I’ve been thinking about growing and manufacturing some type of farm-to-table bath and body product since at least 2013, but at the time, I didn’t have a farm. That, and the term “farm-to-face” hadn’t been invented yet! After a few years of gardening and small-batch manufacturing, I’m pretty certain about the process I’d use, if the stars aligned and a few factors came into play. So how would we go about crafting a farm-to-face skin care product?
What does farm-to-face mean?
Firstly, let’s define the term “farm-to-face.” Farm-to-face, or farm-to-skin” means all the ingredients for a product are grown at the same location or by the same company that produces the skin care product. Farm-to-face is a similar concept to farm-to-table, which has existed in the restaurant industry for some time, in which the owners of the restaurant also grow the food that they prepare.
The hardest part of farm-to-face is finding a farm
When we lived in San Francisco, we had no green space at all. In Oakland, I actually had access to a rather large lot, but I didn’t know then what I know now about growing and producing oil. Now in Portland, I live on a wonderful property with lots of trees, but it is too shady to grow anything except maybe mushrooms!
Over the years, I’ve explored a bunch of options for obtaining the raw materials and processing my own oil. I researched going to a u-pick-it olive orchard in the Central Valley. The orchard staff would also extract the oil from the olives for $3 a pound, which is about what we pay for already processed olive oil.
Later, I found a guy in the Bay Area who had an olive oil centrifuge, the device that you use to separate the olive oil from the rest of the fruit. My idea this time was to forage avocados from a friend’s tree, which made several hundred pounds of avocados each year. Avocado oil is processed in a centrifuge just like olives. However, the guy with the centrifuge, in the end, decided not to work with us.
One year I planted a few oilseed pumpkins, but they didn’t make much more than one small soap batch worth of oil. For a while, I even looked into growing algae to produce oil for soapmaking!
Pumpkinseed oil for farm-to-face soap
One of the biggest problems in trying to locally-source all our ingredients was that two of the most useful base oils we use aren’t widely cultivated in the United States. One is palm oil, which we are actually phasing out. The other is coconut oil. We decided to continue to use coconut oil, because, along with olive oil, this is what gives our soap its unique “personality.”
However, it is possible to make soap purely out of olive oil, which is traditionally known as castile soap. Another oil very similar to olive oil is pumpkinseed oil. So, to keep things simple in this farm-to-face thought experiment, I would use a purely pumpkinseed oil recipe because it would take a lot less time to grow a crop of pumpkins than it would to establish my own olive orchard, especially in the rainy Pacific Northwest.
Sunflower oil for other skin care products
There is one oilseed even easier to grow than pumpkin seeds, and that is sunflower seeds. Sunflower oil, by itself, makes a very soft bar of soap that doesn’t cleanse very well, but it is great for other cosmetics. We use sunflower oil for a few of our skin care products, and so do a lot of other companies, such as Burt’s Bees. Growing sunflowers would be as simple as finding a vacant lot and planting a sack or two of sunflower seeds meant for birdseed. Those are actually the same kind that is used to make oil.
I actually have a pretty good physical sense of the amount of sunflower seeds needed. A friend used to plant sunflower seeds along her fence and in a couple flower beds. She easily filled up a big yogurt container with seeds for the next year, so you could probably make a couple gallons of oil from a quarter acre plot.
Sunflower oil is also great because it is one of the least comedogenic natural oils. Comedogenic means the tendency to clog pores and form blackheads. For some reason, the sunflower oil molecules are big enough that they don’t clog the pores, or the oil is just not as irritating as other oils.
Processing the oilseeds for farm-to-skin products
After growing and harvesting the oilseeds, the next step would be to mill them to get the oil out. Since I would opt for pumpkin seeds versus olives, I wouldn’t need a centriguge, but rather, more of a press, or grinding device. There are a couple popular tools that backyard homesteaders use, mostly of the hand-crank variety. One of these could process a gallon of sunflower seeds in about an hour, and you would end up with about a pint of oil. This is not too bad a time investment to produce enough cooking oil for a month or two. However, it is a big labor cost to add if you’re making products to sell. If I was thinking about a long-term farm-to-face cosmetic operation, I would almost certainly build some sort of hydropower or windmill oil expeller to process my seeds.
Update: I wrote a later post about a prospective design for one of these contraptions.
Is it possible to make all-natural lye?
It is possible to make your own lye. Our pioneer ancestors made lye out of hardwood ash. They would simply mix the ash with water and then mix that with cooking fat. One problem with making soap out of wood ash lye is that it’s not very precise. We might end up with a bar of soap with not enough lye that is basically just oily goop. This happened with one of our very early experimental batches, and the goop-soap was not very pretty or effective. Or we could end up with a bar of soap with too much lye that would be very harsh or even dangerous to use. I’m not saying that DIY lye is out of the question, but I would be hesitant to use it in a recipe that is meant for commercial production. If we did decide to make an entirely farm-to-face soap bar, we would almost certainly invest in they type of testing equipment needed to ensure consistent lye quality, or at the very least, practice a lot before we made a bar to sell.
Other farm-to-face ingredients
Essential oils aren’t necessary to make a bar of soap, but they do make it smell good, which in turn, makes people want to buy it! So if we wanted to make soap that was actually marketable, we would probably have to invest in a still to steam-distill essential oils. Steam distilling requires a lot of raw material to start with, so we would probably pick scents based on availability of materials. For example, if we made soap that smelled like eucalyptus, pine, or bay laurel, simply pruning a couple trees would give us enough material for a few batches of soap.
Beeswax is another ingredient that might not be necessary, but greatly improves the quality of a soap bar in certain circumstances. For example, in our experience, a pure olive oil soap bar is rather brittle, and often cracks while curing or being cut. A little beeswax in the recipe goes a long way to make a firm bar that is not too brittle. Beeswax is necessary, however, to thicken balms and salves. So the hypothetical Metaphor Organic farm would certainly include a few bee hives!
Finally, a lot of natural soap brands include little bits of seeds, flowers, or other natural ingredients to use as exfoliants or just as an artistic touch. This part of Metaphor Organic production is already farm-to-face, because most of these “botanicals” come from our home garden. Our homegrown lavender petals, for example, have a deeper color and smell better than anything we can find available commercially. This bring up another point, that you can strive to produce ingredients in-house, even if the entire operation is not farm-to-face. Even though we think we make one of the best soaps out there, any craft is a process. There is always more to learn, and there are always ways to improve.
After years of soapmaking and especially after doing the research to write this article, I think that farm-to-face soap is certainly doable. However, considering the difficulty of making consistent lye, as well as the expense of a still to make the essential oil, I think it would be a lot easier to start with a different farm-to-face skin care item such as a salve. We could grow the sunflowers as well as any fragrant or medicinal herbs. A few bee hives would make all the necessary wax. And because the process of making salves is more simple than that of soap, we could simply soak, or macerate, the necessary herbs in the sunflower oil rather than having to first distill their essential oils. If you are curious about why you need to use essential oils in soap, you can read the article about our soapmaking process. Or if you have some land that you want to loan us for a farm-to-face skin care operation, in Northwest Oregon or Southwest Washington, email us asap at firstname.lastname@example.org!