Meet the Maker: The Magical Tale Behind Dr. Bronner's Soap
With their trademark no-nonsense brand of marketing and a business beginnings that dates back to 1859, we are excited to bring you this in-depth conversation with the ‘Going Green’ guru, Lisa Bronner, part of the five-generation family-owned and run company, Dr. Bronner’s (one of our absolute faves for all things natural beauty and home products).
We find out from Lisa what it takes to create and maintain a boundary pushing business with ethics and values at the forefront of their mission. Lisa provides tips and tricks for those who don’t have time to navigate the convoluted beauty labels.
She strips your cleaning and beauty routine back to basics and offers some out of the box ideas for self-care and sticking to your values in our modern day lives. So if you’re yet to jump onto the au naturale bandwagon, there is no safer place to start than Dr. Bronner’s. We hope you enjoy all the inspiring and unique stories behind Dr. Bronner’s products as much as we did.
Tell us a little bit about your involvement with Dr Bronner’s …
As with many family businesses, when there’s a job that needs doing, any family member might get roped into doing it! Throughout the years, I have been involved in many different ways. In high school and college I would spend my summers in the Dr. Bronner’s office – which was located in a bedroom of my grandfather’s house – where I would fill in for the two ladies who staffed it while they took some time off. Another time there were some bottles – and by “some,” I mean several thousand – that needed to go to Canada but didn’t have the required bilingual label, so I spent a couple days carefully placing French/English stickers on the labels to bring them up to code. In more recent years, I have been part of the customer engagement team – answering emails, upwards of 100 a day, and now writing a blog, “Going Green with a Bronner Mom”, to answer some of the most frequently asked questions and help busy people transition to greener lifestyles.
How did your Grandfather, founder of Dr Bronner’s, start the business?
He was born into a Jewish soapmaking family in Germany in 1908. His grandfather had started making liquid Castile soap in 1859, and by the time my grandfather came around, the family owned three factories in southern Germany and were doing very well.
My grandfather left Germany for the United States in 1929 due to philosophical conflicts with his dad. In the U.S. he was actually more passionate about his plan for world peace and his guide for living which he called the Moral ABC. However, he noticed that people weren’t all that interested in hearing about his ideas, but they were interested in the tingly excellence of his peppermint soap. So he printed his ideas on the soap label, and that is how the company – and the eccentric label – were born.
What makes Dr Bronner’s so special?
My grandfather was exceedingly ahead of his time. He was focusing on ingredient purity and environmental friendliness back in the 1940s, long before much of anyone else was. It made him sound pretty crazy back then. Even today, Dr. Bronner’s is still leading the way and pushing the boundaries.
We were the first personal care company to seek certification under the USDA standards in the States. The USDA standards were supposed to be only for food, but since there wasn’t anything for cosmetics, we made do, which means we had to use food grade organic oils in our soaps for a while. At first the USDA said, “You can’t do that,” but we went to court to prove our point. After that battle, we fought another one over the use of hemp oil in 2004. Hemp oil is the most nourishing plant-based oil for our skin with a fatty-acid profile that is almost identical to what our body produces. However, at the time, hemp was also considered a Schedule 1 Narcotic. The DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) was on the verge of seizing our supply when we took them to court and won. We’re still fighting to legalize the growing of industrial hemp in the U.S. Currently we buy ours from Canada. Our next boundary was Fair Trade, which certifies that the people involved in the production – from the farmers to the millers to the soapmakers – are all treated fairly and paid a fair wage. There weren’t large enough Fair Trade supplies of some of our ingredients anywhere in the world. So, we created our own, starting with Serendipol, a Fair Trade coconut mill in Sri Lanka that we founded in 2005. We don’t choose to do things the easiest way, but we make a much bigger impact.
Our “Cosmic Principles” define our most important relationships, and guide us in everything we do, from soapmaking to peacemaking. Through them we are able to carry out our mission to make socially and environmentally responsible products of the highest quality, and dedicate our profits to help make a better world. They are: 1. Work Hard! Grow! 2. Do Right By Customers, 3. Treat Employees Like Family, 4. Be Fair To Suppliers, 5. Treat The Earth Like Home, 6. Fund & Fight For What's Right! There is a deeper explanation on our website:
Why are natural soaps so important to you?
Every ingredient in our soaps is of the highest integrity and is the absolute best for the body. Our bodies recognise these ingredients and respond with healthy radiance. Our body has to fight against so many synthetic products that it just doesn’t recognise and it tries to protect itself through irritation and inflammation. There are so many battles to fight in this world. I don’t want to bring them into my bathroom.
