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The self-styled cannabis and clitoris activist backing nature-driven beauty

Laure Bouguen opens up about her cannabis-based skincare brand, Ho Karan and the sexual benefits of hemp

Laure Bouguen can trace her interest in cannabis back to her grandparents, who grew it in their back garden. But it’s not what you think. They were hemp farmers, who cultivated the legal plant, known as cannabis sativa, for its fibres which were then transformed into paper in a factory in Bretagne, on the French West Coast, where Laure grew up. They would also use it for its roots which are well known to renew soils. Laure was 18 years old when she first got for the idea for a hemp-based skincare brand, recognising the plant’s high antioxidant levels and how rich it is in omegas. “I saw a TV report on a Californian lady who was making cannabis shampoo in her garage,” she says. “I found it incredible. Especially because I knew we could obviously do the same thing with hemp.” At the time, Laure was studying entrepreneurship at the French business school Audencia, in Nantes, so she spent the next four months putting together a business plan as part of a school project, the result of which was Ho Karan. Meaning “I love you” in Breton, today Ho Karan boasts a range of hemp-based products, from The High Oil, a two-ingredient, multi-purpose oil that relieves dehydrated, stressed skin and boosts skin radiance as well as being brilliant for taming hair and conditioning beards to To Go Fast Wipes, for multipurpose cleansing and refreshing, which works particularly well for intimate female care, and comes in a condom like package, which brings us on to the topic of sex. Keen to redefine the way we talk about women’s sexual health, Laure is currently channelling her energies into promoting cannabinoids as a great way to enhance sexual pleasure through clitoral stimulation and to relieve menstrual pain for women (hence the title clitoris activist).

What’s so great about hemp?
Laure Bouguen: Hemp is an incredible plant, from its roots to its flowers every single part has a role to play. There are no pesticides needed, it requires very little water, and it only takes 12 weeks to grow. You can make bioplastic, cosmetics, and healthy food from it. Hemp can really change the way we consume, it is the plant of the future. Hemp oil is one of the richest vegetable oils we can find. It has up to 40 times more essential fatty acids than avocado, argan or coconut oils. They are called "essential" because our body doesn't create them so we need to get them from food, but we can also find them in cosmetics.

Why put hemp in skincare?
Laure Bouguen: I decided to replace the mineral oils (petroleum-based) and vegetable oils in daily cosmetics with cannabis sativa oil which is more ecological and efficient. This sativa oil rebuilds our hydrolipidic film which is there to protect our skin from external aggressions and prevent skin from losing its water. It's also important to note that sativa oil has the same lipidic profile as sebum and therefore it doesn't clog the pores (as opposed to, say, coconut oil). In hemp flowers, you also find the terpenes - amazing in aromatherapy - and the cannabinoids like CBD which is a super powerful antioxidant.

What’s the story behind Ho Karan?
Laure Bouguen: I launched the first version of Ho Karan in 2016 mainly aimed at men. Hemp oil has been used by barbers for a long time because of its anti-inflammatory properties, and I didn’t like the female cosmetics market which is obsessed by making women feel guilty about how they look, their wrinkles and their age. But the male market is really niche and the more research I did on cannabis the more I discovered the amazing properties of cannabinoids and terpenes which did not justify a gender segmentation. One day, a friend of mine who also works in the cannabis industry told me: "If you don't like the current female market, offer them something else.” So I decided to wipe the slate clean and start all over again. I did everything from scratch for the second time: formulation, design, packaging, sourcing, communication. We launched in December 2017 with new products that are gender-free, natural, and vegan.

What’s your overall aim with it?
Laure Bouguen:
I want to improve everyone’s wellbeing with the power of cannabis - in all its forms.

