Horst Rechelbacher is best known as the man who founded Aveda, the hair and skin care company famous for its aromatherapy-scented products. Less well known is that in 1997 Rechelbacher sold the company to Estée Lauder for $300 million and has nothing more to do with it. Indeed, when asked about the state of Aveda now, he rarely has anything pleasant to say. Even President Obama made the mistake recently of congratulating Rechelbacher on his Aveda line at a party held at the home of the US Vogue editor Anna Wintour. 'He said, "My wife uses your products all the time," ' Rechelbacher recalls.
Now 69, Rechelbacher is not retiring quietly. Sitting in the living-room of his house on a 570-acre estate in Wisconsin, he says he is on a mission to inform the public about how 'most beauty products, even "natural" or "organic" ones, contain many harmful petroleum-based ingredients'. He has also put a sizeable chunk of his fortune behind a safe beauty products line called Intelligent Nutrients (IN), originally developed in 1994 to sell food supplements and vitamins. In 2007, once Rechelbacher's non-compete clause with Estée Lauder had expired, he began to refocus the brand and develop his own line of beauty products. Officially launched in 2008, the Intelligent Nutrients organic beauty and body care brand is now sold in nine countries, including Japan, Australia, Switzerland and Germany. And later this year Rechelbacher expects to have his first name-brand New York store, along with distributors in Britain and the Benelux countries. 'We have had 100 per cent growth every year, and this year it is going to be 120 per cent.'
The IN line comprises more than 100 products, all painstakingly formulated to have close to 100 per cent organic ingredients. The idiosyncratic line-up is, one suspects, a reflection of what Horst wanted for himself. It includes everything from shampoo and lip balm to an extensive line of aromatic oils and a new mosquito spray ('I'm allergic to mosquitoes'). There is also an essential oil diffuser (every room in his home has one), a pet shampoo (he has 11 dogs, many of which came from rescue shelters) and a tiny line of foodstuffs, including
a specially formulated chocolate bar and a health food supplement and immune system booster called Intellimune Oil (which Rechelbacher takes every morning).
Visiting Rechelbacher at his home, Deer View, is like entering a parallel universe where green values are the norm. Barely are you through the gate when seven giant solar panels greet you. Parked in the drive are a couple of Polaris Ranger electric utility vehicles that Rechelbacher and his girlfriend of 23 years, Kiran Stordalen, a former model, use to drive around the property, and an electric Tesla Roadster sports car, which they take on longer trips.
The main house is built from old cedar logs salvaged from Wisconsin's Lake Superior and covered with more solar panels. From the outside it looks like a glamorous new-age retreat with wind chimes and huge copper bells hang from the front porch. Horst's dogs race to the door to greet you. As woodpeckers, chickadees, cardinals and blue jays flit by, nipping at suet-filled bird feeders on the back deck, Rechelbacher, Stordalen and I sit down to a generous organic brunch prepared by their in-house chef. Rechelbacher's seven-strong staff also includes a massage therapist and a driver, and everyone, he says, tends the organic vegetable patch beside the house, and the organic farm, about quarter of a mile from the house, where he grows some of the herbs used in his products - oregano, marjoram, thyme, holy basil and peppermint.
This summer Rechelbacher plans to start growing more ingredients in greenhouses on the farm, 'because I can grow year round I can grow roses and jasmine [key essential oil ingredients] in different temperature zones,' he explains. Given that a kilo of rose damascena oil costs about £6,000, this is also a bid to reduce prices. To Rechelbacher, these are the most precious oils in his aromatic collection. Twenty-year-old bottles of jasmine and rose essential oils are laid down in his cellar, alongside his fine wines. 'Looked after properly, they won't ever go off.'
Why is 100 per cent organic important? 'Pesticides and insecticides make people sick and are destroying the planet,' says Rechelbacher, who even refuses to eat non-organic food. He has also discovered through testing that 'there is quite an astonishing difference between organic and non-organic ingredients in their antioxidant capacity [their ability to protect the body's cells against oxidation, believed to be the cause of ageing and cell damage].' His own organic cumin seed, a key ingredient in IN's 'anti-ageing' facial care products and the Intellimune oil, has three times the antioxidant value of its non-organic equivalent, he says.
Although it is comparatively easy to make 100 per cent organic face cream, body lotion and hairspray ('the stickiness is achieved with fruit gums and we use pump-action sprays instead of propellants,' he says), shampoo is a constant battle. 'It's very hard to make an organic shampoo because it doesn't foam well. I can clean your hair with my Total Body Cleanser [which is 100 per cent organic], but it doesn't work on colour-treated hair because the cuticles are too roughed up, so it makes your hair feel weird.'
