An itch that led to a successful business

Interview with Sarah Brown of Pai skincare

Sarah Brown developed a skin condition at the age of 24 which caused her acute discomfort and embarrassment. Having tried everything she could find to treat it without success, she set up her own business to develop skin care products, Pai, which now operates from an industrial estate in Acton, employing 63 people, with a forecast turnover of £10 million.

Oh, and her skin is now smooth and untroubled for the most part.

Sarah talked to The Chiswick Calendar about what led her to take control of her health and create a very successful business in the process.

“I was working for a big Californian wine brand – Ernest & Julio Gallo – first of all here and then I moved to the States with them.

“I developed chronic urticaria overnight – it’s extremely common but never talked about. I thought it was some kind of anaphylactic reaction. It causes extreme itching and you can’t not scratch it. It spreads like wildfire”.

The condition persisted, causing big, red, itchy welts on her body and her face at the most inconvenient times.

“It came up where something was touching my skin, like a bra strap and I could literally write my name on my arm where my skin came up in raised red marks”.

Her job as marketing manager for a big international brand was stressful. Things came to a head when she was in a meeting with about 20 people, flipped her hair back and her boss, in front of all these people, said loudly:

“Oh My God, what’s happened to your face?”

“It was a defining moment” she says. “I’d had enough”.

The search for truly organic skincare products

She had followed the normal course of investigating a health problem – been to the doctor, attended the dermatology clinic at Charing Cross and learned her condition was ‘idiopathic’: of unknown cause. She had been told there was nothing she could do.

“Actually there is” says Sarah. “It is triggered by stress, when my immune system was low, maybe I’d had less sleep, eaten certain foods”.

She took antihistamine, with limited success, “not great long term”.

“I lived with it but eventually I thought ‘I need to understand this condition’.”

She began to write a diary, itemising her diet, sleep pattern, menstrual cycle. She realised she would get very itchy when she drank a lot of wine or is she ate certain foods.

“Old world wines are better than new world wines. Tomato is not good if it’s not cooked”.

She realised that understanding her condition in itself made things a bit better.

“When you’re informed and feel in control it’s not as bad. You’re not stressed because you know what’s happening. It’s important to know your triggers”.

One thing which caused skin irritation was washing her hair. Shampoos made her feel hot and made her skin puff up. She realised she had not really given any thought to what she put on her skin and started stalking the aisles of pharmacies looking for hypoallergenic products to try. None of them did any good.

“The term ‘hypoallergenic’ is just a made-up word which doesn’t have any meaning. Manufacturers don’t have to do any additional testing to put that on the label. I thought ‘this isn’t on’.

“Labelling in the beauty industry is murky. Ingredients are listed either in Latin or by their chemical name which makes them impenetrable. I petitioned the Soil Association and Trading Standards to allow us to add Plain English on-pack so customers could know what was in the bottle.”

Having worked her way through the ‘hypoallergenic’ products she then tried the organic ones and it was something of an eye-opener.

“If you buy organic milk or food you cannot use the term ‘organic’ unless it has been certified by the Soil Association. In beauty you can claim to be 100% organic when actually there’s nothing organic about it – 0%. There is no legislation on organic labelling for beauty – zero”.

The realisation came that she would have to make her own skin care products, get them certified by the Soil Association and label them so that people would know what was in them. She did the research and started making products in her garage in Ealing.

Images above: Rosehips; Soil Association logo

Launching Pai and certification by the Soil Association

Starting in 2008 she has built the business to a point where she now has 63 employees including three chemists at her manufacturing base in an industrial unit in Acton and the company has a projected turnover of £10 million.

“We’ve been certified as organic by the Soil Association for 14 years. It’s not just about how the ingredients are grown and the use of pesticides, but how the farmers live and work, that they’re not using endangered plants and also about the end of life of the product – what happens when a shampoo ends up in rivers and oceans and the biodegradability of the packaging”.

The Soil Association sets stringent standards for confirming a product to be ‘organic’. It involves third party checks, annual inspections and the keeping of detailed production records which prove Pai products carrying the Soil Association kitemark are 100% natural and at least 70% of (non-water) ingredients are organically grown and harvested.

All Pai’s organic ingredients are non-GM, sustainably grown (without pesticides) and harvested, and extracted without the use of chemical solvents. Any non-organic ingredients they include have passed strict toxicity and biodegradability criteria and carry a non-GM certificate. They don’t use animal testing and a minimum of 98% of ingredients are of natural origin.

Sarah launched Pai with six products – four moisturisers, an eye cream and a lip balm. All but the lip balm are still in production. In her range of 25 or so products now are cleansers, tonics and moisturisers, eye creams, sun creams and after sun products, hand creams and body lotions. She also offers free skin consultations.

Images above: Production; Cream & Oil Cleanser Bundle

Providing hand sanitiser during 2020

Her favourite ingredient is Rosehip oil, which contains Omega 3, 6 and 9, but must not be heated in the production process or it loses its properties. She’s also a fan of Echium: “the oil in the seeds is really amazing and provide great conditioning for mature skin”.

During the pandemic she turned over production to making hand sanitizer, donating 22,000 units to people on checkouts and at train stations locally and working through Ealing Council with care homes and schools. This led to an award from The Sunday Times Style Beauty Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution’.

And her own personal skin problem? “Under control. Sometimes I choose to drink wine at a birthday party or something and I know the consequences, but I know what to expect and how to avoid it”.

Pai Skincare products are available in Chiswick from Windfall on Turnham Green Terrace and in Planet Organic in Old Market Place. You can also buy them direct from Sarah’s website (free delivery over £24).

Images above: Overnight Face Oil Gift Set; Black Cumin Seed & Charcoal Detoxifying Overnight Face Oil; Rosehip Seed & Fruit Universal Facial Oil

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