Not too long ago, it was impossible to scroll through Instagram or TikTok without coming across something from Lush. Whether it was a post announcing a new collection of themed products (who can forget the cheeky peach and aubergine bath bombs for Valentine's Day?) or a hilariously self-aware parody of what it's like to be greeted by Lush staff (hint: very overwhelming), the brand's digital presence was unrivalled.
But just over a year ago, Lush made the conscious decision to quit social media. Logging out of its TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook accounts, the brand put the move down to "concerns about the serious effects of social media", particularly on mental health.
In a press release, the brand said that some social media platforms are "beginning to feel like places no one should be encouraged to go" and vowed to leave "until the platforms take action to provide a safer environment for users". In the statement, Lush's cofounder Mark Constantine explained: "I've spent all my life avoiding putting harmful ingredients in my products. There is now overwhelming evidence we are being put at risk when using social media. I'm not willing to expose my customers to this harm, so it's time to take it out of the mix."
Lush's fans are still on social media, of course, and in November 2022 The Drum reported that Lush suggested it has no regrets about the move. But in a saturated beauty market where brands are constantly competing to stay relevant, was the decision to leave social media the big, commendable statement it was intended to be?
Is Lush still relevant?
Unsurprisingly, fans have been asking ever since: What happened to Lush? In a recent viral video captioned "skincare brands I'm 99.9% sure nobody uses anymore", beauty content creator Maddie Evans started by addressing the "elephant in the room": Lush skincare. "Genuinely, though, I don't know if anyone is using this anymore. I feel like this totally had a grip on everybody, like everybody was using Lush skincare, all the masks and everything."
It's a similar story on Twitter. "I almost forgot Lush existed," wrote one Twitter user in reply to a recent post which claimed that Lush had closed some stores. Responding to a follower who said the brand had missed the mark by going offline, another observed: "I completely forgot about Lush, so you mentioning it definitely speaks on their lack of social media use."
A quick whip round my self-care- and beauty-obsessed friends showed that not one of them has set foot inside a Lush store for years. So is Lush's lack of social presence to blame for the brand being left in the dark? Social media gets a lot of stick for being damaging, says Kate Johnson, founder and director of social media marketing agency Rate Social, but she believes it's how people use it that's actually the problem. "Whether Lush is on social media or not, its audience is," says Kate. "By suggesting its audience 'Be Somewhere Else' the brand comes off as condescending and out of touch."
Kate believes Lush has become disengaged from its fans, especially as social media is first and foremost a place to connect. "In the past year," says Kate, "60% of Gen Z and 52% of millennial TikTok users have bought a product because they saw it on TikTok." Before logging out, the brand (as well as its individual stores) had a huge TikTok presence. "Lush has become disconnected from its consumers," continues Kate, adding that the brand's social media profiles – which remain active – have become a "cesspit of unanswered complaints, bots and genuine enquiries".
Why are Lush fans turning their backs on the brand?
Trina Albus is a marketer, digital content creator and beauty expert with 25 years of experience in the industry. She doesn't believe that a beauty brand can stay relevant or survive without social media. "I remember when Lush launched in retail locations," she tells R29. "I felt compelled to walk into a store so I could touch, smell and experience all the products. I vividly remember the unwrapped bath bombs stacked in large bins and I was drawn in like a kid in a candy store. I had never seen anything like it before from a beauty brand. That was the '00s."
Today in 2023, Trina can't remember the last time she stepped inside a shopping centre. "Retail has changed," she says, citing the closure of shops and the decline of high streets. "I shop mostly online and I haven't thought about shopping at Lush for over a year now since they haven't been top of mind, in other words my social feed." It makes sense, considering that Lush is such a sensory beauty brand with a focus on the experiential. It's not lost on Trina that the brand disappeared from social media at a time when we needed self-care the most: during a pandemic.
But is a social media presence really the be-all and end-all for a beauty brand like Lush? It seems that Lush fans (or 'Lushies') have gradually been losing faith. In 2020, Lush apologised for allegedly donating thousands to Woman's Place UK, a group that has been accused of anti-trans sentiment. Activists encouraged fans to boycott the brand and TikTokers voiced their disappointment in droves.
Two years before this, in 2018, Lush got it wrong with its 'spycops' campaign. Storefronts were emblazoned with faux police tape as the company highlighted "the ongoing undercover policing scandal, where officers have infiltrated the lives, homes and beds of activists". It prompted serious backlash. Lush subsequently removed the posters for the "safety of [its] staff".
Is Lush really an ethical company?
Lush doesn't like to call itself an ethical company, rather a company that "strives to do good". It claims to never conduct or commission animal tests, for example. Additionally, the brand buys ingredients from suppliers which do not test on animals and, where possible, tries to minimise its use of packaging, hence an array of 'naked' products such as bath bombs and makeup. This is all commendable but fans are increasingly angry at how former employees allege they have been treated.
