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The business of beauty

Irish brands are making waves in the highly lucrative world of cosmetics

The business of beauty

The Irish cosmetic business has been undergoing a miraculous makeover and producing a stable of winning formulations and organic products that are gaining a global reputation for excellence. Names like Voya, Green Angel, Kinvara and Nia are getting under the skins of leading brands like Clarins, Crème de la Mer, La Prairie and Estée Lauder, as canny customers pursue the elixir of eternal youth. 

Ireland’s combination of powerful mineral ocean extracts, rich sea salts, exotic seaweeds and rare essential oils offers a wealth of superfood ingredients for our indigenous skincare and cosmetic industry. As the mask slips on the ugly sisters of the beauty industry – the free radicals, phthalates, sulphates, parabens and oxidants that abound like baddies in a pantomime – the emphasis on pure and organic is gaining momentum in an industry that’s on a health-kick.

So how do you create a cream that meets the demands of the world’s most pampered, easily irritated and self-obsessed organ – the skin?

The Walton family founded the Voya skincare range more than 12 years ago. Brothers Neil and Mark Walton set about harvesting sustainable, handpicked seaweed to create an authentic spa experience at home and created the world’s first genuinely organic seaweed-based cosmetic products.

Kira and Mark Walton, owners of the Voya skincare range. Photograph: Suzy McCanny Photography
Kira and Mark Walton, owners of the Voya skincare range. Photograph: Suzy McCanny Photography

For some of us, seaweed is just that slimy stuff in the sea. However, the plant has been used for hundreds of years to restore and revitalise the skin. In fact, seaweed-bathing is Ireland’s oldest oceanic therapy.

Mark Walton and his partner Kira realised very early on the need to spread the Voya name internationally. “We were export-focused from the start as Ireland is a relatively small market and we knew we would run out of runway pretty quickly,” says Mark. “It was really hard work as products like Voya don’t meet immediate success. It may take travelling to the same trade show four times in as many years before you build up that presence and sense of reliability to seal a deal. We had to prove we were a constant, dependable brand and would not disappear like so many other labels.”

Building the brand also meant self-sacrifice. “Kira and I lived on a plane for a long time and had to forgo being part of book clubs and committees back home. We had no other resources or investors so it was down to myself, Neil and Kira to do the legwork and the marketing by ourselves.”

In 2006, they launched the world’s first organic seaweed products called “Lazy Days” and have built on its success since. Fast-forward to 2017 and they are now building a 27,000sq ft plant in Strandhill, Co Sligo, to keep up with the market demands.

“I hope it’s big enough,” says Mark who has his eye on continuing to grow sales. “We have been lucky since the beginning as growth has been constant. The American market is booming at the moment and there’s been an uplift in the Irish market too.”

Partners Mary and Chris Mitchell founded Green Angel lotions and oils in 2006 by combining aromatherapy using natural essential oils and thalassotherapy that harnesses the healing qualities of the sea. Chris discovered the powers of seaweed as a young boy growing up among the salt marshes of Lincolnshire.

Mary got into the skincare business though her own battle with dry skin. “My skin was severely dry and I used to try out various essential oils with varying degrees of success to discover what really delivered a solution to different skin conditions. When myself and Chris met we integrated our ideas into products with beneficial effects for the skin. The aroma reaches the limbic systems of our brain and is both healing and calming. Our argan body oil is exhilarating when used as a massage oil and the eye gel with aloe is great for tired eyes.”

They have also developed a range of award-winning skin care balms such as the Green Angel hand cream, night cream, eye gel, and bath soaks.

The firm employs 18 people at its Rathcoole manufacturing plant in Dublin and business is growing strongly. “We now have 600 accounts in Ireland and sales are increasing throughout Europe and the UK. We don’t have fancy PR departments or big advertising budgets – we have stayed close to the products and nurtured their development over time,” says Mary.

“Irish cosmetic companies are gaining an excellent reputation because of the strong brands that have been developed. Together we are creating a stronger presence and building on the overall reputation,” adds Chris.

Scientist Dr Joanne O’Reilly brought her extensive scientific knowledge to the world of skincare and created the award-winning brand Kinvara. As a committed environmentalist she was determined her products would be sustainable and pure.

“As a scientist researching the brand I had to make sure there were no synthetics, no alcohol, no mineral oil and no parabens in my products. Yet I wanted a brand that was comfortable to use and easy to apply,” she explains.

