Skin Deep and Deeper

29th March 2013

Clare Finney investigates the contents of those iconic blue pots and jars…

“Get a load of that…” I’m standing in the sunlit mixing room of the country’s most successful organic skincare brand – yet as I put my nose to the proffered bottle, the scent that hits me is neither soothing, nor cleansing, nor particularly pleasant. To be honest, it smells a little bit like… curry?

“Exactly!” beams Fran, lab technician and one of the creative brains behind Neal’s Yard Remedies’ extensive range of lotions and potions. In one hand she has a plastic jug of rather questionable looking cream; in the other, the ‘eau de takeaway’ that, if ancient Indian medicinal traditions are anything to go by, will help to transform the cream into a ‘brightening serum’.

The spice is turmeric; the tradition, a 500 year old wedding ritual in which Indian brides smear it on their skin in paste form to increase their glow in time for the big day. More ‘technical’ cosmetic industries might sneer at the idea that a fluorescent orange plant could pass on some of its brightness. Down at the NYR eco-headquarters in Dorset, however, faith in the power of nature underpins a business that has experienced rapid growth in the past five years.

“By industry standards, NYR is still a pretty small company – surprisingly small, I always think – but it has such huge potential,” my guide for the day, Nicola Nolan, reveals as she first introduces me to the exploding nettle patches, random clumps of wild flowers and wonky herb gardens that are Fran’s store cupboard. Inside the lab, the orderly chaos continues. Tubs and test-tubes litter the wooden counters, together with beakers of mixtures gone wrong (laughing, Fran shows me yesterday’s attempt at hair smoothing serum, now crystallising into what looks like molasses) and detailed scientific descriptions of the experimental process. Some items are labelled – some, like the discarded serum, have nothing but a small handwritten Post-it Note to indicate what’s inside.

“This is who we are,” Fran points out, “and it’s a working lab where a lot goes on. We’re always experimenting with new plant materials”. But just beneath the lab’s experimental, suck-it-and-see surface lies a vat of industry experience, quality checks and rigorous testing processes. Only after the raw ingredients have been approved by the quality control team are they made up into new treatments and only after the treatments have been tested by a large pool of volunteer consumers and Neal’s Yard Remedies staff are they put into mass production. In all, Nicola tells me, the process from thinking of a new product to it reaching the shelf can take up to three years.

It’s a far cry from the early 1980s, when founder Romy Fraser started brewing herbal remedies in a small kitchen behind her first Seven Dials store. Back then, Fraser’s company was the only skincare brand on the market offering products free from the synthetic chemicals, silicones and preservatives behind most beauty treatments. Today, the organic sector is estimated to be worth over £2billion – but back when the company was founded, very few people even knew what organic meant.

“If you look at the brands in the organic and natural sector today, there are very few companies that have been in the game for as long as Neal’s Yard Remedies,” says Fran. By the time the big beauty brands began jumping onto the organic bandwagon, NYR was already in the driving seat. Its guidelines are strict – there are 13 firm ethical pledges on the company’s ‘We Believe in Saying No’ list – and where other back-to-nature companies are happy to gloss over a few inorganic ingredients with a shiny ‘100 per cent organic’ sign, Neal’s Yard Remedies insist that the number trumpeted on the bottle reflects the actual percentage inside it.

“You can’t have a product with 100 per cent organic ingredients,” insists Fran. “Water can’t be organic. Neither can salt, clays, minerals – they can be ethically sourced, they can come from organic farms that are ethically run, but they can’t be organic because they don’t grow. So that little green box that gives the percentage is our way of being really open and honest with the customer.”

This is not just clever marketing. Honesty might seem a risky policy in an industry dominated by slick copywriting, airbrushing and pseudo-science, but the readiness with which I am welcomed behind the scenes at NYR is testament to the company’s belief that beauty products need to be more than skin deep. “This is a brand with a true belief that if you don’t love it, you wouldn’t do it. It comes back to the idea of the company as family. Everybody has their own role – but everyone’s got a shared vision. Everybody knows Peter and his family. It makes such a difference.”

‘Peter’ is former publishing magnate Peter Kindersley, the NYR managing director, who bought the company from Romy Fraser in 2005. Kindersley is, it seems, a hands-on MD. “I’ve worked in places where the chairman will turn up to the odd meeting not knowing what it’s about or what the next project is – let alone know your name,” says Nicola. “But Peter is in every week and on email everyday! He chats to everyone, sees everything we’re doing.” In fact, with over half of the product ingredients coming from Peter’s organic farm, ‘hands on’ is an understatement. It’s all a far cry from his days at the helm of publishing giants Dorling Kindersley, but without his almost evangelical vision for Fraser’s home-grown company, the green products that were once the preserve of hippies and homeopaths simply would not have the far-reaching appeal they’ve achieved today.