In 2020, it was reported that Lush underpaid Australian staff by $4.4 million. The brand agreed to pay back the amount in full, alongside a $60,000 contrition payment. Ex-Lush staffers have also been taking to TikTok to share stories of what it's like to work in Lush stores. One TikToker claims they had to do unpaid trial shifts, for instance, and a handful even refer to the brand as a 'cult'. "Lush is very focussed on the 5-star customer experience," a former Lush staffer told R29. "When you'd move away from the customer, the supervisor would grill you. They'd say, 'Which questions did you ask?' and tell you that it was a closed question, so you'd need to re-approach them in two minutes and try them with different questions."
Most customers wanted to be left alone "but the supervisors wouldn't have any of it," the ex-employee continued. "I could always feel my supervisor's eyes burning into the back of my head. They'd tell you to improve your body language and everything." The former staffer also reports being encouraged to try massage bars on customers, which she "hated" and found "uncomfortable".
Many diehard Lushies have forgiven the brand for various shortfalls and shrugged off claims of a cultlike atmosphere. But not long ago, a thread posted in the r/LushCosmetics subreddit for fans of the brand stirred up further feelings of discontent. The post was titled: "Does anyone feel like Lush has completely sold out and fallen down?" The Redditor said they had personally noticed a "drop in product quality" and a "lack of ingenuity". The post racked up many comments in solidarity. "The dulling of the 'X factor' is EXACTLY what this post is about," wrote one user.
"For years I would buy 85-90% of each new drop," replied one Redditor. "I haven't bought a single 'new' item in a bit over a year." They also argue that there has been a change in product quality and say that fragrances which multiple customers have said they don't like (including citrus and lavender) are contributing factors. Another observed that the prices have gone up "like crazy". Inflation could be to blame but the cost of living crisis certainly means we're rethinking our once-affordable luxuries like bath bombs and skincare.
All beauty brands evolve but staunch Lushies are increasingly upset that certain products have been discontinued or perhaps altered in the past couple of years. "I've dropped thousands of $$$ on LUSH since 2000 and it's changed a ton," wrote one Redditor. "So many of the things I absolutely loved when I discovered them all those years ago are long gone," like the iconic Goth Juice hair gel and Plum Rain shower gel. Some might call it innovation but this poster feels as though Lush's product lines have "gotten out of control", hinting that the choice is now overwhelming and potentially even wasteful.
Is Lush skincare any good?
If you've ever been inside a Lush store, you'll know that the soaps, bath bombs and other products are scented. Could Lush losing its way have something to do with our skincare re-education? In 2023 we're all a little more skincare-savvy, swapping products brimming with potentially irritating fragrance, essential oils and gritty textures for simpler, more gentle formulas. Gone are the days of 12-step skincare routines with multiple products.
Many Lush products are made of what the brand refers to as 'natural' ingredients like plants, clay, butters and essential oils. But just because something is natural, like essential oils, does not mean it's good for all skin. "Fragrances and essential oils are typically fine to use," explains consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto, "but with the exception of those with sensitive skin or a skin condition." Research suggests that 60 to 70% of women report having some level of sensitive skin, while 60% state that they have a skin condition. Dr Mahto says those with sensitive skin may find that fragrance and essential oils can trigger or aggravate their skin.
"Something I've seen a lot recently is product overuse," says Dr Mahto, "especially with very fragranced products. Some people have developed skin conditions like perioral dermatitis: pink, sometimes scaly, patches around the mouth." Meanwhile doctor and cosmetic formulator Dr Vanita Rattan went viral in a TikTok video inspired by shopping at Lush. She said that contact dermatitis and irritation is common when using fragranced skincare.
On the whole, Dr Mahto would advise those with sensitive skin, those with a flare-up and those with rosacea, eczema or psoriasis to avoid fragrances and essential oils. "I'm not a fan of using grainy exfoliators on delicate facial skin," adds Dr Mahto. "I'd much prefer people to use a chemical exfoliant, such as an AHA/BHA/PHA exfoliant," like glycolic, lactic or salicylic acid.
Beauty lovers are becoming increasingly confused by what 'natural' ingredients means, too. "One of the main issues with products labelled as 'natural' is the lack of standard definition," says Dr Mahto, as the term isn't regulated. A statement on Lush's website also says that the brand aims to eliminate all synthetic preservatives (which keep formulas stable and usable) from products.
That's all well and good but experts argue that there is a lot of fearmongering around the use of synthetics (often referred to as 'chemicals') in beauty products. Is Lush contributing to the burgeoning chemophobia? "Everything is a chemical. Even water," says Dr Mahto. "You can be pretty certain that if a beauty product enters the market in the UK, it is safe for our skin and general health due to rigorous industry regulation." That includes synthetic preservatives.
