Sunday 19 January 2020

Natural beauties - the Irish women whose all-natural beauty products have gone international

From food to make-up, health consciousness is the biggest trend of our age - meaning that today's consumer cares as much about the chemical content of what we put on our bodies as what we put in them. Here, we meets the Irish women whose all-natural beauty brands have gone international…

Tracey Ryan of Bia Beauty Natural Skincare Range, handmade in Cork. Photo Joleen Cronin.
Tracey Ryan of Bia Beauty Natural Skincare Range, handmade in Cork. Photo Joleen Cronin.
Niamh Hogan of Holos
Geraldine Woessner with their Flourish Organic Skincare products which they manufacture at their home in Gortnakilla, Clonkeen, Killarney. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Colleen Harte, Lucy Annabella Organics, Brooklodge and Macreddin Village, Co Wicklow. Picture: Garry O'Neill
Joanne of Kinvara Skincare. Photo: Joe Keogh
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Natural beauty products have come a long way since the days when we all doused ourselves in The Body Shop's White Musk perfume. Nowadays we all know our rosehip oil from our argan oil, just as we have become aware of the toxic chemical ingredients contained in many synthetic beauty products.

Natural beauty has become big business. The Ayurveda-inspired Aveda range was acquired by Estée Lauder in 1997 and L'Oréal paid over $1 billion for a majority share in The Body Shop in 2006. They sniffed the wind. Global consulting firm Kline says the industry has seen double-digit growth for the last six years and estimates that the natural beauty market will be worth €45 billion by 2019.

Closer to home, many all-natural beauty brands are enjoying international success. Kinvara was the first Irish brand to get the nod at the UK 'FreeFrom' Beauty Awards; Lucy Annabella Organics is now stocked in prestigious beauty store Space.NK in the UK, and Sligo's Voya launched offices in North America and the Middle East last year.

Here, we meet some of the women at the helm of these homegrown beauty brands and ask them why Irish all-natural beauty brands are entering a golden age.

Holos skincare

Niamh Hogan of Holos

Wexford-based Niamh Hogan, above, is the creator of Holos Skincare. The former holistic therapist launched the brand when she saw the benefits of using essential oils on her clients. She's married to software designer, Paul, and they have a 10-year-old daughter.

'Try again. Fail again. Fail better' is a motto that Niamh Hogan knows well. She opened a natural health centre that employed 12 therapists at the tail-end of the boom but soon realised that she had the right idea at the wrong time.

She was forced to downsize the operation but her entrepreneurial instincts remained intact. In her work as a holistic therapist, Niamh had gained first-hand experience of the power of essential oils and a new business plan began to emerge organically.

"It happened by accident, really," she says. "I was using blends of essential oils on my clients for years and I was noticing that they made people feel a little bit better. I wanted to encourage people to use more essential oils and aromatherapy in everyday life and I wondered how I could do that."

She started small by making up oil blends and selling them to her clients. Her husband, who has a background in design, couldn't bear the handwritten labels and insisted on designing some professional ones instead. "Then he wasn't happy with that so he designed some boxes too," she adds. "Before I knew it I had a range of massage and body oils that you could put on a shelf and sell.

"I started playing around with creams next. The first cream I made was the Love Your Skin hand cream. Then I made two face creams."

Niamh set up her stall at a couple of Christmas markets and quickly sold out of all her products. The demand proved that she was on to something. She took the idea to her local Enterprise Office and after six months of development she had a full line of products ready for launch in January 2014.

Holos's best-selling product is the Love Your Skin anti-ageing facial oil. "I'm getting great feedback that it's helping with rosacea and pigmentation issues," she says.

She's also had great feedback from Enterprise Ireland. Niamh was one of 10 women to receive the Competitive Start Fund for Female Entrepreneurs, which includes an investment of €50k for a 10pc equity stake.

It will allow Holos to explore the international market. "We actually just got our first American stockist in Connecticut and we haven't even started on our quest for US stockists yet," she adds.