At the moment Rechelbacher's Harmonic shampoo (one of IN's bestsellers) is only 70 per cent organic. Its main ingredients include black cumin, pumpkin, peppermint, spearmint, wintergreen, menthol, rosemary, red grape, raspberry, cranberry, cardamom, vanilla and cinnamon. But there are also two key foaming agents: sodium methyl cocoyl taurate and disodium coco-glucoside citrate. 'They are plant-based, but I've no control over how they are grown and the raw materials supplier won't say. I don't even know if it's non-GMO [genetically modified],' he sighs. He recently reformulated the product to remove phenoxyethanol: 'It turned out it was petrochemical based,' he says.
Organic is big business. In the US it has leapt from a $1 billion industry in 2000 to a projected $63 billion next year, so shop shelves are sagging with beauty and body products boasting 'pure', 'green' and even 'organic' on their labels. But Rechelbacher is unimpressed. 'The whole beauty industry is a cocktail of chemicals.' The problem, he says, is 'the cosmetic industry is self-regulated. The government has got to start regulating.' The situation is only slightly better in Europe, he says. The EU has banned 1,100 chemicals from beauty and body care products. Many deleterious toxins are still present in our everyday products, such as hair dyes.
In his new book Healthy Beauty (BenBella Books), Dr Samuel Epstein, an internationally recognised toxicologist and the founder of the non-profit Cancer Prevention Coalition, lists more than 45 known carcinogens and 40 hidden carcinogens (carcinogenic precursors or chemicals that break down to release carcinogens) that are commonly found in cosmetics and body products. In addition, there are more than 30 known hormone disrupters and dozens of common allergens regularly found in everything from soap, children's shampoo and bubble bath to cosmetics, hair dye, nail polish and fragrance.
One of the most studied beauty products is fragrance, which has no government mandated labeling requirements anywhere in the world, and can use any of 5,000 ingredients (95 per cent of which are synthetic chemicals, according to Epstein). In 2007 one US study found hormone-disrupting phthalates in every perfume tested. Similarly, cosmetic products are among the worst offenders. An American Food and Drug Administration study in 2009 found lead in all the lipsticks it tested. Lead acetate has also repeatedly been found in certain hair dyes, and mercury (a well-known neurotoxin) is regularly found in mascara and eye make-up.
While it has long been thought that small doses of chemicals accumulate very gradually in the body and may take years to cause harm, startling new evidence has detected harmful levels of chemicals in teenagers. A 2008 study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a scientific research body that lobbies in Washington, of teenage girls who typically use 17 beauty and body products each day (exposing them to 174 different chemicals, according to the EWG), found that all the girls aged 14 to 19 had in their bodies between 10 and 15 chemicals that were commonly used in cosmetics and body care products. These chemicals were capable of disrupting their hormones and causing low fertility. Several of the chemicals were linked with cancer, especially breast cancer, as well as diabetes and obesity.
For Rechelbacher, the solution is simple: 'Don't put anything on your skin that you can't eat.' He explains that a common mistake is to think that your skin is acting as a barrier to protect you, when in fact it delivers toxins into your body just as rapidly as if you had ingested them.
As a child growing up in Klagenfurt, southern Austria, Rechelbacher was not especially interested in health issues, though his mother was a herbalist. His father, a cobbler, made customized shoes for sportsmen and invalids. Rechelbacher is the youngest of their three sons. 'My Father was a prisoner of war in Siberia for two years and came back broken, a drinker. He worked all the time but we always had holes in our shoes,' Rechelbacher recalls. 'I was always so embarrassed at school.'
At 14 Rechelbacher left school and went to work in the hair salon directly opposite his home.By the age of 17 he had moved to Rome to work with the society hairdresser Filippo, whose clients included Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. Soon he was an international hair star working on film sets and magazine shoots, and winning major hair show awards. But in 1964, at the age of 23, his new jet set lifestyle came to an abrupt halt after a drunk driver smashed into his Jaguar and Rechelbacher ended up in a Minneapolis hospital with two broken vertebrae and a bill for $15,000. His first thought about Minneapolis was that it was 'a terrible place', but he had to stay on to work off his debt, and in quick succession he fell in love, married Michelle Skjei and opened a salon. Within a year he had two salons, and by the early 1970s that had become four salons and a hairdressing school.
Rechelbacher launched his first hair care product, a hairspray, in the 1960s. 'It was the worst product I could have made. It was an aerosol and loaded with PVC, which was one of the stiffening agents,' he says. 'Hairdressers like to spray the living daylight out of things and I used a lot of hairspray. But one Saturday people started passing out in the salon.' A year later the chemical build-up in the salon started to affect him, too. 'I just couldn't get up one morning. I thought I had the flu.' His mother was visiting from Austria. 'She had warned me about the chemicals in the salon. But I didn't listen,' he admits. She gave Rechelbacher enemas and forced him to drink four litres of her homemade nettle brew every day. 'It flushes out your kidneys and cleans the liver. It took about three weeks before I felt really good.'
