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.