Holistic Living Q&A with NueBar
We speak to Katie Hennah, naturopath and one of the co-founders of NueBar, a pH-balanced soap-free hair-care and body company.
How was NueBar born?
Ahh well, this is a bit of a spooky, ookey story. We were really looking to create something in the environmentally positive space.
Kerry had suggested shampoo bars as a thought and we had been mulling it over in the back of our consciousness for a few months but not really seriously. Then it all came together three days after Kerry’s dad, Dave, died.
Kerry was extremely close to her dad and had cared for him in his final years. He was such a lovely old guy – a real ‘salt of the earth’ type.
Three days after he died, a massive flock of crows descended into the single gum tree in our backyard and started cawing their heads off for about 10 minutes and then just moved on. This was in inner-city Sydney, and we had never seen anything quite like it in the 15 years we had lived in the house.
For some reason, it felt like Dave was trying to tell us something. We sat down and started to have a conversation about life, love, priorities and future directions, and the whole NueBar idea just started to flow. Within a couple of hours we had the overarching strokes of what the business would look like, how we would divide roles, the vision – everything.
It gets even weirder. When I rang our daughter who was studying in Canberra to tell her about the whole thing she said she had walked out of her student accommodation that morning and there had also been a massive flock of crows on the roof of the building opposite. They were silent but when she walked out and looked up at them, they saw her and then all flew off.
Who knows, but it certainly felt auspicious to us and gave us that little bit of extra confidence to give it a crack. We used the inheritance money from Dave as seed money, and we certainly feel like he approves.
What was your initial vision for NueBar, and has this changed over time?
It has pretty much stayed the same. We wanted to develop solid-form, plastic-packaging-free products that were also low-tox, beautiful and really effective. We didn’t want people to feel that they had to compromise to do the right thing.
Our mission is to make plastic-free products mainstream, something that people choose because they love how the products look, feel, and work. We also wanted our products to be free of palm oil, harsh chemicals, dodgy ethical practices (such as the child slave labour associated with the production of the widely used colourant agent Mica), and artificial fragrance.
Our planet is in crisis and it needs us all to get on board with doing things better, but at the same time people are living busy, stressed out lives, and you need to make it easy for them to choose wisely.
Your packaging is also eco-friendly; what did this decision mean for your business?
Well this was a no-brainer as far as NueBar was concerned. One of the core missions of the product was to reduce plastic waste in the system. We are literally swimming in plastic on this planet and recycling just isn’t really the full answer. We need to drastically reduce our use.
At the same time, we needed to put the product in something in order to meet labelling requirements and to protect it. We opted for a recycled paper stock using soy inks and when we post things out we use brown paper mailers that are padded with recycled paper and an amazing honeycombed paper product instead of plastic bubble wrap. We even use a paper-based tape to seal products. All this meant a bit of specialist sourcing and a bit of extra cost but we feel it is so worth in it in terms of using materials that will ultimately either be recycled or breakdown and return to the earth as something familiar and decomposable – not as micro-plastics that enter our food and waterways and play havoc with ecosystems and our endocrine system. Also we work with Sendle who deliver our products to customers, because they are 100 per cent carbon neutral.
What are some of the key ingredients used in the NueBar products?
For a start, I use gorgeous fair-trade organic cacao butter and coconut oil. We do this for ethical and environmental reasons but I just could not believe the difference in quality when I compared these with the standard off-the-shelf products, especially the cacao butter – it was like using a different product! The fair-trade organic one had a rich chocolatey smell and just felt so luxurious.
I also want to talk about our conditioning agent. At Nuebar we believe in combining the best of “green chemistry” with nature. That means combining innovative man-made ingredients that are low tox, low irritant and environmentally sensitive with natural organic oils and botanicals to optimise both effectiveness and gentleness. Humans are incredibly clever, and our scientists can create some amazing things when they have their priorities right.