How can I tell if a product is natural? What should I be on the look-out for?
You can never believe front label marketing claims, especially around the word “natural.” The word “natural” means nothing from a regulatory standpoint. Always start with reading the ingredient list. If you can understand the ingredients – things like “coconut oil” and “jojoba oil” – that is a good sign. If instead you find “chemical- ese” type names such as methylisothiazolinone, that’s a sign of synthetic ingredients that are likely not in sync with our bodies.
Dr Bronner’s soaps can be used for 18 different uses from washing your face to brushing your teeth. What’s your favourite?
I love the head-to-toe simplicity in the shower of being able to use one product and not have to think about it. It’s how I wake up every morning. I also love using the Castile for cleaning my makeup brushes. It works so quickly and the brushes come out beautifully.
What’s the best way to go green?
One step at a time. If you try to green up everything all at once, you’re going to get frustrated and quit. Instead, pick an area to start. Perhaps the bathroom? The kitchen? The cleaning cabinet? And then pick one aspect in there. Your moisturiser? Your dish soap? Your scouring powder? Once you fix one area, then move on to the next. Eventually you’ll notice that what you learn about one aspect, applies to another and you start to make quick progress.
What is your advice for anyone who is wanting to spring-clean their home naturally?
This is a great time of year to make a fresh start. Oddly, though, many of the products that we use to clean our houses can be exceedingly damaging to the people and pets within. Instead, consider using ingredients that have been around forever. Ingredients from the pantry such as vinegar and baking soda are very useful. Vinegar cut in half with water is a perfect glass cleaner, and baking soda is a great scouring powder. Soap is still the best advised cleaner for dirty surfaces. No modern detergent has proven to be more effective, despite all their marketing. Dilute 60 mL. of Dr. Bronner’s Castile in 1 l. of water to make a great All-Purpose Housecleaning Spray. And don’t forget to open those windows to change the air. The air pollution inside our homes can be far worse than even the dirtiest downtown streets.
Why is it so important to not only nourish your body with wholefoods but use natural skincare products too?
We have to remember that our skin is our body’s largest organ. On average, a woman who wears makeup daily can absorb over 2 kg. of cosmetics. We better make sure that what’s in those cosmetics is something we want in our bodies.
What ingredients should we steer clear from when choosing skincare products?
Without making your eyes glaze over with too many crazy sounding names, let me point out a few of the biggest and baddest. Parabens are a common preservative that is linked to endocrine disruption. “Fragrance” in the ingredient list can conceal a proprietary blend of over 3,000 possible chemicals, the worst among which are Phthalates, a substance that has been linked to everything from male reproductive issues to autism spectrum disorder to Type II Diabetes to breast cancer. Ethoxylated ingredients – known by their “-eth” endings (laureth, myreth, oleath) – carry a high risk of contamination of a carcinogenic by product called 1,4 Dioxane. Quarternium compounds release formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, into products the longer they sit on the shelf.
What’s your skincare routine?
Keep it simple. I clean my skin twice daily with Dr. Bronner’s Castile, usually Tea Tree or Almond. Once a week I do a nighttime coconut oil masque, with just a pea-sized amount of coconut oil massaged in before bedtime. I use Dr. Bronner’s Lavender Coconut Lotion if I need a daily moisturizer. The most important steps for radiant skin do not happen in the bathroom, though. They are to eat healthy, drink lots of water, get lots of sleep, exercise and relax. Without these, no manner of healthy products are going to make any headway.
What are your top natural skincare products you swear by?
Besides Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap, I use coconut oil for myriad things in the bathroom: shaving, hair and skin masques, sugar scrubs, make-up removal. For make-up, Mineral Fusion is my go-to.
As a busy wife and mother, how do you find time for you?
Regardless of how busy my days are or how long my to-do list is, I must get outside for exercise and fresh air. In fact, the busier and longer my day is, the more this is crucial. It’s what my dog and I do after I drop off the kids for school, and before the kids were in school, they came with me. This builds my strength, improves my circulation, clears my head, gives me perspective, and makes my dog happy.
Daily prayer and Bible study are also essential to give me direction and purpose. Without them, the daily busyness is just running around in circles, accomplishing nothing.
Lastly, it’s what I don’t do that makes my days more manageable. I cut out most TV and social media from my days, which is mostly empty noise. I limit errands – traffic and road time is a huge joy-killer. I eliminate clutter, which is just another form of visual noise.