From stem to skin: Team mixes herbs, flowers in Alexandria basement
In a basement off Sixth Avenue in Alexandria, a coffee grinder whirrs as it minces rose petals to powder.
A rubber mallet thumps, bam-BAM, bam-BAM, to secure the tops of small glass vials.
These are the sounds of one of Alexandria's newest manufacturers, one that turns flowers, oils and sugars into exfoliants, moisturizers and aromatherapy.
The manufacturer, RAW.& Co., has only four employees. Their tools are low-tech measuring spoons and eye droppers, and their workspace resembles a "fancy dining room," as a recent visitor commented. Their products are simply made and simple to use, they say, but their plans are anything but simple.
"I see it as a huge company, headquartered out of Alexandria, but touching people across the country," said Sara Severson, one of the four employees.
She is tasked with developing a national sales force. Previously, she trained sales people nationwide for two other local firms that made it big: mobile phone provider RCC/Unicel, which was bought by Verizon, and food mix maker Tastefully Simple.
One of Severson's recent coups was landing RAW. products in a subscription service sent out to new moms across the country through a service called Moms + Babes. While RAW. had to pay for the placement, Severson sees it as a marketing investment that could pay off if those moms discover they love the products and tell their friends.
Behind RAW. is Kristen Haabala Wiener, a naturopathic doctor who graduated from Jefferson High School and was waiting tables at Bug-A-Boo Bay, planning to become a physician assistant, when a customer she befriended suggested she attend school to become a naturopath. The four-year school, National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon, offered classes traditional medical schools do not, teaching students to make healing teas and tinctures, which occur when herbs and other plants are soaked in alcohol to extract medicinal ingredients.
She and a friend would mix lip balms and creams for fun, and later, when she had a family, she would concoct medicinal products for home use and also skin care salves for her patients with rashes and eczema.
Haabala served an internship under Dr. Kristi Hughes, another local naturopath, then set up her own practice. She sees patients for a range of symptoms that might not get scrutinized elsewhere, such as digestive issues, depression and anxiety, and feelings of being tired and run down. She tries to uncover the underlying causes, such as seeking lab tests for nutritional deficiencies or food intolerances.
"Your health starts in your gut," she says.
To develop her skin and hair care products, she bought bags of dried herbs and flowers wholesale from organic suppliers, and stocked coconut oil and shea butter. She developed five scents, naming them "clarity," "happy hippy," "bliss," "uplift," and just plain "lavender."
"Skin care companies are not regulated," she said. "They can put known cancer-causing ingredients in there. They don't have to even tell you what they put in their products."
According to a 2010 study in the journal "Contact Dematitis," formaldehyde and chemicals that release formaldehyde are used in a fifth of U.S. cosmetics. Manufacturers often rely on preservatives such as formaldehyde to make cosmetics last longer, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it is up to them to ensure the safety of their products.
Formaldehyde is most harmful when inhaled, and although applying cosmetics can cause it to become airborne, a separate study found, it wasn't in high enough amounts to pose a threat.
Still, consumer advocates worry that exposure from multiple sources over time could prove harmful.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, run by the nonprofit Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, advises consumers to scrutinize labels and avoid products that contain not just formaldehyde, but phenacetin, coal tar, benzene, untreated or mildly treated mineral oils, ethylene oxide, chromium, cadmium and its compounds, arsenic and crystalline silica or quartz.
Haabala says if customers accidentally ingest her products, there will be no harmful effects. And, she says, they work.
She has conducted skin care trials on volunteers in a range of ages with a range of skin care types. They used her products for a month, using photos to track whether their skin problems healed, and if so, how quickly. She tried them on herself as well.
"The real cool thing was everybody's skin type got better," she said. "I was actually blown away, myself."
She also enlisted moms to use her diaper balm, and posts upcoming trials on social media.
"Our skin is our body's largest organ," Haabala said. "We want to be careful that we don't put artificial chemicals or ingredients on our skin that we wouldn't feel comfortable eating, because our body will absorb them all."
Meanwhile, Haabala has ramped up her production from cooking three to four jars worth of skin care products on her kitchen stove to whipping up 50 to 100 jars worth at a time.
"We're running out all the time," she said.
She spends time in prayer and meditation, and devotes part of her proceeds to what she calls "God money," money for causes that help people, animals or plants.
"It's all kind of God's plan and I said, 'Let's try this and this. We haven't had to tweak much, to be honest with you. It's been a blessing."
As her production grows, she expects to hire more employees. Manufacturers have been challenged by a tight labor market, but Haabala said she has a waiting list of people who want to be a part of what she's doing.
"I think people are super intrigued about what we're doing and why we're doing it," said Lindsay Muzik, who began work for Haabala several years ago as office manager for what was then known as Midwest Natural Medicine. "Everybody wants to work for a greater purpose."
Extreme cold temperatures forced RAW.&Co. to postpone its grand opening earlier this month at 110 Sixth Ave. E. The new date is Thursday, Feb. 28, from 4-7 p.m.