How Hebridean seaweed-based skincare brand ishga is growing at a rate of knots

I am standing atop rocks on a windswept Hebridean beach, trying to keep my balance as I attempt to collect some of the lustrous seaweed that is growing in abundance underfoot.

I am joining one of the weekly trips undertaken by natural and organic skincare firm ishga to gather bucketfuls of different types of the “wonder ingredient” for use in its products, which include moisturisers, body oils, and many more.

The firm, which is based on the Isle of Lewis, has accumulated a rapidly growing fanbase around the world (with Japan, China, Australia and the US among key markets) as it surfs the wave of increased understanding of and appetite for the skin-boosting properties of seaweed.

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It in fact deems the ingredient an “incredible” marine plant proven to regenerate skin cells, support collagen, contain detoxifying effects, supply a potent source of antioxidants, promote hyaluronic acid production, and serve as a powerful hydrator.

The firm uses lustrous seaweed and pure spring water collected in its stunning native Lewis. Picture: contributed.The firm uses lustrous seaweed and pure spring water collected in its stunning native Lewis. Picture: contributed.
The firm uses lustrous seaweed and pure spring water collected in its stunning native Lewis. Picture: contributed.

The business now, in addition to flourishing retail sales, is present in many spas worldwide, in locations such as Tokyo and California (undertaking a recent visit to San Diego), as well as three spas in the Dorchester Collection, and closer to home, the Marine North Berwick and Balmoral in Edinburgh, for example – this year it celebrated its 100th spa partner in the UK. It in fact says spa treatments often introduce and covert people to the brand, all helping it see total income grow by 240 per cent in its latest financial year, and it is now eyeing further growth.

The ishga story began in 2013, with Lewis native and scientist Malcolm Macrae, his beauty therapist wife Joanna, and his schoolfriend and seaweed expert Martin Macleod, setting out to create organic skincare using nutrient-rich and sustainable seaweed grown in the pristine waters surrounding the island.

Teaming up with fellow co-founder and spa sector veteran Leon Trayling who focused on developing the brand identity and testing and refining the products, a key move saw Malcolm’s scientific training deployed to create an extraction process that retained seaweed’s potent vitamin, mineral and antioxidant properties, but not its strong scent and colour.

ishga, whose name is derived from the Gaelic word for “water”, says seaweed’s properties are extracted directly into Hebridean spring water using this low-temperature process. In fact I get a peek at the Lewis well that is tucked away among rich, verdant mossy surrounds and where such water is collected – I even try a sip, finding it super crisp and almost sweet.

The firm has seen its total sales grow by 240 per cent in its latest financial year. Picture: contributed.The firm has seen its total sales grow by 240 per cent in its latest financial year. Picture: contributed.
The firm has seen its total sales grow by 240 per cent in its latest financial year. Picture: contributed.

The firm’s first product to be developed was what it says is the now-bestselling anti-oxidant marine cream, whose ingredients include Shea butter and extract of macadamia that contain essential fatty acids Omega 6 and 7, which absorb excess sebum while nourishing thirsty skin. It also contains fresh citrus peel that the firm says combats oil, detoxifies the skin and keeps it clean, and which also gives it a refreshing, lightly tangy and clean scent.

Furthermore, the brand is a big advocate for sustainability, saying: “As a marine plant, seaweed does not need soil, fresh water or fertiliser to grow; it is completely self-sufficient, nutrient-dense and grows rapidly year-round. We are mindful of the harvesting methods we use, and ensure it is cut properly to allow for quick, natural regeneration.”

Additionally, ishga works to ensure its packaging is eco-friendly, explaining that it is phasing out all plastic packaging, and replacing it with eco-friendly materials such as glass bottles and smart aluminium caps. It has in fact been predicted that the global sustainable personal care market will reach $93.8 billion (£76.3bn) by 2028. The report from KBV Research added: “In recent years, the concept of sustainable personal care has become one of the most popular in the industry. It began as a modest movement centred on environmentally friendly companies and has grown into a rapidly expanding and dynamic personal care market in the modern era.”

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ishga initially operated out of a portable cabin in Arnish Point on Lewis, but has now moved into a swish HQ in Gleann Seileach Business Park in Stornoway, with pharmaceutical-grade production facilities. I get a glimpse behind the scenes at this delicious-smelling space containing laboratory-style equipment combined with many aspects done meticulously, and with care, by hand.

I learn about how ishga marries seaweed extract with light base oils such as sweet almond and jojoba, nourishing moisturisers including cocoa butter, and essential oils like lemongrass and rose geranium. The latter features in many of its skincare products, credited with being able to reduce the appearance of wrinkles because it tightens facial skin and slows down the effects of ageing, and has strong beamish-healing properties.

I help pour and emulsify oils, have a shot dispensing moisturiser into a jar, do my best to pour liquid soap into moulds, and even try my hand at scattering powdered seaweed into candles.

After a night in the high-end and highly comfortable surroundings of Lews Castle (my in-room rolltop bath a particular highlight), and a drive through more wonderfully rugged Hebridean scenery, I even take the chance to sample being immersed in the local waters myself, like the local seaweed, via a dip in the refreshingly chilly waters of Luskentyre Beach. It feels like the cleanest water I have ever swum in while there is barely another soul or building as far as they eye can see.

In fact, ishga says studies have found that seaweed from cold water environments contains higher levels of fucoxanthin (a health-giving substance found in edible brown seaweeds) and omega-3 fatty acids than those from warmer climates, and only serves to strengthen my belief in the superpower benefits of immersion in cold water.

Idyllic, tranquil Hebridean beaches also play a key role in a more urban location – Glasgow. The natural beauty of the Scottish Hebrides is credited as the inspiration for a major upgrade of the spa facilities at city-centre hotel the five-star Kimpton Blythswood Square – the space now boasting a snow shower and salt room, as well as rejuvenated hydrotherapy suite, for example. Leon had a senior role at the spa there when he came on board at ishga.

After I fly to Glasgow from Stornoway, and as part of a one-night stay at the swish, relaxing hotel, I enjoy a relaxing body treatment using ishga products, after which my sleepy status is maintained with the projection in the post-treatment chill-out room of images of various scenic, tranquil Hebridean locations courtesy of the brand. You can even tap into more ishga-related relaxation as it offers an at-home sound treatment composed by Swell Studio using field recordings, traditional Hebridean instruments, and therapeutic sound techniques.

And I can also transport myself back to the Hebrides emotionally with its products – including its delectably scented (somehow both revitalising and relaxing), rich-textured body oil and salt scrub, both containing the firm’s signature blend of lavender, rose geranium, lemongrass, and juniper berry essential oils.

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As for the appeal of ishga, Leon says the brand pillars are provenance, benefits, and science. “From a provenance perspective, customers are far more connected to nature and resonate with the purity of the environment in the Hebrides. In terms of benefits, every product we have developed has had purpose and been designed to deliver results for the consumer needs. Finally, the science – ishga comes from strong scientific beginnings in terms of research and development, and this is very much a part of the future of the brand. The culmination of all of these, coupled with a passion for what we do from everyone involved, has certainly attributed to our growth.”



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