The local market is equally receptive. "I've worked in health stores in the business. Ten years ago we wouldn't have even looked at an Irish brand coming in. Now they're all dying to get Irish brands on the shelf.

"I didn't anticipate how quickly it would take off," she continues. "I've been really lucky. I work hard but everything has gone the way I wanted it.

"I suppose the hardest thing is the legalisation aspect - getting your products tested and getting the formulations right. It's a long, tedious process, but it's worth it."

Niamh’s top beauty tips:

1 Don’t be afraid to add a few drops of oil into your routine at night if you have adult acne or oily skin.

It actually helps balance out the oils in the skin.

2 Spend time putting the products on. If you’ve got a facial oil, that’s the perfect medium for you to spend 20 seconds or a minute massaging the product in. Massage stimulates circulation. Just make sure the movements are upwards — and don’t forget  the neck.

3 Eat foods containing essential fatty acids and try to eat oily fish three times a week. I can tell the people who take Udo’s Oil or flaxseed oil in their diet just by looking at their skin.

Lucy Annabella organics

Colleen Harte, Lucy Annabella Organics, Brooklodge and Macreddin Village, Co Wicklow. Picture: Garry O'Neill

Clinical aromatherapist Colleen Harte is the founder of Lucy Annabella Organics, a range of luxury bath and body products designed to renew and restore. She is married to Ciaran and they live in Tyrone.

Colleen Harte was always interested in aromatherapy but she allowed herself to be talked into studying psychology in university. She left after just one semester and took a course in clinical aromatherapy and complementary therapy instead.

"I always liked aromatherapy but it was seen as this airy-fairy, witchy thing that old women did," she explains. "I saw it as a science, though. And I was also very aware that in France aromatherapy is a medicine. It's delivered by doctors there, so I went to Provence and trained on and off for three years.

"I trained under a lady who teaches the doctors in university. She taught me the importance of the chemistry of what we do. If the chemistry isn't right - and you're not making a functional blend - it doesn't matter how it smells."

Colleen went on to work as a clinical aromatherapist, specialising in cancer patients and fertility clients. "They were often reviewing their diets and then I would remind them that they needed to reduce chemicals on their bodies as well as in their bodies. Back in 2008, people just looked at me as if I had lost my mind. Nobody had thought of it like that."

She often referred these clients to an online organic beauty store in Germany, which is how she noticed a gap in the market for luxury organic products. "I couldn't find a healthy product in beautiful packaging so, in that way, I was forced to do it myself."

Lucy Annabella products are known for their exquisite aromas and luxury packaging, however each of the treatment oils, bath milks and candles have been designed with a therapeutic purpose in mind. "I blend based on chemistry," explains Colleen. "So when I was making Graceful, which is for women going through the menopause or hormonal imbalances, I added oils that reduce lactic acid and stimulate oestrogen."

Lucy Annabella Organics is stocked in Avoca and Harvey Nichols Dublin. They are also the first Irish brand to be represented by beauty emporium Space.NK in the UK. "Our aim now is to move into the States via Space.NK."

Does she consider the 'Made in Ireland' tag to be one of the brand's USPs? "It's a double-edged sword," she says. "Irish customers want to buy Irish and support Irish and that's amazing, but when you start to go international, companies want to see that you can cope with a big order too. You want it to be made with love and poured with care, but there has to be a scaleable business model at the same time.

"There are some amazing brands out there that are made with such precise detail that they can't scale," she continues. "Keep it at home and keep it authentic, yes, but make it a scalable business model too."

Bia beauty

Tracey Ryan is the creator of Bia Beauty, a range that "feeds the skin" by combining edible products and skincare. Her husband Gavin took over the production side of the business two years ago. They live in Cork and have two children.

Tracey Ryan has always had green fingers. She studied Horticulture and Herbal Science before she came up with the idea for Bia Beauty, a range of beauty products that harnesses edible ingredients like nut and seed oils, herbs and fruits.

