Aveda founder, Horst Rechelbacher, dies

I was truly sad to learn of the death of Horst Rechelbacher – founder of Aveda – on the weekend from pancreatic cancer. Horst was a true pioneer in the beauty industry, and his ecological vision, values and business savvy influenced not just the world of cosmetics, but had wider resonance across, food, fashion, wellbeing, media and brands in general. He w as one of my personal and professional heroes.

Originally from Austria, Horst trained in hairdressing and after moving to the US and opening his own salon, he founded the naturally-based Aveda in 1978. The company was bought by Estee Lauder in 1997, and for many years Horst remained at the helm, before handing over to the equally committed Dominique Conseil, Aveda’s CEO and President.

I was very lucky to meet Horst on several occasions, while working as a beauty editor in London. Sustainability has long been a passion of mine, and being able to talk with someone who held such a deep commitment to enabling ecological change at both a grass roots and mass level was tremendous.

On one occasion I travelled to the biannual Aveda congress (a truly egalitarian affair where everyone from the CEO to the press to the far-flung distributor, travels coach class on possibly the world’s most cheerless airline), held in the company’s hometown of Minneapolis. To see Horst in his own environment – complete with cutting edge hair cut and colour demos from some of the world’s top names in the biz, factory tours, seminars with indigenous elders from across the globe, an art exhibition echoing with chanting Buddhist monks, and yoga sessions – was to get to grips with the wonderful mix that had made up his company. Aveda lives and breathes sustainability, and despite many knockers, from my under-the-hood experiences of the company over the past 15-years, it is one of the most commercially committed.

This is a testament to Horst’s ability to blend what people want with what we and the planet need. Aveda and his subsequent company Intelligent Nutrients (, have been a blend of top class aesthetics and styling, with wellbeing and sustainability. Aveda was one of the key forerunners of the LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability) way of life that we take for granted today.

Every meet-up with Horst was filled with learnings about sustainability and wellbeing, a shared hope that people like him were going to change the world for the better, and many many laughs. What press images of Horst Rechelbacher never capture is the twinkle he always had in his eyes. He was often up to mischief and thrillingly scurrilous in his opinions. If I can keep some of his passion, impact and vision going, then maybe I can share some of his twinkle. For now though, I’ve only got tears in my eyes.

Re-thinking the sun

The first addiction?

“Cells respond to UV damage by apoptosis [cell death], cleaning up damage by increased blood flow (sunburn), and creating pigment. There’s a bi-product synthesised at the same time called beta-endorphin. [This is] now a major area of research focus because of the link between brain function and the desire to be in the sun and exposure to damage,” explains Dr Fisher, who says that it’s believed during human evolution, sun exposure was necessary to health as it was the only way for the body to get vitamin D, a lack of which leads to death in childhood. Hence the feel-good link with beta-endorphins, motivating us to expose ourselves to the sun’s rays. Now however, we obtain vitamin D through alternative sources such as diet and supplements. Scientists believe this was possibly the first example of addictive behaviour in humans, an addiction to the feel-good buzz of sun exposure.

Purpose of SPF’s

Dr Fisher points out that we need to be more mindful of the way we use our sunscreens. “Within the UV spectrum you’re exposed to when you go outside, it is the UVB that’s specifically responsible for the burning and redness of the skin. The SPF that’s often used as a number – 15, 20, 50, whatever – as a measure of burning, not a measure of cancer protection. One issue is just to recognise that the number attached [to your sunscreen] is a number that represents the protection from burning. It is literally a measure of MED – Minimal Erythematous Dose – the dose that at a minimum causes redness and how many times the dose you need before you get that redness. So if it’s SPF20 you can have 20 times the exposure before you start to burn and get redness.”

Don’t forget UVA

“The SPF number in your sunscreen says nothing about UVA wavelengths because they don’t cause burning but they do cause a reactive oxygen type of damage. So the concept of a broad wavelength protection including UVA and UVB protection is very important.”

Can sunburn be good?

If you go to the beach and sit in the sun and put on a nice and thick cover of UVB protection, and reapply it every time you go in the water, you won’t burn. But some people believe that this is a particularly dangerous situation because the burning response in evolutionary terms was a signal to get out of the sun. Now if you don’t get that [burning] signal and you stay in the sun, the UVA is going to be radiating into your skin, and the reactive oxygen damage can be very severe but it doesn’t produce redness or pain and so this may be a form of photo ageing, a form of carcinogenesis that is conceivably increased if you use a pure UVB protection. This concept of UVA wavelengths and different mechanism damage without the red flag of “watch out, it hurts, it’s burning you,” could be one of the most dangerous ways that damage could be inflicted in the skin, and then it manifests decades later with anything from wrinkles, thick skin all the way to different types of cancer.”