Becoming ill was the catalyst that fired Rechelbacher's interest in health, and in 1968 with his mother's help he developed a more natural line of hair products. 'I made her put everything in that I could find that was good.'
The resulting clove shampoo was a sludgy brown herbal mix. 'I showed it to one of my clients and she said, "Yuck! You are not putting that on my hair." She was a blonde, so I went over to a brunette and said, "Look, I've created a shampoo for brunettes." ' Soon after, he made a camomile shampoo for blondes and one with blue malva herbs for colour-damaged hair.
When Aveda launched in 1978, it was inspired by Rechelbacher's growing love of ayurvedic medicine and fascination with India. But instead of using 'foul-smelling ayurvedic oils and formulas' he incorporated his favourite essential oils in the products. ('Most people use two or three scents in a product, I used seven. I'm totally nuts.') Hair care was the foundation of Aveda and accounted for more than half of all sales. ('Right now, their number one product is a hand cream,' he says.) In 1997, when he sold to Estée Lauder, it was 'a cult brand, a love brand, with global sales amounting to $110 million a year.'
Rechelbacher is the first to admit that many of the early Aveda products contained chemicals that he would not touch today. 'We added preservatives so it would last for ever. We added cocamide and sodium lauryl sulphate [both carcinogens, according to Epstein]. We were told it was from coconut, but it was from petrochemicals. And we were using parabens [hormone disrupters, according to Epstein]. Most of the industry still uses these ingredients, but now we use essential oils as preservatives. They won't allow any impurities to grow, they are antibacterial and anti-fungal.' The downside is that these natural ingredients can be very expensive. But although the IN range does have a higher price tag than most conventionally produced body and beauty products ($12 for a lip balm and $22 for a medium-size bottle of his bestselling Harmonic shampoo), Rechelbacher has found a growing customer base that is prepared to pay more for the increased health benefits.
Rechelbacher recently had a distillery installed in a barn on his property to create essential oils from the herbs he grows. Outside it, 19 huge bird-shaped stone pillars stand sentinel. 'They just turned up one day on a couple of trucks. We'd forgotten we bought them three or four years earlier on a trip to Turkey,' he says. Inside, the place is packed to the rafters with beautiful antique furniture, including an entire 18th-century roomset: Josef Hoffmann and Michael Thonet chairs, antique perfume cabinets ('I may use these to decorate my New York store,' he says).
His home, too, is like a mini Hearst castle with 18th-century Habsburg dining chairs, Indian pillars and gewgaws from across the globe. 'When I was a kid growing up in Klagenfurt, we had nothing. Later I began accumulating all this stuff at auctions. It became like an addiction. I am practicing non-attachment now,' he says, adding, 'It is all for sale.'
The next day we drive to Minneapolis and the Intelligent Nutrients factory. Rechelbacher checks in with Barbara Fealy, the formulation chemist who is developing four lipglosses (woohoo!) for him. They are coloured with fruits and vegetables such as purple corn, beetroot, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, turmeric and blue camomile and taste delicious. While I greedily lick the gloss off my lips, Rechelbacher expounds on a favourite topic, the toxicity of lipstick. 'The so-called natural mineral colours are all toxic metals. The colours come from iron, cobalt and lead.' And while IN's new lipglosses won't have the staying power of conventional lipstick, Rechelbacher is adamant this is no bad thing. 'The stuff they put in lipstick to make it kiss-proof is a plastic coating,' he says. 'Those silicones don't break down. They will slowly but surely kill you as they spread through the body.'
Rechelbacher will happily drink his own hairspray at sales events. But he advises everyone not to take his or any other manufacturer's word on the safety of their products. Instead, 'It is of the utmost importance for consumers to read the labels and know what is in their products.' Lists of the most noxious ingredients are readily available in books such as Epstein's Healthy Beauty and No More Dirty Looks by the US investigative journalists Siobhan O'Connor and Alexandra Spunt. One of the most helpful sites, cosmeticsdatabase.com, run by the EWG, ranks international beauty and body products according to their toxicity levels.
Judging by his endless stamina, Rechelbacher's approach seems to be an elixir for good health. He enjoys working seven days a week, gets up at 5am and works out for an hour every morning in his swimming-pool. And when he is not dreaming up new formulas, he flies all over the globe promoting his latest line. Considering his original health crisis, he counts himself lucky. 'All my old colleagues are dead of bladder, liver and lung cancers. Hairdressers don't live long lives.' Not until now.