Merging Food Science and Personal Care
An Interview with Horst Rechelbacher, Founder of Aveda and
Creator of the New Personal Care Brand, Intelligent Nutrients
After 50 years in the beauty business, Horst Rechelbacher, the revolutionary who created Aveda, one of the world’s largest all natural personal care lines, is once again redefining personal care…as a food category. In fact, at a recent press conference launching his certified organic personal care company, he actually toasted the audience by sipping his new hairspray from a champagne glass.
Now, he is not suggesting that we all have a glass of hairspray with dinner. However, his new line of 100 percent food-based organic personal care products can all technically be digested just like a food product. And what’s more, all of the products actually deliver nutritional benefits. The main difference between his products and typical foodstuff is that most of the ingredients are meant to be taken in through the skin, not the mouth. His new line features everything from hair care, aromatherapy and lip gloss to supplements and functional food bars (which taste better than the hairspray, but the hairspray is not too bad either). His second phase, coming soon, includes organic products such as skin and baby care, as well as pet care and “Love Therapy,” or personal lubricants. The point is that anything that goes in or on your body should be nontoxic and beneficial to your health.
Since age 14, when he started apprenticing at a salon in Austria, Rechelbacher has had a passion for the beauty industry. In the mid-’60s, he enrolled at a university in India to study the chemical constitution of plants and, in 1978, he brought his two passions together to create Aveda, which is currently the number one purchaser of organic essential oils in the world and one of the greenest corporations in America today. Two decades later, he sold Aveda to Estée Lauder and not long after that he started dreaming up Intelligent Nutrients. Today, although many said it could not be done, he has created a functional personal care line certified to the USDA Organic standards.
Rechelbacher took some time to discuss the philosophy behind his new company and give us his take on issues that the organic personal care industry is currently facing.
OP: With Aveda you created all-natural products, many of which use organic ingredients, but with this company you decided use 100 percent food-based organic ingredients. What drove you to do this?
Rechelbacher: Our mission is that every product we create has a nutritional benefit. Through your skin you are consuming or eating the product, but is it digestible? And when it’s not digestible, what’s it doing in the body? We are doing research and we know that there’s at least one kilogram a year of cosmetic waste accumulated by the body and we don’t know where it’s going.
If you put something on the body that it cannot absorb and digest, then it’s a pollutant. The body doesn’t assimilate materials found in other cosmetics—like silicones, petrochemicals and dioxins—so these pollutants create inflammatory situations. All diseases begin with inflamation; it mutilates us from a cellular level.
Nutritional chemistry, or food chemistry, is the answer. What we can do is use antioxidants found in food to boost immunity to a level that our own body can fend off all intruders. We want to make sure that if something is being absorbed into the body, it has a nutritional benefit. The only way we could ensure real safety is by using ingredients which have been approved as food ingredients. And then we had to get everything organic certified. You have to be organic certified so that the consumer knows it’s the real thing.
There are toxins in nature too. There are many poisonous mushrooms and other plants in the world that’ll kill you. Not everything is edible from the plant kingdom and not every carbohydrate can be a food for us. You need to know which ones to use. The other stuff still can be used—but make hair brushes from it; make energy from it.
If you know something is not right, that it is toxic to the body, and yet you still continue to sell it to consumers, it’s criminal. That’s why you see the cosmetic companies getting sued. It’s very much like a déjà vu of the situation with the tobacco companies. Consumer groups are not happy. Groups like the Breast Cancer Fund have been searching for the cause of cancer and one of the causes of cancer they are beginning to identify is the petrochemicals in consumer products, from household cleaners to cosmetics.
OP: You’ve also worked with doctors to help you develop your products, correct?
Rechelbacher: I always have had a board of medical doctors, even at Aveda. Intelligent Nutrients is driven by medical research. It is a teaching ground for all of us.
We were actually introduced to this formula by a surgeon, Dr. Arnold S. Leonard, from the Cancer Research Fund, who got very frustrated with the post treatment of cancer. He had read that the prophet Mohammed told his disciples that people need to take cumin seed oil on a daily basis, that it will cure all diseases. So he started giving cumin seed oil to his patients, along with chemotherapy, and he saw very strong responses. Those who took the oil didn’t have their hair fall out. They started feeling better and he saw tumors decrease. He’s actually taking it through FDA approval right now to get it approved as a drug to treat cancer. He is one of the doctors on our medical board of advisors.
OP: How do the products actually work from a “nutrition delivery” standpoint?
Rechelbacher: We use many layers of different high-antioxidant oils to support each other, like a pyramid, with cumin oil as the base and then red raspberries, red grapes, pumpkin and more layered on top of that. And we, of course, use organic cumin seed, which has double the antioxidants of the conventional cumin oil that Dr. Leonard was using in his trials. Cumin oil is used in every one of our products, except for those hair products that needed stiffness. And to get that effect, instead of petrochemicals, we incorporate gums used in candy and yogurt manufacturing.
The other essential oils we use also work as anti-inflammatory agents. They control fungus and positive and negative bacteria. They’re also anti-parasitic and anti-viral. Lastly, when you press the oil, you have the shell left over. We powder the shell and that becomes the cell food for the water-based part of the cell, and the oil becomes the food for the oil-based part of the cell.
