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L.A.'s Primrose Salon Finds Beauty In Eco-Friendly Products

Natalie Ragus |
February 10, 2011 | 4:11 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

As you set foot inside Primrose Organics Salon and Boutique, the smell hits you first. The pleasant aromas of rosemary and lavender, intermingled with thyme and mint, envelop you in their warm embrace.

Trying at once to put a finger on what about the salon seems so foreign, you come to a realization. You cannot detect the slightest trace of the pungent, tear-inducing odor of ammonia, the hallmark scent of beauty salons worldwide.

Therein lies the difference between the Los Feliz Village-based salon and its counterparts; instead of chemical-based hair and beauty products, stylists use only organic lines free of parabens, formaldehyde, and plastics, on customers.

And that, says salon co-owner Melissa Tornay, makes all the difference.

“You’ll notice an immediate difference in your hair or skin,” she said,

Take, for example, shampoo.

 “A lot of shampoos have silicon in them, which is a plastic,” Tornay said, fingering a section of her asymmetrical, buttery-blond bob. “The silicon coats the hair, and the other ingredients can’t get underneath the coating to repair the hair. Since I started using (natural shampoos) I have not had any split ends.”

Tornay says she spends upwards of 80 hours a week scouring the Internet, researching beauty products to carry in the salon.

And she sets the bar high.

In addition to containing only all-natural ingredients, the products sold at Primrose must be cruelty-free and made by companies that pay every worker a fair wage. Only once a product meets all these criterions will Tornay order a sample to personally test its effectiveness.

If Tornay doesn’t like the product or it proves ineffective, it won’t make it onto the salon’s shelves.

“I have to be really wowed by something,” she said, “and believe it’s one of the best (products) of its kind I have ever used.”

Primrose started as the brainchild of head stylist and co-owner Felicia Howe, whose family fostered love for the environment in her from an early age. An Oregon native, Howe grew up in a hippie community that placecd a premium on environmental awareness and what she terms “getting back to the basics.”

Howe went to beauty school and headed south to Los Angeles to open her own salon, the Dollhouse, a tremendously successful enterprise that had her doing hair for individual clients in addition to special events such as the Coachella music festival.          

Through it all,  Howe continued to harbor dreams of owning a salon that would solely use organic, sustainable, non-chemical-based products. Her declining health lent a sense of urgency to her ambitions.

“I had allergic reactions to everything. I could barely breathe at times, my hands were cracking, and my skin had rashes,” Howe said of her experience working with traditional salon fare.

Howe would hardly be alone in her plight. According to the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the government has classified 30 percent of the nearly 3,000 chemicals the country’s estimated 1 million hair stylists work with every day, as toxic.

But as luck would have it, Howe developed a close friendship with a client —Tornay — who proved the perfect fit as a business partner to help make the stylist’s castle-in-the-air eco salon a solid reality. At the time, Tornay managed a retail shop that sold organic and sustainable beauty products, making her well versed in the world of green beauty.

At Tornay’s annual New Year’s Eve party on the last day of 2008, Howe took her host aside to make a business proposal: open up an eco-friendly salon by the coming spring. Howe’s strong client base combined with Tornay’s wealth of product knowledge would surely prove a recipe for success.

While the two had joked for years about starting a business, Tornay said, it felt somewhat surreal to actually start making those plans come to fruition.

“It was a little nerve-wracking at first, leaving my secure job of five years,” Tornay said of the experience. “I took a leap of faith because I have complete fait that it would not fail with (Howe) as my partner. I don’t know that I would have done it with anyone else.

 Howe, for her part, felt fairly comfortable with the prospect of opening Primrose Organics.

“I had owned my own salon before so I knew exactly what to expect,” she said.

By February, the pair had commandeered a space on Hollywood Boulevard to rent for the salon. For six weeks, the pair worked to paint, furnish, and upgrade the building, using sustainable or recycled materials wherever possible. Everything, from the dry wall to the used furniture found on Craig’s List, has some environmentally friendly characteristic. Even the sponges in the break room are natural sea sponges.

On April Fools Day in 2009, Primrose Organics opened its doors for the first time. The charming salon, with its soothing rich orange, cream, and azure décor, was finally ready for its first customer.

While it’s unclear how many salons like Primrose Organics exist in Los Angeles  — a quick scan of business listings culled by the city’s Chamber of Commerce revealed none — the idea behind Primrose Organics seems to have caught on with the community. The salon’s clientele has swollen to the point where Tornay and Howe felt the need to hire three more stylists to meet the growing demand. The business partners also added manicures and waxing treatments to the salon’s menu of services.

“I think (Primrose Organics) is really special and it’s comfortable,” said music producer Linda Perry. “Melissa and Felicia are all about really looking into the products they’re purchasing. If you ask Melissa anything about those products, she’ll be able to tell you everything.

Perry counts herself amongst Primrose Organics’ original customers. And it’s making clients like Perry feel and look their best that makes it all worth it for the salon’s owners.

“I’ve worked in music and with celebrities,” Howe said, while eating her lunch of stir-fried organic vegetables, “but (with Primrose), I’m finally able to bring something truly positive to this industry.”

Indeed.

But the change has also brought Howe a world of good. No longer forced to work in tight, poorly ventilated quarters with toxic chemicals, her skin, breathing, and allergy conditions have completely cleared up.

Looking to the future, Howe and Tornay say they want to expand their business even further, but have yet to develop a formal plan of action. They do know one thing for sure, however; they hope their success will inspire others in the beauty industry to follow in their footsteps, so that people won’t have to make choices between looking good and the health of their bodies and the environment.

Reach reporter Natalie Ragus here. Sign up for our weekly newsletter here.



 

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