It helps that Kindersley has a lot of money and a lot of business experience. But it also helps that he first saved up for a farm in the early 70s, first started cycling to work around the same time, and was part of the green movement long before it became a potential money-spinner. One staff member I speak to describes him as ‘the Duracell battery rabbit’, but I suspect ‘solar-powered rabbit’ would be more to his liking.

Back in Peacemarsh, the production lines are just starting to empty. “They’ll produce another two thousand bottles today, but we’ve started work on the Christmas programme now so we’re not feeling too stressed,” says the production manager, Neil, standing in the spring sunshine of the production room (Peacemarsh keeps artificial lighting to a minimum), as he gestures towards a line of gleaming blue bottles, into which two of his white-clad team are carefully piping the last of a run of orange blossom face wash. The entire production line cannot measure more than 20 metres, and the tools they are using are vaguely reminiscent of that thing my mum uses to swirl icing onto cupcakes. This tiny belt is one of only four production lines in the facility, each one of which has seen its daily output triple in the past two years.

Outside, in the cultivated wilderness of the company’s physic gardens, the next batch of calendula is starting to bud. “You’re going to have to use your imagination a little bit, but in the summer there is every colour you can imagine out here,” says Nicola, and I am reminded of what she said earlier about NYR being ‘a very small company with such potential’. It may have the potential to grow, but standing out in this lovely little garden it seems unlikely that the company’s size will ever quite reflect its potential. ‘Ethical’ companies that expand too quickly often find that their success has come at a price – Innocent Smoothies seemed less innocent when they sold to Coca Cola, while Quaker-founded Cadbury sold its soul to an American behemoth. But Neal’s Yard Remedies’ success remains rooted in the company practicing what it preaches, whether it’s ensuring that suppliers get a fair deal or minimising the company’s carbon footprint through energy efficiency measures and carbon offsetting.

The ethics are important, but it’s also essential that the products actually work. Over lunch (locally grown, homemade and organic; it almost goes without saying) Nicola and Natural Health Director Susan Curtis swap stories of customers whose feedback has been so dramatic that it’s become company folklore. “One of the most frustrating things is companies making these wild claims that ‘one in four people saw their wrinkles reduce’, and you think, ‘but that’s only 25 per cent of people! ” Nicola exclaims. “We’ve got customer testimonials from our anti-ageing Frankincense range with over 85 per cent of people saying, ‘Wow, what a difference, I’ve really seen an improvement in my skin.’ Now that is something. As a brand maybe we don’t shout about it as much as we should because we’re so concerned with the quality of the ingredients and the welfare of the suppliers – but to have a brand that people trust and come to us because the products work as well… that is exciting.”

The cynic in me can’t help but ask how much of this apparent efficacy is due to wishful thinking on behalf of the consumer, or to the placebo effect that comes from believing that what you are smearing on your skin is superior to other, more synthetic products. This is the elephant in the garden of any green/natural/ eco brand, and it’s not until I meet Dragana, the company’s long-standing Head Herbalist, that my inner sceptic is silenced. A family history of herbal medicine spanning four generations helped to shape a career that has seen Dragana study traditional Chinese medicine, live with Tibetan tribes for five years and, most recently, work with the UN to improve sustainable food cultivation and production in Afghanistan. When I finally pluck up the courage to ask this small but formidable lady whether some herbal remedies might be more in the mind than the matter, she positively snorts in frustration.

“The whole of your life – everything that you are, everything that is – depends on the mind. Your illness has to be in your mind first before it reaches your physical body. Your success has to be in your mind first before it matures in a physical aspect. This pooh-poohing of the mind comes from an ignorance of the material world, of the broader aspect of human beings. Really the mind aspect is all that there is. Different choices you make have different outcomes, and the sooner you realise that, the sooner you stop blaming the world around you for what happens.” It sounds a bit abstract – it is a bit abstract – but as I mull it over with a cup of Dragana’s Beautiful Skin Tea, it sort of begins to make sense.

It helps that Dragana’s skin is radiantly clear, almost to the point of distraction. But it also helps that she, like everyone else I meet at Neal’s Yard Remedies, is remarkably down to earth. For every airy spiritual claim, there’s a detailed description of plant structure or a reference to the latest findings from Kingston and Metropolitan, NYR’s university collaborators.

But how does Neal’s Yard Remedies hope to sell that message to people who don’t brew nettle soup, never read the label and find the growing world of botanic and organic all rather overwhelming? “We believe in safe cosmetics so this year, we’re going to be working on helping people to understand what it means to go natural, to go organic” Nicola explains. “We’re also seeing so many new consultants join our NYR Organic business so even if you don’t understand every ingredient – and you won’t, always – if you know that you’re buying it from an ethical company, an organic company, you can rest assured that the chemicals used in it are naturally derived, are naturally occurring. It’s easy to underestimate Neal’s Yard Remedies– I did, coming from the bigger beauty industry. But you’re missing a trick if you do. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”

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