“I know this is totally weird,” says Carol Simmons, “but feel my hair.”
From anyone else you’ve just met, this would be a strange request. But from the warm, personable and instantly likable Simmons, it feels like you’re talking to an old friend.
And when you know Simmons sells health and beauty products - and is a walking, talking testimonial to how they work - you find yourself tentatively reaching for a lock of hair and agreeing that it indeed feels soft and silky.
The idea of looking and feeling good while doing good in the world around us has formed the foundation for Simmons’ Real Good Bath & Body, a Crookston-based business that sells products from an antique-filled kiosk at West Acres Mall.
"If you can't be real, and you can't do real good, then you'd better not do it all," Simmons says, laughing.
Simmons built her business on a vow to make beauty products from the gentlest and most natural oils, clays and butters as well as “real” ingredients like honey, buttermilk, aloe, oatmeal and coconut oil.
She and a staff of 10 make and sell a variety of soaps, bath bombs, shower steamers, lotions, balms, natural deodorants, bath salts, room fresheners and skincare products. Their production arm is based out of an 1890-circa building in downtown Crookston, which Simmon's husband, Matt, is restoring.
All Real Good products are free of parabens, silicones and sulfates. They also don’t contain phthalates, a widely used family of industrial chemicals that some research has suggested is responsible for hormone disruption in the body.
Simmons goes above and beyond to source ingredients that are beneficial to both customers and the environment. It requires extensive research and ample time to source the purest and least irritating ingredients from small, responsible producers.
Instead of harsh sulfates in her bath products, she uses SLSA, a coconut-based foamer. Her soaps don’t contain animal products or palm oil, as the latter is often obtained by clear-cutting forests. Instead, Simmons’ soaps contain large amounts of shea butter, sourced from a women’s collective.
Simmons not only pays attention to what’s inside her products, but what’s outside of them. Many of her products are encased in recyclable paper or a fully compostable cellophane.
“It keeps me up at night, putting plastic in the landfill,” she says.
Little in Simmons’ past hinted at her future in health and beauty products.
A native of Utah, she earned a master's in US History at Texas A&M University, then moved with her young family to Beijing so Matt could do a postdoctoral fellowship researching the wetlands in Inner Mongolia. In 2010, the family relocated to Minnesota to work for the University of Minnesota-Crookston, where Matt began teaching ecology and natural resources and Simmons taught English to English language learners. Before moving to China, she’d read about soap-making and had toyed with the idea ever since. Then Matt gave her a soap-making kit one Christmas.
She took such a shine to the new hobby that Simmons posted some of her soaps on Facebook so friends could buy them for Christmas gifts. They sold out and had friends asking for more. Then one of Simmons’ friends in China contacted her and encouraged her to ship her soap overseas. Simmons cranked out 150 bars of soap for the Chinese market, which sold out before the first shipment left the United States.
Obviously, Simmons was onto something good. Real good.
“It’s science and art plus utility and beauty combined,” she says. “There’s something so fulfilling about that.”
Issues such as tariffs and customs have shut down the Chinese market for now, but Simmons still maintains a brisk domestic business via her Crookston storefront, the West Acres kiosk, Facebook and Instagram messaging. She also hopes to launch a website for online sales soon.
While it might seem like “Instagram moms” would be the main demographic for Simmons’ product line, she says her client base is surprisingly broad. One regular is a professional welder who comes in to buy 10 "Oh, My Aching Back" bath bombs at a time. “I love this stuff,” he tells Real Good staff.
In keeping with the “Real Good” theme, Simmons donates a lot of her product to charity. That has included sending free soaps and products to a refugee camp or supplying bath items to a backpack project for children in foster care.
“There’s so many people who are in need. If we can’t do our part, what are we even here for?” Simmons says.
Granted, it isn’t always easy doing the right thing. Finding a responsible supplier and buying high-quality or sustainably sourced ingredients takes time and costs more. Still, she works to keep her items affordable, with bath bombs commanding $6.45 a piece, soap costing $7 and skincare products retailing at about $25.
For the social entrepreneur, it’s a balancing act between staying profitable and simply doing the next right thing.
"If I don’t make a profit, then there’s no way that I can help others," she says.
At the same time, she adds, "I just can't imagine a life without trying to help people."