Sally Mittuch is the founder of award-winning eco business, Natural Spa Supplies, which has shown real growth this year – mainly down to sales of her handmade hemp oil soap. Not bad for a business which started off in her front room!
I grew up in Suffolk with horses and I love nature and the simple things in life. I studied a BA (Hons) at the UEA, obtained my PGCE and then taught History of Art and Photography for eight years at City College Norwich. I didn’t want to become a field archaeologist but hoped I would use my knowledge somehow.
My Natural Spa Supplies journey began on honeymoon. I washed my hair and skin in clay and got immediate transformative results. I vowed from that moment never to put chemical shampoos on my head again and assumed I would be able to buy the clay when I got back to the UK. On my return, when I realised that wasn’t possible, I decided to start a business to make it available to everyone in the UK. I developed a product range with this question in mind: ‘What did people used to use in the past?’
At home, my husband Scott and I only use what we sell in the shop, with no cheating. Our products are very versatile – a jar of hemp oil soap can be used to exfoliate the skin, clean the pores, to shave, as naturally antimicrobial hand wash, to clean roasting pans, the oven, pet bowls – really anything germy, oily, but without harm to the skin. All our cleaning is accomplished without rubber gloves.
My archaeology background comes in useful and it helps to guide to me to traditional sources, often known for thousands of years. Many places are known for specific products: Thanaka powder used for permanent hair removal comes from Myanmar and we can track its long history of safe use.
Alum crystal deodorant forms on the edges of volcanoes. It is not present in the UK because it is water soluble, but it has always been in high demand because it was essential for textile dyers as a mordant. Privateer pirates were paid to seize ships laden with alum and dock them in London. Our alum supply comes from North Africa, the same source that Queen Elizabeth I used. We also import it by ship – it is popular as a highly effective non-fragranced deodorant.
The Romans knew that the best sea sponges came from Greece, so all our sponges are sustainably collected by divers around the Greek Islands.
The Romans developed a huge terracotta amphora production industry in Spain, so our amphoras which are used to purify tap water are made by a talented fourth generation potter in Spain. You can’t help thinking that the knowledge of how to make the amphoras has been transmitted across the generations since the Roman times.
I am currently working with a local farmer to grow marshmallow root as a hair conditioner. Currently it comes from Hungary, but it did used to be grown in the UK.
I was happy to win the eco award in 2012-13. The judges were delighted that I had recreated what is probably the earliest British soap and had found that it was fast acting as a natural antimicrobial soap. The ingredients are British as are the glass jars and it has proved to be one of my most popular products. Since the outset of the business, we have always aimed to be plastic free – well before it was fashionable.
I paid a lot of attention to the news of Covid in January and immediately set about buying in stock and packaging. Over the years, while trying to obtain supplies, I have had to work around earthquakes, volcanos, port blockades and strikes. Luckily, we haven’t had any encounters with modern day pirates. However, I knew a Covid pandemic could have more impact than any of these.
With the lockdown and the staff on furlough the change was instant. Orders came in thick and fast and my priorities switched to sending out orders and replenishing supplies. Every day was a 12-hour day. The lockdown continued to be extended and by May it was clear that I would not be able to maintain social distancing at the Old Post Office. The long workdays would have been unsustainable in the long term – I would need to find larger premises, to get staff back.
Luckily, my husband is an architect. He found this 1500 square foot unit for me in Long Stratton, told me what building works were needed to make it safe for staff, and sourced nearly all the equipment and fitting second hand from local reclamation yards.
The unit has the capacity for five members of staff to work safely. Currently, besides me, there are 2.5 staff on site. The plan is to make best use of the building and increase the capacity to a team of 5 full-time members of staff while scaling the business.
Five good things about using natural skin and body products:
- Using natural skin and body products have many advantages. When you are using the raw minimally processed resource from nature, you feel connected to the nature. I am sure I get as much pleasure bathing and washing my hair in clay as a horse does when it rolls in the mud.
- Natural products have many properties and uses. The lip balm which I make is not only soothing on the lips. It is just right for strengthening the nails and protecting the nose from getting sore when you have a cold. Likewise, the alum deodorant is the ultimate treatment for insect bites and customers have discovered it also keep unsightly cold sores at bay.
- Our natural products do not pollute the soil, air and water. I can tip a bucket of my soap nut or hemp oil detergent on the garden, knowing that the microbes will have broken it down within a day. When my washing machine discharges into the drains, I know that by the time it reaches the river, some two miles away, it cannot harm the wildlife. When I sleep at night or wear clothes during the day, I am not breathing in chemicals and I do remember when I stopped using chemicals in my house when I started the business, how much easier it became to breath.
- All the Natural Spa Supplies products are sustainable and I am trying to produce more in the UK. We should only use products which can be renewed, more so within seasonal cycles, and make use of the free energy of nature – the clay and alum are volcanic by products. Much of the rest of my products rely on sunshine and rain. Simple and renewable – beautiful. It is easy to learn about these natural products and to develop you own instincts for using them. A customer emailed me recently saying she was so happy that can make the perfect hair conditioner for her hair by combining the marshmallow root and seaweed which I had supplied her. My aim is for customers to understand these products in the same way they understand the food in their cupboards. We should all be able to make delicious food without constantly referring to recipes. I expect this customer knows already that you could add the seaweed to the clay to make a 2-in-1 shampoo/conditioner, that you can use the seaweed as a leave in conditioner. I am very experimental myself and my customers are catching on!
- Finally, these natural products are great value. Many years ago, Ethical Consumer Magazine rated the rhassoul clay as the top value eco shampoo. If I had had the marshmallow root hair conditioner back then, I am sure that would have been rated as the best value of all time. Doing a machine load of laundry with our Soap nuts just cost pennies and customers do find the alum blocks not only so effective but long lasting and economical to use. There is every reason to use these simple products.
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