With our formula launch just around the corner, we wanted to take a pause and share a bit about how we arrived here. The road to creating and owning a formula that met all of our requirements was longer and bumpier than we anticipated and had quite a few dead ends. And not being chemists ourselves, it felt at times we were traveling blindfolded. (Oh, and throw having two new babies into the mix!)
While we often felt defeated (and completely exhausted), we persevered, believing and hoping we could arrive at a truly safe and effective product. We are now so grateful to have reached our destination with a unique formula that we are proud to present to you! Below is a peak into our journey as well as the final ingredient list. (If you’d like to read more about why we had to reformulate, you can do so here.)
It Turns Out We’re Really Picky
Our priority was to create a safe, versatile and effective home and body cleaner that doesn’t irritate the skin, eyes, or lungs. We began by asking formulators to make a pure soap that would be fragrance-free, leave no odor or residue, remove stains, cut grease, and not irritate. And, of course, matching performance with our original product was critical. So, in a nutshell, we wanted the formula to:
- Contain all-natural, known-to-be-safe ingredients
- Be plant and mineral based
- Contain ingredients rated a “1”by the EWG
- Cause no irritation to the eyes, skin or lungs
- Stay clear when mixed with tap water
- Officially qualify as “fragrance-free”
- Be an all-purpose cleaner that cuts grease and removes residues
- Leave no residual odor that lingers after application
- Have a safe, natural preservative to assure the stability of the formula
- Be free of alcohol or alcohol ethoxylate surfactants
- Be affordable for our customers
Simple enough, right!? 🙂
Let’s Keep Going
Formula after formula was tested until we finally arrived with a pure soap that performed as well as Branch Basics. There was only one problem. It stung the eyes and caused our more sensitive testers to cough when sprayed. Lye, an ingredient in all-natural soaps, is very caustic as a raw material. And although the saponification (mixing) process transforms the lye and oils into a very safe end product, pure vegetable-oil soaps irritate the eyes and lungs when aerosolized.
We weighed our options: Should we come out with a pure, vegetable oil-based soap that could potentially irritate users OR continue on to find a formula that solves those issues, but may not be the 100% soap we’d hoped to have.
The feedback from customers we polled was virtually unanimous – a safe formula that works with no irritation was top priority. (Not to mention, we ourselves were irritated when spraying soap and didn’t want to react when cleaning with our own product!) So it was back to the drawing board…
We worked with wonderful chemists and learned that each formulator had their own concept of what “natural” meant and even what constituted a real soap vs. a liquid cleaner. It turns out definitions are vague and broad, and we were forced to further define Branch Basics’ explicit standards, priorities and “no-nevers” when it came to specific ingredients. (We threw in a few “yes-maybes” so chemists wouldn’t quit on us!) No matter how persuasively evidence was presented to us at times, we simply wouldn’t budge on the safety side and rejected many ingredients that are commonly found in non-toxic cleaners. This is when we were so thankful for Marilee’s 30 years of consulting with the most sensitive of clients. They are truly our canaries in the coal mine, warning us of any potential negative reaction to specific ingredients, even when science tells us it’s safe. As you can imagine, the greatest challenge was finding a formulator that could be innovative, yet work with our specifications. We needed a formula that would be safe for the most sensitive of people, while still being effective and affordable.
One of the most difficult challenges we battled was long term product stability. We rejected suggestions to use one of the preservatives or antimicrobials that are in many of the popular more natural cleaning products today, such as the isothiazolinones (methylisothiazolinone – MIT) and phenoxyethanol. We also wanted to avoid having any alcohol in our formula or some of the other preservative options such as sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate which, deemed “non-toxic”, may still cause skin, lung, and/or eye irritation.
Close, But No.
We would receive a sample, test it, give feedback and wait for the next iteration. If there was any irritation at all, the formula immediately went into revision. Some formulas would meet most criteria, but then would leave a residual when sprayed or, due to their natural ingredients, were dark and/or wouldn’t stay clear when mixed with tap water. Unfortunately, over and over we felt we were close to the “aha!” moment, but, alas, the ingredients would separate, become cloudy, and/or cause irritation after being used for an extended period.
