It was a crisp autumn afternoon in Vermont when Larry Plesent, founder and CEO of Vermont Soap, headed to the county fair in search of a slice of apple pie to satiate his sweet tooth.
Walking the fairgrounds, he passed a vendor selling various goat milk products such as soaps and cheeses.
He picked up a bar of goat milk soap and stared at it with skepticism. This was the case with most soaps. Plesent suffered from contact dermatitis, an allergic skin reaction brought on by particular chemicals. Affected since his teens, he showered reluctantly, knowing that by the third day his skin would break out and become irritated.
He picked up a bar of soap and looked at the people selling it.
“I’m sorry, I’m not going to try this soap,” he thought to himself.“These people look sketchy.”
He put the bar of soap back down on the table. When he looked up, he saw an unforgettable scene.
“My jaw dropped. There was this granny with long white hair, dressed in white, the baby in white, the tree in red, in full-peak bloom of the fall colors, and me holding this goat milk soap,” Plesent recently recounted to me in an interview, noting the serendipity of the situation.
The woman in white told Plesent to try the goat milk soap, and that she even washed her hair with it.
“I have sensitive skin,” he told her.
“Me too,” she said. Then she showed him her baby.
The baby had beautiful skin. No sign of a rash. Convinced, Plesent bought a little bar of goat milk soap for three dollars. After years of scouring stores for a soap that would not irritate his skin, he had everything to gain.
Because of his contact dermatitis, showering exacerbated his skin, and he dreaded the painful process of bathing.
“Time to go hurt myself,” he would think whenever he had to shower.
Shampooing became problematic, too. His hair would fall out in quantifiable clumps and clog the drain.
“I did not know it, but my body was beginning to have a reaction to chemicals,” Plesent said.
He began using Dr. Bronner’s in his teens, when his skin was first reacting to products, and was drawn to the company’s “all-one” soap product. But within a few months of applying Dr. Bronner’s, Plesent’s skin would break out in what he described as “a red, pulsating rash.”
He described this chapter of his life as “the edge.”
As an adult, his sensitive skin only worsened. He described this chapter of his life as “the edge.” To pull himself back from this edge, he wrote “The Reactive Body Handbook,” a free downloadable guide for people with reactive bodies, which, Plesent revealed, “is most of us.”
Back at home, Plesent tried that little bar of goat milk soap from the woman with long white hair at the county fair. By the third day of showering, which was usually when his skin would react to personal care products, he looked at his left forearm — the area most vulnerable to rashes — and “miracles of miracles, my arm was clear,” Plesent said.
Having a scientific mind, Plesent speculated there was either something magical about goat milk soap, or there was something magical about farm soap: the process of making this very strange, soft soap in a farmhouse.
“There was nothing magic about goat milk,” Plesent deduced, “but there was everything magic about handmade-type soap or what they call farm soap.”
“I realized this was a process story, not an ingredient story,” Plesent said. “It’s much easier to sell a magic ingredient than it is to sell a magic process. People are less open.”
Happy that he had not contracted a rash from the goat milk soap, he started investigating various companies that also made farm soap. He ordered a bar from a company in upstate New York, showered with it and arrived at the same result: no rash.
Eventually Plesent decided he was going to make his own farm soap. He and a buddy, who was looking for some part-time work, hung out in the afternoons, learning to make small batches of soap. They experimented with different formulas, using Plesent’s sensitive skin as an indicator for what worked and did not work.
“We figured out a way to make soap in a microwave!” Plesent added with a laugh.
Like mad scientists, they mixed and mingled ingredients and kept records of formulas. Through a trial and error process over the course of six months, he and his friend had developed a decent bar soap formula, and soon after, Plesent was selling bars off his front porch in a tin can.
This project was the beginning of what would become Vermont Soap.
Plesent would give his soap to anyone who came by. He knew its worth and knew that once people had tried it, they would be believers, too. Giving it away was part of his marketing approach, and one of those people ended up being Howard Dean, then governor of Vermont.
“We’re just getting started, and our main product was a bar soap called oatmeal lavender,” Plesent said.
While selling bars of oatmeal lavender soap at a vendor market in Killington, Vermont, Plesent spotted Governor Dean and his entourage walking around the fairgrounds, with the press trailing behind. In between making announcements, the governor swooped in.
“He walks right up to me, sticks his face right in front of mine and he goes, ‘Look, look!’ and points to his face.
“He walks right up to me, sticks his face right in front of mine and he goes, ‘Look, look!’ and points to his face. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, I gave him a rash! And it’s all my fault!’”
But to Plesent’s surprise, the governor had come to praise his product: “No, no. Look! You can shave with this, too!”
This interaction helped Plesent see that his handmade soap was multifaceted, and it was not much time after that he began washing his hair with it.
“I saw immediately that my hair did not fall out as fast. It was obviously thinning, but it was no longer cleaning out huge chunks that literally fell out,” Plesent admitted.
Research has shown that some of the main detergents that are in shampoos can actually loosen hair follicles on certain individuals. Dr. Robert Dorin, a hair specialist and restoration surgeon in New York City, has identified several ingredients that may be the culprit to hair loss.
According to Dr. Dorin, sodium laurel sulfate [SLS], the chemical that produces the bubbly lather synonymous with shampoos, “strips hair of essential oils, breaks down protein essential for hair health, and halts growth.”
Other chemicals found in shampoos, such as sodium chloride, dry the scalp and contribute to hair loss. Polyethylene glycol, another widely used ingredient in leading commercial shampoos, deprives hair of its moisture. Formaldehyde, a popular preservative to perpetuate shelf life, “can affect hormonal balance and encourage hair loss.” In fact, Johnson & Johnson, aware of such deleterious effects, has since removed the formaldehyde-releasing preservative known as Quaternium-15 from its “No More Tears” shampoo.