"In my final year in college I was pregnant with my first child and, like a lot of new mums, I was really concerned about the sort of things I was putting on my baby's skin," she explains. "So I started making a lot of my own products for the family - laundry detergent, shampoos, baby creams - and I absolutely loved it."

When her Herbal Science degree introduced an innovation module, Tracey began selling some of the natural moisturisers that she had been making for the family. She didn't anticipate the demand.

"The module ended but there was still a lot of interest. People kept coming back to me asking 'where can I get more cream?'"

These days, the range's best-seller is Skin Superfood, a product she originally made for herself.

"I suffer from dermatitis and the flaking was driving me crazy," she explains. "So I took a lot of the herbs I was researching, that I knew had benefits to the skin, and I made my own infusions. Then I gave it to people who I knew had eczema or psoriasis and the feedback was so brilliant that I put it into our range."

Bia Beauty has online customers from all over the world and it's also sold by stockists in the UK and Poland. Still, how does a homegrown company compete with bigger brands? "It's an enormous task," she admits, "but I think social media is a real leveller. It allows small companies to get in and market their brand. With less money you can be a lot more creative."

She's also noticed that customers who try all-natural products don't tend to return to synthetic brands. "When you come away from conventional skincare and start using light essential oils, synthetic products can smell so intense in comparison.

"When I set up there was a certain amount of natural skincare companies in Ireland," she adds. "Every year there is more and more. It's great to see people becoming more aware."

Tracey’s top beauty tips:

1 Floral waters are some of the most amazing things you can put on your skin. Rose water is a beautiful toner for dry skin and it’s so luxurious. Orange blossom water is beautiful too. You don’t have to buy a branded one. Some of the Asian food markets stock them because they are used in cooking.

2 It’s really easy to make your own lip scrubs. Just mix some coconut oil, granulated sugar and a little bit of honey. You don’t have to be specific about measurements. If you really want to keep the moisture in your lips, it’s important to do a good scrub first.

3 People use really abrasive exfoliants once every two or three weeks. I recommend that they exfoliate more regularly but more gently. Avoid the conventional exfoliants out there and look for gentle exfoliating grains like jojoba or fruit seeds.

Flourish organics

Geraldine Woessner with their Flourish Organic Skincare products which they manufacture at their home in Gortnakilla, Clonkeen, Killarney. Photo: Don MacMonagle

Geraldine Woessener, above, is a qualified aromatherapist and the creator of Flourish Organics, a range of natural skincare that strives to be effective yet affordable. The former fashion designer lives in Kerry with her husband and business partner, Klaus.

Flourish Organics wasn't just a career change for Geraldine Woessner, it was a complete lifestyle overhaul. "I was originally a fashion designer in Dublin for years and I got really burnt out," she explains. "I was travelling to New York and Paris every season and Belgium and London once a week. I didn't allow my body the time to slow down so it got completely exhausted. It was a mixture of the stress of the job and being constantly jetlagged."

The wake-up call occurred during a research trip to New York. "I had my first panic attack and I didn't know what was happening to me. It's a really frightening thing to experience." Things got worse before they got better. "It eventually got to the stage where I couldn't leave the house because the panic attacks were so bad."

Geraldine began to explore alternative therapies as a way to calm her anxiety. "I went for a Reiki treatment and my whole body just relaxed and I was able to breathe properly again," she recalls. "Immediately I thought 'there is something in this'."

It was the start of a sea change. Geraldine and her husband Klaus swapped city centre Dublin for rural Kerry, where Geraldine signed up to a holistic course which included massage and aromatherapy. "I always had a passion for gorgeous scents and an interest in aromatherapy, even when I was a fashion designer," she explains.

During her studies, Geraldine noticed that it was difficult to find natural skincare that was also affordable, so she decided to make her own. "We use things like sweet almond oil, olive oil and hemp oil as carriers for essential oils - and we make sure that the products are reasonably priced."