A Fresh Perspective
After over a HUNDRED formula iterations, we found a formulator that presented a product with no irritation, fragrance, or residual odors. It cut grease and removed stains, cleaned well, worked for laundry, and the price was workable. The only caveat was that it contained naturally-derived, coconut-based surfactants. While they are rated “1” by the EWG and are used in most natural baby and body formulations, they are technically considered synthetic because of the processing involved.
We were ecstatic about this formula on all fronts, except our goal was a product completely free of all synthetic ingredients. We asked that they try natural, botanical surfactants like quillaja, soapbark, soapwort, and soapberry instead, but after several failed iterations, we stepped back to consider a fresh perspective. We knew the glucoside surfactants were widely used in formulas for babies and for those with sensitive skin and in many plant-based cleaning products. We were also very encouraged when we saw that Stephanie Greenwood of Bubble and Bee Organics, the go-to safe ingredient screener, uses glucosides in her body care products and says they are the safest coconut-based surfactants that you can find.
We always wanted to create a versatile cleaning formula that could also be used as a hand and body wash with truly safe ingredients that work. It became very clear that this formula fit the bill, and we were finally ready to move forward and test it amongst our most sensitive friends, family and customers. While we were fairly confident the formula would be well-received, we were blown away by the positive feedback that flowed in.
Below is a list of our ingredients – all rated “1” by the EWG – in the order of their occurrence. (We’ve decided to honor the food and cosmetic standard of labeling instead of the cleaning industry, which doesn’t regulate or require ingredients to be listed in any order or even listed at all).
Coco Glucoside – A naturally-derived surfactant derived from coconut, coco glucoside is one of the most gentle cleansing agents available and is a natural alternative to the harsher cocamidopropyl betaine and sulfates. Its chemical nature and production process results in a surfactant free of impurities like ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, making it suitable for baby and pet products.
Chamomile Flower Extract – An organic flower extract, this is our star ingredient! We were determined to avoid harmful antibacterial chemicals or preservatives like the isothiazolinone family, phenoxyethanol, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, or any type of alcohol. Although it’s more expensive than the commonly-used “green” preservatives, we believe the benefits outweigh the costs.
Decyl Glucoside – A naturally-derived surfactant cleanser derived from coconut and/or corn. Due to its mild nature, it is often used in skincare products and baby products as well as fruit and veggie sprays, as it will not harm the delicate skin on berries.
Sodium Citrate – A plant-derived, biodegradable sodium salt that acts as a water softener. It’s also used as an acidity regulator in food and drinks (think club soda!) and as an emulsifier (it enables cheeses to melt without becoming greasy).
Lauryl Glucoside – Lauryl glucoside is an non-ionic surfactant derived from coconut that can be used as a foaming agent, conditioner or emulsifier. Its excellent foaming capabilities makes it popular for hair care and dermatological products.
Sodium Bicarbonate – A mineral-based water softener, also known as baking soda!
Sodium Phytate – A natural chelator, phytic acid is found in plant seeds and is often used commercially as a preservative due to its antioxidant properties.
Sapindus Mukorossi Fruit – An organic extract of the fruit of the soapberry that contains saponin, which has natural cleansing properties, and is used as a hair, skin and laundry cleanser.
It’s funny how after months of sweat, blood and tears, our work can be summed up in this fairly simple ingredient list. But our hope is that in sharing this background, we can shed light on the dedication and love that was poured into this formula. For some, it may seem like just a cleaning product. But for us, it means much more. It is truly the vehicle for our message, the means to a much greater end: helping people live cleaner lives and experience the power of pure.
If you’re reading this, you can be assured that it is YOUR patience, your support and your encouragement that has kept us pushing forward in the midst of adversity and dead-ends. It is because of you that we can continue our work of educating and enabling others to make healthy choices, in cleaning and beyond.
From the bottom of our hearts, thank you. We look forward to traveling alongside of you on the road ahead!
Allison, Kelly and Marilee