Behind the Scenes

 Insights into running a small skincare business

Bottles from above

An edited version of this account was first published in the International Therapists Magazine Spring 2021

“When clients asked me to make skincare products for them to use at home, after experiencing the transformative effect of essential & plant oils in their aromatherapy treatments, I had to say yes.” Lucy Stevens, OV naturals

The story of OV naturals skincare began after I qualified in aromatherapy & introduced bespoke essential oil blends into therapy treatments. My clients loved the natural aromas & also noticed how their skin benefited. It was this that led me to launch a skincare range, Orchard View naturals, in 2011.

If I’d known what I was taking on back then, I may never have chosen to go down this path, but sometimes the best things in life start this way. I began on a shoestring using some of the income from my therapy work & with no knowledge of product formulation or cosmetic legislation & no experience of creating a brand, so it really was a leap of faith!

My vision was to create a skincare & wellbeing brand with essential oils at the heart. I’d always taken a cruelty-free, plant-based, ethical approach in my therapy work & it was important to extend that into the products, too.

To begin, I dived into researching the best botanicals for different skin types & conditions. I sought out clinical evidence to back up my choices, as well as earmarking those essential oils I’d had success with in therapy clinics. Rather than plumping for the first bottle I came across, I began testing ingredients, comparing differences in quality from one supplier to the next.

As well as essential oils for their therapeutic effects & exquisite aromas, for emollient properties I chose mostly polyunsaturated oils which leave a matt finish. It can be hard to convey to consumers that not all oils are greasy. I use blogs & newsletters to try & get this across. Essential oils can get bad press, too, but there’s plenty of evidence to show their skincare benefits as long as they’re used wisely.

There’s an alchemical process that happens when essential oils are blended – they need time to mature before the true result is known. Some formulas seem to work almost instantly; others take months or even years before ingredients sit comfortably together. Formulation can’t be rushed. There’s nothing more exquisite than sitting amongst molecules of rose, frankincense, bergamot & lavender as they sing & dance around a room & this is the part of my skincare business that I love the most – being hands-on with the oils, getting to know their personalities & matching them to a desired outcome.

Once I was happy with my formulas, the next step was design. I enjoy working with words & imagery & it brought another creative side to the business. I researched the psychology of colour & thought about the messages I wanted to get across visually & descriptively.

I threw around lots of ideas for a brand name. It’s surprisingly hard to come up with something original. I considered what would reflect the brand heritage & chose Orchard View, my first home in Somerset, where it all started. There was a kind of ‘golden glow’ attached to it.

Recyclable glass bottles coloured in a deep purple were chosen to protect the contents from light degradation & also to appeal across genders. Avoiding unnecessary waste, products wouldn’t be boxed. The sustainability angle extended to using recycled paper & card for publicity materials, acid-free tissue paper for wrapping & recycled/recyclable postal bags & boxes.

A logo was created using basic software & I designed & printed my own labels. There’s a lot of information to fit onto packaging! Ingredients are legally required to be listed using International Nomenclature of Ingredients (1) (INCI) terms, in descending order of quantity, plus potential allergens, name & address of the RP (Responsible Person), shelf-life, quantity, batch number & usage directions.

In creating & marketing cosmetics, language becomes vitally important:
If you are making a claim which goes beyond a simple cosmetic effect for the product, you should hold robust evidence to support it.”
Advertising Standards Authority (2)

Claims to heal eczema or acne, for example, would be unacceptable. Terms like relaxing, soothing or nourishing are fine. My original products were named after essential oils, but now they are more sensory, to reflect both the energetics & the desired effect on the skin.

To ensure my products would be legally compliant, I attended some cosmetic legislation courses, met with Trading Standards, approached my local authority regarding challenge testing (for efficacy of preservatives, to protect from fungi & bacteria) & found a cosmetic scientist for Cosmetic Safety Assessments.

The route to compliance can be long, with bumps in the road, especially if you’re feeling your way as I was. I remember waiting with baited breath for the challenge test results. Everything performed exceptionally well, apart from a soap which contained dried rose petals, which had contaminated the product. Needless to say, I immediately adjusted the recipe to exclude the petals! It’s vital to be compliant, out of respect for the safety of your customers, to avoid falling foul of the law & for your own peace of mind. Trading Standards can inspect at any time & you want to be ready – at different times over the years I’ve had a site visit, been selected to send a product for testing & had to provide proof of claims on a product label (proof of the % of natural & organic ingredients stated & of the cruelty-free & vegan status).

