We interviewed the founder of Green People, one of the leading producers of organic skin care and natural beauty products. Few realise the harsh chemicals in personal care products and cosmetic can be harmful – especially SLS, commonly used in shampoo and toothpaste. In fact, there are a number of ingredients that should really be avoided in cosmetics products. Most of the biggest manufacturers in cosmetics and the personal care industry produce products under very widely respected brands (such as Colgate, Head and Shoulders) containing such chemicals in large quantities. This is something that companies like Green People founded by Charlotte Vohtz are trying to provide an alternative to, and to fight against.
We asked Charlotte how she started Green People, how she competes with multi-billion pound pharmaceutical companies, what her aspirations are, and why you should use natural cosmetics. She also spoke about raising awareness of natural cosmetics, how ‘The trust that people have in big brand names is a large factor’, continuing to say that ‘I honestly believe that people don’t expect that companies would add something to a formulation that could cause harm or irritation’. Charlotte also gave us an insight in to the worst and most abundant chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products. The interview is published unedited, and in it’s entirety below.
How did Green People come about?
Green People was founded in 1997, two years after I moved from Denmark to the UK. There are many motivations behind an entrepreneurial spirit – to be your own boss, make money or start something new.
For me the motivation came from wanting to help treat the eczema and allergies that my daughter Sandra suffered as a small child. As any modern parent of a child with severe skin problems will know, it can be a long and frustrating battle to find treatments that work.
While eating organically is a good start in helping fight allergies it is often not enough as a cure. We are all children of the chemical age and pollution, in combination with changing dietary habits, profoundly affects us all.
I was shocked to learn that a natural product could contain up to 99.9% synthetic chemicals and still be marketed as being natural! So being unable to find any products to help Sandra I decided to formulate a range of truly natural health and personal care products.Using my background in nursing, knowledge of herbal medicine and nutrition and more than 11 years in the pharmaceutical industry, I began a search to find something truly natural that would help Sandra’s skin and not aggravate it, the foundations for Green People were laid. The first Green People products were launched in the UK in the summer of 1997.
Today Green People offers more than 100 award-winning natural and organic personal care products across dedicated ranges including those for men, women, blemished skin, babies and sensitive skin. Ultimately I have created the products I had been searching for, high-end everyday products with quality organic ingredients, gentle enough for all skin types, even sensitive and those prone to eczema and psoriasis.
How did you establish yourself as a business, and how do compete with multi-billion pound pharmaceutical companies with virtually limitless resources?
My biggest challenge back in the beginning was to convince retailers that truly natural and organic personal care products in time would need more shelf space in their shops. They did not realise that what goes on the skin is as important for good health as what you eat!
I was a true pioneer for organic skincare and spent a long time trying to educate health store owners by going from shop to shop with a box of products to persuade them to try selling them. Sadly I discovered that nobody knew that natural skin care products only need 1% of natural ingredients to be called “natural” and up to 60% of what goes on the skin is absorbed straight into the bloodstream. Thankfully the challenge paid off and today there is far more awareness of the benefits of organic beauty products.
Once the business was running another challenge was to admit that I could not do everything myself and I was very lucky that the right people found me. Today I have a great team and without them I would not have achieved success so quickly.
What are your ultimate aspirations for Green People?
I see this as a ‘mission’. I am meant to be doing this. We continually receive feedback from customers about our products. It is so satisfying to be sent testimonials telling us how we have helped transform a customer’s skin problem – and the buzz we get from knowing we can make a difference makes it all worthwhile!
Going forward my business vision is to maintain our high standards and ethics and to retain the trust and integrity built up over the past 15 years. I also envisage that we will be able to work towards satisfy the demand from large export companies who are interested in selling our products all over the world.
Several ‘big guys’ have entered the organic personal care scene so it is important to demonstrate that Green People still has a big role to play and will continue to be innovative and launch new product ranges.
Do you aspire for Green People to become mainstream – or is this just unrealistic?
I don’t think that we will ever achieve being a mainstream brand. Our commitment to truly organic quality products with > 90% active ingredients will naturally prevent us to compete with ‘low cost’ brands.
Why is it that the majority of consumers are not aware about the ingredients in their cosmetics?
The trust that people have in big brand names is a large factor, I honestly believe that people don’t expect that companies would add something to a formulation that could cause harm or irritation. The fact that a product can contain less than 1% organic to be labelled as organic is a perfect example. Consumers are being misled every day.
Has there been an increase in the awareness of natural cosmetics – and which do you feel is more important to people, the ethical choice (not supporting multinational pharmaceutical companies) or the perceived health benefits?
Health must come first – that said even natural cosmetics can contain harmful chemicals as there is no guarantee that plant material used is pesticide or herbicide-free. You are only on the safe side if you choose truly certified organic products.
How exactly have people come aware of natural cosmetics and their benefits?
I believe a benefit to the saturated market we see in the organic sector is that the ‘organic way’ is becoming more mainstream therefore bringing information about better choices to consumers.
What do you say to those who feel that the ‘dangers’ of the chemicals in popular cosmetics are far exaggerated and realistically are simply not an issue?
During our lifetime, we are exposed to a chemical cocktail of hundreds of different compounds. The harmful chemical compounds are found in the air, in rain and in drinking water. Toxins are found in detergents, PVC plastics, and personal care products, our food and all around our home, literally everywhere!
