Bath & Beauty in the Palm of Your Hand
I met with the co-creators of Rowan Tree Bath Works, Trisha Lundquist and LeeAnn Abrams. We discussed why they chose to use olive oil as their soap's main ingredient, what local ingredients they use in their products, and why it's important to read the labels on your beauty products.
On December 8th, in collaboration with Zero Waste Madison, Trisha & LeeAnn will be leading a workshop that will teach us how to create a facial oil that is customized for our individual skin types. Find more details about event here.
Tell me a little bit about yourselves and why you created Rowan Tree Bath Works.
LeeAnn: Both Trisha and I lived in Los Angeles for a while. When we were living out there, I was actively trying to get a job in a different career from what I was working in and my last-ditch effort didn't work out. I had been reading about different crafts and things to do and I read about soap-making. So I went out and bought all the stuff to make it and I called up Trisha and asked her "how do you feel about making soap?" and she said "okay!". Our first soap was a straight-up goat's milk soap with no scent and it was super fun! I had always been making sugar scrubs and things like that for myself, so this just kind of evolved into that. We started with soaps, then we moved on to lotions and body butters. We spent a couple of years [in Los Angeles] and we realized we wanted to be closer to family and maybe in a better market that was a little calmer and closer to nature, so we moved back to Wisconsin.
Trisha: What she didn't say is that she's super creative. The creative fields she usually works in as a hobby were painting and photography, so it wasn't a big stretch to go into a craft that still was super creative. I think she wanted a different approach. I was like... I've never even thought of doing such a thing... sure... let's try it! Because honestly I had never even thought about doing it. I asked her how do you make soap? I had no idea.
LeeAnn: Trisha is the brains and the organizational power of our company.
Trisha: LeeAnn says... I like this idea! How do we do it?
Pictured: Trisha (left) and LeeAnn (right)
The unique thing I noticed about your soaps is that you use olive oil as your base. What led you to that decision?
LeeAnn: Olive oil just makes a really nice soap. You can use it as the only oil in your soap, but it takes a really long time to cure...
Trisha: …to become hard enough to be able to use. We're talking like a year.
LeeAnn: Because if you do a strictly olive oil bar, it's really soft. It has to sit for a long time to harden up to be able to use so it doesn't just melt away in your shower. But it is a wonderful, wonderful oil for your skin. You can use olive oil, if you don't mind the smell because extra-virgin olive oil has a smell, as a face wash. You just grab the olive oil straight out of your cupboard, put it on your face, let it sit for a minute, and then wipe it off with a warm wash cloth. It's called an oil cleanse. It is the cleanest your face has ever felt. You'll be moisturized. You'll be clean. You'll have taken all sebum out of your pores.
Trisha: Sebum is a type of oil that's naturally produced by your body. If you have overproduction of it, that's what tends to cause acne and breakouts.
LeeAnn: There are other people who also use olive oil primarily, but it's a little bit more expensive than other types of oil. Basic, normal, everyday soap-making oils are usually coconut, palm, or palm kernel. Some people use lard or tallows. Olive oil is a little pricier, but it's also a lot better for your skin.
Trisha: Pretty much everything that goes into a soap should have a purpose. If a soap-maker is not putting it in there for a reason, it's kind of a basic soap.
I've heard that olive oil is supposed to be a better ingredient to use in terms of its effects on the environment compared to the other oils you mentioned. Could you explain why exactly that is?
Trisha: Well we can tell you right off that palm and palm kernel oils are really not good because of the destruction of the habitats to get it. The palm farms in Indonesia are where the orangutans live and they're decimating the forests to produce palm and palm kernel oil. They're ruining the habitats of the orangutans. We originally had palm kernel oil in several of our recipes, but we have now effectively gotten rid of it for that very reason. For olive oil, you don't have to destroy the tree to get it. You just pick the fruit off of it, so it can keep growing back.
LeeAnn: I think it's the same for palm kernel, but to grow the palm trees you need a lot of area and they're destroying the forests and putting in those palm trees. Olive oil is a by-product of olives. You pick the olive and it's right there.
"We originally had palm kernel oil in several of our recipes, but we have now effectively gotten rid of it for that very reason."
What would you say is your favorite product that you sell?
LeeAnn: I use the lotion every day. In the winter, I like the body butter. That might be my favorite.
Trisha: I like the body butter too. I use it on my face, my knees, my ankles, everything!
What has been the most exciting thing for you about running this business?
Trisha: Honestly, it's been really great meeting people. We've made excellent friends just in the craft markets that we have sustained. We see these people all around the state. It's fun meeting new clients.
LeeAnn: I like return clients. Those are my favorite. We vended this past weekend and we had a couple who I recognized when they walked up. They had bought from us at a different [craft show]. When they came up, I gasped and said I did remember them. She wasn't sure if I remembered her but I did. I remembered the conversation we had about the soap you were buying. It's really nice to see and it's kind of awesome to see people who come back and are specifically looking for us.
Where can people find you and your products?
LeeAnn: We will be at the Dane Handmade show. It's November 17th in Monona. We have a couple of out-of-town shows. On November 11th, we're in Brookfield at the Brookfield East High School Craft Fair. On the first weekend of December, we have the very awesome Winter Market in Fort Atkinson which we did for the first time last year. It's an unbelievable event. They have six different locations. There's a trolley that runs the shoppers around. It's all over time. Those are our last three events of the year.
Is there anything you want people to know about the sustainable practices you implement in your business?
LeeAnn: All of our packaging is recyclable, even the plastic. The lotion and body butter comes in plastic. There are cardboard tubes for the lotion bars. When we eventually do lip balms, which we're working on, those will be in recyclable plastic. We are switching out our metal bottles for the linens sprays for glass. Those metal bottles are aluminum, so they're also recyclable, but we're going to switch to glass. We like to buy local whenever we can. For example, for the facial oils we'll be doing at the meetup, we have two local vendors for the sunflower and the grapeseed oils. We get our beeswax from Gentle Breeze. I go visit her at the farmers' market.
Trisha: Some things we're going to be implementing soon are infused oils in some of our products. All of the lip balms that we're making will be infused with herbs or flowers.
LeeAnn: We have one soap that already has infused oils in it and that's the Orange Clove. We infuse it with calendula. We soak the oil with the calendula for a certain amount of time and then we strain out the flower petals, use the oil, and add the flower petals back in at the end as a decorative thing. We actually do it with the Oatmeal Honey soap too. We soak the oatmeal. We buy the honey local for that one. We also uses Sassy Cow whole milk. We're not completely vegan, but we do have a vegan line. So we can offer that to people if they're vegan. We can point you in the right direction.
Is there anything else you think people should know about your products?
Trisha: I think it's important for people buying soap or skincare products to really look at the ingredients. Soap-makers should have truth in advertising.
LeeAnn: Truth in advertising is very important. Most people are truthful. We are very open. If you have questions, if you want to know what oils we use or what the properties of the oils are, if you want to know why we use certain ingredients, you can ask because we are more than willing to share.
Trisha: Even our preservatives, we put them on the label. And we do use preservatives in certain things because rather than give somebody staff, we want them to be safe. It's very important to keep our products germ-free and anytime you add water into an oil and you let it sit, you have the possibility of growing a germ factory. So if somebody has a lotion that they've made and they don't have a preservative, people should question it.
[All photos courtesy of Trisha and LeeAnn & Rowan Tree Bath Works]