Where There’s Smoke

Port Hope’s Sootsoap Supply Co. cleans up at the fire station … and more

Sootsoap Supply Co. began not as a dream – but as an awakening.

K. Dee Howard was sleeping soundly at home in Port Hope when her firefighter husband returned from a live training exercise – and got into bed. The pungent odour of smoke woke Dee from her deep sleep.

“Why didn’t you shower before coming to bed?” she asked.

“I did,” he replied. “Three times.”

Dee couldn’t get back to sleep. “What’s in that smell?” she wondered.

The question stayed with her until she knew she had to do something.

It didn’t take long before Dee began her research. She learned that the odour was caused by a type of chemical scientists refer to as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. A study from the University of Ottawa showed that after attending a fire, firefighters had three to five times more PAHs in their body than before. The term “aromatic” is significant, as it refers to the odour. It turns out that if you can smell the chemical, the chemical is present in the environment, and likely in and around the humans interacting with it.

Further studies showed those harmful chemicals could be transferred to the home environment, with one study even finding chemicals on a soccer ball that belonged to a firefighter’s child. A recent study by Washington Fire Rescue showed the children of firefighters were 27 times more likely to get cancer than the general population.

For Dee, those stats hit close to home; the familiar smoke smell was a regular fixture of family life. But she wasn’t prepared for the potential health risks. She wondered if there might be a way to get rid of the chemicals that caused the odour. Could they be washed off skin and hair? She knew theirs was not the only family who would be interested in a product that could protect their health.

“The impact of PAHs is terrifying, actually,” Dee says. “So if I can help people reduce their risk of exposure, then my job is done.”

A marketer by trade, Dee describes herself as having had “a million business ideas I could hand out like Skittles,” but this particular idea was too important to ignore.

Her own standards for beauty care – and for non-toxic ingredients – helped her craft a vision for the type of product she wanted to create. Sootsoap was incubated in a laboratory, formulated and tested for a combination that checked all of Dee’s boxes: an environmentally friendly product that could remove harmful toxins without stripping hair and skin – and that can be made without adding more chemicals.

Sootsoap was launched in 2018, the same week that Dee’s second child was born.

“I had the baby on my chest, the computer on my lap, and I was handing out samples to the nurses in the hospital,” she laughs, shaking her head. The key ingredient in Sootsoap that eliminates the smoke odour turned out to be somewhat ironic: charcoal. Charcoal’s cleansing power comes from adsorption, a chemical process in which toxins bond to the surface of the charcoal molecules. The charcoal in Sootsoap isn’t barbecue-grade; it’s a high-quality product called binchotan white charcoal, which has been made for thousands of years from oak trees in Japan.

The other ingredients are also based on scientific research, and include all-natural, easily pronounceable additions like aloe, broccoli, wild cabbage and essential oils. Sootsoap’s only fragrance comes from its functional ingredients.

“I figure if we’re doing this, we’re using the very best ingredients and giving it our best effort,” Dee says. “Even though it’s all natural, toxin-free and biodegradable, it is industrial strength.”

As it turns out, Sootsoap delivers both industrial decontamination and a quality user experience that protects the hair and skin. Sootsoap’s shampoo has won first place in the Clean Beauty Awards for three years running.

“I wanted a shampoo that was really lovely, I wanted a hand and body soap that smelled good and felt good to use,” Dee says. “We’re trying to reach everybody. If a firefighter or a miner or a mom is using our shampoo, we want to make sure it works for all of them.”

Though her fellow fire families are central to the Sootsoap story, Dee says as more people become aware of the health risks associated with exposure to PAHs, more industries and workplaces are turning to the product for their decontamination protocols. The company’s soap and shampoo have been used in industrial settings – in the mining, nuclear, aluminum manufacturing and oil and gas sectors.

“Firefighters are at our core, our origin story and in my heart, but they’re not the only ones suffering exposure,” she says. “Millions of Canadians are exposed to the same toxins as firefighters are each day, as well as other volatile organic compounds like diesel. We want to protect all of those workers.”

While Sootsoap does bulk orders for fire stations and other workplaces across North America from their warehouse in Cobourg, they are also hearing from customers who use their products in the home, and that’s an area where Dee anticipates growth potential. Already Sootsoap’s odour spray has become a favourite of parents who use it on sports equipment, diaper genies, and carseats. Their “just right” (not too sticky, not too dry) hand sanitizer is also popular.

Recently, Dee was selected as a recipient for VISA’s She’s Next program, a grant that will help with developing new products and with strategic business growth. The grant means a lot to Dee, who is well-versed in stats that show only three to four percent of venture capital funding goes to women-owned businesses. The network of grantees and the mentorship opportunities She’s Next offers are just as important to Dee as the funding.

“That community is so important,” Dee says. “You can feel so alone in what you’re doing; even as passionate as I am and as important as this work is, you can feel like you’re on an island. That bridge, that boat, can make such a difference.”

Dee hears all the time from the firefighting community, who have come to rely on her products.

Last year at a conference in Indianapolis, an older, classic-looking, “salty” fire chief (maybe you can picture the moustache!) came up to Dee and said, “It’s too late for me. But let’s do something for everyone else.”

For Dee, that was another watershed moment. “I started crying. It just epitomized what we’re doing. I’m passionate about this for a reason, and that really resonates with people.”

A recent university-led comparison study found Sootsoap’s product was the best available personal decontamination soap on the market, in competition against products that have all arrived on the market since Sootsoap was introduced. The study found Sootsoap removed 88 percent of PAHs. It’s an incredible achievement and really demonstrates Dee’s deep commitment to her goals for this company, but she’s not ready to rest on her laurels.

“For me, when I hear that, I think we’ve got 12 percent to go,” Dee says. “That’s really pushing me forward.”

Story by:
Meghan Sheffield

Photography by:
Lane Dorsey

[Fall 2023 departments]