A former wine country chef has combined her culinary talents with a penchant for safe and natural personal products to create a new company that she says provides a healthy alternative to mainstream skin care and grooming treatments.
Simplecare Products offers a growing line of natural skin care and other products that are billed as healthier, more responsible and often more effective than traditional, mass-marketed formulations. Stephanie Gagne of St. Helena launched Simplecare in April after spending more than a year developing the all natural, cruelty-free and vegan-friendly personal care line.
The company’s products currently include conditioning oil, body paste, mask and scrub kits that Gagne developed using natural ingredients that are free of common allergens and irritants. The products are available on the Simplecare website, although Gagne is working with local retailers in Napa and the surrounding area to get her products in stores later this year.
Gagne started down the entrepreneurial road when she developed a case of “really bad insomnia” while working as the pastry sous chef for the recently closed, Michelin-star restaurant Cyrus in Healdsburg. The lack of sleep began affecting Gagne’s health and, among other remedies, she started looking for more natural skin care products to use.
“Even all of the natural products that I found still had some really questionable ingredients and I wasn’t sure about the companies selling them,” she said. “I try to be careful with who I support with my spending. I wasn’t happy with what I was finding so I started making my own products.”
Trained at the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Dallas, Gagne worked at restaurants in Dallas and Vail, Colorado before moving to Sonoma, where she was pastry chef at El Dorado Kitchen before joining Cyrus. She said that her kitchen experience helped her in formulating recipes for more natural skin care compounds and products.
“I used a lot of the techniques that I learned in restaurants to make the products a little bit different than the recommendations that I found online,” Gagne said. “I spent about a year doing research on how skin care products in general work at the molecular level — how soap works, how lotions work, what the ingredients are and how they affect you. All of that learning also exposed a lot of social and environmental issues that are related to ingredients that are used in other skin care products.”
A one-woman-show for now, Gagne manufactures and packages the products by herself. She also handles Simplecare web design and marketing.
Some of the Simplecare products are sold as do-it-yourself kits that Gagne said assures absolute freshness and allows her customers to interact with the product. The DIY mask kit, for instance, contains all of the ingredients to make face, body or hair masks. The customer adds purified water and mixes the mask before each use.
“Because water is what grows bacteria, primarily, it creates the need for preservatives and emulsifiers,” Gagne explained. “So I let the consumer add the water right before they use the product so it’s not killing the vitamin C and destroying any of the other antioxidants. That way, it’s completely fresh because you’re making it right before you put it on your face.”
Simplecare’s website — SimplecareProducts.com — contains a lengthy list of natural ingredients that she uses in her formulations. The ingredients include items like argan oil, Dead Sea salt, a variety of herbs and various clays gathered from around the world. Some are common kitchen pantry items like olive oil, coffee beans, peppercorns and vanilla bean.
Gagne said that she learned from her research that many common ingredients used in popular personal care products are both unhealthy and socially irresponsible.
“When I landed on that,” she said, “I knew that I wanted to get out there and start educating consumers and sort of stop the cycle of (utilizing) palm oil and petroleum ingredients and mystery ingredients in products. I know that society is moving much more towards conscious spending and people are becoming more concerned with the ingredients in products.”
The Simplecare Products logo features the silhouette of an owl sitting on a branch, a reference to Gagne’s “severe” case of insomnia a few years ago.
“If I was lucky I was sleeping maybe two hours every few days,” she remembered. “The insomnia was really wreaking havoc on my health and my skin and on me as a whole. Looking at my skin was kind of how I started looking for the products and that led to me turning this into a business. It changed the whole course of my life, so I wanted to incorporate that into the product. I think it’s important to remind ourselves that struggle leads to success … that’s the meaning behind the logo.”
Gagne’s entrepreneurial approach runs deeper than just selling product. The Simplecare website, for example, includes advocacy for causes that combat animal cruelty and promote social and environmental responsibility. Drawing on Gagne’s owl-themed logo, the “I give a HOOT” fundraiser page of the site invites visitors to purchase a T-shirt or tote bag in support of selected animal advocacy causes.
Gagne is optimistic about her company’s future, citing continuing growth in the national market for natural personal products.
“The natural products industry has shown growth year after year and also the at-home beauty products industry has very recently seen growth,” she said. “That’s why I want to incorporate the do-it-yourself kits and teach people how to make products at home. People are becoming more and more interactive with their products.”
She said that the idea behind Simplecare is linked to a growing consumer ethic that is concerned with the effects of individual purchases on broader issues facing today’s world.
“Having worked in food for so long and then spending all of this time researching (personal care) ingredients it’s shown me how it all ties together, she said. “Sourcing palm oils and petroleum and things like that have an effect on the environment, which affects the economy, which affects our food supply. I’m trying to educate people that one purchase kind of has an effect on everything in your life. Long term I want to tie everything together. I want to help and I want to educate. If I can use a business to do that then awesome.”