Founder Bimbola Akinbola is currently raising money to distribute deodorant and lotion to D.C.’s homeless shelters.
Venus in Leo Offers Affordable Non-Toxic Body Care
Earlier this fall, a package arrived to the Mask Magazine studio containing two products from Venus in Leo – a glass jar labeled Rosemary Grapefruit Deodorant Balm and a metal tin with Muscle and Joint Salve. We keep a drawer with emergency body care and beauty supplies, and the deodorant has been in frequent use. We contacted Venus in Leo’s founder Bimbola Akinbola to find out the story behind her surprisingly inexpensive luxury body care line.
The last few weeks have been hard for lots of people. What’s it been like for you in Washington, D.C.? What have you done to take care of yourself?
On Wednesday [after the election] I took an Uber pool to an appointment. As soon as I opened the door to get in, the guy sitting in the front seat was like, “So let’s just get into it. What’s your reaction?!” I feel like that’s been the vibe in D.C. This almost aggressive desire to “get into it.” For me, the discourse has been more exhausting than the election results.
My self-care has looked like taking space for myself: meditating in the mornings when I can quiet my mind, journaling and writing letters I may or may not send, staying home to avoid conversations about the election when I can sense that it’s going to be draining, reaching out to my black community and seeing how people are doing, laying in bed and burying myself in black media – Insecure and Queen Sugar. Black and Sexy TV has an amazing line up. Last week I made a really good butternut squash soup and an apple pie with this elaborate lattice crust. I’ve been trying to take it easy through all of my angst.
What was the first thing you made that made you realize you wanted to start making and selling non-toxic body products?
I’ve always been really interested in alternative medicine and DIY body care. I’ve been making my own hair care and skin products for several years. I had been researching deodorant recipes after trying lots of different types and having “meh” luck. I finally found one that I liked but it left my armpits feeling dry, and the texture wasn’t great. It also came in a dumb plastic container and there was only one scent option. I thought, “I could make this and it would be way better,” so I ordered all of the ingredients to do it. They sat in my closet for a few months. After the school year ended I had a free afternoon and the first thing I did was make my first batch of deodorant. I wore it while I rode my bike to an eye appointment and to the post office – it was like 100 degrees in DC that day and I was sweating buckets, but when I got home I didn’t smell at all. It was so exciting. I had a ton leftover, so I advertised the rest in a Facebook status. I was like, “I made this deodorant and I have some extra. These are the ingredients ... You can have it for between $5 and $8.” At that point I hadn’t even calculated cost, I just wanted to share the joy. That status sort of blew up. I had 120 likes within the day and a bunch of people were commenting and messaging me about ordering deodorant. That was the starting point.
What is your process, how do you make your products? What is your workspace like?
My products are inspired by my own body care regimen, so the process always starts with a personal need. From that point I start researching for recipes by reading message boards and articles and pulling up studies conducted by the National Institute of Health – whatever I can find. Sometimes I read articles from science journals about how certain metals interact so my containers don’t render my product ineffective. I spent one morning reading about sodium bicarbonate for hours. I was literally pulling up chemistry lectures. I’m a researcher by nature, so that step is really important to me. I want to know as much as possible about what I’m making, and I want to enter the making process as prepared as possible.
From that point, I’ll order ingredients online or go to the co-op and pick up some stuff for the pilot batch. I make all of the products in my kitchen – I have special kitchen products just for Venus in Leo. After the pilot batch is made I use it and I have my oldest friend and roommate, Melissa, try it out and give feedback. Before I put the deodorant on Facebook, I had Melissa wear it to work and I was texting her all day like, “How are your pits doing?” Depending on how the pilot batch trial goes, I might mess around with levels or add an ingredient or take something out.
Surprisingly, what ends up taking the most time is finding containers that are affordable, environmentally friendly, practical, and aesthetically pleasing. Also designing new labels and getting them printed has been a pain, but I’m finally outsourcing that labor, which I’m very happy about. Working out of my apartment is okay for now, but I dream of someday having a studio space just for Venus in Leo. It’s hard to have a healthy work-life balance when your work is literally sitting on your kitchen table.