How does hemp differ from things like CBD?
Laure Bouguen:
All the information we read can often be confusing, so, to be clear: Hemp is a cannabis variety poor in THC. THC produces the psychotropic effects found in weed. But you have about 80 other cannabinoids in this flower. CBD - for cannabidiol - is one of the 80 other cannabinoids. So CBD is a compound of cannabis and hemp, that you find in the flower. In France when you have less than 0.2% THC we talk about hemp and not cannabis to imply that it's legal. In Switzerland, the limit is 1%. So a plant that is considered hemp in Switzerland could be considered as cannabis in France. This distinction between hemp and cannabis is a distinction based on human laws. It is not a distinction based on nature's laws.

We have seen a rise in CBD products recently. Why do you think this is? 
Laure Bouguen:
Four years ago when I was talking about my project no one found any interest in it. So what is cool about this CBD buzz is that it gives the opportunity to talk about one of the most fabulous plants nature has given us: cannabis. What I find less cool is the fake hype. There is a demand for CBD so you find a lot of people putting super low CBD concentrations in any product, claiming it's going to save lives. I see cosmetic brands saying that "CBD is magic". This is fake, this is dangerous, and this is something we fight against. CBD is one very interesting compound of a plant which many super interesting compounds. We ask for the right to research all of them.

How come hemp hasn’t had the same kind of traction?
Laure Bouguen:
In the USA, CBD was used to destigmatize cannabis. To simplify, for a long time people were like: "THC is bad but CBD is healthy". But actually as a drug THC also has medical uses. I don't like people who discriminate against THC because they are afraid of some of its effects. What is dangerous is not the plant, it's how humans behave with the plant.

What are the biggest challenges when working in the CBD/hemp industry?
Laure Bouguen:
It depends on where you live and work for sure. I guess it's easier in California or Canada than in France. Raising funds is really difficult because you don't have cannabis investors in France yet, so I had to go abroad to find some. Finding a reliable payment solution is difficult. Stripe banned us, saying that their investors don't want to have anything to do with hemp-related businesses. Communication is complicated because you don't have access to Facebook ads or Instagram ads which are the main acquisition tools in direct commerce currently. And being taken seriously is not always easy. In the last four years, things have definitely changed but people still laugh at me. I've just learned how to convince them that I'm really serious about it.

Why is it so important to you to challenge the stigma surrounding the CBD industry?
Laure Bouguen:
Because it's an injustice and it just doesn't make any sense. I hate illogical things. In France, we promote wine - which is toxic -  and we criminalize cannabis which has proven strong medicinal properties. From what I know, you don't cure glaucoma with grapes. When people don't understand something they become afraid. The better solution we can find to fight against fear is to educate.

You call yourself a clitoris activist, can you talk a bit about that?
Laure Bouguen:  
Our society has been built by men. The vast majority of entrepreneurs are male. So it’s not really a surprise that female issues are being ignored, especially when linked to female sexuality which is still really taboo. Viagra is a very famous drug now, that generates a lot of cash to Pfizer. But how much has been invested in researching women’s libido? How much has been invested in research about clitorises? I was shocked to discover that it wasn’t until 2016 that they made the first 3D print clitoris. Women’s sexual pleasure has been underestimated for centuries. If we want gender equality we need sexual equality. I want to change this.

How does your work with hemp relate to women’s intimate care and female sexuality?
Laure Bouguen:
Cannabinoids are great both to enhance pleasure and to relieve pain. You have great examples in California of brands working on products targeting periods pain and clitoral orgasm. This is an extremely exciting field of research.

Why do you feel so passionate about female health and sexuality and what do you hope to achieve with your products?
Laure Bouguen:
I want to start a political and social revolution. Cannabis has been stigmatized and demonized for a very long time. I'm convinced we can change this through education. This is the same for me with female sexuality. It has been taboo for too long. The time has come to talk about it and to change our views.

What is the future of nature driven skincare? Particularly cannabis-based skincare?
Laure Bouguen:
I hope people will understand that this is not a fad, like turmeric or kombucha. I hope they will go beyond gimmick products and fake promises. Skincare is an interesting use of cannabis but wellbeing at a larger scale is where this plant can bring the most value.