Soap Opera: The Art, Craft and Passion of Tonic Naturals

Ian Hewitt and Kristina Ruud-Hewitt are the husband and wife duo behind Tonic Naturals. Since 2014 they have been handcrafting soaps and lotions in small batches in their 100% solar powered studio from ingredients that are good for the skin and the earth. Here we chat with them about their backgrounds and how they got started, their process, and their values and inspirations.

Hi Ian and Kristina. What are your backgrounds and what led you to make soap and create Tonic Naturals?

We have eclectic backgrounds, and bring some wild, interesting, and creative experiences to our work with Tonic.

Ian was a literature/science major in college and has been a programmer and project manager for most of his work life. However, the interest in science, particularly chemistry and botany, has been a significant influence in his explorations. Over the past few decades, he has studied many botanicals and their potential benefits. Always an ardent enthusiast for good soaps, lotions, toners and other body care products, Ian started examining their ingredients and how they were produced. Realizing that many of his favorites used questionable materials and processes, he began exploring ideas for his ideal soap – luxuriant and nourishing, yet environmentally safe and sustainable. After several years of testing, and many failed batches, that ideal recipe slowly started to take shape, and Tonic was launched to share these creations with others. It has been a wonderful exploration of enhancements to the recipes and methods ever since, and we have developed a line of lotions using the same approach.

Kristina spent the 1980’s as a body care buyer for Living Foods, a small and vibrant natural food store in her hometown, Mill Valley. It was there that she was able to learn from both sides of the aisle: from amazing herbalists and body care manufacturers as well as a very astute and discerning clientele. The ‘90s were focused on food: starting with small catering jobs and then leaping to Partner/Chef at small sea-side resort restaurant specializing in simple, healthy dishes featuring in-season locally grown ingredients. These experiences helped her develop a deep respect for the inherent beauty and healing potential of a well-made product. Since retiring from restaurant life, Kristina has been working as an executive assistant in the media & entertainment industry. With Tonic, Kristina has been able to pull all of her skills together to help the company grow.

A tonic is something that gives a feeling of vigor or wellbeing, which is very apropos for your soaps and lotions. How important is this to you?

It’s everything! A bar of soap and squirt of lotion is more than it seems: it represents self-care at its most essential. Breathe, eat, cleanse. Do good in the world. Repeat.

Slowing down and feeding your skin and your senses are essential to wellbeing. Just like a good meal, a lovely cup of tea, or the best dessert you’ve ever had, all of these experiences that invite us to slow down and love the moment we are in are a tonic. They help us recharge and allow us to be the best version of ourselves.

“The ingredients themselves drive the aesthetics. It’s about looking at a bay leaf and pondering what it means to you and the images that leaf brings forth.”

Your use of all-natural, earth-friendly ingredients echoes the Slow Food Movement. Is that an inspiration to you? Tell us about your ingredients and how you source and select them.

The quality and sustainable sourcing of the ingredients is critical to producing a product we are proud to share. Through the initial years of developing our recipes, we went through many sources, and now have a refined list of preferred sources, some of which are local, and whose ingredients are exquisite. For example, we use Western Red Cedar essential oil in several of our soaps, and we’ve used this ingredient from many less than optimal sources. We tried a sample of this oil from Eden Botanicals, located in Petaluma, and were immediately hooked. It has a beautiful amber color, and the scent is much more vibrant and purer than any other cedar we’ve seen. We now use many of their essential oils in our soaps and lotions.

What is the process of making your handcrafted soap? How do you develop new scents?

We make our soaps using the cold-process method, which generally means keeping the temperature quite low throughout the entire process. However, we have adapted this method and customized it for the unique needs of our different varieties. For example, we keep the temperature as low as possible when making our Honey Lavender soap to preserve as much of the beneficial qualities of the honey. Other varieties, such as our Sage soap, are made at a slightly higher temperature to produce a particular shade of grey/green from the clays we use, since the multiple varieties of sage essential oil we use are stable at those temps.

To develop our scents, we have collected an extensive library of essential oils, absolutes, and resins, are continually experimenting with different blends. Experimentation usually happens in short creative bursts to avoid becoming temporarily scent-blind.

Your soaps are really beautiful, little works of art. Is aesthetics a factor in creating them? If so, what are you inspired or influenced by?

The ingredients themselves drive the aesthetics. It’s about looking at a bay leaf and pondering what it means to you and the images that leaf brings forth. Working with the colors: Bay Laurel soap, for instance, has the earthy green-brown of the tree surrounded by a creamy white fog. We’ve seen this image on our walks around the studio time and time again, so it is only natural that those elements reappear in our soap.

You collaborated with Oakland-based designers Umé Studio on the sculptural Erode Soap Summit Series. How did the collaboration come about?

They reached out to us – lucky us! Mei-Lan Tan and Victor Lefebvre of Umé Studio had some intriguing and very unique shapes that they had created prototype soap molds for. It was a learning experience for all of us, as we had to find just the right balance of scent, texture, and color while they honed their molds to work with the soap.

Were there any unique technical challenges in bringing it to fruition?

The molds went through a few iterations. We worked with Mei-Lan and Victor to find just the right mold material, wall thickness, and depth. The soap molds had to stand up to the weight and nature of raw soap and still stay supple enough to release the soaps after they set.

Any other collaborations or projects you’re excited about?

We are currently exploring a new shape and scent series with Umé Studio. We also just developed a line of petit guest soaps for Roam San Francisco, a gorgeous co-living space housed in the former Archbishop’s mansion on Fulton Street.

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