CINCINNATI -- Have you ever read the ingredient list on the back of your commercial soap product?
It's likely there will be more than a few ingredients listed you can't pronounce -- and as it turns out, some of those ingredients may not be so clean after all.
The body absorbs materials through the skin just as it does during digestion. Some of those hard-to-pronounce chemicals lurking in commercial health and personal care products could be harmful to the body, according to local herbalist Karen Blocher.
Blocher, of Avondale, started a business called Green GRRRL Wisdom a few years ago to help give people a healthier alternative. She makes hand-crafted, artisanal soaps, natural body care products and herbal tea blends with a focus on organic, local and responsibly harvested ingredients.
In fact, Blocher grows many ingredients in her own garden or gathers them from land in Southeast Ohio and makes all of her products right in her home kitchen. She sells them online and at local farmers markets.
Blocher's best-selling products are her goat milk soaps. There are a variety of formulas but most contain a short list of natural ingredients including goat milk, olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil, castor oil, distilled water, sodium hydroxide -- or lye, the necessary ingredient to make soap -- and an essential oil like lavender.
"You don't need to add much to make a great bar of soap," Blocher said.
Basic goat milk, for example, is incredibly moisturizing, and ingredients like oatmeal and honey are soothing to the skin, she explained. Fragrance can be added with essential oils and color comes from natural colorants, including alkanet root and spirulina, an algae.
That same philosophy can be applied to most health and personal care products, Blocher noted.
In commercial products, certain preservatives and chemicals used to add elements like fragrance are linked to allergies, endocrine disruption and even diseases such as cancer, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics coalition, a project of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners .
Because the body's own hormones convey messages throughout the body in tiny amounts, even extremely low levels of chemicals may have serious effects on metabolism, reproductive development and risks for disease later in life, the campaign's website states.
To avoid those potentially harmful chemicals, some consumers seek a more natural remedy for what ails them.
Sarah Prud'homme, of Union, tries to use natural products whenever possible and said they sometimes work even better than commercial products.
The mom of three uses natural cleaning products, for example, and makes her own laundry soap. She also purchases natural soaps and other personal care items, like lip balm, sunscreen and bug repellent, for her family from Blocher at a local farmers market.
"They're all clean and pure, and they don't have any harmful ingredients," Prud'homme said of the handmade products. "I know exactly what goes into each one."
Knowing exactly which plants and herbs -- and how much -- to use in each of those products to make them effective is where herbalism comes in. There are a lot of different types around the world, but herbal medicine is basically the art and science of using herbs for promoting health and preventing and treating illness.
Blocher studied herbalism under Rosemary Gladstar, a well-known American herbalist and author who in 1978 established the first herbal school in California. She said she follows Gladstar's focus of "earth-centeredness" in honoring the tradition of herbalism.
"I was always interested in natural approaches to things," said Blocher, who grew up on a family farm in Darke County, Ohio. "Studying herbalism was a great solidifier of that."
Today, Blocher uses that knowledge to create natural products that she sells to help treat a variety of ailments, from dry skin and poison ivy to indigestion and insomnia.
She offers around 50 different soap, lotion, salve, tonic and herbal tea blend products.
Blocher also incorporates aromatherapy, the use aroma for medicinal purposes, and principles of Ayurveda, one of the world's oldest holistic healing systems based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body and spirit.
After working in the health food retail business for many years, Blocher said she has found her niche with Green GRRRL Wisdom. Creating earth-friendly products she believes in and helping others live a healthy, balanced life is a win-win, she said.
"It's nice to be able to work for yourself," Blocher said. "I love what I do."