OP: You have mentioned before how important science is to the organic industry. Can you expand on that?
Rechelbacher: The organic leadership still needs a kick in the butt. The movement started with the hippies and there was very little science there. But science needs to go to work for us to help us understand our function. That is why my foundation provided seed money to help start The Organic Center.
So you say organic is better—why is organic better? Science now proves it has higher nutrition. This collective data is so important.
Organic is a very important part of the health care movement. If we don’t go organic, we are going to continue to become more deficient. Maybe someday insurance companies will catch onto that and lower insurance rates for those who use organic—it makes that much of a difference. Organic farmers should be the ones getting the tax breaks. It would lower costs and make organic products more available.
But this is all a collective process. The bottom line is about being nontoxic. We’ve even had to reject some organically grown products we’ve received because they have been contaminated with pesticides. The neighbor sprays, and if there is a 15-MPH wind, the organic farmer is going to get some of that chemical on his crops.
A lot comes from acid rain, too. That’s why we need to test for toxins. To protect the integrity of our organic products, we look for dioxins, heavy metals, mercury and lead. We also need to start testing the water. There’s a lot of work to be done.
OP: You also use renewable energy for all your manufacturing, correct? How important is the environmental side of your business?
Rechelbacher: It is important to get rid of pollutants that affect the body’s chemistry—not just in our products, but in our environment as well. I don’t want to support petrochemical energy; that’s why our facilities are solar-powered and our energy is supplemented by wind. I’m off the grid, I drive an electric car and we have electric mopeds. I’m trying to support nature as much as possible because it’s really the collective process.
As leaders, instead of being egotists, we need to be “eco-tists.” We all need to get off the petrochemical grid, start inventing new ideas and creating new products. Make products in the United States instead of outsourcing. All of that together is the new economy—it’s what’s going to heal us.
OP: Right now, the organic personal care industry is a bit confusing, with many different standards floating around and unsubstantiated claims. What is your take on all of this and what needs to happen to control the chaos?
Rechelbacher: One of the most important things to be talked about is labels. If you are not organic certified, you should not be allowed to use the word organic. Amen. Not on front of the label at least. If you use some organic certified ingredients, it’s OK to list them on the back, but you should not be able to use the word organic on the front unless you are actually certified—and this has to be enforced.
Right now the personal care industry is self-regulated, which means not really regulated at all. It’s the Wild West. The public is getting confused and if the organic movement is not preserved within the personal care industry, the word “organic” will not really mean anything. It’s criminal to mislead the consumer and with so many seals coming to the arena that is what is going to happen.
The reason why I went back to work is to show the industry that yes, you can create products within the USDA Organic food standards. As an activist, I didn’t just talk about doing it; I did it. It took me three years to formulate what I’m launching now, and I had to put a lot of resources into bringing this product to market, but it can be done. And the products are excellent in performance. I must say, you have to add more water and you have to have a little patience. You put in the shampoo, add water and repeat. You have to wash it twice and work on lathering like whipping cream. But the lather is not really what cleans your hair anyway.
That’s why you can’t just bring it to the masses, and why we are doing our launches in stores where we can educate the consumer. If they don’t understand the differences in the product, they’ll just think that organic products don’t work as well. They do work well but it works differently, and so consumers need to be educated.
Q: So you don’t think there’s a need to have a separate standard for organic personal care?
Rechelbacher: No, that would be very bad for the organic movement. It would weaken and pollute it. I have proven that it can be done within the standards, so why do you need to lower the standards? If you don’t alter the standards you’re forcing the raw material manufacturers to work harder to improve and create new material. It’s about developing a new science, a science that can be certified organic. We don’t need to reinvent nature, but cultivate nature in a green, responsible way.
With the lack of enforced regulation in organic personal care, some companies right now are abusing the word organic. They want to get into the market, because they know the organic food market is growing and if they use the word “organic,” they will make more profits.
I have two products that are only 70 percent organic with the other 30 percent food-grade ingredients, and I’m transparent about that. I have gone through the Soil Association, because they allow a little bit more chemistry. It’s plant chemistry, with plant materials rather than petrochemicals. The mixing is done with enzymes, which the USDA doesn’t recognize, but the British organic food certification program does. But either way, I’m not saying the product is organic, I’m saying that it’s 70 percent organic.
If you have petrochemical substances in a product, you can never say you are non-toxic, and you especially cannot say you are organic. Petrochemicals penetrate and mutilate the cell. Why do birds that eat plastic they find floating around in the ocean die of starvation? Because petrochemicals are not digestible. When you spray hairspray, you are literally breathing in liquid plastic. If we accumulate all these petrochemical wastes from our cosmetics and household products, it’s going to affect our health as well.
Industries will always try to make a compromise for their personal interests, but we need to represent the consumer. Companies that don’t know how to nurture the consumer should just tell them “We’re not interested. We just want to make products for the masses and we don’t care if they are bad for you.” Then they should have to put warning labels on their packaging.