A new mom traipsed down her staircase and across the polished hardwood, her cooing six-month-old baby cradled against her chest. Abstract paintings and family photographs adorned the living room walls. Flowing drapery hung from the windows. Potpourri, candles and oil warmers filled the space with a symphony of amber, rose and vanilla. Styled to cozy perfection, she and her husband had worked long hours to create a home that would serve as their sanctuary— where conversations would be shared over savory meals and glasses of wine, and where lazy Sundays would be spent lounging on the couch together. It was to be a cocoon of comfort and fellowship with a sprawling kitchen; where pots of soup would simmer in the winter and fresh lemonade would be served in the summer. This would be a safe haven to raise their growing family—a shelter from a world that seemed to pose so many dangers.
She leaned into her plush sofa to nurse her baby, a lit candle flickering on an end table nearby. She shut her tired eyes for a moment, exhaling softly and taking comfort in the nest she had so come to cherish. Except, unbeknownst to her, there was a dark side to this feeling of comfort. Because she was unaware that she had just exposed herself and her child to more than a dozen toxins in less than five minutes.
Researchers for a 2009 study conducted by South Carolina State University determined that burning the most common variety of household scented candles, made from paraffin wax, filled the air with chemicals such as alkans, alkenes, benzene and toluene—all posing threats of allergic reactions, asthma and even cancer. In June 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) blasted out a tweet warning Americans against the potential lung-threatening dangers of burning incense and candles.
Popular plug-ins and other products within the home fragrance market have been found to be equally as hazardous. In fact, a 2013 study published by the International Journal of Public Health reported that, among more than 2,000 pregnant women, those who used plug-in air fresheners during the gestational period were more likely to give birth to babies who suffered with lung infections. According to the National Toxicology Program, a common ingredient in many air freshener sprays and plug-in oil warmers is formaldehyde— a human carcinogen that has been linked to chronic throat irritation, nosebleeds and respiratory disturbances. The presence of phlatelets is another danger, among a slew of others, that have been correlated with endocrine disruption and the hindering of reproductive health.
But everyone wants a home that is a pleasure to their senses. It’s a vital element to creating a particular ambiance and mood within one’s most private quarters. So even with the use of essential oils rising in popularity, candles, incense, plug-ins and synthetic air freshener sprays continue to fill shopping carts. But are there alternatives that aren’t villainous to our health? Liz Watkins, Founder and Owner of the Simmer Company, a San Francisco-based small business, says there absolutely is.
Just as almost every business idea is born from a problem its creator wishes to solve, her story is no exception. After uprooting her life as a newlywed in a suburb of Nashville, Tenn. and moving across the country to an urban condo in downtown San Francisco, she found herself in the midst of a major living adjustment. Excited about her new venture with her husband, yet feeling the absence of ample closet space and kitchen cabinets as much as she missed happy hours with her best girlfriends, she was brainstorming for ways to make her downsized space feel more like home.
Her mind called upon the festive pots she had simmered every Christmas Eve for years. She would combine the orange slices, cinnamon and clove, then turn the stove to a gentle heat, allowing the notes to come forth and set the perfect backdrop to enjoy her favorite Christmas movies and songs. Thoughts of those simmering pots sparked some of her warmest memories. Maybe that would help, she thought. And, being that it wasn’t Christmastime, she could revel in other scents, aligning them with whatever whims her mood called for on any given day. But when she searched for ready-made packs of dehydrated fruits, flowers, herbs and spices, there were none.
Realizing there was no comparable product on the market, her next move was clear: she would have to create it herself. “My business idea was born from a genuine desire to use this product on a regular basis, all year long, but there was no product like it,” says Watkins. “My husband told me, ‘Liz, you need to sell this,’ but I had no idea where to begin. I started researching simmering potpourri, fragrance combinations, and candle alternatives. My research led me down a rabbit hole where I found that most candles and home fragrances are extremely toxic.”
Watkins began sourcing the highest quality non-toxic ingredients she could gather—from credible online sources to local markets to lavender brought back from her in-laws’ vacation to Italy, then played with the ingredients to formulate new scent combinations. It took her months of daily experimentation to perfect her blends and process. But, once she did, she created a website and announced her brand online. “I read advice that said, ‘Don’t get trapped in analysis paralysis—just do it,’ so I did. I already believed in the product,” she says.
Her secret ingredient? Simply paying attention to how particular scents met her emotional and mental needs. “Lemons always make me feel happy, and they are naturally tied to spring and summer. Vanilla and cinnamon feel cozy. Lavender promotes relaxation. But I also try to incorporate a seasonal element— for example, pineapple and coconut give you the feeling of summer,” she says.
After a couple of months of sales, she began experimenting with the notion of expanding her brand of non-toxic simmers to bath products. She knew that if she was going to be an activist for home health, the bath was not a ritual to neglect. She felt that women needed healthier options when soaking their flesh. Although some of the ingredients she uses have been known for centuries to help eradicate inflammation and assist natural detoxification, she is cautious to promote them as wellness products. “The bath products are primarily intended for pampering, but the aromatherapy elements do contribute to overall relaxation and well-being. The pineapple soak can be dropped into the bath, and it works as a ‘tea’ of sorts. I also have a lavender bath salt as well.”
Watkins says she is on a mission to help all of our homes become healthier places to live and relax, though this desire came about on accident. “Originally, I was just focused on the sensorial aspect of the product, but the non-toxic part of it has become most important to me,” she says.
And she feels there is an urgent need for it. Although consumers have been alerted to the toxic risks of many popular cosmetic products, with websites like EWG’s Skin Deep and apps like Think Dirty, which are inspiring women to clear out their bathroom counters and drawers, replacing their most beloved body creams, shampoos and scrubs with toxic-free options, some practices have remained the same. There is also the growing trend of DIY blends and recipes on Pinterest for linen sprays and window cleaners made with essential oils and various other common household ingredients, yet many of these same women continue to buy candles and bath bombs that contain a slew of health-hindering ingredients.
“Consumers are doing their research and are much more knowledgeable about the chemicals contained in some of their most used home products, and I’m so glad for that,” says Watkins. “But home fragrance is one of the categories that has been slower to adopt these changes. So many waxes and artificial fragrances are extremely toxic, but users do not realize the risks because they are not using the product on their skin or ingesting it. I want to spread awareness about the dangers of carcinogenic paraffin candles and other chemicals in home fragrance products, while providing consumers with a non-toxic, healthy and high-quality alternative. You deserve a beautiful smelling home without the risk, and I want everyone to have that.”
Watkins’ stance—and brand— is based on a simple ethos: if you’re going to be a consumer, you should be an informed and conscious one. If you’re going to buy something in an effort to please your senses, make sure it’s a pleasure to your overall health as well.
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