What do soap suds and outer space have in common? Good question! And the perfect people to answer are Elaine and Richard Hamner of Green Mountain Soaps. We were delighted over here HTGAM ground control to be able to ask this husband and wife team, former NASA employees, and the founders of Green Mountain Soap, a few questions. These guys have been making soap, including shaving soap, for a while, and they really have a great handle on the process, specializing in products that work for people who have very sensitive skin, and cannot use anything else. We hope you enjoy getting to know a bit about Elaine and Richard, and what keeps them grounded!
HTGAM: You guys have been making soap for some time; you also both had careers with NASA. Can you give our readers a little bit of history on how you got started? What drew you to it initially? Did outer space have anything to do with it!?
Richard: We’ve been making soap since the mid-1970s, after Elaine’s mother began teaching the grandkids about her life growing up in rural Mississippi: making jam, churning butter, and making soap, just to name a few. We were intrigued by the soap she made, and began to improve on the recipe. At first, it was mostly by experimentation and guessing, but later, we learned a lot of chemistry.
Elaine: The NASA vision of excellence has been adopted as the guiding principle in everything we do at Green Mountain Soap Co. Working on space flight hardware and on support to science experiments taught us to pay attention to the details, because the little things are the big things. We also use the scientific method when developing new products so we can attribute changes in performance to one specific action on our part.
HTGAM: When did Green Mountain come into being?
Richard: Strictly speaking, we incorporated in 1992 so we would have the framework to begin purchasing equipment. We actually entered interstate commerce in 1994, but it took us until 1997 to be granted the trademark after a bit of skillful maneuvering around some New York City attorneys who also tried to claim the name. The next two trademarks for the rebranding effort and the shave soap were easy after that. Elaine is pretty good at reading Government regulations after a career in NASA Procurement!
HTGAM: What are some of the more unique aspects of your soap? Do you have specific customers in mind?
Richard: We’ve got customers whose skin is so sensitive they refuse to use any other soap. Some people have skin conditions, and others have multiple chemical sensitivity. Originally we were making the soap for ourselves, but after seeing all the good we could do for people with really sensitive skin, we decided to go into business.
HTGAM: What goes into the development of a soap recipe, specifically shaving soap? Many of our readers are interested in traditional wet shaving and want to know more about the soaps themselves. What are some of the qualities that make a shaving soap good, and what makes a shaving soap different than a regular bar or body soap?
Richard: The old joke, attributed to Edison, that development is “99% perspiration,” is true. Rather than accept the “wisdom” of the Internet and hearsay, we had to determine the impact of oils and fats on soap’s shaving properties for ourselves. There are a lot of natural lipids and additional components (like glycerin and bentonite clay) out there to test! Plus, it’s not like every ingredient operates in isolation. The lipid characteristics interact with each other, making recipe development an exercise in the scientific method.
Elaine: Bath soap doesn’t require a sturdy, stable lather, and that’s the biggest initial hurdle. But a really stable lather doesn’t lubricate well: the long chain hydrocarbons…well, anyway. Sorry about that. Anyway, it turns out that our bath soap provides a slippery lather, so we already had some experience with some oils and their properties. Our son, Jesse, has been shaving his head in the shower with the bath soap for years before we began work on a shave soap.
The biggest “win” for us, we think, is the skin care. GMS shave soap provides all the elements of a great shave, plus excellent moisturizing and healing of the skin. We’re very proud of the results.
HTGAM: Perhaps a slightly more technical question, but your shaving soap is unique in that it is cold processed. Many of the artisan soaps on the market are hot processed. Can you tell us about the difference in these methods and why you choose to use the cold process approach?
Elaine: Hot process soap, like traditional ‘Aleppo’ or ‘Marseille’ soap, or what great-grandma might have done in the back yard, doesn’t require precision measurement of oils, fats, and caustic. Hot process soap can result in the presence of at least some unreacted caustic, and cold process soap gives us better control over the final product.
Based on our knowledge of soap chemistry, we are able to formulate different types of soap based on the saponification value of each fat or oil we purchase derived from its certificate of analysis without needing to rely on charts or the “lye discount” method. We have a small chemistry lab on the premises where each completed batch of soap is tested for excess caustic by the titration method.
HTGAM: It seems that the internet has presented multiple opportunities and challenges to small artisan soap makers. Since Green Mountain has been around for a while, how has the development of the World Wide Web and online commerce affected your company and the general market for handcrafted soap?
Elaine: Our main customers are companies which may have any combination of a print catalog, storefront, or web store. Though we primarily are a manufacturer involved in B2B sales, we maintain a web store as a convenience for people who wish to buy directly from us. We actually have some loyal long-time customers who don’t have computers and are more comfortable calling us. It does make us a little nervous when one customer mails a blank signed check with a note to “send more soap.”
A prime goal is for gmsoap.com to be viewed as a reliable source of information about soap. We see a wide array of half-truths, superstition, marketing-speak, and completely wrong information about soap, and much of it is provided by people who claim expert status. It isn’t sexy, but we hope to educate our potential and existing customers about soap, detergent (“coconut-derived surfactants” is a favorite euphemism for “detergent with no glycerin”), and artificial additives.
The Internet has enabled us to develop relationships with other businesses seeking custom formulations and contract packaging services, which constitute a small but growing segment of our business. The “long tail” of the Internet means we can reach markets that would be more difficult to reach, like our plastic-mold customers, who use our food-grade soap in their manufacturing processes.
HTGAM: Are there any new products in development that we should be on the lookout for in the future?
Richard: Elaine is working on a witch-hazel aftershave as a side project, with Jesse as the only tester at this point. Shave soap sticks are due out this year, if we can find suitable packaging for them. We’re doing R&D on a coffee soap for a small roaster in Rhode Island, and potentially some contract work in Colorado. There are other long term product goals, of course, that we’ll pursue as we can.
Richard: Elaine doesn’t use a brush but builds lather by rubbing the shave soap in her hands. Since she has to cover a large area fraught with obstacles like ankles and kneecaps, her main goal is to avoid cutting herself!
Elaine: Richard remembers the adjustable Gillettes when they were new, but he never used one, preferring a Super Speed (and disposables, once they became popular). He uses a Slim Adjustable most of the time, which was a gift from our son, and of course a high quality badger brush.
We do find that our soap generally requires more water than some other products to build a suitable lather. That’s a favorite tip. As we said before, there’s some slow R&D on an aftershave, so that might be a “favorite”, but it’s a work in progress.
Interview by Amelia Goodwin
Amelia is a staff writer at How to Grow a Moustache and an authority on traditional female wet shaving. She collects Lady Gillettes but prefers her Vintage Aristocrat. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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