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Horst Rechelbacher, 72, founder of Aveda

Early champion of safe cosmetics

Mr. Rechelbacher started Aveda in 1978 and sold it in 1997 for a reported $300 million.

Jenn Ackerman/New York Times/file 2013

Mr. Rechelbacher started Aveda in 1978 and sold it in 1997 for a reported $300 million.

NEW YORK — Horst Rechelbacher, an Austrian-born hairstylist who went on to found Aveda, a company whose pledge to eliminate toxic chemicals from its products helped give rise to a vast market for so-called natural cosmetics in the United States, died on Feb. 15 in Osceola, Wis. He was 72.

The cause was complications of pancreatic cancer, a family spokesman said.

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Mr. Rechelbacher championed campaigns to raise public awareness of potentially cancer-causing ingredients in beauty supplies.

He started Aveda in 1978, when making fragrances and hair-care products from herbs and other plants was widely seen as an ephemeral pursuit, doomed to vanish with the receding tide of the counterculture. He made batches of his first product, a clove shampoo, in his kitchen sink in Minneapolis.

By 1997, when he sold the company to Estée Lauder for a reported $300 million, Mr. Rechelbacher had “put natural cosmetics on the map in the United States,” said Geoffrey G. Jones, a Harvard Business School professor and the author of “Beauty Imagined,” a 2010 history of the beauty industry.

Mr. Rechelbacher’s line of luxury products ultimately included lip gloss, hair conditioners, mascara, fragrances, herbal teas, coffee beans, nontoxic household cleaners, nutritional supplements, jewelry, and books, all carried by 25,000 stores and salons worldwide.

He did not originate the idea of organic cosmetics; they had been manufactured since the late 1950s by niche firms like Yves Rocher. But with a few other “really good entrepreneurs,” Jones said, including Anita Roddick, who founded the Body Shop in Britain in 1976, Mr. Rechelbacher helped make “natural” health and beauty products “totally cool, fashionable and expensive” and the fastest-growing sector of the industry.

After selling Aveda, Mr. Rechelbacher started a new company, Intelligent Nutrients, to produce cosmetics with organic ingredients. He grew most of the ingredients on his 570-acre organic farm in Osceola.

Horst Martin Rechelbacher was born in Klagenfurt, Austria, on Nov. 11, 1941, the son of Rudolf and Maria Rechelbacher. His father was a shoemaker. His mother was an herbalist and apothecary whose work inspired Mr. Rechelbacher’s interest in medicinal plants. At 14, facing diminished opportunities in Austria after World War II, Mr. Rechelbacher was apprenticed to a local hairdresser’s shop.

He proved talented; by 17, he was working in a hair salon in Rome. After that, he moved to salons in London and then New York, where in the early 1960s an employer began entering him in hairstyling competitions organized by trade groups.

Mr. Rechelbacher was attending a competition in Minneapolis in 1965 when he was seriously injured in a car accident. After a six-month recovery, he decided to settle there and open a salon. It grew to become a small chain known as Horst & Friends.

His childhood interest in herbal medicine was rekindled in 1970 by an Indian guru he had met in Minneapolis when he attended his lecture on the ancient practice of Ayurvedic medicine, which uses herbs and plants. (The name Aveda was derived from the Sanskrit word Ayurveda, which means “science of life.”)

The encounter, he told interviewers, inspired him to spend six months in India, where he learned about the herbs, oils, and plants used in the Ayurvedic tradition of health care and aromatherapy — skills he later applied in formulating his clove shampoos, cherry-bark hair conditioners, and lip glosses of acai berry and purple corn.

Mr. Rechelbacher’s signature pitch was, “Don’t put anything on your skin that you wouldn’t put in your mouth.” At sales conventions and in videotaped interviews, he often demonstrated that principle by drinking hair spray and other products made by his company.

“Absolutely delicious,” he declares after a swallow of hair spray mixed with water in one taped demonstration. “This hair spray could be sold as a nutritional drink.”

Hair spray made by some major manufacturers can contain solvents, glues, polymers, and propellants, said Janet Nudelman, director of program and policy at the Breast Cancer Fund, one of a dozen nonprofit environmental and health groups that joined forces in 2004 to start the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Mr. Rechelbacher helped finance it.

“Horst was in many ways the father of safe cosmetics,” Nudelman said. “He took action to address the problem long before most of us knew there was anything to even worry about.”

Mr. Rechelbacher leaves his wife, Kiran Stordalen; two children from a previous marriage, Nicole Thomas and Peter; and four grandchildren.

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