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Sarah Villafranco was living a happy, successful life working as an emergency medicine physician, married with two daughters. But when her mother died of pancreatic cancer, she began to reevaluate her career choice. The constant worry that she could make a life-altering mistake had started to wear on her.
So in 2010, when a friend told her that she was launching a company for natural bath products, Villafranco—who’d always been interested in “lotions and potions”—decided to take a soap-making class. Instantly obsessed with the natural scents she encountered, she spent the next two years teaching herself how to make natural skincare products, without sulfates, parabens, chemicals, or synthetic colors and fragrances. Villafranco eventually created Osmia (a riff off the medical term “anosmia,” the inability to smell) in April 2012. Five years after that pivotal day, we chatted about her motivations, her mission, and how Colorado is connected to her growing business.
5280: How did you become interested in skincare?
Villafranco: I have patchy memories of my childhood, but one stands out of my mother using Clarins face oils. Back then, Clarins was a leader in what would have been considered plant-based skincare; it’s certainly not as clean as some of the green brands coming up now, but at the time, it was a more botanically focused line. My mom was a partner in a DC law firm at a time when there weren’t a lot of special considerations for women in the law business. Child rearing was not considered a valid reason to come in later or leave earlier. When I did get to have time with her, I’d watch her drop into the experiential part of putting on those oils. I think that resonated with me pretty deeply, that this was something that could slow my mom down a little bit.
What’s your mission at Osmia?
Our tagline is, ‘Return to your senses.’ I mean that in so many ways—the first one is almost more of a come to your senses, shake your head and go, ‘Oh my god, you’re right; I haven’t been thinking about my skincare the same way I’ve been thinking about my food.’ Then once you understand that it affects your health, it affects the health of your environment as soon as you wash it off and it goes down the drain, it affects the health of plants and aquatic species—when you think of your skincare as healthcare, then it’s more returning to the senses.
How have things changed in the past five years?
When we started, it was me and my ex-nanny. I taught her how to make everything, and she figured out how to do it better. We’ve grown now, and our team is about nine people. We have a healthcare plan and great benefits for our crew; we’re starting to build that corporate structure. For a long time, it was just a loathsome task to me. Now I realize we have to do that in order to continue our growth, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to put those pieces of company culture in place.
How has your experience as an emergency medicine doctor affected the work you do at Osmia?
The thing that makes me different as a formulator is having seen the spectrum of human wellness and disease over the course of 10 years of practice. I understand how the body works; I understand how stress affects the body; I understand how the skin works in a way that maybe other formulators don’t. I think that whole picture really informed a ‘less is more’ philosophy with my ingredient list. The more you can simplify it and focus on just the beautiful synergy between simple, natural ingredients, the more effective of a formula you can achieve. I think that’s what our brand is known for. People find us when their skin is in freak out mode, when they’ve tried really active brands that have huge ingredient lists. They come to us and we have a simpler panel, so their skin can kind of settle down again.
Are there any skincare myths you’re trying to debunk?
I think bar soap got a bad rap because some of the big companies created them with potentially unnecessary and emulsifying chemicals. Body wash has way more ingredients—anything that has water in it must be preserved, and a lot of these foaming agents that are not soap are pretty drying to the skin. We’re big proponents of bar soap in general; we make it old-school style, the way they’ve made it for thousands of years, with plant fats and sodium hydroxide, whose molecules rearrange into glycerin, an incredibly nourishing ingredient that draws moisture to skin. I developed that soap trying to treat my own perioral dermatitis [a red, bumpy rash, usually around the mouth]. It was the first thing that worked. It’s made with dead sea mud, which has an awesome blend of minerals and sulfur (an anti-inflammatory).
Was there a reason you started your business in Colorado?
It never entered my thinking, the connection between the two. I knew I wanted to move here the first time I visited in 1992 and worked as a wrangler at T-Lazy-7 Ranch [in Aspen]. After that, it was in my DNA; when I moved here as an ER doc, I didn’t have a job. I just pestered them until they gave me one. Colorado has been the priority—this is where we’re going to be, and we’re going to make everything else work around it.
But the reason I was drawn here is because of the bigness of the nature, and it sort of has put my life in perspective. The grandeur of this place is a constant and awesome reminder of my own smallness and at the same time is total inspiration to try to protect and preserve it. Not only do I have this constant infusion of smells and scents and visual stimuli to make me want to create beautiful natural products but also this tether to one of the things I’m trying to protect by doing what we do.