It all started with her hands. Five years ago, Gabriela Martinez realized that the skin on her fingers and the back of her hands was reacting to commercial soap. She wasn’t sure what ingredient specifically was causing the allergy, but she knew that she had to change something. Many of us with sensitive skin understand this feeling. Our skin shifts between too oily and too dry; it breaks out in pimples or a red rash from using chemically infused soaps or shampoos. Instead of resigning and dealing with this fate, however, Gabriela investigated. She found out that many commercial soaps use parabens, phthalates, petrochemicals, synthetic perfumes, and artificial coloring. As she read about the negative side effects of each of these substances, let alone the combined effect, she realized that she couldn’t use commercial soaps anymore. So, she found another way.
She took a course in natural soap making, and slowly turned her kitchen into her laboratory. Her soaps started simple: clay, goat’s milk, rice. When researching flavors, Gabriela was surprised to find the most bizarre brands in Europe and the U.S. Vendors were selling bars of bacon or stout beer soap for $30. While she did eventually experiment with beer-flavored soap, much to the delight of her male friends and family members, she found that the local flavors of Ecuador made the most effective blends for clearing away blemishes, smoothing out the roughness in skin, and exfoliating the build up of daily wear and tear.
Her curiosity peaked when she found out she was pregnant with her first son; she knew she wanted to be completely reliant on organic soaps and shampoos during her pregnancy. She started to research the properties of local ingredients to figure out what was best for minimizing strechmarks, for helping her blood circulate better, and for countering the hormonal warfare waged on her skin.
Chocolate in the soap stimulates the blood and helps eliminate cellulite. Rosemary is good not only for the skin but the hair. Rice powder, blended with the soap, works as an exfoliator. Goat’s milk smooths out wrinkles and purifies the blemishes. She widened her search to ingredients she had never before found in her research: hierba luisa from her mother’s garden, the cedrón from the market. Spices and essential oils came next: turmeric, the volcanic clay bentonita or arcilla, and giant gallons of coconut oil from Vilcabamba. Essential oils and essences were imported from Europe or the States. Even though pure oils and essences aren’t as commonly found in Ecuador, there is a trend toward the organic that is starting here. Gabriela has lived in Cuenca her whole life, and she commented on what she’s noticed.
“The organic lifestyle is getting more popular here. More mothers and younger people want to use products that are good for them, for their children, rather than something that’s just convenient.”
It is true that buying organic soaps is not quite as convenient as purchasing the plastic containers of liquid goo from the supermarket. Organic soaps are also slightly more expensive, ranging from $3 to $5. But the price reflects the quality of the product, and each bar of soap is a process. Organic soaps start with a combination of oils, then flavors and essences are added, followed by natural dyes made from vegetables and fruits. After she had experimented and made soaps for herself and friends for a few years, Gabriela decided it was time to actually make a brand. MoMa Soaps were born.
To separate her soaps from others, Gabriela abandoned the typical square or rectangular shape; instead, she began drizzling. Many of Gabriela’s soaps are waved along the upper edge, as if they’re made from egg white meringue rather than boiling hot glycerin. She also has bought a series of silicon molds not found in Ecuador but imported from the States to create soaps in different shapes: bee honeycomb, a tree of life, seashells, a bouquet of roses.
Gabriela first sold her soaps to the general public one-year ago, at the ferias in November. At that first fair, she recounts a young boy who came up to her table. He was Cuban, around six years old, and he saw her blackberry and frutilla soaps. The colors of this particular square are vibrant: the deepest of cherry reds with a Popsicle swirl inside. This little boy fell in love with the colors and smell. He bought five soaps, counting out his own money from his little wallet, and proudly gave her the bills. That first fair, she sold eucalyptus and rice soap to male customers, and goat’s milk, clay, cedrón, and orange-honey soap to female customers. She packed up her table, went home, and decided that it was time to increase production.
Right around that time, as she was turning an old shed in her parent’s backyard into a workshop, Gabriela found out she was pregnant again. With her body starting to ache, she enlisted the help of her mother, Liliana, to mix the ingredients and handle the bubbling oils. Wearing gloves, masks and aprons, they started creating a whole array of new flavors: almond, cherry, coconut, to name a few. The workshop where they currently produce their soaps is a small, colorful room that smells like cherries and chocolate, their latest creation. A kitchen area hosts an industrial sized blender and about fifty different containers filled with herbs or oils, dusts or roots. Above the sink are vials of color, waiting to be turned into rainbow ripples. When a batch of soap is made, it takes forty days to dry. Stacked on wooden shelves, dozens and dozens of soaps dry, each row with tiny, hand-written tags stating the date they can finally be sold and used by those who want to abandon the unnecessary usage of potentially harmful chemicals on their bodies.
Gabriela firmly believes that what you put in and on your body changes what is inside your body. What your wear on your skin sinks deeper than the flesh. Our bodies were not made to consume toxins. Our bodies were made to move with ease, to purify our pores, to coexist harmoniously with our skin. It’s an odd sensation, rubbing a smooth bar of Vilcabamba bentonita clay over your cheeks, drying off the water, and noting how much smoother your skin actually feels. Your skin feels happy. Gabriela only uses her organic soaps, both on her skin and in her hair, and she continues to work on new ideas: lotions, creams, make up. Patiently, every forty days at a time, she’s shifting how she, her family members, her friends, and her new customers view commercialized soap. With each bar, she leaves behind a trail of happy, hydrated skin, loved by bodies that relish in the organic way.
*The author wants to let you know that she is selling these soaps. She uses them and loves them, as they actually do work, but she thought it would be fair to let you know that she’s helping Gabriela and Liliana with MoMa Soaps. Also, you can buy them at Common Grounds Fair this upcoming Saturday!