Caroline Donald visits Lush, the firm that makes cosmetics from comestibles
If ever there were a shop that justified the term "whacky", it would be Lush. Enter one of its three branches - in London's Covent Garden and Kings Road, or in the High Street, Poole, Dorset - and you are confronted by pineapples and honeycomb. Over on the fridge counter are bowls of wholesome-looking gloop with names such as Atholbrose, Staff of Life and More Than Mortal. The wooden dresser-shelves are lined with moulded balls the size of apples and oranges. And jolly, handwritten notices, sprinkled liberally with exclamation marks, exhort the customer to try the wares. Tempting as it looks, however, it would not be a good idea to eat your slice of Pineapple Grunt, cut from one of the blocks on the counter and wrapped in greaseproof paper. This is not a food emporium but a cosmetics shop.

Lush's managing director, Mark Constantine, says there are "food legalities" that prevent the company from taking the joke too far, but a visit to the factory in Poole left me with the impression that, even if you did tuck into one of Lush's products, you would probably find it nutritious. The company, though, does use synthetic preservatives in the products that are expected to have long shelf lives. Passing by rooms full of honeycombs and sprouting wheatgrass, I watched Lorraine (the labels tell you who made what, when) cooking up H'Suan Wen Hua - a hair treatment conditioner, with free-range eggs, avocado, banana, balsamic vinegar, watercress, bay leaves and olive oil. This seemed more like a superior soup kitchen than a soap factory.

For those who are used to cosmetics in dainty pots, Lush is a bit of a culture shock: the Angels on Bare Skin cleanser is, frankly, grey. I found that the petals in the Luverly "bath ballistic" (fizzing bath salts) clogged up the plug hole for days. As in recycled paper, or unbleached cotton, you have to temper your expectations.

A distinguishing mark of the company is the air of corporate jollity, from the names it gives its products - Tisty Tosty bath ballistic, Scullery Made hand and body lotion, Back for Breakfast shower gel - to the chatty newsletter/mail-order form ("hands up everyone with dry skin but who still insists on having the shower water too hot"). This sort of happy-go-lucky approach will be instantly recogniseable to the million or so people who were on the list of mail-order firm Cosmetics To Go (CTG), the previous incarnation of the creative team behind Lush, headed by Mark Constantine.

The tale of Mr Constantine and company's fortunes over the last 20 years is a reflection of the changing face (so to speak) of the country. In the Seventies, they worked with the Body Shop on such staples as Pineapple Facial Wash and Cocoa Butter hand and body lotion. "We had some lovely times with them. It was just like joining a whirlwind," says Mr Constantine. In 1988, Mr Constantine, his wife Mo and their team decided to set up on their own, and started CTG, which was, again, hugely popular. However, CTG became a victim of its own success, and when a discounted product brought in 130,000 phone calls in a week, coupled with water leak into the computer system, it all became too much and the company went into administration in January 1994. It is now owned by someone else.

When Mr Constantine's colleague, Helen Ambrosen, started to look again at some of the 10,000 formulae the team had accumulated over the years, it was not long before others joined her. Having sold all their equipment, it was a case of improvisation. "At first we had just one beaker to use between us," says Ms Ambrosen. Gradually, they gathered together what they could muster, using domestic food processors to mix the ingredients, plastic buckets, drainpipes, and even the top of a child's toy box as soap moulds. Regular trips were made to the local supermarket to buy fruit and vegetables with which to experiment.

The company now uses a local wholesaler for its fruit and veg, but the back-to-basics ethos remains. "It is nice that the simplicity is successful," says Mr Constantine. "It wasn't contrived. You just do what you can do with no money."

Both the Kings Road branch and the mail-order side of the business are taking over 1,000 orders a day. With a new factory and two branches recently opened in Vancouver, Canada, Mark Constantine has much to be proud of. But he is proceeding cautiously, knowing by experience that pride comes before a fall. "I'm just grateful to be here. And grateful that people like our stuff."

Lush, 29 High Street, Poole, Dorset (mail-order 01202 668545); 123 Kings Road, London SW3; 7 The Market, Covent Garden, London WC2.