“Part of my inspiration was the fact that I had a problematic skin condition. I had a self-driven desire to find my own products.” She set up the company five years ago after exploring ways of extracting rosehip oil with an environmentally friendly method using carbon dioxide. Her organic rosehip oil has a loyal following and is now the toast of awards ceremonies in the UK. Kinvara is now stocked in 400 shops in Ireland, from health stores to outlets like Avoca. The manufacturing all takes place in Ireland and there are just six devoted employees helping the brand to literally come up roses.

Celia O’Grady, a skincare expert with more than 30 years’ experience, is the owner of Nia – the Irish word for “radiance”. Her passion for health and wellness inspired her to create her own range of face and body care using natural superfood ingredients.

“I am very precious about our ingredients and everything has to be natural and healthy. I worked as a beauty therapist for many years and got to know first-hand the various treatments that were available. I really enjoyed the personal interaction with my customers and through their feedback I really understood what was working for them.”

As she gained more experience, she realised that healthy skin was really nourished by the food we ate as well as from what was absorbed through the pores of the skin.

“The skin is the body’s largest organ and we can revitalise it with simple ingredients that sink deep into our epidermis. There’s no point in eating cheese strings and crisps and then applying expensive creams – beauty is on the inside. I started to try out shea butter, wheatgrass, honey, jojoba oil – an array of powerful skin foods and then found the most natural way to capture them into skin products without being processed with chemicals or parabens.”

Her most talked about product is “Just Balm” – it treats itchy, dry skin and sensitive skin conditions. It’s also suitable for babies and teenagers.

Irish marine scientist Patrick Mulrooney searched for a cure to relieve the severe symptoms of eczema – a chronic, painful skin condition that affected both his daughters. He noticed that every summer when they went swimming in the west of Ireland their skin improved immensely. He realised this was due to the high levels of fucoidan in certain strains of seaweed.

He launched the award-winning Seavite in 1992. Patrick passed away in 2004 and his daughters, Drs Jane and Katherine Mulrooney – both medical doctors with masters in dermatology – now run the business with their mother.

“We literally make people feel good in their own skin,” explains Katherine. They now have a dedicated dermatology salon in Dublin and a factory in Claremorris, Co Mayo.

David Cox and his company Fragrances of Ireland is riding the wave with Inis, a perfume that evokes the power and freshness of the sea. “We tend to sell well in coastal areas, in places like surf shops and gift shops,” says Cox.

“There are far more perfumes than anyone needs in the world,” he says. “Hundreds are launched every year promising to be the sexiest, most celebrity-endorsed, life-enhancing . . . but about 90 per cent of them fail, as the competition is ferocious. The range has gone down very well in the US. There aren’t too many other Irish perfumes.”

The company’s products are now sold in about 600 small outlets in the US. “We’ve probably spent around €250,000 developing the US market in the last two years,” Cox says.

Founded by Rachael O’Brien and her partner John Collins, Irish Rain produces a range of organic moisturisers, cleansers and toners. Rachael is a life coach and pilates instructor while John returned to Loughrea, Co Galway, from Australia in the 1980s to set up his Sunrise health shop.

“My father was originally from Galway so it felt like I was going back to my roots. I am a qualified accountant but found myself getting more interested in alternative medicines and natural therapies and treating the body holistically,” he says.

The pair realised there was a shortage of holistic creams and moisturisers with natural nutrients on the market and set up Irish Rain to fill the gap. For John, a cancer survivor, life and work are inextricably linked. “We have a shared passion,” he says. “I have been very fortunate because if I hadn’t listened to my own body I wouldn’t have been so lucky. But thankfully I caught my illness early.”

Other Irish brands making a splash on the beauty counters include Nima Brushes from make-up artist Niamh Martin, which produces low-cost, fun, professional-grade make-up tools; Sosu, by fashion blogger Suzanne Jackson, makes vivid nail polishes and the Sosu contour palette; tan-in-a-can maker Cocoa Brown; Waxperts, the strip-waxing brand founded by Ellen Kavanagh and Trish O’Brien; Tracy Ryan’s Beauty Bia, which makes superfoods for the skin; Push Makeup, with its striking range of products for eyes, lips, face and eyebrows; and Rí na Mara, which makes luxury sea algae cosmetic brands that are ideal for sensitive skins.

If commitment to customers and passion for products could guarantee success, the future is very bright indeed for this formidable group of Irish entrepreneurs and therapists who are fusing Irish heritage with natural minerals.