The list of chemicals found in commercial shampoos unfortunately goes on. Alcohols, artificial colors, fragrances, and propylene glycol (an ingredient in antifreeze) all contribute to the thinning, brittling and loss of hair.
Consumers should heed Dr. Dorin’s advise: “Avoid products listing alcohol as one of the first four ingredients. The closer to the top of the ingredient list, the higher the percentage in the product.”
Public Goods members will be pleased to not find alcohol, or any of these harmful chemicals, included in our new shampoo bar, specially designed by Vermont Soap. The top four ingredients listed on the packaging of the bar read: saponified organic oils of palm (RSPO certified); coconut; olive and palm kernel (RSPO certified); and natural lavender essential oil blend with organic lavender oil. The remaining two ingredients are rosemary extract and organic aloe vera.
The palm oil that goes into Public Goods’ shampoo bar not only aligns with RSPO environmental and social regulations, but is sourced from Agropalma Brazil, an eco-friendly co-op that won a Greenpeace award for sustainability.
When soap is properly made — and most soaps are not — it can be used to wash hair.
Being a formulator, Plesent creates formulas by eliminating superfluous elements that may cause reactions to the hair and skin. He discovered that an ideal shampoo bar, such as the one he formulated for Public Goods, is made of a minimum of essential oils, or no essential oils at all because most hair types do not react well to such abrasive solvents. Extracts, however, are less potent.
“The reason for that is essential oils are not oily like olive or coconut oil; they’re oily like a solvent. Solvents are high in volatile compounds and they dissolve things; put essential oil in a balloon and it’ll eat right through,” Present explained.
Additionally, a shampoo bar should contain a minimal amount of coconut oil because if not, it then becomes too aggressive of a cleaning agent to use regularly on the hair, ultimately drying it out. This problem is what some amateur soap makers fall victim to: not knowing the correct amounts of ingredients to use.
The process is comparable to baking. Consider what happens when too much salt is added to a chocolate chip cookie recipe.
Finally, a good shampoo bar should contain a natural active ingredient that conditions and shines hair, such as aloe vera.
The rosemary extract found in Public Goods’ shampoo bar adds volume by stimulating roots and improves hair growth. The lavender oil similarly encourages hair growth and boasts antimicrobial properties that battle bacteria, and the organic aloe vera repairs skin cell damage on the scalp and is the agent responsible for adding sheen and softness to hair.
Washing hair with handmade soap, or a shampoo bar, does not seem to loosen the hair follicles similarly to how detergents do. Another great feature about the shampoo bar is that it helps eliminate split ends. Plesent, who stopped using commercial shampoos 27 years ago, remembered having unmanageable hair because of split ends. “All that went away” after making the switch.
People with thin or fine hair will be most pleased with Public Goods’ new shampoo bar, according to Plesent. Those who color their hair, unfortunately, might find that the color washes out more easily as opposed to a Public Goods shampoo. Because curly hair contains different bonds that react differently to pH levels, it might not have the same effect.
I have curly hair, though, and I love this product. After the shower my hair not only felt clean, but was also silently thanking me for not abusing it with the same detergents I had relied on all my life. A year ago I would not have thought I would be the one to gravitate toward shampoo bars.
I had previously tested out a shampoo bar I had purchased in a bougie soap shop in Brooklyn, only to find that it left a waxy residue on my scalp.
I told Plesent this and how the salesperson claimed that eucalyptus, an ingredient in the bar, was good for curly hair.
“I don’t buy that,” he said. “I have been using this for two and a half decades, and I definitely don’t have buildup.”
The only time he did experience buildup, however, was when he used the bar down to the very bottom. At this point, the little sliver of soap no longer contained all of its ingredients, and the naturally occurring wax from the formula was basically all that remained.
“This is true for our product, I can’t speak for others,” Plesent admitted.
As I wondered why the shampoo bar I bought in Brooklyn created this buildup, Plesent went down a list, trying to pinpoint the reasoning. He asked me if I showered with cold water or had soft or hard water where I lived — all factors that could potentially cause the buildup. Nothing.
Unfortunately — and this happens often — the salesperson sold me misinformation, claiming that an ingredient would benefit the particular bond in my hair responsible for curls. I fell for the gimmick and shelled out $14 for a five-ounce shampoo bar.
Public Goods’ shampoo bar is a fraction of the cost, priced at $5.50 for 3.25 ounces. Comparing the two, the Public Goods shampoo bar is significantly thicker. I placed it into the aluminum tin that the $14 bar came in, and could not close the tin. I wondered if the aluminum tin was included in the five-ounce weight of the expensive bar.
Plesent has a very scientific mindset. He tests water and air pressure over extended periods of time to see how they will impact his soap products. When asked if science was his favorite subject in school, he quickly answered yes then divulged how the subject was what got him expelled from high school. After receiving an “improbably high score” on a mid-term exam, his teacher believed Plesent to have broken into his house, unlocked his briefcase, found the exam, then memorized all the answers.
Plesent not only got every answer right on the midterm, but also got both college-level bonus questions right.
“But what made them know — without certain — that I had cheated was how I arrived at the answers. It wasn’t what the teacher showed us on the blackboard. It was the way I figured it out. Not the way he figured it out.”
Plesent had found a non-textbook way of working out a problem, and his teacher did not like that.
“It totally freaked him out,” Plesent added.
“The school administration said, ‘No kid has ever been able to do that.” But there Plesent was, proving there was another way to solve an issue.
Because of this perspicacious nature, sensitive skin and all-around humanitarian desire to create honest, healthy products, Larry Plesent, with the help of his team at Vermont Soap, has created a wide-range of healthy, sustainable products. Public Goods customers can now reap the benefits with our new shampoo bar.
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