Natural selection: Meet the leader of a beautiful revolution

The best skincare products are both indulgent and effective – but consumers also want them to be free from artificial nasties. Susannah Frankel meets the leader of a beautiful revolution
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's not often that good news comes in the form of a prospective detox. It's January, however, which means that, despite any sceptics out there disputing the merits of a New Year clean-up, it may well be on many of our agendas. If that is the case, Margo Marrone, co-founder and director of the Organic Pharmacy, might just be the good-health fairy to end all good-health fairies.

"It's not so bad," she says, reassuringly, of this particular detox, speaking from the Organic Pharmacy in Kensington High Street. There are now five London stores – the latest opened in Hampstead at the end of last year. "There's no fasting. If you have to have your cup of coffee, have it. Even dairy, if you're not intolerant to it, there's no reason why you shouldn't have that, too, as long as it's organic."

It gets better. "I've had people saying to me, 'I don't want to do a detox because I'm not prepared to give up alcohol'," Marrone continues. "My answer to them is that you don't need to give up alcohol if you don't want to. Let's say someone goes out and has five glasses of wine a night and they want to detox. I think it would actually be wrong to cold-turkey them. The likelihood of their giving up alcohol completely is zero. So, instead of saying, 'No, I can't work with you', you work with their lifestyle. You say, 'OK, you have five glasses of wine every night, instead, reduce it to one glass every night, and extend that glass'."

And there you have it: a long drink. In other words, detox nirvana. "It will still work," Marrone adds. "You've reduced your alcohol intake, you're eating properly, you're drinking more water and taking supplements..."

In fact, such a pragmatic – and, some might say, gentle – approach may well be the secret to the Organic Pharmacy's success. The first store opened in the King's Road in 2002, and since that time its skincare products, in-house spa treatments, homeopathic remedies and, in particular, aforementioned 10-day detox programme have become something of an institution, loved particularly by those who would rather not suffer too much to be beautiful – or, indeed, just a little more clean and serene than they have been.

"I was pregnant with my second child," Marrone explains of the motivation behind setting up her own business, "and I thought, wouldn't it be great if I could have a pharmacy where everything was screened, and that only stocked things that were approved organically. The pharmacy would sell herbal and homeopathic remedies, I could have a clinic downstairs where I could see people for health assessments, and a beauty room where we could have body treatments and facials."

And so the Organic Pharmacy was born.

In fact, Iranian-born Marrone – she moved to London when she was 11 – studied traditional pharmacy at King's College London in the first instance. "It was my first job working as a Saturday girl while I was on my degree course that really inspired me," she says. "I used to watch the pharmacists mixing up various potions in the back, and they would still use traditional herbs, there was belladonna tincture, for example, and other things like that.

"Without wishing to be derogatory, when I qualified five years later, it was all about Boots the Chemist, and I found that all I did was dispense without much contact with clients or the opportunity to help them in the way that I wanted to. Any tools were also very limited. If they had a cough, say, all you could really do is prescribe Benylin, or something similar to it."

Marrone speaks from experience. As well as working for Boots and Bliss, she also worked in the pharmacy of the Cromwell Hospital in west London. Her epiphany came, however, when she came across the work of Dr Edward Bach, and in particular, his book Heal Thyself. "He worked as a microbiologist in Harley Street at the time, and was a homeopath, and I found the whole idea of treating infections with a homeopathic version of them completely fascinating. He also talked about diseases starting in the mind, which, 20 years ago, was a completely alien concept. Now, of course, we know that if you're upset, nervous or stressed, that might come through in your skin, or it may affect your digestive system, but at the time, for me, that was revolutionary."

Marrone went on to study homeopathy before taking up a position at Nelsons Homeopathic Pharmacy and authoring that company's training manual. The world of homeopathy, however, still suffered from a less-than-glamorous reputation as the preserve of po-faced, hemp-wearing reactionaries. With its cool, pale interiors stocked not only with remedies but also supplements, highly covetable skincare products and, more recently, cosmetics, 90 per cent of the ingredients for which are sourced in this country and made in a factory in Battersea, the Organic Pharmacy has done much to change that profile.

"Skincare wasn't originally part of the plan," says Marrone. "All I wanted was the flexibility to make customised medicinal creams for my customers, because, at that time, all the herbal creams on the market still had preservatives and were made using petrochemicals and so forth. I wanted to give my clients a completely clean product that uses organic extracts and an organic-oil base with no artificial colours. I worked with a biochemist on them, and we managed to develop a system that worked really well.

"I'd see someone with eczema, say, or acne, and make something up for them. When I realised that I was seeing many of the same conditions over and over again, well, it started from there really. Many of the creams that we sell today are based on those original formulas."

It's apposite that the growth of Marrone's business may itself be described as "organic". Over the past seven years, she has overseen the development of a whole range of products brimming with suitably delicious ingredients – rose from Iran, jasmine from Egypt, and so on – available both in store and online. This month, meanwhile, sees the publication of her book, The Organic Pharmacy: The Complete Guide to Natural Health and Beauty, remarkable, first and foremost, for the fact that it seems reluctant to stoop so low as to actually push any product.

"I don't think that was ever the point," says Marrone. "It's intended as a generic health book, and the idea was to bring together the herbs, the homeopathic remedies, everything we do. Someone in China, or anywhere else in the world, should be able to read it. They might not have access to our products, but they should be able to go to any pharmacy and say that the book says a certain herb, for example, might be good for them, and buy it. It doesn't have to be ours. It should function as a self-help book, too."

Perhaps the most engaging aspect of Marrone and her business – which is run in partnership with her husband, and remains a highly personal endeavour – is her flexibility. She says that she hasn't taken antibiotics for over a decade, but would do if necessary. She's not averse to swallowing the odd conventional painkiller, either: "If I have a headache that is really bad, I'll take Nurofen like anyone else," she says.

In a similar vein, each Organic Pharmacy store is staffed by a trained homeopath as well as a conventional pharmacist. "I didn't want somebody to come off the street and say, 'I've got a sore throat, but I'm taking this, that or the other', and for us not to be able to help. It's important for people to feel they can get sensible advice from us.

"A lovely girl used to work for me, but I once heard her advising a customer they should drink cabbage juice. That might be great for a naturopath to recommend, but how many people are really going to go say, 'Right, I'm going to juice a cabbage and drink it'! I thought, that's not what my customers want. They want to come in and get sensible advice and something that is readily available, something they don't have to put themselves out too much for.

"Then they can go home, follow the advice, and say, 'That worked very well for me. Thank you!'."; 020-7351 2232

'The Organic Pharmacy: The Complete Guide to Natural Health and Beauty', by Margo Marrone, is available at the website for the special price of £9.99 throughout January. Visit any branch of the Organic Pharmacy for a Health Assessment, reduced from £150 to £100 over the same period, and quote 'Independent' when booking