Klaus now works part-time in the business. "I look after product creation and production and Klaus looks after marketing, customer relations and finance. Our main work at the moment is spas as there is a trend towards supporting local. We work with a couple of five-star spas here in Kerry and I just love creating the rituals. Aromatherapy is a lovely way of bringing yourself back to the present moment."

Geraldine’s top beauty tips:

1 When you’re doing your morning ritual, don’t just slap the products on. Allow yourself time to breathe it in. Three minutes can really change your day because you’re allowing yourself to receive the benefits of the aromatherapy.

2 Lymphatic drainage massage on the face is great for releasing the fluids that gather and cause puffiness. It’s particularly good in the winter when you’re suffering with things like colds, sinusitis and bags under the eyes. You can see our demonstration of how to do it on our blog.

3 Your skin glows when your digestive system is functioning properly. Try adding fruits that are high in antioxidants like blueberries and strawberries and acidophilus, which supports the digestive system, to your smoothies. Also, get into the fresh air — it’s amazing for your skin.

Kinvara Skincare

Joanne of Kinvara Skincare. Photo: Joe Keogh

Joanne Reilly PhD is a doctorate of science and the creator of Kinvara, a natural beauty brand that combines the healing power of plants with a scientific approach. She lives in Galway and is the mother of two children.

Kinvara's award-winning 24HR Rosehip Face Serum is fast gaining cult status among beauty lovers. However, creator Joanne Reilly says it's now just being pipped by the Absolute Cleansing Oil, another product that has won over beauty editors (and acne sufferers too).

Joanne, who has a doctorate in science, has always been fascinated by the healing powers of plants. Her background is in ecological conservation and it was during an extensive research project in the Sumatran jungle that she became convinced that products really high in plant extracts were the way forward.

"That's where I looked for inspiration when it came to formulating," she says. "As a species we've evolved to look after ourselves with what's in our environment so it makes sense to use plants. After all, Mother Nature is running the longest-running clinical trial in history."

It was also during these expeditions that she saw first-hand the ecological cost of unsustainable practices. "For me, it's very important that products don't include palm oil, that we don't test on animals and that we use recyclable packaging."

Like many natural beauty brands, Kinvara started with a client base of one. "I wanted to solve my own skincare needs and realised that what I needed was what many other people needed too," explains Joanne. "My skin is very reactive so I started reading labels and trying to figure out what I was putting on my skin. I knew I wanted to use natural and organic products and I tried some but found them either greasy or too light, or expensive."

Kinvara is a brand for women who want maximum results with minimal products. It's a small yet perfectly formed collection that has been fastidiously formulated. "We're adding new products to our range which focuses on face care products that deliver results naturally," says Joanne. "New products need to be intelligent additions to the existing range as I don't want to add clutter to people's skincare routines. A few hard-working products that deliver results is all you should need."

Kinvara is a recognisable and respected brand in Ireland. They export to the UK and Germany and there's interest from Finland, Malaysia and a number of other markets too.

Why does she think the Irish natural beauty market is doing so well? "Business-wise, I think it's down to our attitude - we have a successful mix of the island independence and a pragmatic awareness that we need to look outside ourselves as a nation and as individuals.

"On a personal level, I think it's simply that Irish customers feel like they know you, they can reach you and identify with you."

The backdrop of the Irish landscape helps too: "A heady mix of natural physical beauty and a thriving food culture permeates our identity and our values when it comes to creating products - keep it real, keep it clean, keep it green."

Joanne’s top beauty tips:

1 If you want to overhaul your skincare regime, take the time to research the products you want to use, so they are right for you and give your skin three-to-six months to really see the benefits.

2 Get label smart: learn about the ingredients you’re putting on your skin. There are some good websites that explain and demystify the ingredients without scaremongering. Sites I like are and Be realistic because everyone’s skin is unique to them.

3 Always patch test new products to ensure they suit you. Place a little bit of the product in the crook of your elbow and leave for 24 hours to check for any signs of irritation. Learn what suits you and what to avoid.

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