When Sophie Leah was struggling with acne in 2017, her doctor put her on a medication called iotretinoin.
Due to its strength, this treatment is often considered a last resort for people with acne – and can come with various side effects.
‘Isotretinoin – or Roaccutane/Accutane as it’s often called – is a synthetic form of Vitamin A which is prescribed for the treatment of acne. It works by suppressing the production of sebum – the natural skin oils that contribute to acne,’ explains Dr Manish Mittal, surgical director at the Mittal Hair Clinic.
‘It’s an effective medicine but it can also cause unwanted side effects, including thinning or weakening of the hair, a dry scalp and even hair loss.’
This was certainly the case for Sophie, who found it came with extensive side effects – while her skin started to improve, her hair deteriorated.
‘It completely ruined my hair. It dried it out so much,’ says 30-year-old Sophie, from Manchester.
‘It was pretty bad – it was snapping off right near the root. It was very brittle.
‘I was really upset about it. It sounds quite vain, but I didn’t want to leave the house. I was 23 at the time, so I was out with my friends and I just felt like I didn’t want to leave the house, or put a bag over my head if I did.
‘It felt as though I was trying to solve one problem. But then by solving one problem that actually caused another one.’
What to know about the hair side effects of taking iotretinoin (accutane/roaccutane):
What to do if you have these side effects on hair
Dr Mittal says: ‘Taking a B vitamin supplement is a good place to start, but you do need to give your hair some extra TLC if you find it getting brittle or very dry.
‘Avoid excess brushing and switch to a good quality, moisturising shampoo that’s sulphate-free, and steer clear of highly fragranced products and excessive exposure to strong sunshine.’
When to talk to a doctor or a specialist
‘If you find your hair getting very thin, talk to your doctor about your isotretinoin prescription – changing the dosage may be all it takes for your scalp to feel less dry and for your hair to recover its thickness,’ adds Dr Mittal.
‘The good news is that in most cases, any hair loss is temporary – and it usually stops once you stop taking isotretinoin. For those unlucky enough to suffer this most distressing side effect, stopping taking the drug will typically stabilise the hair loss and allow it to grow back.
‘But this doesn’t happen for everyone – sometimes the hair thinning continues even after you stop taking isotretinoin.
‘If this happens to you, you should see a hair loss specialist as there may be other factors such as thyroid issues or dermatitis that combine with the isotretinoin to cause serious hair loss, and which will only respond to specialist treatment.’
As a result, Sophie and her boyfriend, Gareth, decided to research ingredients that would help get her hair back on track – and noticed coconut oil and shea butter kept coming up as key suggestions. After sampling both, Sophie decided to make her own hair mask with the two ingredients and was pleased to see a real difference.
And, following a little more research, Sophie and Gareth identified a gap in the market for a new business idea – a hair mask made almost exclusively of these key ingredients.
‘I thought to myself this could be something – if we could get a really good formula that actually works,’ Sophie says. ‘Obviously, people are crazy about their hair and looking after it.’
After finding a supplier online, Sophie and Gareth developed a mask where coconut oil, coconut extract and shea butter were the three main ingredients – making up around 80-90% of the hair mask.
They combined this with water for hydration and cetostearyl alcohol – which is known for fighting dryness, helping with moisturisation and controlling frizz. Plus they added a small amount of fragrance for a unique brand smell.
‘The supplier came back with a formula for us, and I just loved it,’ continues Sophie.
‘I really noticed a difference in my hair. It wasn’t snapping off and breaking as much – it was growing back healthier.’
As a result, the couple’s business Hola Coco was born a few months later – offering a tried-and-tested hair mask.
The entrepreneurial pair decided to put £3,000 of their savings into the business initially – to bulk-buy the product and launch their own website.
And, after their joint business venture was picked up by the press, their brand started gaining traction.
But because Sophie and Gareth were planning on buying a house in Bolton, they decided to keep working full-time and run Hola Coco in addition to this, in the evenings and on the weekends.
Sophie continues: ‘We actually both worked full-time for a long, alongside running Hola Coco, which was really hard – because it was basically working an eight-hour day then coming home, answering customer service queries, packing orders in our kitchen and posting on social media. It was really, really difficult.
‘Then over time, we both reduced our hours. I now work two days a week in marketing, which is really an interest of mine – and something that’s really helpful.’
The pair are working towards the goal of working full-time at Hola Coco and recently acquired an office to help make this possible
Sophie adds: ‘It was taking over our house as we were packing orders in our kitchen. We always say that we’ve grown the business from our kitchen table – because we really have.’
Following further investment from the couple, Sophie says Hola Coco has made around £300,000 since launching in 2017 and has sold more than 10,000 units.
Despite establishing the business in 2017, the couple faced their own challenges when the pandemic hit. And while an interest in DIY hair and beauty soared during lockdown – and demand for their brand rose as a result – Sophie and Gareth faced various supply chain issues.
Sophie explains: ‘Lockdown was really great because people were really interested in the product and we saw a spike in sales. But it actually came with its own issues because we ran out of stock at one point, which is detrimental to a business because you can’t sell. Then our order got stuck in the Suez Canal. It took months to get here.
‘It was soul-destroying, because we were doing so well. We were getting so many orders and then it just ground to a halt. Then we were waiting for the Suez Canal order and we kept getting a date and then they pushed it back by another week – and it ended up being months. It was a nightmare, so that was really hard.’
But the couple managed to push through the pandemic with the help of government grants and their savings.
Now, Sophie is thrilled to be helping people all over the country improve their hair – including one returning customer who had their hair damaged during a nightmare salon appointment, and another who is looking to fix hers following chemotherapy.
She says: ‘There are some customers who have ordered from us more than 20 times. It’s just incredible, because it just makes it all worthwhile.
‘I just think to myself that’s just complete affirmation that the product works and that people really can’t live without it.’
The Hola Coco hair mask is 100% vegan and costs £29.99. The brand advises popping it in hair for 15-20 minutes before rinsing it out – but some customers may want to leave it in for longer.
A number of other hair products are now available too – and Sophie and Gareth have plans to expand this offering even further.
While some hairdressers already stock Hola Coco, Sophie hopes to continue to grow the business and reach more salons and online retailers.
She adds: ‘You start a business to make money, essentially, but it’s not just about that with us – we really do want to help people.
‘Because I’ve been through it myself – and it’s not very nice – and if we can help anyone in the same situation, we would love that.’
Hola Coco products can be found at hola-coco.com
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