What are some of the inspirations behind Venus in Leo? You mention being inspired by astrology, nature, and healing traditions; what are some specific stories and traditions that have fuelled your practice?
I use ingredients that are common in West Africa and throughout the diaspora like Shea butter, mango butter, cocoa butter, coconut oil, and castor oil. As a Virgo, I really love the herbs lavender and lemon balm for their anti-anxiety qualities. I also make herbal solar infusions by soaking dried herbs in a carrier oil and letting it sit in the sun for several weeks. This is actually how essential oils were made before distilling was a thing. While I was growing up my dad was big into Melaleuca Alternifolia oil (Tea Tree oil) so it has always been my cure-all remedy. It’s my favorite essential oil. The astrological inspiration is reflected in the name. People with Venus in Leo in their astrological charts are known to be assertive, dramatic, and we love to be adored and doted upon. A lot of my friends share this astrological orientation with me, and we always joke about how it’s a blessing and a curse. The name came out of me wanting to create products that would help people adore themselves. I want to create products that help people love on themselves and bask in their own radiance. Also, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston both apparently had their Venus in Leo, so I feel like that’s telling.
I love that one of your products is deodorant. Deodorants are typically so awful and tricky – they’re like a spigot that’s supposed to shut off the sweat valve of your armpits, which just seems wrong. Can you explain how your deodorant is different from the toxic mainstream variant?
When I started Venus in Leo I realized how many people hate their deodorant. I would talk to people who would literally be like, “I use X deodorant but it gives me acid burn.” I was like, “WHAT? Stop using that.”
I love the Venus in Leo deodorant because it’s as moisturizing as it is deodorizing. It feels like doing something nice for your armpits instead of slathering on something to cover up your body odor. I feel like my armpits look better now. I also think it’s super important that you apply it with your hands. There are a ton of lymph nodes in the underarm area and it’s actually really important to massage them daily. The lymphatic system is what helps your body filter toxins and waste, and massaging your lymph nodes helps the drainage process, so applying my deodorant serves a double purpose. Also, I still can’t get over how well it works. It feels really amazing to be actively sweating and detoxing throughout the day and simply not be anxious about body odor.
You recently launched an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to bring your products to people in D.C.'s homeless shelters. Can you explain the goals of your campaign and why you decided to do it?
I was thinking about the idea of access, and how homeless shelters are always asking for deodorant and lotion, but what gets donated is mainstream deodorant loaded with weird, toxic ingredients and watery, ineffective moisturizers.
I feel like knowing the risks associated with ingredients like aluminum, Propylene Glycol, and parabens in mainstream products, but having those be the only products available to vulnerable populations is a problem. To me, making luxurious non-toxic body care widely available is about really communicating that the bodies of people of color, queer people, and poor people are valuable and deserved to be cared for. Towards this mission, I’m raising money to make and donate 600 tins of deodorant, body butter, and dry skin salve to transitional shelters serving women and LGBT youth in D.C.
When I started Venus in Leo it was really important to me that it wasn’t just another “all natural” product for the wealthy. I felt really frustrated at first, because it seemed like all of the models were about prioritizing profit over everything. I would go meet with my small business mentor and he’d be like, “This is a really nice product! You could sell this for 25 or 30 dollars!” and I was just like, “No. I’m not doing that. The whole point is making this “really nice” product available to people who can’t afford luxury products.” That was sort of my thinking about putting the deodorant in heavy base glass jars and gold tins. Most similar deodorants are at least $12, so my sliding scale starts at $9. I feel like the general consensus is that doing sliding scale is a risky business move, but I’m really invested in new business models that aren’t about exploiting labor and taking advantage of consumers. A lot of people pay between $10 and $12, which is really amazing because it means that I can keep doing the sliding scale thing.
What are you up to besides running Venus in Leo?
I’m doing a million things, a kind of self-created chaos that I actually enjoy. I’m a full time PhD candidate in American studies at the University of Maryland and currently working on my dissertation, which looks at how African diasporic women contest and negotiate national belonging through artistic production. I also work with an amazing dance company called Dance Exchange, in Takoma Park, Maryland, which is currently doing really great work around racial equity. I feel like Venus in Leo is where my personal investments in healing, self-care, and racial justice intersect.