our skin to stay balanced and healthy is an important function that skincare can offer.

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. They are also lacking important early exposures to the microorganisms found in soil and water that helps develop a healthy immune system. 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 suggested that products with a high level of synthetics deplete the natural diversity of your microbiome, unlike natural ingredients, and have been found to accumulate in the skin for days or even weeks after use. Natural ingredients have the added benefit of being familiar to us on an evolutionary level - plant-based cosmetics have been used and tolerated by humans for thousands of years.

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

High standards in skincare and testing

Making minimally-preserved, fresh products means going against the status quo. Making self-preserving products means going even further. Many cosmetics contain a high percentage of water - an important skincare ingredient that acts as a solvent, enabling beneficial ingredients to reach the skin. However, it also provides an ideal medium for bacterial growth. Reducing the water content of a product is therefore key to being able to remove artificial preservatives. It involves careful rebalancing of a formula and harnessing the antimicrobial properties of natural ingredients, which have additional perks for a customer.

Self-Preserving Mask of Magnaminty for example is 30% honey, whereas the preserved product is 12%. Honey is antimicrobial, but has added benefits for the skin too, being softening, gently cleansing and anti-inflammatory. Similarly, the levels of another humectant, glycerine, are adjusted from 6% in the preserved formula to nearly 13% in the self-preserving, giving this version a richer texture and helping the skin to retain moisture. Some customers may prefer the lighter texture of the original thanks to its higher water content. Others may like the luxurious feel of the self-preserving version.

Alongside an independent worldwide expert in cosmetics microbiology, Helen and her Lush colleagues long ago developed a robust testing procedure for Lush products and the business has grown around the premise that we want to get the freshest products onto customers’ skin as quickly as possible.

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 again. 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 like Glen Cocoa with a 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. 

Product testing manager Jet Shears agrees; it’s her job to make sure these fresh cosmetics stand up to rigorous testing. She explains, “Our testing policy is all about doing it in real life, in real time, on real people. We push ourselves as a business to give the freshest products with minimal or no preservatives. What we do is really of paramount importance of giving the best benefits to the customers and that’s the joy of working with such lovely products.”

Lush products are tested for freshness after they’ve been used in realistic situations - by volunteers who take them home, use them and return them to us. But Jet has some handy tips for making the most of your skincare too. “Hand hygiene is important,” she says. “You wouldn't want to eat something with dirty hands and it’s the same premise with cosmetics. I would also say not to keep your products on or near a radiator or on a sunny window ledge in the same way that you wouldn’t want to eat food that has become warm.

“And what I personally think is number one on how to best look after your products is to use them fresh. Live in the moment! Don't scrimp. Apply liberally, use them fresh and use them up. Don’t save anything for best - life’s too short. Wear your favourite dress, apply your lovely cream.”

Do your skin (and the planet) a world of good

As well as the skin, Helen is also concerned about another ecosystem close to home: the planet. To put it bluntly, preservatives are biocidal, meaning their purpose is to destroy living things. In some cases, this is clearly necessary to provide a safe and effective product and harm can be minimised by using a preservative in the lowest concentration at which it is effective. Yet 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 go down into water systems,” she explains. “But materials like honey, salt, natural butters, clays and kaolin will break down by themselves and not harm the environment in any way. So creating fresh products with short shelf lives also reduces the amount of preservative entering water sources and even human tissue.” Purchasers of the self-preserving versions of Dream Cream, Ocean Salt, Mask of Magnaminty and Ultrabland between April 2021 and May 2022 prevented 425kg of methylparaben and 88kg of propylparaben from going into production between May 2021 and April 2022, some of which would have entered our water systems.

When a synthetic preservative is necessary, Lush uses a minimal amount, far below the maximum dictated by cosmetics regulations. The small number of preservatives Lush do use (benzyl alcohol, phenoxyethanol, methylparaben and propylparaben) have also been found to cause less disturbance to the skin’s microbiome than others in studies from 2019 and 2021. We consider concentration carefully too. Research has found that artificial preservatives used at the maximum levels allowed in legislation can have a disturbing effect on the skin’s microbiome when they could inhibit microbial growth at a lower levels. Take methylparaben, for example. One study found it to inhibit pathogens Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus when used at a concentration of 0.2% in a formula - half the maximum allowed by European legislation - and to do so with minimal disruption to the skin’s microbiome. 

“Minimally preserved products offer customers a choice if they’re concerned about the lack of synthetic preservatives,” 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. We also know from feedback that some customers don’t want their skincare tampering with - it works for them as it is with that tiny amount of preservative inside.”

Helen’s most recent work has been reformulating five of Lush’s facial moisturisers, many of which she first co-created with co-founder Mark Constantine decades ago. 

It’s been painstaking work, but worth it. She explains, “We reduced the water content and carefully re-balanced the formulas to make sure they still worked beautifully on the skin. You could consider them super-concentrated versions of the originals - you don’t need to use so much and the worry of preservatives has been removed. Better for customers, better for the staff who make our product by hand, and better for the planet! But we still have the preserved versions of these five moisturisers for those customers who know and love the originals. 

“For customers who want the benefits of the self-preserving formulas but a lighter texture, they could try wetting their skin, then applying a very small amount of moisturiser to reintroduce some of the water content. Just be sure to dry your hand on a clean towel before you dab!”

Creating products that have a big impact on customers, but a minimal one on the planet is busy work, but Helen shows no sign of slowing down.  Her life’s work continues, although she attributes the ability to create such fresh and self-preserving products not only to clever formula balancing but also to the business infrastructure built by like-minded colleagues.  

She explains, “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.

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