The curing room in Vermont Soap's manufacturing facility in Middlebury may be one of the most fragrant spots in Vermont. As dozens of soap bars cure on drying racks like aging craft cheeses, the air is laden with the rich aromas of pine, peppermint, lavender, lemongrass and other essential oils.
But, unlike the scents added to most conventionally produced soaps, shampoos, toiletries and home-cleaning products, none of these odors comes from artificial chemicals or toxic ingredients. In fact, the earthy reddish hue of some of the bars is derived from lobster shells.
Vermont Soap, whose unofficial slogan is "Replacing yucky stuff with yummy stuff," specializes in formulating natural, organic and nontoxic home and garden products. Those include underarm deodorants, oral-care products, antiaging creams, pet and horse shampoos, surface cleaners, fruit and vegetable washes, car cleaners, and even yoga-mat cleaners. Most are U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic, and all are safe and nontoxic. That makes them ideal for consumers with severe allergies or chemical sensitivities, or those who simply have concerns about the prevalence of hazardous materials in the home.
Larry Plesent, 57, founded Vermont Soap in 1992, after he'd learned the hard way what toxic chemicals can do to your body. In the 1980s, Plesent earned money for college working as a Burlington window washer. In an effort to economize, he concocted his own window-washing solution consisting of dish detergent, floor cleaner, windshield-wiper fluid and antifreeze.
For about eight years, Plesent essentially soaked himself in noxious chemicals such as sodium lauryl sulfate, methanol and ethylene glycol, which left him with severe contact dermatitis and multiple chemical sensitivities. Conventional deodorants gave him rashes across his arms and torso that lasted for weeks. Normal shampoos caused his hair to fall out.
He tried one conventional brand after another, but the problems never went away. By 1991, Plesent's "reactive body" was so sensitive, he couldn't touch or be around artificial scents, artificial colors or petrochemical products, including most plastics.
Then, one day at a Vermont craft fair, Plesent picked up a bar of soap made with goat's milk. Just days after he tried it, his eight-year bout of dermatitis disappeared. Realizing that countless other consumers must suffer from similar sensitivities, Plesent decided to turn his disability into a business venture. Thus Vermont Soap was born.
Of course, Vermont Soap isn't the only producer of eco-friendly home-cleaning and personal-care products in the Clean Mountain State. According to Forbes magazine, Burlington behemoth Seventh Generation does more than $300 million in annual retail sales.
While Vermont Soap hasn't reached that level, it's growing quickly as more consumers seek products labeled organic. The company now has 25 employees and sales in excess of $3 million annually; it recently expanded into Asia and is exploring new markets in Europe. Two-thirds of Vermont Soap's products are now sold under other labels or are added as ingredients to other products.
A June 2015 fire in Vermont Soap's factory on Middlebury's Exchange Street shut down operations for four months but ultimately proved fortuitous: It forced a move into a manufacturing facility more than twice as large just down the road. The company still maintains a discount retail outlet at its original location. There, consumers can find deals on Vermont Soap products and visit its modest soap museum, which features antique washing machines, shaving kits, classic toiletries and, of course, old soaps.
In accordance with Plesent's goal of "doing as little harm as possible," his new and much larger manufacturing space is all electric and at or near zero emissions. Eschewing landscaping that might expose his employees to pesticides and other allergens, he recently planted vegetable gardens for his staff's use.
Consumers who typically buy organic meats and produce can shop online at Vermont Soap for similarly nontoxic alternatives to familiar cleaning products. For example, Produce Magic is an organic cleaner that removes waxes, pesticides, and other dirt and residues from fruits and vegetables. Green Car is an automotive cleaner similar to Armor All, except it's certified organic and contains no petrochemicals.
Liquid Sunshine is an all-purpose spray-and-wipe surface cleaner and concentrate similar to Citra Solv, but it contains all-natural citrus oils. According to Plesent, it can be used safely on cabinets, woodwork and hardwood floors, just like Murphy's Oil Soap, but it's nontoxic and easy on your hands.
Sandy Lincoln, owner of Sandy's Books & Bakery in Rochester, sells organic baked goods and says she uses only Liquid Sunshine on all her countertops, glass surfaces, prep tables and dishes.
"So many chemicals on the market leave a chemical, toxic smell behind," she says. "Liquid Sunshine has a really citrusy aroma that our customers love."
In 2014, Delicious Living magazine gave Liquid Sunshine its Editor's Choice Award, noting that the household cleaner contains no volatile organic compounds, which can irritate eyes and cause headaches.
"Is it possible to fall in love with a household cleaner?" wrote managing editor Jenna Blumenfeld. "If it's certified organic, eco-friendly and made with a mere five ingredients, it is."
Many of Vermont Soap's customers suffer from asthma or chemical sensitivities or have compromised immune systems due to chemotherapy and other medical conditions. Over the years, some have reached out to Plesent to seek his advice or thank him for the products he's created.
In response, Plesent published a free, downloadable 68-page book, The Reactive Body Handbook, which instructs people with chemical sensitivities, asthma and other environmental triggers on how to become a "Sherlock Holmes to unravel the mysteries of your own body."
"One of the first comments I ever got on our website was from a woman who wrote, 'Thank goodness you wrote this, Larry. I thought I was the only one,'" he says. "No, you're not. There are millions of us."
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.