Even if we strive to live a healthy life, pollutants will penetrate our bodies every day and when the body’s total burden exceeds one’s ability to detoxify, these substances are stored in the body’s tissues. The effects of pollution are cumulative and are not always seen at the time exposure occurs.
Ultimately trying to make changes to your lifestyle will help protect the body from the bombardment of these chemicals, personal care products is a perfect place to start as it is a fact that up to 60% of what is applied to the skin can be absorbed. Experts agree that absorption through the skin is much more dangerous than through the mouth. Chemicals in food is absorbed into the digestive system and go through the kidneys and the liver where enzymes break them down and most often detoxify them, substances absorbed through the skin bypass the liver and enter blood circulation without this protection.
What would you say to those who feel that those who attempt to raise awareness about chemicals in consumer products are “scaremongering to sell all-natural products”?
I would most likely call them ignorant and ask them to do their homework!
To gain the full benefits of natural cosmetics/personal care products – do you have to go further than simply using natural cosmetics? I.e. (change diet, household items etc)
Any lifestyle changes individuals can make, that personal circumstances will allow, will ultimately be worthwhile. The benefits will show long term.
What do you feel are the reasons for people not using natural products? (is it just awareness – or something more?)
Lack of awareness or maybe even lack of interest?
Why is it that that pharmaceutical companies don’t mass produce natural products?
To a certain extent they do. The pharmaceutical industry is geared towards ‘medicine’. Most herbal products now have to be licensed and creams for specific ailments seem to go that way too.
What do you think about big pharmaceutical companies producing seemingly natural cosmetics which in fact contain the same old chemicals?
Misleading marketing has always been around – companies like Green People will never be able to compete with the ‘big guys’ but we can all to our best to keep the consumer informed.
What it the profile of your average customer – what kind of people shop at Green People?
Our products appeal to a vast range of customers and we welcome them all. I feel a great pride seeing people educating themselves about what goes into mainstream products and moving across to organic and natural alternatives. Our customers expect quality and performance without the unnecessary chemicals.
Surely a significant barrier to the less affluent population is price when it comes to purchasing natural products – what can be done about poorer people having access to natural products?
This is a huge issue, especially during these tough economic times. We are continuously trying to spread the message that Green People products are super-concentrated. Whereas mainstream products often contain more than 70% water +cheap fillers/additives – ours are made up of more than 90% natural, organic active ingredients. This ultimately means that they are super concentrated and only a small amount is needed therefore in some cases products will last 3 times longer than their high-street counterparts. Informing customers that a cheap price tag doesn’t necessarily mean value for money is a lifelong quest!
What are the worst and most abundant chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products?
There isn’t one – but it is the cocktail effect that is the real concern. – some of the worst are mentioned below.
- Sodium lauryl sulfate – detergent and harsh skin irritant, contributes also to yeast infections. May cause hair thinning; Builds up in the heart, liver, lungs, brain
- PEG’s – may be contaminated with dioxane; estrogen mimic and endocrine disruptor etc
- DEA/ TEA – can Interact with nitrites in the formula to form the potent carcinogen nitrosamine
- Propylene glycol – may inhibit skin cell growth and be irritating to the skin
- Phthalates – hormone mimics. Use as fragrance fixative and to make plastics soft
- Mineral Oil / Petrolatum – like putting cling-film on your skin – blocks pores, holds-in toxins – causes dehydration, dry skin.
- Synthetic fragrance – contain allergens and hormone disrupting phthalates
- Some preservatives can release carcinogenic Formaldehyde; e.g. quaternium 15, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, 2-bromo-2-nitropane-1, 3-diol
Why are chemicals – like SLS used so much in cosmetics, if they have such significant health effects?
They are cheap to use!
Minor ailments, allergies and asthma are increasingly common – could use of cosmetics containing harsh chemicals like SLS be a reason?
Yes – the harsh foaming agent Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) strips the skin of its natural oils making it more prone to the development of skin allergies and eczema. Petrochemicals is another danger as they stop the skin from functioning naturally – toxins cant be eliminated and the skin can’t breathe!
Who is your biggest competitor?
There is not one but many. The number of competitors has grown drastically in the past few years all riding on the wave of natural of organic. I’m proud to call other pioneering brands like Neal’s Yard a competitor.
What other companies, like Green People have similar values and principles to yours – and as a ‘ do you feel you should work together to take on the large pharmaceutical companies as a whole?
What Green People products do you use personally, and what is your all time favourite?
Well – I almost use them all but my all time favourites are Facial oil combined with Gentle Tone serum, a perfect anti-ageing combination for face, neck and décolletage. Moisturising Shampoo is another must have.
Charlotte is also the author of ‘Naturally Gorgeous: Essential Health and Beauty Secrets‘ available at £8.99 on Amazon UK - described as ‘…health and beauty tips for those who want to adopt a greener way of life by founder of pioneering organic beauty company’.
What do you think of natural cosmetics? Are advocates of natural personal care products ‘scaremongering to sell all-natural products’, or are they genuinely ignorant? Are you aware of the risks of the chemicals contained in many branded mainstream cosmetics – and do you still use them despite this awareness? If you use natural cosmetics, what do you use and what are your motivations?