A proper conditioning agent changes the hair shaft charge from negatively charged to positively charged, which encourages the cells on the hair shaft to lay down flat, giving a smooth feel to the hair and also remaining on the hair after rinse-off because of this electrostatic attraction. However, the majority of conditioning agents on the market (even in other conditioning bar products) come from a class of chemicals called quarternary compounds (or quats) and these agents can act as irritants and don’t break down easily in the environment. I use a relatively new conditioning agent that has been created specifically to address the environmental problems associated with “quats”. Not only is it plant based, but it has been shown to provide superior feel and comb-ability compared to traditional conditioning agents. So not only is it better for the environment, but it works better too!
Why is pH balance so important?
It is vital because alkalinity swells the hair fibre and makes all the cuticles of the hair shaft stick out. This can lead to tangling and damage, and make the hair look dull.
Many of the shampoo bars on the market are made using the soap-making process and these will always be alkaline because that is just the nature of the soap-making process, which uses lye or sodium hydroxide to saponify oils. Lye is extremely alkaline to the point that it will burn you if you touch it and whilst none of the lye remains in the bar after the oils are saponified, it leaves its footprint in the form of a final alkaline pH level for soap of around 9-10.This is why it is recommended that apple cider vinegar be used as a rinse after these products, to help re-acidify and also wash out some of the soap scum residue which will collect on the hair shaft when you use a soap.
By using surfactants rather than soap we can pH balance our bars to be in the same pH range as the hair shaft and you don’t have any of these problems. You will have a nice soft wash straight away, without any need for apple cider vinegar and a lovely shiny, clean and manageable feel to the hair because the fibres are all laying down flat and no residue is left in the hair.
Skin pH is important, because, just like the gut, the skin has its own microbiome. The pH of the skin is around 5-5.5 and by using a product with the same pH as it, you reduce the disturbance to the microbiome and thus optimise the health of the skin.
You work with your partner in the business; what are some of the challenges and benefits of working closely with someone you love?
Ha yes, well Kerry is very entrepreneurial and has always had her own businesses, and she has wanted to go into business with me since very early in our relationship (we have been together 27 years).
I have always said no, keep it separate, and I think that has been a good move for that whole period when our relationship was young and we had growing kids. But when this idea came together it just seemed to be the right time. The kids are more independent, and we have matured and know each other so well. The other thing we do is have really clear and sperate roles. I am in charge of production and product development and she is on the creative and business side, and although we make all major decisions together we really respect each other’s experience and strengths in our given roles.
What does a typical day look like at NueBar?
Busy, busy busy. I always seem to have a list as long as my arm of tasks to do, and it somehow just never seems to get any shorter! I am still hands-on with the making and packing some days, but I have a little team of elves that assist now, including my teenage daughter and some of her friends. We also have our new team member Ellouise who is amazing on the whole technology, creative and social media side of things and then Kerry is busy in the front office working on business side of things, marketing and establishing wholesale relationships.
What are two of your favourite products in the NueBar range?
I love, love, love the Facewash Bar for Dry/Mature Skin. It just feels so lovely and soft on the skin and leaves it so moist feeling. I have used organic Argan oil in this one as well as colloidal oats for their soothing effect and a moisturising factor called saccharide isomerate which naturally occurs in the stratum korneum layer of the skin and helps to retain moisture. It is just so good.
I’m also a big fan of the spearmint body wash. The smell is amazing and just leaves me feeling so fresh and the aloe vera gives it a nice feel.
What does wellbeing mean to you?
To me it’s all about balance. Nuturing yourself on a physical, emotional and spiritual level so that you can be the best that you can be. That means regular exercise that you enjoy, great wholefoods, time with family and friends to connect, sufficient sleep (crucial) and some time for those bigger questions like what it’s all about, who am I really, and what is important? That’s why I never miss my time with my weekly philosophy group. We call each other “Satsanga” which means “good company” in Sanskrit.
What’s next for NueBar?
We have a few new products in early development, beard products and more moisturiser options, but really our major focus for the next little while is just spreading the word far and wide, letting people know that we exist and where to find us so that we can get as many people as possible on the plastic-free, low-tox journey because our planet needs every little bit of help it can get at the moment and we just want people to see how beautiful plastic free can be.