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Trendsetter Emily McDonah makes all natural products

When she wanted to rid her home of chemical-laden products, this entrepreneur made her own

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Three and a half years ago when she was 28, Emily McDonah was diagnosed with a heredity condition that causes tumours to grow on the nerves. There is no cure for Neurofibromatosis Type 2 (NF) and McDonah requires painkillers for treatment and surgeries to remove tumours.

After the diagnosis, McDonah wanted to rid her home of any products—cleaners, makeup, toiletries—that included harmful chemicals. McDonah, her husband, and two children already lived in an off-grid home (powered by solar panels and a wind turbine) in Glen Margaret.

“I’ve always been environmentally conscious,” she says. “I have two kids so we’ve made it our default that we have to take care of the planet.”

Replacing the products was costly and gave McDonah a new challenge: making her own natural replacements. Eventually, she shared her products and recipes with friends. From there, she created her own company, Simply Gorgeous, selling her beauty products online and via word of mouth.

What products did you make at first?
Right away I made our own laundry detergent and started making our own hand soap, dish soap, and that kind of stuff. Learning to make creams was pretty difficult. There were a lot of fails. But I started out small: lip balm, body butter, bath salts. It was really well received. I started doing some craft shows, trying to get my name out there a bit more. The more I learned, the more I loved doing it, the more passionate I was to find basic solutions. We are pretty basic. I am a wash-my-face-with-water kind of person, so it was easy to meet our baseline needs. But then people were asking about face wash, shampoo. And I started working on what people were looking for.

Do you have a lab in your house?
At first, of course, it was all out of the kitchen. The more stuff I tried to make, the more stuff I accumulated. Once I started to sell [the products], I needed a clean, sealed-off place. I have a big office in my basement that is half kitchen, half office. It’s full of waxes, butters, and oils. It smells delightful and it’s full of dried plants and herbs.

What are the challenges of running a business like this?
It’s extremely difficult. A challenge of having your products in stores is the shelf life. Without using chemicals, it’s very perishable, some more than others. People just don’t think it will work. I feel like a lot of people have their heads in the sand and are more trusting of a bigger company.

What would you like to do with the company?
I hope to see it grow. I hope to sit down a little more. I am going to pare down what I offer. I just hope more people use it… I want people to know there is an affordable way to be safer for your family. I feel like it’s more of a way to spread awareness about something that is near and dear to me. Everything I make is produced off the grid so there isn’t bad power going into making it.

Have you noticed a difference in your family’s health?
I wouldn’t say so. The reason we went chemical-free was in case there were environmental factors to my tumour growth. I have noticed we absolutely do not long for any of the products we threw out. Our skin is beautiful. The boys’ hair is beautiful. Everyone is healthy, so I notice that.

Do environmental factors affect NF?
They don’t. In the beginning, it was just [about] not knowing and covering my bases. I believe environmental factors can probably dictate whether tumours can turn cancerous or not. Most of them are benign, but definitely people with NF develop tumours that are cancerous.

Who regulates your products?
I have to submit a list of ingredients and their portions to Health Canada. But there really is no regulations, which is concerning. I am confident in my products, but it makes you definitely ask more questions as a consumer.

Would you change things?
I struggle with thinking the government has too much control, particularly in rural Nova Scotia. You see people who can’t get living off the grid because of red tape. People who can’t have chickens. There are all these things that make life difficult. Maybe for selling in stores there should be more regulation, but I feel like regulating it could also kill it.

What have you learned about yourself?
I found my passion, for one. I am so happy that I am in my little lab mixing. I feel like I found why I am here. All the people I met because I make the products, all the people I helped just a little bit by making the products: it makes having NF make sense to me. I think I was supposed to have it. It made me find what I love. It made me find a way to turn my passion for the environment into a livelihood that will have real effects.

  • Debbie green

    Wow Ive known this little lady since she was born she was and always will be a go getter <3 we are so proud of how she forged ahead with her business and the reasons for it keep it up young lady you are an inspiration to so many <3 oh by the way Im outta bath salts can you hook a girl up <3

  • dpjmn

    Having worked for multi national beauty manufacturers I know serveral
    details that need to be outlined. The huge majority, 99% of raw
    materials available to make natural personal care products are actually manufactured first
    using chemicals and are preserved from the manufacturer before a
    distributor receives them. This usually isn’t listed as it is part of
    the manufacturers process and sometimes the distributor doesn’t know
    this information. So if your surfactant is listed as natural, you can be
    sure it was made using chemicals along the way and preserved before it
    gets to you the small beauty company with great intentions. There are
    less than a hand full of fully natural surfactants and emulsifiers in
    the world and even less natural presrvatives. BTW: Grapefruit Extract is not a
    preservative. Every active raw material is made using chemical
    processes, full stop. Most essential oils are altered with aroma
    chemicals from the distributor to maintain consistant results year on
    year. That’s how Aveda smells the same every year and yes they are far
    from natural. With that said it’s almost impossible to make natural
    products that lather or contain an oil and water emulsion. But it is
    easy to market them as such.

  • off_grid

    I appreciate and agree with your comments – but not full stop. I am absolutely confident in saying that these companies with “great intentions” are offering products FAR less chemically polluted than run of the mill body care products.

    I source as many ingredients as I can where I know their production process, but can fully admit that some ingredients likely are processed with chemicals/preservatives that aren’t openly advertised to myself as a purchaser. This minimal contact is most certainly a safer bet than products made almost exclusively of chemicals.

  • dpjmn

    You are correct. Less contact is better and plant stock for raw materials is better than from petro-chemicals, well debatable anyway. Processes are processes to turn your plant stock into raw materials that are commercial. Gloabl standards need to be met for these to be sold to cosmetic companies. Any way you spin the marketing there is always a bit of streching of the truth. Your comment about sending your ingredent list to Health Canada is another marketing only statement as this is not why that list gets submitted and they have little over sight of formulas, only labels and advertising truths. People always can use another product line because we get bored, so good luck.

  • Trudie Richards

    Emily McDonough never ceases to amaze me. I first learned of her medical condition from her Mom, an wonderfully talented artist who left us way way too soon. I bought several of her paintings, we had friends in common, we became friends, and then she told me about Emily. Emily doesn’t talk about how much pain she suffers, about how many surgeries she has had to endure, about how her children and her husband live their lives hoping this will be a good day for their wonderful Mom/wife. Her business is a needed distraction – needed by us all! Her work with the NF Association in Nova Scotia is a passion, and she has done such a fine job of fund and awareness-raising. Heartfelt congratulations Emily! Trudie

  • off_grid


    Thank you so much for your beautiful words. They mean so very much.

    I how you’re enjoying those lovely paintings.



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