Other legal aspects include registration of products with the authorities on a central database, compilation of a PIF (Product Information File) with records of recipes, ingredients, suppliers, labelling, Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP), any claims made & sources to prove them, Material Safety Data Sheets (SDS) & more. I’ve learnt that having suppliers who are willing & able to provide SDS are worth their weight in gold.

When you start manufacturing, each time a batch is made, records need to be kept for traceability of ingredients & to show that protocols are in place. The amount of behind-the-scenes work can sometimes seem overwhelming. I’d describe the whole process of creation of the products, for me, as a ‘labour of love’.

Once the formulation, design, assessments & registration are all completed, there’s the daunting step of launching into the marketplace. I had no advertising budget, no contacts in high places. So I sent out press releases, posted on social media, made contact with some journalists & potential retailers. Customer service would be really important. I wanted to show my appreciation to customers, giving them personal touches like hand-written notes or a complimentary sample with their order, along with quality content in free newsletters & on the blog. It’s heart-warming that some of my very first customers are still with me today.

My business is all about creating & nurturing relationships, as once people try the products & get to know me, they’re invested. It’s no coincidence that my therapy clients buy my skincare products, or that I have independent stockists with similar ethics, some of whom are therapists. These people understand the brand & its ethos, they understand that it’s from the heart. My products have been featured in several magazines, newspapers & blogs. Some of the highlights of my journey were being featured as an editor’s favourite in one of the Beauty Bible books & having my products chosen as Christmas gifts for customers at the Scarlet & Bedruthan spa hotels in Cornwall.

Much has changed over a decade. My original products, which included cleansers, body lotions & more, were mostly discontinued, as I couldn’t afford to keep producing such a wide range. I decided to focus on my specialism of face & body oils. Today I have a small, honed, range, true to my roots, with ingredients informed by many years of experience, research & study.

When I first started, natural wellness brands were few & far between, but are now mainstream. This is fantastic for the consumer, but it’s hard for a small business to stand out from the crowd. It’s also difficult nowadays to be heard on social media platforms. Algorithms are set to give businesses low visibility unless you have a budget to advertise. My posts used to reach hundreds of people, now I’m lucky if they reach 20!

The COVID-19 pandemic has inevitably affected the therapy side of the business & also product sales. It’s brought it home how closely my skincare business is linked with my therapy practice. I don’t see it as a separate entity; the two are intrinsically linked. I’ve been able to keep the online shop open & redesigned the website during lockdown, although sales have been unpredictable during the past year. There have been positives – people are more aware of where they’re spending money & showing a renewed interest in supporting local businesses. I’ve noticed that more people are buying as gifts. But people are spending less, tightening their belts.

Brexit has also brought challenges. Previously, cosmetic products were registered on a European database, now everything has to be re-registered on the new UK Submit Cosmetic Products Notification Portal (3). Because of costs & administration involved in complying with new export legislation, I’ve had to cease sales to the EU & Northern Ireland, where I had a stockist & a small number of loyal customers.

“… to be able to sell in both the UK & EU, companies will need to have a legal entity (the ‘Responsible Person’) established in both the UK & an EU Member State, the Product Information File (which contains all the safety & regulatory information about the product) will need to be in both locations, in both languages, the product will have to be notified on two separate notification portals, & more.” Cosmetics, Toiletry & Perfumery Association (4)

Time will tell how all of this will affect the global botanicals market, although supply shortages & price increases are likely. What the future holds I haven’t yet worked out. For now, I’ll be sitting tight, continuing to produce products with current stock, watching global & local developments. I’ll re-evaluate sometime in the spring. It’s 15 years since I began working as a therapist & 10 years since the first OV naturals skincare products were launched, including my all-time best-selling product, Vital “Triple Rose” Facial Oil. That feels like an achievement & a milestone.

My advice to anyone thinking of getting into the business of making skincare would be to start with a small step. Whether it’s enrolling in a short course, trying out a recipe or sketching out a business plan, just do something. Your destination may be exactly as you imagined, or it may be something else entirely. Think of it as an adventure.

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