How long Lush makeup lasts has amassed mixed reviews online in particular. "All Lush products are best fresh but in order to get through this," says one reviewer of the Slap Stick foundation, £17, "you'd have to cake it on and it's far too thick for that." They continued: "I forgot about this product for a while and found that after 6 months it stank like blue cheese. So it's really not value for money either."
Are Lush bath bombs safe?
Lush is arguably most famous for its bath bomb selection. If you have a TikTok account, you've no doubt seen a handful of viral videos in which people report that bath bombs have given them thrush or a yeast infection and hashtag Lush. Contrary to popular belief, there is no medical evidence to prove that bath bombs can cause thrush, explains Dr Paraskevi Dimitriadi, specialist cosmetic gynaecologist at Centre for Surgery. "However," she adds, "the dyes and perfumes they contain can affect the pH levels in the vagina, which, when unbalanced, can irritate and cause further issues."
Dr Paraskevi says the vagina needs to have a pH of 3.5 to 4.5, which is slightly acidic and at a level that will keep 'bad' bacteria at bay. Anything higher or lower than that could cause issues such as thrush, BV (bacterial vaginosis) and UTIs (urinary tract infections). Using bath bombs occasionally should be okay depending on how you react to them, says Dr Paraskevi, but if you like taking regular baths she would recommend using Epsom salt instead.
Does Lush have competition?
When Lush burst onto the scene, investing in beauty products that were genuinely cruelty-free and vegan was difficult as the selection was poor. These principles once set Lush apart from other brands but now they're a given for many. So has the novelty worn off? Thanks to brands like Ethique, Q+A Skincare and Faith in Nature, vegan and animal-friendly products are more accessible — and affordable — than ever.
Refinery29 asked Lush whether leaving social media may have had consequences for the brand. Annabelle Baker, Lush brand and marketing director, told Refinery29 that determining the impact on business has been difficult so far as the announcement coincided with an unforeseen, globally turbulent time. Baker pinpoints rising COVID cases, followed by the invasion of Ukraine at the start of 2022 and, more recently, the cost of living crisis. "However," said Baker, "after leaving the leading social media platforms, Lush reported its highest Christmas retail trading figures in two years." Baker reports that the Lush group also recorded a pre-tax profit of £29 million in 2022, up from a loss of £45 million the previous year.
Refinery29 asked Lush if it has any thoughts on how some people on social media are negatively describing the brand. Baker replied: "We are very fortunate to have a community that is passionate and actively engaged with us. That passion drives the full spectrum of feedback and we consider ourselves lucky that our community cares enough about us to tell us all the things they’re thinking, not just the things they love."
Baker told Refinery29 that service continues through the social media channels where the brand retains a presence, including Twitter and YouTube. Lush has also set up new customer service tools on its owned channels, including a live chat tool on its website. It will soon be unveiling an SMS function to better manage the direct relationship with customers.
Despite fierce competition, it seems Lush is trying to reclaim its position in the beauty space — even without most of its social media. In case you missed it, Lush recently launched a Stranger Things bath bomb collaboration and joined forces with streetwear clothing brand Lazy Oaf to cook up soaps, bath bombs and merchandise. Experiences are important, too, such as the Book A Bath initiative, which offers a private spa-like experience in various stores (though it'll set you back £40 a pop).
In a press release, Lush says it has recently invested £7.6 million in physical stores across the UK and Europe to boost customer experience, including Lush vending machines in London’s King’s Cross and bath bomb making sessions. Lush reports that a giveaway day last April increased traffic by 60% compared to an average Wednesday, with a 108% increase in digital traffic and an 18% increase in shop traffic. The brand continues to campaign against the likes of racism and modern slavery and to promote causes such as animal rights.
Lush entered the beauty space on a mission to shake things up, and it did. It still supports so many brilliant causes that people care about, such as stopping animal cruelty in beauty. But do good intentions alone keep brands afloat? Kate thinks that logging back into Instagram and TikTok will make a world of difference to how the brand is perceived going forward.
Instead of waiting for Meta or TikTok to do something about the state of social media, adds Trina, why not create an initiative that is useful and helpful, and aligns with the brand ideals? As an example, she highlights Selena Gomez’s Rare Beauty Impact Fund, which supports those struggling with their mental health with education and resources. Last year, Lush unveiled a new wellbeing app called Bathe. In the US, Lush also launched The Sound Bath podcast with "built-in meditation music, exploring 'conversations that cleanse', with authors, experts and activists exploring a range of topics from personal and societal care."
In spite of this, by quitting social media Lush essentially left its 4 million Instagram and 175k TikTok followers on read, Trina concludes, "and in this digital age, nobody wants to be left on read," she says. Lush has been — and still can be — a force for good but it's at risk of being left behind. Clearly, beauty lovers want more: innovation, improved working conditions for employees, better quality products and going back to basics are a must.
Lush, it's your call.